Sunday, December 26, 2010
Haven in a Heartless World: a reflection on Matthew 2:13-23
*I preached the following sermon at Portland Mennonite Church this morning on the second day of Christmas or the Feast of the Holy Family
As business, politics, and diplomacy grow more and more savage and warlike, (people) seek a haven in private life, in personal relations, above all in the family---- the last refuge(1)
Those words could have been lifted from the pages of today's newspaper. They fittingly describe our present social and political climate. With savage partisan politics, wars and rumors of wars, economic recession, a staggering deficit, high unemployment rates, violence in our schools and on the streets, it's no wonder Americans are fleeing the public realm for the private spheres of life. The opening quotation was written over 30 years ago by sociologist Christopher Lasch in the opening of his book Haven in a Heartless world: The Family Besieged. Lasch believed that the family was being threatened by social and political forces and was the "last refuge from the cruel world of politics."
The family of Jesus was besieged by the cruel world of politics and sought refuge in Egypt. Egypt was a traditional place of asylum for those escaping the oppressive power of ravaging rulers. They fled there to avoid the consequences of the fierce politics of King Herod, who was known as a ruthless despot. Under the pretense of wanting to worship this child born to be King of the Jews, Herod tells the magi, “Go and search for the child and let me know when you have found him so I also can go and worship him”….as he melodramatically twirls his mustache. Mwua-hah-hah!
Contrary to the images on Hallmark cards and in most nativity scenes with three magi arriving at the stable, the unknown number of magi never make it to the manger. They reach the family house in Bethlehem where Jesus lives. He is probably a child upwards of 2 years old. They pay him homage and are warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to skedaddle home.
After the magi split for homesville, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and tells him, “You gotta vamoose, dude, and take that pernicious insect with you. Insect? Well, didn’t the angel say, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flea to Egypt”? Ha!
Can’t you just see them. Silhouettes against the night sky. Hearts trembling. Donkey braying at the moon. Sand still warm from the sun’s heat. Pyramids in the distance. Disoriented. Away from home in a foreign land. Refugees. Immigrants. Crossing the border to save their child. It could just as well have been the Texas, Arizona, or California border.
In order to avoid death at the hands of Herod, Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and very possibly other members of their extended family, became refugees in a foreign land. The story of Herod's massacre of the innocents and the holy family's flight to Egypt reflects the fierce world of Roman politics. Herod's expensive building projects constructed as homage paid to Caesar and heavy taxation to support these projects bled the people to death. It is easy to understand how peasant families became refugees from their own land under Herod's economic oppression and police-state politics of intimidation and brutality.
The story of Jesus' family fleeing to Egypt is like a mirror reflecting the Old Testament. Both the Joseph of Genesis and the Joseph of Matthew have dreams and save their families by going to Egypt. Before Cecil B. Demille made the story into a big screen epic, the Bible told the story of how Moses' family sought a place of refuge for their newborn child away from Pharoah's politics of cruelty. In a recap of the Moses story the family of Jesus flees from another death-dealing ruler to find refuge in Egypt.
Are the similarities between these stories merely a coincidence? More likely Matthew's story of the child Jesus seeks to recapitulate the story of Israel in Egypt. Matthew stretches the prophet Hosea’s words quite a bit to make it fit with the story of Jesus. He says, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” Now, we know Hosea was referring to God calling the children of Israel out of Egypt and was not a prediction about Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus fulfills the promises of Israel. The story of the flight to Egypt evokes multiple images of Jesus being a type of Israel and Joseph and Moses. For like each of them Jesus will save his people.
Joseph, Moses and Jesus need the protection of a safe haven. Joseph went to Egypt and escaped the violence of his own family eventually saving them. The mother of Moses placed him in a makeshift boat and floated him off to Pharoah's house to save him and he ends up saving his own people. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to protect their child from King Herod, who plays the role of Pharoah in this New Testament sequel. In these stories each of the characters are fulfilling God's plan for their people, families and children.
Protecting families and children from life's destructive forces is one way we can fulfill God's plan. Modern families are threatened by destructive forces from within and without. In some cases the destructive force is a male who abuses his wife and children and they are forced to flee to some safe haven, like a women's shelter. Many other families in the world are in the same boat as Moses and Jesus. In order for them and their children to survive, they have to flee the political repression or poverty of their homelands.
America is considered by these refugees to be a safe haven for lives tossed on the waves of political upheaval. And rightly so. Doesn't our Statue of Liberty stand in New York harbor with flaming torch beckoning to the refugees of the nations, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the tempest tossed to me ... "? Speaking idealistically, we as a nation, welcome the refugee who flees poverty and persecution. At our best we would welcome refugees and immigrants like Joseph, Moses and Jesus. To a certain extent, we have been a nation that welcomes the immigrant and refugee.
But, sadly, the reality does not always live up to the ideal. Lady Liberty’s torch light grows faint. At the same time we claim to welcome the immigrant, we want higher and longer fences, increased policing, and harsher punishment for those who illegally cross into the US along the Mexican border. Many of those who have crossed our borders, as Jesus crossed over into Egypt, have fled oppressive political regimes. When I was a pastor in Houston, Texas our congregation occasionally helped the Overground Railroad transport Central American refugees to sanctuary churches in the US and Canada. I remember waiting in our church parking lot with $800 from a Mennonite Church in Ohio in my pocket nervously waiting to pay a coyote to release to me a Central American immigrant.
Our Houston congregation used to support Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker House that provided sanctuary for Central American refugees. The last Christmas I was in Houston a group from our church went to Casa Juan Diego to sing Christmas carols and share some refreshments and friendship with the people. I remember hearing the story of about one of the residents who barely made it to the US. She was walking the long journey from EI Salvador to Los Angeles to be with family. Along the way she had broken her hip and was left by those with whom she was traveling. Some Good Samaritan brought her to the haven of Casa Juan Diego! Her story is but one among thousands of stories of refugees fleeing the cruel world of politics with their children seeking a haven in a heartless world.
I heard many more of these kinds of stories on several trips across the US/Mexican border to Nogales, Matamoros, Benjamin Hill, and Agua Prieta. Our Peace and Justice Support Network went on several learning tours to explore border issues and the connections between trade agreements like NAFTA and their dire economic consequences for the common Mexican people. My mind’s eye can still see the young man who broke his leg while hopping on a train, the family who hid in the desert bushes as our van kicked up dust passing them, and the old priest and nuns at Our Lady of Fatima who were part of the sanctuary movement in the 80s and provided a safe haven for Central Americans fleeing death squads.
Before we Christians jump on the bandwagon in support of more Arizona-style-get-tough policies on illegal immigrants, let's first remember these refugee families and the story of our Lord's family fleeing for refuge in Egypt before we jump to the state issue of legality and documentation. Remember, Jesus began his life as a poor, political refugee without documents and in the eyes of Rome an “illegal” immigrant to Egypt. Who knows, could one of the families we turn away from our borders just as easily have been the family of our Savior? If professing Christians would simply ponder that question for a while as they gather on this day of the Feast of the Holy Family, maybe they could see the face of Christ incognito.
There are many different destructive forces which threaten our children and families. These forces may not cause us to flee to another country for refuge, but they may threaten the lives of our children in far subtler ways. Today, in our own country, there are political and social forces which are harmful to our families. Before Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State she led a campaign for social healthcare that grew out of her ongoing concern that our nation care for and protect our children, particularly those families who could not afford adequate healthcare. Sadly, our politicians and many Americans who touted family values, did not consider affordable healthcare an important means of valuing the family.
The title of Hillary's book on children that she wrote during that period was taken from an old African proverb---- It Takes a Village and pointed to the important issue concerning the protection of families (2). She said:
Children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares to provide for them. More than a single family is needed to protect our children from forces in society that would be injurious to their well being. It takes a village; a social and political network to sustain families and protect children from the destructive forces of poverty, hunger, lack of education, joblessness, and hopeless futures.
For a long time there has been a lot of political banter about family values. More often than not, the family values agenda has concentrated on private moral decisions or has been used as the Trojan horse of partisan politics. More often than not talk of family values has been mere political rhetoric to get the support of the voters without actually making any noticeable impact on real families. The conservative right has narrowly defined family values as support for the traditional nuclear family and has neglected concern for supportive societal structures, economic justice, and protection for poorer or non-traditional families. The liberal left has tended to support personal rights, along with easy divorce laws, which has led to a self-centered individualism destructive of the family unit.
If protecting and preserving healthy families is God's plan, what we need is a pro-family agenda which is political, progressive, pluralistic, spiritual, and supportive of those policies, programs, and institutions which value families, like the WIC program, Head-Start, Children's Defense Fund, Child Protective Services, companies with programs that provide maternity leave along with job protection, childcare for employees, just to name a few.
Valuing the family, in its many configurations from single parents to blended families, is not simply a conservative, right-wing, or Republican agenda. If nurturing healthy families is our sacred duty, it should be the agenda of all people to protect families and children from destructive moral, domestic, social, and political forces. Cornel West, professor of philosophy and religion at Harvard and certainly no political conservative, along with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founder of the National Parenting Association, worked together in an effort to add their voices to the public dialogue on children and family(3). It is their contention that the social, cultural, political, and economic structures of our nation war against children and families. So, they have proposed a parents bill of rights to empower parents to protect their children in this war on families. Such creative responses are needed by people of faith, if we are going to protect children and families from life's destructive forces.
With all that I have said about valuing the family, it may come as a shock to many of us that the child Mary and Joseph protected by escaping to Egypt, would grow up valuing something over the family. When Jesus reaches the age of twelve he will disregard his family's concern about him being lost and go about his Father's business in the temple. He will sound callous as he tells a man, who wants to perform a sacred duty by burying his lather, to come and follow him instead and let the dead bury the dead. He will say to a woman, who blesses his mother's breasts and womb, the bodily symbols of motherhood, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and do it." And when his disciples tell him his mother and family are outside wanting to speak to him, he will point to his followers and say, "Who is my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." Jesus' true family members were those who sought to follow God's will. As strange as it may seem, this child, who was protected and nurtured by loving parents, will grow up to believe the reign of God takes priority over family. For Jesus the value of God's dominion makes relative all other values. Jesus will live by the conviction that ties of the Spirit are stronger than ties of blood.
In the light of God's reign, Jesus calls us to protect, nurture, and care for God's family. Our last refuge in a harsh world is really among God's people. For those who seek to do the will of God, the church is God's haven in a heartless world. The church is our sanctuary, the holy nation where we flee from the world's destructive forces. As a sanctuary, the church is to be a place that protects, nurtures, heals, and empowers children, youth and adults, healthy families, dysfunctional families, broken families, re-glued families, non-traditional families, un-churched families, and those with no family to speak of. In other words, all of God's children. The church is to be a sanctuary where all are welcomed, accepted, and loved to life, just as the arms of Egypt welcomed the holy family fleeing Herod.
Take a look down there at the Mexican border. A weary family walks through a hole in the fence with a newborn in tow headed north. Peer downtown where a runaway teenager with tattoos, a ring in her nose, and purple hair has fled an abusive home trying to make it by on the mean streets. Glance across the pew at those sitting near you on this Sunday of the Feast of the Holy Family. Are any struggling to keep their heads above water? Are any barely holding their family together? Although we sit next to each other Sunday after Sunday, do we really know each other? Look closer….look into their hearts. These people are family, brothers and sisters in Christ. We, not this building, are the real sanctuary; a place where the wounded and wandering, forgotten and forsaken, pious and perplexed children can find a refuge.
Now, look back over your shoulder deep into this Christmas story and see the holy family making their way on a long, long journey through the desert sands beneath the cool and comforting shadows of the pyramids seeking a haven in a heartless world.
1. Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York: Basic Books, 1977),
2. Hillary Rodham Clinton, It Takes a Village: and Other Lessons Children Teach Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 12.
3. Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornal West, The War Against Parents (New York Houghton Mifllin), 1998.