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Leviticus 19:33-36   I Peter 3:8-16   Matthew 2:13-23

 The Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey

December 30, 2018


As we listen carefully to the story of the flight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus out of Judah and into Egypt, I cannot, as it were, flip a switch and suddenly forget that there are 8,000 children and teenagers who have fled Central America now sleeping in Texas detention camps.[2] I have to read Matthew through this latest humanitarian crisis.  But I also know that an authentic reading of the story of the flight to Egypt will not offer a solution to this present crisis.  That’s not what Matthew does.  However, I do believe that we can find insights necessary to how we figure out what to do at our southern border.

For openers, the message of this story is that when it comes to our manning up to responding to refugees, we need to be very aware that God puts his thumb on the scale.  God is not a disinterested bystander.  The Holy Family begins their life together on the run, fleeing south into the arms of their ancient enemies, the Egyptians.  It is a reverse Exodus.  Better your chances with the Egyptians than the Christ child facing certain death from Herod’s storm troopers.  While only days old, the Son of God runs into the arms of infidels and begs mercy from ancient oppressors.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph are poster refugees for all time.  Where we sit today, Jesus has never been more real to millions who are fleeing political and economic oppression. The teenaged mother Mary, the salt-of-the-earth working man, Joseph, the fragile new-born babe, are instantly grasped by the mass of humanity piled up at Tijuana, Brownsville and Nogales.  The Holy Family is walking with all who are searching for political asylum.  Would the border be shut to them?  What would have happened had the border been shut? 

Being on the run is a traumatic way to begin your life as a baby, or to learn how to be a mother, or to face the responsibilities of providing for and protecting your family as a dad!  And when they do at last arrive, all scared and apprehensive and dirty and weak, will they find a holy rest, a safe lodging, and finally a little peace?  Or will they get roughed up by Egyptian border guards?  Will they be subjected to endless delays?  Will they have to give up some of their precious gifts from the Wise Men—gold, frankincense and myrrh—as bribes?

What hope did they hang on to against the fear of what they might encounter?   Here is their hope.  That God would put his thumb on the scales.   That the border of Egypt would somehow get the word God gave to Moses centuries before: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, I am the Lord your God.” 

“You shall love the alien as yourself.”  That’s sort of like the Golden Rule that was printed on wooden rulers when I was going to grade school: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It could not be plainer.  God put his thumb on the scales. How you treat your alien is the measure of what you would be satisfied with.   Mary, Joseph, and Jesus get in.  The people who one day would be called Muslims show hospitality and give shelter to a starter family of Jews who one day will be called Christians.

At the border between Judah and Egypt, the ancestors of Muslims and Christians figured it out and got it right with this refugee family.  At that moment, the world turned in a different direction.  The story of the flight to Egypt is a Christmas story, and it is a story about hope.  It is a story of how people figured out a way to make the hope of the Holy Family be fulfilled.  It is a story that should sing in our ears as we attempt to cut through the thicket of a humanitarian crisis at our border.  God means for this story to be a big piece of the Christmas hope we hang on to as we meet the challenge to figure out how to get the border right.  

Let us be honest.  It is easy to lose hope that we can do it.  In this political climate it is common to feel adrift, gloomy and politically homeless. What is that feeling but the experience of a refugee?  Stay with me here.  It should not be hard to recognize yourself falling in step behind Joseph and the donkey carrying Mary and the baby Jesus.  We are refugees in our own country, sloshing around in the cesspool of the political lock-down between the extremes of doctrinaire ideology.  You do not have to step one foot out of your own home to think you are a stranger in your own country.   

But if you think hard about it, being a refugee has always defined what a Christian is.  The minute you make a confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, you step outside the mainstream, run-of-the-mill, secular life where you spend your days.  The Bible describes us as the light of the world, the salt of the earth, God’s particular people—all labels that tell us we are special, yes, but also, pretty clearly, that we are separate, out of step, touched by an angel, not like the rest.  It is just something that comes with the confession.  It is just something you have to learn to live with.  Our confession of faith makes us strangers in our own country.

So we are forever bumping up at the border with those who are different that we are.  They may or may not bear the name of Christ.  They may be of different political persuasions or racial groups or genders or income groups or educational levels.  At the border we have to negotiate how to get it right to get along.  This is daunting.  Where can I go in the Bible for help in figuring out with my neighbors, friends, co-workers, policy makers, political leaders, bosses, teachers, spouses and family what is just and equitable and sensible and secure?  

I have found some clues to how we negotiate at the border in our epistle lesson.  It was written to a small band of Christians who found themselves feeling as strangers and aliens in the beginning years of the second century. These people lived a hundred years after Jesus was a refugee in Egypt, but they were having, just like his parents, to negotiate with neighbors, friends, co-workers, policy makers, political leaders, bosses, teachers, spouses and family, figuring out how to get it right to get along.  Here’s what these early Christians-become-refugees heard: “Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart and a humble mind.  Do not repay evil for evil…but on the contrary repay with a blessing….Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts [hold fast to] Christ as Lord.   Always be ready to make your defense for…the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

When you hold fast to Christ as Lord in your hearts, your life gets a new infusion of skills, and you become so much more effective as a problem solver.  Skills such as: Confidence coupled with gentleness and respect.  A refusal to be intimidated joined with a tender heart and humble mind.  A principled rationale to act in ways that offer a fresh, new option from what is expected.  This is a skill set fit for the challenge of figuring out how to get it right to get along.

People who hold fast to Christ in their hearts are blessed with a marvelous skill set of negotiating tools that let new ideas emerge to solve problems or put old ideas together in new ways.  Our country sorely needs people like us to get us out of our silos of either a border wall or what the Statue of Liberty stands for.  Our country sorely needs people like us to move us off our being stuck in silos of either free market economy or welfare state. 

What our country needs are Christians who have a refugee’s heart and brains.  For a refugee knows how to strike a rough but workable balance between competing goods; a refugee understands that the world is complex and respects that our knowledge is limited; a refugee is savvy enough to stay focused on the journey but always with self-correction.  Refugee-Christians are key to the thriving of societies that look like the rainbow. 

When Jesus had learned the life-skills of living as a refugee in Egypt, God called him back to Palestine.  “Out of Egypt have I called my Son,” is how Matthew introduces Jesus back into the country from which he had fled. But Jesus soon learned that he had to function as a stranger in his own country.  He ran smack into people who were so wedded to a single all-explaining ideology that they could not accept any truth that interfered with their pre-existing beliefs.   To some, his preaching of the wideness of God’s love stirred up monomaniacal anger and hatred.

But to his followers, the way he taught and what he said lifts a huge burden off our lives, imposed by dogmatic thinking, and he gives us the freedom to think hard for ourselves.  The way he taught and what he said makes it alright to have a healthy intellectual skepticism. The way he taught and what he said takes into account the complexities of the world. The way he taught and what he said invites us always to be on the search for greater truth.  The way he taught and what he said gives us the boots to stand tall in as we hash it out with others of good will so that we get it right to get along.  In a word, the way he taught and what he said gives us a new home.

 From birth to death Jesus was a refugee, and if we confess to be his followers, so will we be to our dying day.  And though we are refugees, we confess that the way he taught and what he said feels like home.  Feels like a place worth living in.  Feels like a place you can expand and grow up in.  Jesus has a name for our new home.  He calls it the Kingdom of God.  If you would like to join in his refugee caravan, there is a place in his Kingdom for you. 

[1] With appreciation to David Brooks, “A New Center Being Born,” New York Times, December 20, 2018 and Jerry Taylor, “The Alternative to Ideology,” Niskanen Center, October 29, 2018. 

[2] See, Bud Kennedy, “A Christmas with Crosses but No Love: When Klan Marched in Fort Worth, “ Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 23, 2018, 1B.