Almost fifteen years ago, I had the privilege to go on a mission trip to Ecuador with a group from my home church in Pultneyville, New York. I had just finished my freshman year at Hope College and had never been out of the country. We went to work at the Prince of Peace Orphanage on the Pacific coast. While there, we dug irrigation lines, played with the children, put up cement walls, and worshiped with the people who make Prince of Peace a safe place for children.
On one of our last days working at the orphanage, we had some free time, so our hosts took us on a trip into the city of Guayaquil to see where a majority of the children come from. They are dubbed “street children” for the simple fact that they live on the street. Ironically, most of the children that end up at Prince of Peace are not orphans. Rather, their parents or grandparents are no longer able to care for them because they either had too many siblings, not enough money, or in some cases, the children ran away from an abusive situation. In the United States we have Child Protective Services. In Ecuador, they have the streets.
As we toured around the city, we saw full markets where you barter for food or goods, beautiful parks with Iguana’s roaming around… and children begging for money or food on street corners. One of the most haunting images I will never forget is when I went to take a picture of a young boy, no older than five, huddling down next to a pillar, covering his head with his hands, in fear.
When I sat down to read this passage in preparation for this morning’s sermon, this image came directly to mind. I began to think about who this child was. What led him to be on the street that day? Was he an orphan? Or had he been sent out to make a little money by his parents. I wondered if fifteen years later, was still out on the streets begging, if he was even still alive.
The escape of Joseph with Mary and Jesus to Egypt as described by Matthew, offers a lot for our consideration. There is first the fulfillment of God’s word through the prophets. While this is sometimes violent and bloody (as with the killing of the children who were under two years of age), it is a reminder that God is at work in history and present even in our grief.
Then there is the obvious connection between this story and the story of the Israelites in captivity in Egypt. Jesus can be seen as a symbol of the people of Israel: first he must flee to Egypt, reminding us of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers; then he is called out of Egypt, much like Moses who led the people on their Exodus to the promised land.
Yet there is another part of this story that I keep coming back to: Jesus is a refugee. This year, there have been a variety of pictures floating around the internet with the message that reads like, “This Christmas, churches across America will perform the Nativity play, which is about a Middle Eastern family desperately seeking refuge.” Of course, this is meant to draw attention to the current refugee crisis and perhaps even shame those who would turn away Syrian families. However, the point is startlingly accurate. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, are political refugees.
A refugee is defined as, “one who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution” (Merriam-Webster). Joseph is warned, in a dream, that the child is in danger and they must seek refuge in Egypt. In fact, to quote one of my favorite modern day prophets, doesn’t Christ spend his entire life “livin’ like a refugee?” As we see through the entire gospel story, Jesus spends his life on the margins of society, living and preaching among the poor and destitute. It would make sense then that his life would begin like this.
At this time of year it is no surprise to have seen an increase in benevolent giving, to see the Salvation Army bell ringers at the mall collecting for the needy, or for popular culture in general to step up its awareness of the people living on the margins, not only abroad, but in our own backyards. But as Christians, we are living into a gospel that does not distinguish between “times to care” and “times not to care.” Now don’t get me wrong- please! I am not trying to downplay the importance of the Salvation Army or any other Christmas season effort to help the less fortunate. Rather, it is important that we realize and understand the full implications of what it means to be a Christian, especially in today’s world. We aren’t just Christians at Christmastime, but throughout the entire year.
So where do we see Christ the refugee? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts “the number of refugees of concern… at 13 million in mid-2014, up from a year earlier” (unhcr.org). However, that number is minuscule in comparison to “the even greater number of internally displaced people, or IDPs, who have not crossed an international border in search of shelter and safety. As of the end of 2014, a record-breaking 38 million people were forcibly displaced within their own country by violence, up from 33.3 million for 2013. A massive 11 million of these internally displaced people (IDPs) were newly uprooted during 2014, equal to 30,000 people a day” (ibid).
These people have fled their homes much the way Joseph fled with his young family. People flee their homes every day from the Herod’s of this world. Herod’s such as famine or drought, war or genocide, a ruthless dictator or a ruthless hurricane. We can see in their desperate faces the desperate face of Joseph who was trying to protect his family from forces much larger than himself.
These Herod’s of the world seem to have all the power, don’t they? When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast a decade ago, the images of people fleeing their homes were terrifying. I remember the term refugee being thrown around on the news (though more accurately they would be labeled Internally Displaced Persons). The Herod of Natural Disaster.
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, is a story of the Afghan people displaced by decades of war in their country. During the War with the Soviet Union and then later when the Taliban took over, millions fled their home country, many of whom relocated here in the United States. The Herod of War. A Herod we have seen repeated over and over again, most recently in Syria.
Yet as Christians, we know that the Herod’s never have the last word. God is ever-present in our lives and comes to us in the form of a baby on a cold midwinter’s night. In Christ, we find a renewing of creation, a renewing of ourselves. Even though it might mean that God must live like a refugee, the power of the Herod’s is never powerful enough to rule forever. The Herod of death, the power of death, is not strong enough to overcome the love of God. So when those Herod’s that kept Christ living on the margins of society finally do subdue him, it is not for long. Christ the refugee triumphs!
As we begin a new year, perhaps it is a good time to renew our minds and spirits as to what it really means to be called in Christ’s service. How will we take time in the coming year to notice the suffering Christ? How can we work to alleviate the suffering of those living on the margins of our society? When we see that little child huddled down against a wall, his hands covering his head in fear, how will we respond?
To be honest, when I was in that situation fifteen years ago, I snapped the picture, and walked on- though it haunted me, and still does. And if I found myself in such a situation again, I do not know how I would respond. I pray, though, that I will act, that we will act, as Christ would act. In compassion, in humility, and in defiance of a world that seeks otherwise. Amen.