A few weeks ago I saw the movie “Brooklyn”. It’s a charming story about an Irish girl who emigrates to the United States. There are some obvious parallels to my own story, and maybe that’s why I liked it so much, besides the fact that it’s a gentle story of love and loyalty, with subtle messages about life choices and a nostalgic view of days gone by. There’s a moment in the movie when the heroine is talking with someone about home. She expresses ambivalence: where is home for her, now that she has made a home in America, but with loved ones still in the Irish village where she grew up?
I am familiar with that ambivalence. For those of us who have traveled far from our roots, who have settled in another country, another culture, what do we call home? Is it the place where I will lay my head tonight, is it the place where I was born, is it the place where I have lived the longest or where I hope to return to at the end of my life?
Whatever your answer may be, you will probably agree that the preferred notion of home generally includes a sense of safety, of refuge. It’s the place where they will always take you in, or the place where you can be yourself, but above all, a place where you feel safe.
Matthew tells us that the place where Jesus was born ceased to be a safe place when King Herod decided to murder all the little boys in Judea. Home was no longer a place of refuge, but a place of danger. So the holy family joined a long, sad line of refugees, a line that stretches back and forwards through history and from one end of the earth to the other, individuals and families fleeing the place they have called home because it cannot be home any more.
It’s almost too easy to relate this story to the present day. Contemporary stories about refugees are everywhere. Many of us heard Benson Deng speak in this pulpit last spring about his experience as a Lost Boy of Sudan. But I could also tell you about 67-year-old Ahmed, who arranged for his family to flee the war in Syria and lost eight family members when Libyan militia shot up their boat. Ahmed now spends his days in a refugee camp in Malta. He no longer finds any reason to live.
I could tell you about Amina, whose husband was killed in a family feud and who took her children from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey to Greece to Macedonia and then back to Greece, paying tens of thousands of dollars to smugglers along the way and leaving her without any resources to support her children.
I could tell you about Mohammed and his wife Minara, members of a minority Muslim sect that is persecuted by the majority in their home country of Myanmar. They fled when their neighborhood was torched and the military tried to shoot them. They found their way to Malaysia, where they were extorted by the police and then paid a smuggler to take them to Australia, but they were shipwrecked on a deserted island and rescued by the authorities in Indonesia, where they remain in refugee limbo and are forbidden to work.
I could tell you about Hassan, who grew up in a refugee camp in Syria and joined a dissident political party that put him in the cross hairs of the regime. He took his sons to the UK but over the course of a decade repeatedly ran into bureaucratic brick walls with the British government. On the day they learned that their application for asylum was rejected, both sons were scheduled to take their university entrance exams, even though one boy was undergoing cancer treatment and his brother was being treated for depression. The asylum decision meant that they immediately lost their home and all financial support.
I could tell you about Seble, who left Eritrea at age 17 because she was a Christian who didn’t practice one of the four government-sanctioned religions, and because she was afraid of being conscripted into the army. She went to Sudan, where Eritrean bounty hunters roamed the streets, and then paid a trafficker to smuggle her to Greece, crammed into a plastic dinghy with 22 others. On her arrival, the authorities immediately ordered her to leave the country, She returned to the smugglers and was transported to England, hidden under a truckload of Christmas trees.
Or I could tell you about Rosa, a 33-year-old mother from El Salvador who took her 13-year-old son and fled when the notorious MS13 gang demanded $500 in return for not kidnapping her son. The police told her to disappear. When mother and son arrived at the US border they were arrested and detained separately, shackled like dangerous criminals. They have since found temporary refuge with relatives in Virginia and are attempting to apply for asylum without the aid of a lawyer and with a deadline looming.
Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Eritrea, El Salvador: countries across the globe where families feel so unsafe that they pay smugglers and become destitute in a desperate bid to give their children life.
Malta, Greece, Malaysia, Indonesia, Macedonia, England, Sudan, the United States: countries on every continent where refugees seek aid and where they are treated like criminals and denied the dignity of human nature.
War, religious persecution, murderous relatives, famine, ethnic cleansing, political dissent, organized crime: the reasons to become a refugee are legion, and millions of people across the planet are driven from their homes every year because it is simply not safe to stay.
The slaughter of the innocents by those who wield power continues, day after day, in every part of the world, and Rachel continues to weep for her children.
The one we worship as the Son of God was one of the innocent throng. Unlike many of those refugee children, unlike the other children targeted by Herod, Jesus survived the trauma of persecution and returned to Israel with his family, to grow into a leader, a troubler of the status quo, a turner-over of tables and power structures. Born in Bethlehem, displaced to Egypt, resettled in Nazareth, called to an itinerant ministry: where did Jesus call home? Who knows, perhaps it’s only because he spent formative years outside of the oppressive culture of his homeland that he was able to overcome the internalized oppression of generations and step forth as a leader of his people, as the savior of humanity.
Later in his life Jesus named as his home the place where God abides, a place where all the lost children, all the displaced persons can find safety, a place beyond the reach of murderous regimes and oppressive cultures. One of our beloved Christmas carols reminds us that this will ultimately be our home also: “Not in that poor, lowly stable, with the oxen standing round, we shall see him, but in heaven, where his saints his throne surround.”
This is the dream for all refugees, for all the lost children, all who feel far from home, and it’s our dream too. At one time or another each of us knows that sense of displacement, and as followers of Jesus we are called in this life to be always on the move, pilgrims through a barren land. Our presiding bishop talks about the church as “The Jesus Movement”, and the phrase is well chosen. The life of faith is a journey, and we are never truly at rest or at home until we come to rest in eternity. Like Jesus and his family, like Ahmed, Amina, Hassan, Seble, and Rosa, we are all displaced persons, seeking refuge and new life as we travel through a perilous world. In this Christmas season we celebrate the incarnation of our God, who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. As refugees ourselves and as followers of one who was once a refugee, we are called to uphold the dignity of all those who are excluded, oppressed, or silenced by the powers of this world. That is one way we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.
The good news of the Gospel is that there is a home for each of us, and it’s a home where all are welcome, all are safe; it’s a home in the heart of God. As we embark together on this new year of grace, I hope that we will find new ways to share that good news with our fellow travelers.
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
January 3 2016, Second Sunday of Christmas