Fleeing to Egypt

“Fleeing to Egypt”

Matthew 2:13-21 – December 29, 2019

Matt 2-12 Flucht_nach_Aegypten_Meuhlhausener_Altar_Bamberger_Dom

I have been puzzled by the week between Christmas and New Year for some years. Yes, it’s still the holiday season, and yes, lots of people are on reduced schedules, or even taking the whole week as a holiday. But, I realize some people need to keep working regular shifts, to do necessary things that keep the wheels of society rolling and things continuing to happen. As we all know, holidays do not last forever…or sometimes even for a few days.

Remember back to last Sunday? The fourth Sunday of Advent? I talked about the shepherds, and how they got ready to visit the Baby the Angel told them about. Only thing—the shepherds couldn’t afford to take a lot of time off to see the Baby. I doubt whether they could even take more than a few hours, at most a day, to go and see the Baby in Bethlehem. And, the angels in the angel chorus? The angels had gone back to heaven in an instant. They had already left before the shepherds even decided to check out this fantastic story.

Between last Sunday and today, Christmas happened. We sang “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and lit our candles around the Advent wreath. But, what does our Scripture reading say happened? How on earth did we get from shepherds adoring the Baby at the manger to the horrible reading we had just now, from Matthew chapter 2?

Thank goodness for the Angel, again! Thank God the Angel came to Joseph—again—in a dream, and told him to flee to a different country, with Mary and the Baby. The Holy Family was fleeing for their lives; or, at least, for their Baby’s life.

Today, when young couples here in the United States have a new baby, even a toddler, usually the extended family, good friends, and often the church family members gather around in a fond shower of gifts, sometimes bringing dinner or other good things to eat. Somehow, I doubt whether Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus had much of a baby shower before Mary went into labor. Our reading from Matthew 2 tells us a whole lot more serious than just not having a baby shower. Matthew describes an evil, manipulative king who was extremely jealous and anxious. He worried about attacks against his power structure.

From all accounts of Herod and his life and reign, he was a tyrant. Looking at writings from contemporary authors of that period, Herod was cruel and bloodthirsty. He was also two-faced, as we can see from a few verses before our lectionary passage today, from his response to the Magi. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, and requested that they come back after they find this “King of the Jews,” because Herod wished to “worship” this King as well.

I have a pretty good idea of exactly what Herod wished to do to the baby Jesus from what follows. What is even worse is King Herod has demanded that his soldiers go and slaughter all infant and toddler boys in and around Bethlehem. This reading of the slaughter of the innocents? Why this massive horror and carnage to happen? Why now? Isn’t it still the holidays? Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas? We just sang “O Little Child of Bethlehem” just a few days ago.

Sure, those soldiers were military men. I know those in the military have to do some really unpleasant things. But, ordered to kill babies and toddlers? Well. Just look who was giving that horrible order: the cruel, bloodthirsty King Herod.

We can see why the Holy Family left Judea. They fled. They became refugees.

As I have been thinking about this Scripture reading from Matthew 2 this past week, I wondered about the term “refugee.” I know many people use this term, not only in this country, but also internationally, and some of these people are misusing the term. What is the actual definition of the term “refugee?”

For this definition, I went to the United Nations website, where the UN describes and defines a great many words and terms that concern millions of people, worldwide. According to the migrant and refugee section of the official website, “Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” [1] From everything described in Matthew chapter 2, that definition of refugees describes the Holy Family all too well. Sadly, too well.

As one of my favorite commentators Carolyn Brown said, “It would be nice if everyone had gone happily home and watched Jesus grow up safe and secure with angels watching over him and no problems for anyone.  But it didn’t work that way.  It doesn’t work out that way for any of us.  We all have all sorts of problems to worry about and work on.” [2]

Here in the United States, people are sometimes forced to relocate or are made homeless because of natural disasters or floods or fires – which certainly are on the UN’s list in their definition of the term “refugee.” We know about these refugees, or migrants.

A young man was shot on the Howard St. El platform just a few weeks ago. He had moved from the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side to Rogers Park, because he did not want to be actively recruited by gangs. And—he was shot in the back, execution-style, by a rival gang member. He tried to migrate. He tried to get away from feared persecution, conflict and violence by moving to the relatively safer area of Rogers Park.

This is not the sweet story of Christmas we heard on Christmas Eve. This wasn’t the gentle story of a young woman giving birth to a Baby, and angels giving a birth announcement to shepherds, including the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all!” Where—we heard about God breaking into the world, coming to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The narrative from Matthew 2, though jarring and heart-breaking, helps us know that God is truly with us. Just look at the state of the world, and the sad—even violent situations people encounter all over. Day in and day out, the days are dark more often than not. People like this young man from Englewood get shot, and stabbed. So many feeling separations of race and class and religion and so many other dividing lines.

Yet—nothing surprises God. Yes, the Holy Family did need to run away to escape from Herod the King. “So God understands when we and our families have scary problems.  God is with us and loves us not just when things are Christmas Eve wonderful but also when nothing is going right.  Right now, on the Sunday after Christmas, that is really good to know.  Christmas is over for this year.  But, soon it’s back to school [and work] and all the old problems and people we will struggle with.  It’s a good time to remember that God was with Jesus and His family in the peaceful stable AND on the scary road to Egypt.” [3]
            He is able to not only help us through our times of trouble, but also to be God with us. Jesus is there with us, even though homes are destroyed and children are slaughtered. Jesus is there with us through all the pain and suffering, through all the wailing and lamentation. We have His word on it. Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” What a precious promise! What a wonderful Christmas gift! Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/definitions

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-first-sunday-after-christmas.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God Delivers Us from Evil

“God Delivers Us from Evil”

Psa 27 1-3 afraid, fear

Psalm 27:1-3 – March 17, 2019

I often stay up late at night. My light is often burning way past midnight. (If you don’t believe me, ask Sunny. She can attest to the time stamp on many of my emails being past midnight, and some 1:00, even 2:00 am.) Imagine my huge shock and horror in the wee hours of Friday morning when I saw coming across the computer news feed that there had been a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. I was absolutely devastated. Talk about shocking me out of my security and complacency!

That is the portion of the Lord’s Prayer we are focusing on this week: deliver us from evil. Please, Lord! Right now!

So many faced such evil, such horror, and such sorrow in the town of Christchurch, and all New Zealand just two days ago. Imagine, if you will, two peaceful congregations, coming together for their midday time of prayer, abruptly torn apart by semi-automatic weapon fire. Is it any wonder many people around the world cannot even visualize such an attack? What on earth? Dear Lord! Deliver us from evil!

As soon as news of this horrific shooting started to come across my computer screen, you’d better believe I checked out my various favorite go-to news sites, including the BBC News. Yes, the news was even worse than I had heard or feared. And, the death toll was rising. So were my shock, dismay and horror at the rapidly developing story.

As we consider our Scripture reading from the Psalms this morning, we can flee to the assurance and strength of the first verse of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; I will fear no one. The Lord protects me from all danger; I will never be afraid.”  I read these words and take heart. God is the source of my—our strength. God is our light, and we need no other light source. God is our protection and our protector. I—we—all of us need no one else.

But, wait, Lord! You didn’t mean that You would protect me from a domestic terrorist with a semi-automatic rifle!  Did You?

Even though the conception of a semi-automatic rifle was not even thought of at the time the psalm writer put pen to paper and wrote this psalm, that is the gist of verses 2 and 3: When evil people attack me and try to kill me, they stumble and fall. Even if a whole army surrounds me, I will not be afraid; even if enemies attack me, I will still trust God.”

King David is said to be the author of this Psalm, and I can believe it. David certainly knew quite a bit about having evil people try to attack him. Not only when he was young, before he even met Goliath on the field of battle, he was shepherd for his family’s flocks. He knew the many dangers a sheep or goat could face in the rocky, semi-arid pastures in the country of Israel. He was their shepherd, and he would need to rescue them when they got into trouble.

Then, when David was secretly anointed king and needed to run from the previous-but-still-on-the-throne King Saul, his fear and anxiety had the opportunity to shift into high gear. King Saul wanted to kill David. Literally. Seriously. Saul sent regular armed parties into the wilderness of Israel specifically to kill David. I am amazed that David could even write these words: “even if enemies attack me, I will still trust God.”

Dr. Beth Tanner, commentator on Psalm 27, writes “With all of the violence in our world, Christians are faced almost daily with a decision to live in fear, or despite their fear, to trust in God and God’s promises. To choose to remain true to God’s principles of hospitality feels frightening as well. Terrorists and Refugees come from the same places.” [1]

Gangs of fierce, armed men hunting you down, repeatedly? Frightening, indeed.

If we consider our problems today, whatever the specific problem is, we can draw some insight from this psalm. It’s clear that the person composing this prayer—King David—is afraid. “And yet, right in the middle of his expressions of fear, the Psalmist also declares his confident faith that God’s presence is like a light that keeps him safe.  So, he seeks God’s presence in the place where the people of Israel of his day believed God could be found: in the Temple.” [2] In the same way, we can seek the Lord where we know God is to be found: in the sanctuary, with other believers, and in meditation and prayer.

A number of these peaceful people at prayer on Friday were refugees from war-torn countries. They had fled their home countries of Somalia, Syria and Iraq—just to name a few—and had finally found sanctuary in the peaceful, beautiful town of Christchurch. New Zealand has truly gorgeous scenery, and a wonderful, equitable society of friendly people.

Not the kind of place one would expect for a domestic terror attack, certainly.

Yet, to run away, to leave almost everything you found dear and loved with all your heart, to come to a foreign land, no matter how pretty, Such heartache, and such desperation. And finally, to be getting back on your feet and finding a new home, just to have your place of worship abruptly, shockingly invaded. Get all shot up.

Dear God, deliver us from Evil, personified.

Dr. Tanner goes on to say: “Gun violence comes out of nowhere and even those places we considered safe are safe no longer. Fear threatens to defeat the gifts of trust and hospitality. The feeling of the psalm is the same.” [3]  It does not matter whether we ask to be delivered from evil things or evil people, from evil personified or evil within our own hearts. This psalm gives the message that we can depend on God as our light, our safety, our security, our salvation. And, if we depend on God, what more sure defender and protector do we need?

Jesus speaks to the city of Jerusalem rhetorically in the Gospel reading from Luke today: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!” Jesus speaks of the image of a mother hen fluffing up her feathers and gathering her chicks to safety, under her wings. Such a wonderful maternal image! And, such an encouragement and comfort in times of trouble.

It doesn’t matter what evil approaches, what danger comes quickly. If we are gathered under the wings of Jesus as our mother hen, we will be safe and cared for—now, and wherever we go with our Lord.

May it be so, Lord. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2777

Commentary, Psalm 27 (Lent 2C), Beth L. Tanner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016

[2] http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2014/01/what-do-we-have-to-fear.html

“What Do We Have To Fear?” Alan Brehm, The Waking Dreamer, 2016.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2777

Commentary, Psalm 27 (Lent 2C), Beth L. Tanner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Confront Evil, Love Enemies

“Confront Evil, Love Enemies”

Luke 6-27 love your enemies

Luke 6:27-28 – July 17, 2016

This week in the news has been difficult, to say the least. Thinking of two situations: the truck rampage in Nice after the Bastille Day celebrations, and the attempted coup in Turkey. Horrific situations. The loss of life, the horror, grief and trauma. Localized in the case of Nice, France. Widespread, in several regions of the country in Turkey.

I know, as sure as I am standing before you today, that many people are traumatized. The deaths, hospitalizations, shootings. Not only affected and grieving people in localized areas, but people throughout the region. Maybe even the world.

I chose this particular passage a week ago to discuss our sentence of the week from the United Church of Christ Statement of Mission. This week’s sentence: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to name and confront the powers of evil within and among us.”

I searched the Bible to find verses and passages which dealt with evil and confronting the powers of evil. Yes, I could have chosen verses by the Apostle Paul that dealt with powers and principalities, institutional evil and great wickedness. Or, I could have gone with generalities, and centered on sin. I can think of several passages from both the Old and New Testaments that deal with sin, both individual and corporate sin.

However, a week ago, I chose chapter 6 of the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus talks about enemies and how His followers ought to treat their enemies. This was before the attack in Nice, before the attempted coup in Turkey, and before the Black Lives Matter protests here in this country. Jesus had some pointed things to say about enemies. Some surprising things, too.

Karen read this passage to us, a few minutes ago. I will read verses 27 and 28 one more time, to let us hear the words of our Lord, again. 27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Another way of saying this comes in verse 31:  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Wait a minute. Maybe, more than a minute. Enemies do bad things to us. They speak in mean and calculating ways, and sometimes act viciously, even heartlessly. Enemies are sometimes evil, through and through. That is exactly what our sentence of the week from the Statement of Mission talks about, too.

When I think of evil, sometimes I think about something that slithers or sneaks. Something that hides in the shadows, creeping along in the darkness. Occasionally, evil acts blatantly, coming right out in the open, swaggering around all over the place, like someone who curses and cusses a blue streak. But, I would like to concentrate on evil that sneaks around secretly, even unnoticed. Spreading its poison, insidious in its grasp.

What can we do in the face of this kind of evil? When these kinds of enemies continue to rise against us?  

These words of Jesus are challenging words. Some might say hard words. Even, impossible words. But, think about it. The whole focus of evil and of enemies is to get us to retaliate. To be just as evil in return, if not more so. “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi said. What good is that to anyone?

Not only individuals, but groups also can be sucked right in. Groups—often with the tribal mentality—can be drawn into a cycle of evil, even violence. Is that what Jesus advocates here? What about when He says “Do to others as you would have them do to you?” What do you think He meant here? Did Jesus want us to retaliate and do evil acts? Say nasty and mean things? Or, did Jesus want us to try something radically different? Unusual? Counter-cultural?

I would like to tell you about a town in Denmark. Middle-sized town, generally peaceful and harmonious. Except, in 2012, the police received calls from a number of concerned people, including some parents. Several guys in their late teens or early twenties left their homes, their town, and all that was familiar, to go to Syria. To work for Muslim terrorists.

The two police officers, Aarslev and Link, are police specialists with a role in crime prevention. This article featuring them and their idea appeared Friday on the National Public Radio website. “They usually deal with locals who are drawn to right-wing extremism, or gangs. The landscape of global terrorism was completely new to them. But they decided to take it on. And once they did, they wound up creating an unusual — and unusually successful — approach to combating radicalization.”

“The rest of Europe came down hard on citizens who had traveled to Syria. France shut down mosques it suspected of harboring radicals. The U.K. declared citizens who had gone to help ISIS enemies of the state. Several countries threatened to take away their passports — a move formerly reserved for convicted traitors.”

“But the Danish police officers took a different approach: They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.”

“Their program came to be known as the ‘Aarhus model.’” [1]

This program, this way of treating enemies reminds me a lot of Jesus. Let us listen to our Lord’s words from Luke 6, again. “27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Isn’t this knowingly being kind to those who wish to do us harm? Who hate us, curse us, and wish to mistreat us? Correct me if I am off base, but I think these police officers are very much following the commands of Jesus.

These are challenging words which we find in Luke 6:27-36. I suggest re-reading this passage with an open mind and open spirit, and then ask yourselves (and myself, too—I always preach to myself, as well!), “What would Jesus do?”

As Father John Dear says, “Jesus wants us to break the downward cycle of violence by refusing to practice further violence. Violence in response to violence will only lead to further violence, he teaches, so do not retaliate with further violence. Break the chain of violence.”

Father Dear goes on to say, “Does that mean sitting back and do nothing in the face of violence? No, quite the contrary. Jesus also forbids passive resignation or indifference to evil. Instead, he demands an active, creative nonviolent response that will disarm our violent opponent without using their violent means… Through our nonviolent resistance, we insist on the truth of our common humanity, until… he repents of his violence and agrees to treat us with respect as human beings.” [2] As the Hutu and Tutsi tribes reconciled in Rwanda, as whole groups of people of all colors, classes and races reconciled in South Africa.

Is it difficult to follow the commands of Jesus? YES. Yet, I strive to do this very thing. Imperfectly, yet I strive on. I remember the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

I invite us all to seek the ways of Jesus, and search out an active, creative nonviolent response to evil, to enemies, and to violence. Will you join with me in striving to follow Jesus, today?

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/15/485900076/how-a-danish-town-helped-young-muslims-turn-away-from-isis

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dear/an-eye-for-an-eye-makes-t_b_8647348.html