Yesterday was Epiphany. The Christmas season officially ended on January 5th. January 6th marks the arrival of the wise men. It is called Epiphany because God’s presence in the child Jesus is made known to the larger world when the foreigners came to pay him homage.
The wise men have made it into our nativity scenes and pageants. One church had the wise men arrive at the stable before the shepherds. (I guess that was because Matthew’s gospel is first in the New Testament, so the creator of the pageant thought that meant they had to arrive first.) The Biblical story tells us, however, that they came to see the child in a house – not a stable. Moreover, they did so after a long journey that included a stopover in Jerusalem.
What we often neglect, as we recall this story, is the gritty, frightening reality that is present. We either gloss over it or ignore it. The wise men speak with Herod – who is troubled – go to Bethlehem and return home “by another road.” We stop the story there. I can think of only one carol, the Coventry Carol, that tells of Herod’s rage and the slaughtering of the innocents in Bethlehem. We tell, we hear, and we celebrate the G rated version of the Christmas story.
In the past, the story of the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem was acknowledged. It was the subject of paintings and sculptures. Artists portrayed the violence in Bethlehem in ways that connected to their own setting. It was a way of commenting on the violence of their own time – a way of acknowledging that such violence was a rejection of God’s redeeming presence.
We may prefer a G rated Christmas story, but we live in an R rated world. Fortunately, for most of us, the violence of the world is something we see on TV or read about in papers or online. It doesn’t touch us directly. But it is real – way too real for many, many people. Innocents are being massacred daily – not only in distant lands, but in hotel rooms where destitute families live and in homes where violence is a way of life: boy beaten to death by mother’s boyfriend; girl dropped off bridge by her father; a child is discovered in a freezer, put there by her mother. Innocents are still being massacred in our own community, in our own nation.
The other part of this story that we often overlook or ignore is the story of Jesus and his family as refugees. We see it as a little blip – a way of saving Jesus’ life so that his ministry could happen. But, maybe we need to let this “refugee” God speak to us. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us much. They fled to Egypt because they were threatened by Herod. And they stayed there until the threat was gone.
We could just dismiss the story as an interesting factoid about Jesus’ early life. But, I don’t think we can or should do that. In many ways, this story foreshadows his very life and ministry. At the beginning, we are presented with God’s appearance in unexpected places. First, he is born, not in the beloved capitol, Jerusalem, but in a small town – and almost insignificant town, Bethlehem. Then, this new “king”, a mere infant, is driven from his homeland by a tyrant’s rage. He and his parents are homeless refugees. We, looking back, see the seeds of the ministry that was feared by the insiders even as it emerged on the margins of his own society. Even in this story, we encounter God who is most profoundly present in the places and people who are the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and even the most despised.
Our God is a refugee God. That, for me, is a powerful concept for today.
The Borgen project notes: “refugee statistics are appalling. The last few years have seen the highest levels of refugees on record.”
The project went on to note:
We get caught up in all the fears and the divisive attitudes towards those refugees. We struggle with that sense that there is never enough to go around, that refugees drain our resources and take needed jobs. We can add to that the fear that their different cultural norms, their different faith traditions, and their different values will disrupt and upset the societal norms we know.
How does our attitude change if we begin to recognize that God is found among the refugees? We remember Jesus’ words that what we do to the “least” is what we do to him. We remember that those who welcome strangers welcome “angels” and the Christ. How tempting it is to put limits on our welcome. One pastor said to me when I contacted him to help a family in need, “Are they Christian? We only help Christians!” Or, “Charity begins at home!”
Refugees are those who have no home. Jesus spoke of himself as a refugee, even within his own country. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” If we are to serve Christ, we need to look beyond our homes, even beyond our kith and kin, beyond our culture – beyond the limits of our faith. We follow the one reached out beyond even his own faith community. He spoke with a Samaritan woman and made a Samaritan an example of faith. He healed a centurion’s servant. He cast demons from a Gerasene.
There are powerful stories of the new life that emerges when welcome is extended to those who are displaced. I have to tell you about Utica, NY. Utica is a place that I frequented. It was where the presbytery was located. It was also had the nearest hospitals. It was, however, a tired, old city. But, they began welcoming refugees.
The Tampa Bay Times had an article not too long ago about what’s happened there: “Though still struggling, Utica today has signs of hope, built largely on refugees who have stabilized the population, rehabbed homes and started businesses. An abandoned Methodist church downtown that faced a wrecking ball was transformed into a lively mosque. Another mosque sits across the street from the old Marino restaurant…. 24-year-old Irfet ‘Fetty’ Covic, arrived in Utica with his refugee parents at age 2. ‘At first there were a lot of insults, they called me ‘onion’ because Bosnians eat a lot of them,’ said Covic, whose grandfather was killed in the Balkan war. ‘Now I don’t even classify myself as Bosnian as much. I feel American.’”
The article went on, “Today, nearly a quarter of the 62,000 Utica residents are immigrants, providing a stabilizing force. Between 2000 and 2015, the U.S.-born population in Utica dropped by 3,100 but the foreign-born population grew by 3,500.
‘It’s very cheap, not like Boston,’ said Jafar Mohamed, 30, who as a boy fled the civil war in Somalia and grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya. He saved up money as a cab driver in Boston and this year bought a small market in Utica called Golden Halal. He is working on a GED.
The transition has not been easy. The school district struggles to keep up with an influx of students, many of whom arrive with little or no English and varying degrees of education. Last year the district settled a lawsuit that accused it of diverting refugees from the city’s lone public high school to alternative programs.”
Out of the welcome has come new life. It is not an easy transition or an easy job to make room. But, I wonder, what kind of welcome did Jesus and his family have in Egypt?
There are refugees in our area. I read that Florida leads the nation in the number of refugees coming to our state. Statistics from a few years ago say that since 2013, 43,184 refugees settled in the state. One out of ten comes to the Tampa Bay area. Many are from Cuba. But, we know, that we have also had an influx of people from Puerto Rico after the hurricane. There are also refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
We have sisters and brothers in Christ who are striving to respond to their needs. The presbytery is supporting a new endeavor that the Palma Ceia Church has undertaken to provide support for a few families. The need is great – the need for housing, for education, for appropriate work, and for friendship and acceptance. Our prayers and our awareness are vital.
Finally, the CROP Walk is a way for us to support the most vulnerable in this world – including those who are struggling to survive in refugee camps in various parts of the world. We remember, we walk for and on behalf of those who live on the margins. For our Christ is with them.