The Refugee God and the Work of Christmas

New Year’s Day Sermon
Isaiah 63:7–9; P
salm 148; Matthew 2:13–23
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville

Howard Thurman: “The Work of Christmas”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the 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.

Well, here we are, soaking in the Christmas season and bringing in the new year together in worship, looking ahead to our resolutions and hopes, the return of school calendars and normal work schedules. We don’t get to stay in the stable with the heavenly host and the mind-blown shepherds, the gift bearing magi, and the blissed out new parents. The sweet scene of the nativity that we so love to see enacted by our children in the pageant and maybe adorning our mantles through the holiday season is brought to a sudden stop—no, not by New Year’s Eve parties—but as Matthew’s gospel continues the story with a dark turn. Quick, we move to the next chapter after the magi leave, the angel appears again in a dream.

Pause. Breathe. Hear. Let us listen to these verses in a fresh way. Let us sit and be mindful of how quickly life shifts from birth to death, from joyous to horrifying.

Imagine waking up in the night in a cold sweat, daddies, from a nightmare that a tyrant was coming for your baby.  Doesn’t it make your chest hurt and your pulse quicken? Imagine that this nightmare is so vivid that you can’t get back to sleep, that you have to get up to look at your boy and see that he’s ok. Imagine that your partner is disturbed by your tears and your restless tossing and turning, and now, both awake and terrified, you stay up talking till morning and finally decide, “We have to go.”

Matthew puts this story in the legacy of the Exodus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” God has always been showing up in the brutal journey of the refugee, the tired eyes of parents leading their children to an unknown future.  And this story is also connected to the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke to the destroyed and occupied Jerusalem. God has always been showing up in the aftermath of human violence.

Over the holidays, I took some time to catch up on books, tv shows, boardgames, and movies with my partner, friends, and family. One thing on my list was the documentary short released on Netflix earlier this year, “The White Helmets,” which portrays the work of civilian rescue workers on the ground in Syria. I watched the film. Then I did some research.

I’ve been hearing about the air raids in Aleppo, the ceasefires that fall apart, the children and civilians who are being targeted, and felt that wave of despair, practically palpable through the radio news. And unfortunately, reading up on the history of the current civil war didn’t bring much political clarity or a sense of how to do my part to change or improve anything. The civil war is a hot mess, with local conflict becoming a proxy for foreign governments, continued destruction of civilian homes and hospitals, and more than 11 million people have been killed or displaced.

Not much has changed about war and empire over two thousand years. King Herod presided over a system that benefited a few elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Wars and empires, then and now, privilege the comfort of a few over the lives and safety of many.

Each morning, the volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense gather at their center, and then suddenly, as they sit chatting over breakfast, the sound of a jet rushes in, slicing through the calm morning, and the men abandon their plates and rush out. They discern the direction of the next bombs, and head to the site in a cargo van. They leap into action, pulling the wounded and incapacitated out of bombed out homes and alleys, before the next overhead pass ends hope of rescue. They carefully remove the dead from piles rubble, treating bodies with the tenderness fitting someone’s child, parent, dear sibling, closest friend. One man said that he tries to rescue every last one when they’re called to a scene, because it truly might be his family one day. There is a deep personal urgency to what is happening—there’s no space to distance themselves from the work.

And there’s not much space to distance yourself as a viewer of this short film. It was hard for me to watch. I could only take it in 5 and 10 minute segments, taking a break to breathe and gaze at my healthy, safe family. But turning it off wasn’t an option. The white helmets, these dedicated, devoutly Muslim, family men, blue collar workers turned everyday heroes, drew me in. They save the vulnerable, clear bombed neighborhoods, bury the dead, comfort the suffering, console the grieving, inviting me to witness as they proclaim gospel: “All lives are precious.”

And this is the gospel, the work of Christmas. We see God born to peasants, lying in a feed trough, recognized by all sorts of folks, and then on the run from a violent system, far from home and familiarity.

Matthew shows “God with us,” God’s saving presence, at the peak of human vulnerability, right in the crosshairs of violent power structures. And Jesus doesn’t affirm what is happening—his very presence as a prince of peace, made known to shepherds and magi alike, is a threat to the powers that be.

We have a working class, unhoused, refugee savior who calls us to notice Emmanuel, God with us, in and among the people we understand to be the “least of these.” We have a story of God made like us, but not all of us—God dwelling in a particular way that signals to us that in a profoundly practical way, brown skinned politically marginalized lives matter.

And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, how do we now live into the work of Christmas and set our eager new-year-resolved hearts to the task? How do we put ourselves in fellowship with the refugee who bears the image of God, with our weeping mother Rachel?

When we think about the refugee, I want to be careful that we don’t over-spiritualize this in a way that turns our attention from the real refugee crisis happening right now.

But it can be overwhelming—Where do we go from here? What can be done a world away?

We lament. We pray. We contribute to global relief and new social enterprise to help the displaced. We make our city and neighborhoods and homes places of sanctuary for those in need of home and safety, whether displaced from Nashville or Aleppo. We keep our eyes peeled for the toxic self-preservation of Herod at work in our communities and in our own hearts. And like our brothers at work in Syria, we keep the faith, keep showing up one day at a time.

In the midst of stories of suffering, the white helmets share the story of Mahmoud, a baby who at one week old, was rescued after 16 hours under the rubble. The men in the film follow up with him, now a chubby, active toddler. He is perfectly clueless of the grace and hope he holds in his life, in his very body. But the white helmets talked about him again and again, the sign that their work is meaningful. The story of this life spared, this possibility of a proper future beyond the death of the civil war, keeps them moving.

So like the prophet Isaiah, may we  keep telling the story, recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord. Keep telling the story of how God brought us into freedom, and stay mindful of those who are still fleeing, still wandering, still in need of safe refuge. May we be transformed from discouragement to resolution, from despair to engagement, from apathy to intentionality, from helplessness to creative courage. And may the strength of the knowledge of the God’s redeeming work and the rise and fall of those beautiful words, telling the story of Word made flesh, become the steady rhythm of the Spirit leading our steps into the work of Christmas:
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.

 Amen.

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