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People of the Way: Refuge

Epiphany +1, Common Lectionary Year C

Matthew 2:13-18

©2019 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

Now that the children have left to explore the possibilities presented by Ann Booth’s ending to the story, we’re going to finish the text the way Matthew does.

And the family, Joseph, Mary, and the child, remained in Egypt until the death of Herod the King.
Now, when Herod had discovered that he had been tricked by the Magi, that they had left without reporting on this “newborn king,” he was incensed.
He sent out the command to kill all male children under two years old in and around the town of Bethlehem. As the prophet of old, Jeremiah had written,
“A voice was heard in Ramah – the country of Judea
wailing, weeping and lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be consoled, for they are no more.”

Let’s pray, shall we?
Holy One, we will not declare this to be Good News
and neither, we pray, do you.
But from this news of horror, may you give us grace, wisdom,
and courage, to glimpse your Gospel,
and to re-write the ending with our living witness
to your Dream
that no mother’s child be the victim of a tyrant’s fear, ever, again. Amen.


(Matthew 2:13-23)

This story is ugly.
Brutal.
If it were on the news tonight, would you want to turn to another channel?
Does it roil your guts, as it does mine?
What is it doing here, in of all things, a Gospel?
This is a text of terror. [1]

Once, I would have thought it was a tale of a brutal time long gone by;
a mythic narration of events to make the birth of Jesus
fulfil some even more ancient prophecy.
But today, this full story has an uncanny, unsettlingly precise echo
in recent, nearby news, doesn’t it?
Families, slipping out of terror-torn towns or nations
under cover of darkness,
escaping horrors you and I cannot imagine,
hoping that their frantic journey will end in refuge,
in safety beyond the reach of those who would do them harm.

I want to rush, as Ann Booth does in her children’s tale,
to the possible ending that Matthew doesn’t offer,
where the family of the infant Jesus is welcomed to the kitchen
table of some anonymous, warm-hearted Egyptian family,
given shelter again for the night, and for as long as it takes,
food, clothing, welcome and belonging,
until they can return to their homeland
and pick up their birthright life again,
once the tyrant is dead.

I want to ignore, or fast-forward through
the genocidal slaughter of the innocent children,
and mute the sound of their mothers’ cries, the wailing in Ramah,
and just not see the desolation of their father’s faces.
I want to berate Matthew for writing this,
and me, for reading, much less
being compelled to preach it.

So why? Why am I?

First,
because although this story may be ugly and brutal,
it is not far-fetched.
It is happening now.
Matthew’s telling begs us to see what we don’t want to:
that as of June 2018,
68.5 million Josephs, Marys and Jesuses, are displaced;
forced to flee home because of persecution, war, tyranny, natural or human disaster.
Of these 25 million are refugees, over half of whom are children under the age of 18. [2]

The numbers are staggering, beyond comprehension,
until you put five names to them:
Sa’ed, Najah, Hareth, Zafay, Islam.
A house bombed, a father imprisoned, a future stolen, a homeland destroyed.
The story of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, all over again.
Or Emmanuel, separated from seven children,
Or the mother of three teenagers, on a frantic journey from Miami to Lacolle…
And again and again, and again.

And the slaughter of innocents?
We know the stories,
of genocides of Rohingya children,
and no less horrific:
refugee child starvation, refugee child separation,
First Nations child separation,
A voice in Ramah is still heard,
the inconsolable weeping of Rachel for her children.
Of God, for her children.

Which brings me to my second reason for preaching this text.
This ugliness is Matthew’s completion of his Nativity Story;
if we end it last week at the Magi’s visit,
we are missing the guts of Matthew’s Gospel.
His Good News.
It’s astounding, and it leaves some in the dust,
but let me try,
with this question:
Where is God to be found in this story?
Here: *
with soft baby skin, tight fists, suckling mouth, and too-heavy head, Yes.
swaddled, held, utterly dependent, against the shoulder, against the breast,
of two human beings Yes.
Who are frightened for his life.
Matthew’s miracle of Incarnation
is that God chooses to become Emmanuel,
God-with-Us,
God chooses to be part of the human story,
not as a king in a palace,
not as a military ruler with soldiers to command,
not as an ancient, wise sage,
not even as some nebulous Spirit emanence,
but as a precarious, vulnerable, refugeed child.
God is in this human story,
not at its perfect apex, but at its basest, ugliest, atrocious worst.

iii) Which means what for us?
It means that we need to look for God in our human story in the right places:
God is not going to be hanging out with those busy bolstering their own power
at the expense of an equitable sharing of God’s goodness.
If there’s any doubt, twenty three chapters later,
Matthew’s Jesus says to us
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food,
homeless, and you sheltered me,
a stranger, a foreigner, and you welcomed me,
without a penny or a coat to my name, and you clothed me.”[3]

If Christ is going to be found on the wrong side of the safety fence,
inside the detention centre,
seeking refuge from the cold,
or from war, or from isolation,
then wouldn’t it be best, People of God,
if we were to be found there, too?
Found there, with food, with shelter,
with a longer table, not a wall,
with a prayer shawl, not a rule book,
with bus passes and phone cards,
with the best of our skills spent to help the lost,
the least, the exile and the stranger.

This Nativity story has all this;
Look at these two; mortals, scared witless,
entrusted with, holding on to this
newborn Dream of God in flesh and bone,
doing whatever it took to keep that Dream of God alive.
They are us. That’s what we are all called to do.
People of the Way.

Oh, and one more thing:
this Matthean miracle of incarnation:
that God has chosen to live the depths of this life with us,
even the most terrifying, death-dealing parts of life in its brokenness,
means that there is nothing God hasn’t seen, and nothing God cannot redeem.
It means that God says this to us,
so that in God’s name, we can sing it to the world.
“Be not discouraged nor afraid,
I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”

Let us turn the text one more time together
as we sing this new hymn to an ancient tune,
based on this story, and found in MV 111

[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror, 1984. She argues that the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures portray the silent absence of God. My contention is that this narrative is redemptive, as God’s presence in this narrative is in the kenosis of the Christ-child.

[2] https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html accessed Jan10, 2019.

[3] Matthew 25:35-40

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