Month: December 2015

A Christian Response to the Refugee Crisis (A Sermon Preached On 12/27/15)

If one thing can be said about the biblical story, it’s that it rarely stands still. After a brief stint in the garden of Eden, lasting no more than a few chapters in Genesis, Adam and Even are forced from their paradise to go in search of a new home. Later, we center in on the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who are essentially a nomadic tribe traveling around Canaan, until Joseph (Amazing Technicolored Dreamboat Joseph, not husband of Mary Joseph) resettles the family in Egypt. Egypt works as a home for a while, but it was not the land God had in mind, and eventually a new King rises to power and enslaves the Hebrew people until Moses liberates them and delivers them from bondage. The promised land, of course, doesn’t come till later, much later, actually, forty years of wandering the wilderness to be exact. When they finally reach the promised land, the people demand a king, and after the first king, Saul, doesn’t work out, they get a new king after God’s own heart, David, who goes on to become the greatest king in the history of Israel, establishing the capital in Jerusalem and making plans for the construction of the great Temple, accomplished by his son, Solomon. Of course, things only go downhill from there, and soon enough, the Babylonians come and force the Jews from their homes in Israel into exile. After a while, many of the Jews are able to resettle in Israel, but it isn’t long until the Assyrians show up and do the same thing the Babylonians did, uprooting the jewish people from their homes and forcing them into exile. By the time of the New Testament, the pattern has once again been repeated, only this time, the enemy is the Roman Empire, and instead of forcing the jews into exile, the Romans simply occupy the promised land. Just when you think the Bible might slow down and settle in on one location for a little while, we are introduced to a humble, unwed couple with a baby about to be born out of wedlock, and the journeying starts all over again.
Matthew was a student of scripture. I have a dear friend and mentor who is a self-identified messianic Jew, (that is, someone who was born and raised Jewish but now also recognizes Jesus Christ as savior) who would tell me that Matthew was the most Jewish of all the Gospel stories, and as such, is the Gospel that essentially converted him to Christianity. With that in mind, it’s no wonder why Matthew takes a slightly different perspective than the one offered by Luke that we’ve been reading up to this point, this month. After all, it is Matthew, in chapter 1, who traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the original traveling Von Trapp family of the Bible, so it should seem fitting that Jesus and his parents are constantly on the move in Matthew’s rendition of the nativity. First, the family is forced to travel to Bethlehem, a ten day journey from Nazareth on foot, all while Mary is nine months pregnant. When they get there, they are not welcomed, in fact, time after time, they are told that there is “no room in the inn,” and so, they must resort to giving birth to their child in a smelly stable and placing him in a feeding trough for a crib. Then, as we read in the scripture this morning, no sooner is the child born than Matthew is warned in a dream to flee, apparently King Herod is out for Jesus, a reality that becomes all to legitimate in verses 16-18, or what has become known as the “slaughter of the innocents.” Meanwhile, the family becomes refugees and immigrate to Egypt, where, unlike on the night of Jesus birth, Mary and Joseph apparently find safety and are treated with hospitality. Fortunately, wicked kings don’t live forever, and soon enough, Herod dies, and Joseph is told he can return to Israel. Once again, the holy family is on the move, but instead of going back to Joseph’s town of Bethlehem, where the historically ruthless Herod Archileus is ruling, they settle in Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, where the slightly less sadistic Herod Antipas is in power.
I link this story to the Old Testament narrative because the connection to the Old Testament narrative was clearly important to Matthew and it should be for us as well. You see, God is doing some interesting things with the holy family and their flight to Egypt. First, we should be asking, why Egypt? For example, if we remember, in Exodus, Egypt was a place of danger, slavery, and oppression, where the King (Pharaoah) terrorized the Hebrew people and slaughtered the Hebrew children. Now, on the other side of the story, the Promised Land, where the people sought refuge from Pharaoh thousands of years ago, has become the place of terror, and as a result, Egypt has become the place of safety. And I say terror, because the story of the massacre of the innocents, first by Pharaoh in Exodus, and now by Herod in Matthew, are stories of terrorism, and that is exactly what Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are fleeing. They are literally running for their lives from a community where a terrorist regime is threatening the most vulnerable members of its society in an effort to exert its power, authority, and intimidation.
Perhaps this is why “hospitality” and “welcoming the stranger” were so central to Jesus’ ministry. He was not only born an outcast, he was born a refugee, and his developmental years were spent living with refugee status relying on welcome from a foreign nation. After all, as a good jewish child, he would have been raised on the teachings of Torah that proclaimed in Leviticus 19:33-34, ““The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” This might help explain why later, in Matthew 25, in his parable of the sheep and the goats, part of the litmus test for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is either, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” or “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”
And here’s where things get difficult. I, for one, can not read the biblical story, which tells of a people without a home, fleeing from danger in search of the promised land, and then tells of a holy family with the Son of God in their care and protection, also fleeing their home to become refugees in a foreign land, and be apathetic to the current events taking place in the world today. Maybe it’s good that Christmas was just two days ago, so not as many people are in attendance today, because this is one of those messages that is guaranteed to upset some people, but as a Christian and as a pastor, I believe it is my responsibility and my calling from God to speak Gospel truth even when it’s difficult. You’re welcome to write me off as a delusional idealist, but my conscious will be clear because I will have spoken the words I feel strongly that Christ has laid on my heart.
There are currently 4,393,831 registered Syrian refugees in the world today. They are fleeing a civil war that broke out in their country four years ago, a country that is not divided into territories controlled by one of three parties, rebel fighters, the brutally violent military of Bashar al-Assad, and the sadistic terrorist organization known as ISIS. The Christian humanitarian organization World Vision, reports that nearly 90% of these refugees have remained in Middle Eastern countries. Of the over 4 million refugees, nearly half, or at least two million, are children. warns that “Children affected by the Syrian conflict are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Millions have been forced to quit school.” Statistics tell us that of the 320,000 people that have been killed since the start of the civil war in Syria, 12,000 were children. Many of the children who have not been killed, have either been recruited by varying terrorist groups or are currently being used as human shields in conflict zones. It is the the very real personification of the passage from Jeremiah that Matthew quotes to describe Herod’s own massacre of the innocents, the very massacre Jesus and his family was fleeing; “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving. Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were no more.”
In Matthew 25, when Jesus tells some people they are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven because “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and others that they are not welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven, because, “I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me,” the people are confused because they’ve never personally interacted with Jesus before. His response? ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’“ and ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’”
As a Christian, if I am to truly live the Gospel, and I honestly take Jesus’ words to heart, then I can only think of one possible response to the current refugee crisis in our world today. It isn’t the most popular. It isn’t the most rational. It isn’t the most politically attractive. It isn’t the one with the least risk involved. It isn’t even the one that looks out for the best interests of myself, my family, and my country. But last time I checked, those things do not define what it means to be a Christian, an American, maybe, but not a Christian. Fear can do a lot of things, even justify a lot of unChristian ethics and actions, and we may be able to rationalize these things, but there’s a reason Christ commanded “Do not be afraid,” more than any other command in the entire Gospel accounts.
On Friday, we celebrated the birth of the Christ child, the divine breaking into the course of human events, the hope of nations come to life, the light of the world shining in the darkness. But Christmas is twelve days, not one, and as we read in Matthew, there is much more to the story than that. Today, all across our world, the family of the Christ child is still standing on our doorstep, being told over and over again that there is “no room in the inn.” Today, all across our world, the family of the Christ child is fleeing the terrorism of their homeland in search of safety and refuge. Today, all across our world, as the writer of Revelations tells us, Jesus Christ “is standing at the door and knocking,” waiting to be let in. And sure, all across the world today, pastors will take this story, and make it completely spiritual, proclaiming that you can accept Christ into your heart, and therefore, rid yourself of any responsibility for actually exercising hospitality when Christ presents himself on the faces of “the least of these” in this world. That’s not the Gospel, and that’s not the message you’re going to get from this preacher.
A brilliant and talented seminary friend of mine who has recently become considerably jaded by American Christianity, flew to Greece with his fiancee on Christmas eve. In a post on Facebook, he wrote, “I spent many years in churches on Christmas preaching about a young family forced to leave their home at the whim of a violent despot and upon arriving at their destination finding a people so unwilling and unable to assist them, that they had to sleep, and ultimately give birth, among animals and shepherds. I told the story of how this family had to flee their violent despots a second time, out of the promised land and into Egypt of all places, when Herod played the part of Pharaoh and decided that murdering children was politically expedient. I preached hospitality, preferential treatment for the poor, and hope found in a family on the run.” He then described how he spent Christmas morning welcoming overflowing rubber boatloads of refugees to shore, offering food, clothing, and sleeping bags. He then wrote, “I met one Afghan refugee who greeted me warmly, asked me where I was from, told me of his journey from Taliban terrorized Afghanistan to threats of violence on him and his family as refugees in Iran to fleeing to Turkey and now a dangerous crossing to Greece. After many years, he’s finally safe. This young Muslim man thanked me and said, “I like Jesus very much. He’s very kind. Very kind.”
As a Christian, I can’t control what people do with the hospitality I show them. I understand we live in a broken world, and that means that sometimes, people will exercise their free will for evil intents. I can only pray that myself and my family are never targets of such violence. But I don’t need to strap a gun to feel safe or discriminate against a marginalized community just to feel secure. Our mission statement at Centenary UMC is “Offering Christ’s friendship, living as Christ’s friend.” There is no exception in that statement. It does not say, “Offering Christ’s friendship, living as Christ’s friend unless…” When it comes to so many people, who, like the holy family and the Christ child over two thousand years ago, are seeking refuge from violence, you are welcome to make your case based on personal or political reasoning, but when it comes to the Christian response, for me, there’s really only one option. To paraphrase Revelation 3:20, “Look! The Christ child and his family are standing at our doors and knocking.” How will we respond? Amen.