Abdul, an 18 year old Rohingya from Myanmar, struggled in his homeland… despite living there for generations, the Rohingya are not recognized as Myanmar citizens and face many restrictions in their daily lives. These difficulties were exacerbated after the outbreak of violence in 2012, during which Abdul’s grandfather was killed. Abdul and his brother left a year before the violence, on a boat carrying 129 people.By all accounts, there are over 16.7 million refugees in our world today. 50% of refugees are under 18 years of age. 16 million is about 5 times the population of CT (3.5m). 16 million people - families, children, people who have fled their country of origin to escape danger, violence or persecution.
“We were looking for any country that was safe, somewhere we could live. We planned to stop the first time we saw land. We landed in Thailand. We were caught by men in uniform and pushed back to sea.”
To stay alive, the passengers rationed what they had left, sipping only half a glass of water a day. On the 18th day of their voyage, a passing fishing boat found and fed them, then towed them to Aceh (ah-chey) in northern Indonesia. Despite the trauma he has been through, he would do it again.
“I don’t want to go back to Myanmar, I might get shot.”
Abdul’s story is one of many stories of refugees in our world. (http://stories.unhcr.org/)
It is often hard for me to imagine such persecution, having never feared for my life, feeling like I couldn’t live where I wanted to live. And yet, this story is as old as the bible…
The Gospel story for today from Matthew, reminds us that Christmas, this holy story we enter into with the baby Jesus, Mary & Joseph, and the magi, also included King Herod whose threats made the holy family refugees in Egypt.
As one Anglican priest put it… "Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee." (Joy Carroll Wallis)In 6 BC, Rome was the occupying power in the land of Israel. Caesar Augustus was on the thrown, the first Roman emperor that unified the empire. Herod the Great ruled the land of Judea. He was King because Rome put him there. He was distrusted and disliked by the population because of his connections to Rome and his brutality.
Into the midst of this, God comes to us and Jesus is born. Our Christmas Story often ends with the Wise Men, who after a dream leave by another road, but it doesn’t end there. For Joseph is likewise warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem and flee to Egypt for Herod wants to destroy Jesus. And Joseph listens, he protects his family and they escape to Egypt just in time (just as so many refugees have done in our time).
Then Matthew tells us of the slaughter of the innocents, males 2 years old and younger in the region of Bethlehem ordered killed by Herod after Herod did not hear from the wise men. Thankfully his murderous reign comes to an end, and after Herod's death, Mary & Joseph & Jesus leave the land of Egypt and make their home in Nazareth (after another dream!).
Herod is not a cuddly character we embrace and so we often forget his role in that first Christmas, but Herod reminds us that the world that Jesus was born into, is the same world we live in now. War, death, murder, political infighting, violence that take place now as they did then and innocent people are often caught in the middle and end up as victims and refugees.
But we also know that God intercedes on our behalf in the best and worst of times; even with the power of Rome & Herod in place, God comes to us in a helpless baby in their midst and everything changes.
As we think of that star the magi followed on this Sunday, we are reminded to use our gifts, to pray, to lift up and give our voice and our actions to help those fleeing persecution and danger in our world, to see Christ in this world through the lives of refugees and to stand up against the Herods of this world.
This December, the Church School gathered new or knitted gloves and hats for iiconn. "The International Institute of Connecticut (IICONN) is a non-profit, non-sectarian agency dedicated to helping foreign-born persons achieve self-sufficiency in the USA. Their services include refugee resettlement, basic needs, English classes, job training & placement, counseling, translation & interpretation services and legal assistance. IICONN advocates for fair and equitable treatment of immigrants, refugees and others, and works to increase public awareness of the contributions of foreign-born persons to American culture and values." (from their website)
Those gloves and mittens went to the Mary & Josephs and baby Jesus’ who have fled their home and have landed on our shores and gave some comfort in our rather cold climate. Those gifts, like so much else we do, are our offerings to the Christ Child in our midst today. For we have work to do, as Howard Thurman put it:
For when the song of the angels is stilledOur Christmas festivities are nearing the end, but our work of Christmas has just begun. Let us journey and find the Christ child, knowing it may lead us not to palaces, but to refugee camps, war zones, ghettos, places of poverty and areas of destruction.
when the star in the sky is gone
when the kings and princes are home
when the shepherds are back with their flocks
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 the people
to make music in the heart.
Let us help shed the light of Christ to those who walk in darkness today. Because today we celebrate the Light that has come into the world for all people, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it. Let us pray:
O God, we ask your living protection of all refugees yearning for freedom and hope in a new land. May we remember that the Holy Family, too, were refugees as they fled persecution. Bless, guide and lead us in faith to open doors and to open our hearts through this ministry of hospitality. Give us strength, vision and compassion as we work together with other agencies to welcome those in need. We ask this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
(Our offering on Souper Bowl Sunday will go to iiconn.)