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A People on the Move -- Lev. 19:1-4, 33-37; Matthew 2:23-33 (16th Sunday After Pentecost)

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

“I have never had a dream that told me to flee in the middle of the night to save my family.”[1]

I read that sentence this week as one person’s reaction to this terrifying story in Scripture, a candid acknowledgment: “I have never had a dream that told me to flee in the middle of the night to save my family.” Me neither.

But Joseph and Mary did. And over the course of history and around the world today, innumerable people do. Far too many people have the clear vision that the place they call home is no longer safe. They see – in what must be an excruciating realization – that to survive and to thrive, they need to leave the home they love. And so they do – throughout history and around the world today.

The story of humanity is the story of people on the move.

The Bible, from beginning to end, is the story of people on the move. All the way back in the beginning, Adam and Eve are flung out into the world to find and make a home. Abraham and Sarah hear a call to leave the land they know, and to venture into the unknown – through the midst of kingdoms and empires – as they make a new home and become a people there. Their great-grandson Joseph will be sold into slavery by his brothers and human-trafficked into Egypt. Famine will come upon the land, and force his brothers and their families to flee as well – a refugee people on the move.

They’ll find a home in Egypt, until a new Pharaoh rises and enslaves them all – and then they’ll set out yet again – chased by Pharaoh’s army – through the Red Sea – only to find themselves in a wilderness, where they will wander for 40 years. And even when the people settle in again, they will live as a tiny nation – a confederation of tribes – in the midst of marauding, conquering empires. The Assyrians will sweep in – and most of the 12 tribes will be scattered throughout the known world. Then, the Babylonian armies will come and lay siege to what’s left and take the people captive – and, from captivity, the people will cry out, “How can we sing songs of home when we are strangers in a strange land?”

All the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures – all the poetry, all the wisdom, all the prophecy – what we call the Old Testament – will be gathered together into its final form – in this experience of exile and in its immediate aftermath. They will pull together their stories – in and after exile – and they will notice and remember how God accompanied them along the way – in every displacement:

· liberating them from slavery;

· guiding them through the wilderness, in a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night;

· nourishing them in the desert with manna in the morning and water from the rock;

· settling them in a land, and sending prophets to guide them when they stray;

· and when they find themselves in exile, there’s God, yet again seeking them out and

bringing them back home.

The Bible – and particularly Hebrew Scripture – is again and again the story of displaced people thrust into the unknown, finding their way and making a home – and making sense of God and life in all that, together.

The Bible is, from beginning to end, the story of people on the move.

And so it’s not surprising that at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures we find a command – a moral imperative – again and again – to extend welcome, hospitality, and safe harbor to people on the move – to strangers in the midst of you – in the midst of us. We see that in this morning’s text from Leviticus: Right there with all the big commands – Have only one God; Don’t lie; Don’t steal; Honor your parents – we find this:

“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am your Sovereign God.”

Right there at the heart of things. That moral imperative isn’t voiced just once – it’s repeated again and again – in what becomes a moral mantra – Remember to care for the poor, the widow, and the stranger in your midst. And it’s rooted and grounded in the experience of the people. Extend hospitality to strangers – love them as yourself – for you were once strangers in a strange land.

There’s this other prayer in Deuteronomy – when folks bring their offerings in from the bounty of the land – they are to begin their prayer of thanks: “My father was a wandering Aramean.” My mother too. My ancestors. Welcoming the stranger is what we do, because it is a central part of who were are. It is the story of humanity. It is the story of God accompanying humanity. It is the story of us.

Within the breadth of this narrative – the story of people on the move – when we come to this singular story from the Gospel of Matthew – the story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus forced to flee in the night – we need to ask: What does it mean to us that Jesus began his life as a refugee?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is born into a scary world – a world “where threats abound.”[2] The shepherds and the angels – they are in the Gospel of Luke. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is born, and the next thing we know we run into King Herod.[3] The Magi meet him first. They are following a star, trying to find a newborn king. But first they encounter King Herod. Herod is the puppet king set up by the Roman Empire. Within the imperial hierarchy of power, he has found all his own ways to exploit and profit off the vulnerable and the poor. And Herod knows that there can only be one king, so he wants to find this rival newborn king so that he can take care of the problem – in the way that kings do. And the Magi get that – so when they find Jesus, they worship him, bring him gifts, but then they go home by another way.

This morning’s Scripture picks up there – the Magi have just left – King Herod is still on the hunt. And Joseph has a vision in a dream – “King Herod is hunting down the child. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.” And they do. They escape; they cross the border; they are safe.

And that sends King Herod into a fury – and in his maniacal rage, he orders that all boys aged two and younger be killed. And Matthew echoes a lament sung across previous generations – “Hear the voice in Ramah weeping; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, for they are no more.” Following on centuries of slavery, and captivity, and exile – this lament rises once again from the suffering of the people.

Herod eventually dies – Joseph gets word that they can return – but Herod’s son is no less a threat – so they divert from Bethlehem to Nazareth. In the Gospel of Matthew, the action begins in Bethlehem (the city of David), but the family is then displaced into Nazareth.

Notice that the Gospel of Matthew names the dynamic of disruption and displacement. There are forces in the world – war, violence, poverty, famine, economic – that can make home uninhabitable. In this morning’s scripture, it is Herod’s tyranny. We know what it looks like in our world.

We know the displacement that has happened as Russia has waged war on Ukraine. The millions of people – the majority of them women and children – forced to flee to safer nations – while family members remain to resist.

We see that in Sudan and South Sudan.[4] Not too many years ago, millions fled South Sudan because of war. Now there’s a civil war in Khartoum, so they are fleeing back to South Sudan – it’s still bad, but maybe not as bad?

In the Americas, we know the migration of people across borders in search of home where they can make a life. We know that they’ve been forced to flee violence in their homeland – political and gang violence – systems so broken so that there is little or no economic opportunity.[5]

And just this week in Libya, we see the horror of yet another climate catastrophe – killing thousands in floods that also have washed away so many homes.[6]

We see a world filled with hardship and violence – filled with people on the move, seeking safety, and shelter, and a home where they can make a life.

In the Gospel of Matthew – this is the world that Jesus enters into – with particularity. Not into the palaces of privilege, but into the midst of the struggle of the world – into a displaced family fleeing for their life, as the powers of the Old Order grind away. Jesus begins his life as a refugee. In every story of displacement, God has accompanied God’s people. And here, too, God does not relent – directing Joseph and Mary to flee in the night to save the child. God is accompanying, and... this is where Jesus steps into this world to begin the dismantling of the crumbling Old Order – this is where he begins embodying a Brave New World. Remember? Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

What we see here in the experience of this refugee family overcoming the powers in an experience of displacement – is this Brave New World – coming to life.

Now there’s a real problem in this story – did you catch it? In this story, Jesus and his family are spared – they flee as refugees and survive.[7] But thousands of other families suffer. Herod does what the powers do – he goes after the vulnerable to maintain his own power-over – using everything he’s got, including violence and death. We stand in the horror of that – and can’t help but cry out, “Why!? Why do horrors like this happen again and again?” And I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that.

But, for a moment, I want us to bring our imagination to this story. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee in the night into Egypt – and they sojourn there until it is safe to come home. Somebody in Egypt must have helped them. Somebody must have offered them shelter. Somebody must have helped them find food – this young couple, with their newborn child. Somebody welcomed the stranger – this refugee family – somebody loved them as their own.

Now imagine – what if that somebody had been replicated. What if there were thousands of somebodies – each welcoming one family – each helping to save one child – could thousands have been spared? Could thousands have survived?

I know that you hear me talking a lot about systems. We have a responsibility to help dismantle systems that oppress. And. And. At the heart of the command we are talking about today, there is an imperative that is singular and personal. Welcome the stranger in the midst of you – welcome the stranger standing in front of you.

We’re thinking of how we might do that here – in this world full of so many people on the move – in our world with so many families on the move. A group of folks in this church – at first Peter Anderson – and then Royce, and Dave, and Ron and others, have connected with the Marin Interfaith Accompaniment Network. The MIC Accompaniment Network has gathered a group of folks committed to sharing the work of walking with a refugee or refugee family as they await their asylum hearing, and as they seek to make a home here.

The team here has looked around and thought: One thing that we might be able to offer is a place, some temporary housing – A Place for You Here. They’ve been thinking about what it might look like to build out a place beneath the chancel – an efficiency apartment where a refugee or a refugee family might live while they are awaiting their asylum hearing.

But of course, there’s so much more to accompaniment than just building out a place. Folks who are refugees arrive in a culture that is strange to them. We may speak a language other than theirs; they have to navigate systems that we know are almost impossible to figure out even if you were born here. Accompaniment involves walking alongside folks arriving in a strange land, as they get their bearings and make their home.

The team here has been working on this idea for over a year now – and it’s time to start a congregation-wide conversation. It’s a big dream – and there are big questions to talk through: What might this look like? What do we have the capacity and the will to do? Who are our partners? If not this specifically, then what? What part of this might be possible?

And I should say – we aren’t starting this conversation from scratch. Remember, this is the community that years ago, welcomed Dino Misailidis and his family – refugees from Romania. And I should say – we are not alone – what we are thinking of here is a partnership with the MIC Accompaniment Network – of becoming a part of that shared work.

This is the start of a big conversation and big learning. Right now, the team is hearing a call to be that somebody – somehow – to be that somebody that welcomes the stranger – welcomes them as family and friend – helps them find their way in a strange land – helps them find a home. What comes next is the conversation – imagining together what that might look like.

One of our Presbyterian confessions – the Confession of Belhar (which comes out of the experience of South Africa) reminds us that the role of church is to stand where Jesus stands – and that Jesus always stands with the vulnerable, the poor, and the marginalized. In this morning’s gospel story, look where Jesus stands: Jesus enters into the world into the experience of displacement, a refugee accompanying and part of a family of refugees. What this conversation is about is imagining what it might look like if we went and stood there, too.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] See Karyn Wiseman, Commentary at Working Preacher, [2] Eric Barreto, Commentary at Working Preacher, [3] For background on this text and the Gospel of Matthew, see id. and M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp.139-52; Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Buck Crowder, Commentary at Working Preacher, [4] See [5] See ; . See this recent article for the particular impact on children: [6] See [7] See Eugene Boring’s nuanced and poignant reflection, pp. 148-50.

Photo used with licensed permission via iStock.


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