The Fugitive Gospel

The lectionary for December 29 included a vivid description of the horrors that faced the Holy Family in the months following the nativity.  Matthew 2:13-23 provides a narration of the flight into Egypt and the resettlement at Nazareth.  This message was preached to the good people of  The Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.

What kind of Christmas cards are you apt to select for your seasonal greetings?  Do you send out the understated, serious card that can be received by folks of many (or even no) faith – you know, the wintry scenes or nature photos that say “Happy Holidays”?  Do you go for the cute cards – the “precious moments” nativities, or the cartoon Santas?  Maybe you like the funny cards, or the more personal cards that include your own photograph.  And, since we’re in church, I would bet that more than a few of you select a religious card, perhaps with a painting of the wise men or shepherds gathered around the manger, reminding us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” or inviting us to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo”.  Do you have a favorite?

Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (Luc-Oliver Merson, 1880)

No matter how you may have answered that, my hunch is that there are some things that you’ve never seen on a Christmas card.  I don’t believe that Hallmark or American Greetings sell many cards that feature an image of the Holy Family sneaking into Egypt as they run away from King Herod, looking tired and hungry and decidedly un-holy as they fear for their lives and wonder about the terror that they left behind in Bethlehem.  I’ve never seen a Christmas card featuring Joseph and Mary looking at real estate in Nazareth, a backwoods town some 65 miles – several days on foot – away from Jerusalem.  They are relocating, not because of a boom in Joseph’s carpentry business, but because they are afraid of Herod’s son, Archelaus – and what he might do to them if he finds out who Jesus really is.  And what about a lovely Christmas greeting featuring the mothers of Bethlehem holding their dead babies after Herod’s goons have gone through the village killing anything that looked to be male and less than three years old?  They don’t have a “precious moments” scene for that, I don’t think.

But aren’t those things a part of the Christmas story?  Matthew doesn’t tell us much at all about the birth of Jesus – we get a family tree, the story of Joseph’s dream, the wise men, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and then the move to Nazareth.  That’s all Matthew tells us about the birth and childhood of Jesus – and most of it doesn’t get so much as a mention in our traditional Christmas celebration.

I’ve thought a lot about this part of the story as I have wandered through Christmas this year.  And as I have thought, I have a lot of questions – and I’d like to share a few of them with you this morning.

First, let me ask you this: when Joseph took Mary and Jesus and ran into Egypt, was he a “refugee” or a “fugitive”?  A refugee is defined as “a person who flees for refuge or safety, esp. to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.”.  A fugitive is “a person who flees; especially: a person who flees one jurisdiction (as a state) for another in order to elude law enforcement personnel”.  Both come from the same word – the French fugere: “to flee”.

A refugee – a poor person seeking safe harbor.  Or a fugitive – a menace to society running from the law.  Which of those words best describe Joseph, Mary, and Jesus?

I would suppose that it depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?  I mean, because Jesus played for our team (or, more appropriately, I suppose, we should say that because we play for Jesus’ team), it’s easy for us to see the holy family as refugees – vulnerable and weak, fleeing one dangerous spot and ending up somewhere else while life is tenuous and survival is difficult.

But if you were to ask Herod’s soldiers, then those would be three of Jerusalem’s “most wanted”, right?  Fugitives who pose a threat to the status quo, and thus the safety and security of the Empire. The family seems to be an ordinary group, but they must be stopped by any means necessary.

Refugees?  Or Fugitives?  It depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?

Political cartoon by Art Young depicting Jesus on a “wanted-poster”. First published in “The Masses” in 1917.

Here’s another question that crossed my mind this week:  what makes me so different from Herod?  I mean, he’s the guy that everybody loves to hate in this story – especially everyone who’s on our team.  But what makes me all that different from him?

Like Herod, there are times when I find myself so eager to protect what I think of as “mine” that I push others away.  To be sure, I don’t usually resort to a gang of thugs on horseback riding over to your house to wipe out you and your family, but there are a lot of times when I find myself afraid of losing power and control, and my response to that is too often one of anger or insecurity.  Herod woke up every day and asked himself a simple question: to what extent will I use the power that I have to protect myself and my own interests?

Isn’t that a question that I ask myself every day?  One time I needed a pair of shoes.  I ran up to K-mart and found a pair of sneakers that was only $15.  Such a deal! I brought them home and remarked on the cost to Ariel, who said, “that’s probably because they were made by a six year old in the developing world, Dad.”  Were they?  I don’t know.  But surely some of the “good deals” that I got this past holiday season were there because somehow, my economic interest was more important than someone else’s right to food, housing, or safety.

Unlike Herod, I’m not the king of anything.  But like Herod, I have a lot of power.  And I like it.  And I use it.  What makes me so different from him?

Another question, along the same lines, but in a decidedly different direction:  What makes me so different from Joseph?  I mean, I hold onto a promise I’ve received from God.  No, I haven’t seen any angels, or had dramatic awakenings in the middle of the night, but don’t I know the same promise that he did?  Am I willing to trust God’s leading enough to follow a dream, even if it means going against the culture in which I live?

Joseph was willing to live on the margins of his world – to make due with less – because he believed that the things that God was doing were even more amazing than his dreams.  He left his home and his family and shouldered a set of responsibilities that were incredible because he thought that in some way he could be a part of the big, new thing that God was doing.  And every day, Joseph woke up and asked himself, “How am living into God’s promise, even in the midst of Herod’s world?  Isn’t that a question I could ask myself?

What makes me so different from Joseph?

To what extent will I use my power and privilege to protect my own interests?  How am I living into God’s promises in Herod’s world?

As we walk through these scriptures and consider questions like these this morning, what can we “take away” for our lives this week?   Perhaps I can remind you of three things this morning.

As the new year dawns, and as the political landscapes in our nation and world continue to evolve, let me remind you to be very suspicious about any claims that a nation, a military power, or a political movement might make about bringing in Christ’s kingdom.  History shows us that many, many times people have equated such power with Jesus, and almost every time, the church has lived to regret that – when we look back at Constantine’s efforts to legislate Christianity, or the crusades, or the “conversions” of many of the native American peoples to Christianity, almost always it seems as though the strategies used, the motives employed, and the end results were not exactly in line with what we know about the one who was born in a manger in Bethlehem. We pray for our leaders and hope that they are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we affirm that God, not any human being, rules the earth.  We do not do well when we confuse our political movements with God’s presence on the earth.  So pray for, and support our leaders – but remember that these men and women, as much as anyone, face the temptations that Herod faced every single day.

As you think about the possibilities and the challenges that face you, personally, in the year to come – what you will save, spend, or give; how you will use your time; the places where you will invest your energy – are you acting because you are afraid of losing what is yours?  Or are you following the promise and believing the dream?  Let me remind you that you, no less than Joseph and Mary, have heard the promise of God’s salvation.  That you, no less than they, have the chance each and every day to make decisions that will put you in a position where you can pursue a life of grace and peace.  That today, and tomorrow, and the next day, you will face a hundred choices about what to do with your money, your time, and your energy.  Will you make those choices remembering that a light shone over Bethlehem, and that one shines in your heart as well?  You may be afraid – our brother Joseph was afraid of Archelaus, and settled in Nazareth as a result.  But will the fear and uncertainty that may lie in 2014 drive you to behave in ways that are selfish and greedy?  Or will the awareness of life in an uncertain world encourage you to be more generous and flexible as you look around you?

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

And lastly, let me remind and encourage you to spend time with the people who are “on the run” in our world today.  At this time last year, I was preparing for a visit to Africa, where we began the Presbyterian Church USA’s first “Tripartite International Partnership” by linking with the church in Malawi and South Sudan.  There was joy and hope as a team of folk from Malawi and Pittsburgh visited the world’s youngest nation and preached in her churches.  This month, I am frantically scouring my emails, looking to see whether our friends in South Sudan are alive or dead in the wake of violence there.  There are, by some accounts, more than 42 million refugees in our world today – people who do not have a home, whose kids are not in good, safe schools; people who may or may not have access to safe water, sewage, or other fundamental needs. We gather this morning to worship a savior whose first few years included living as a refugee in another country and who later became an “internally displaced person” because of the threat to his life.  And as we gather to worship the baby that Herod sought to kill – can you make room in your life this year to spend some time with the lost, the hungry, the frightened, or the vulnerable?  You don’t have to go to a camp in Palestine or South Sudan to meet someone who has a hard time seeing the light of Bethlehem; you don’t have to travel with Doctors Without Borders to encounter someone for whom the dream of Christmas – the hope of God with us – is just that – a dream.  A fuzzy, cloudy, dream.  Will you help someone else to glimpse that dream this year?

I’d like to close by sharing a brief meditation by Howard Thurman, entitled “The Work of Christmas”.  I share it with you in the hopes that as you plan your task of packing up the decorations, you won’t think that the work of Christmas has ended:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 

When the star in the sky is gone, 

When the kings and princes are home, 

When the shepherds are back with their flock, 

The work of Christmas begins: 

To find the lost, 

To heal the broken, 

To feed the hungry, 

To release the prisoner, 

To rebuild the nations, 

To bring peace among brothers, 

To make music in the heart.

All right, folks, Christmas is just about over.  Let’s get to work.  Amen.

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