ON CHRISTMAS EVE, JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH WERE REFUGEES
CHRISTMAS EVE - YEAR C
December 24, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 9:1-6 Psalm 96:1-3;11-14 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-14
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Refugees have received lots of publicity over the past few months. One or more of the political candidates have particularly called out those arriving from Syria and applied negative and inaccurate stereotypes to them. They have referred to all Syrians as terrorists. They want to embargo all Muslims from entering our country for an indefinite period of time, and turn away Syrian refugees.
Surprisingly, all these candidates purport to be Christians, and are directing their campaign pitch to win votes from other purported Christians by exploiting hostile feelings towards immigrants and refugees whose culture and race is different from theirs. I wonder, however, if these folks would be hostile to Jesus on the night He was born. How ironic that during this Christmas season, a time of the year when giving and generosity are the order of the day, we are urged to post a sign saying: “No room at the inn.”
When we look at immigrants and refugees in light of tonight’s Gospel reading, we can see that Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus have more in common with Syrian refugees than they do with the American Caucasians who don’t want them in the United States. For one thing, being from the Middle East, they had the same physical appearance. Now imagine a woman, well along in a pregnancy had traveled several days with her husband to a foreign land in response to a government decree they did not understand. And then when they arrived, there was no place for them to sleep except in a barn, because either all the hotel rooms were taken, or there were none available that they could afford.
Obviously, when Caesar Augustus published his decree, he did not take into account where those traveling to distant areas would stay. Thus, Caesar Augustus had a great deal in common with those contemporary politicians who tell the homeless people and indigent unwed mothers, “if you don’t have a home, or if you don’t have enough money for a doctor, that’s your problem, not mine” repeating their heartless mantra endlessly trumpeting their “personal responsibility for your own survival” ideology.
What happens in a society where people think this way? Surrounded by farm animals, in an unheated building, without any medical assistance, in very unhygienic surroundings that included the smell of manure, Mary went into labor and gave birth. This was hardly the peaceful bucolic scene depicted in paintings and displays of the Nativity scenes we see everywhere at this time of year. Those were the unfavorable circumstances under which Mary gave birth to Jesus, which western civilization now celebrates with decorated trees, copious gift shopping, and plateful after plateful of food.
But all of that celebration obscures those not-so-lucky people fleeing from oppressive regimes in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. They have much in common with Mary and Joseph in the stable, forced to stay there because better lodging for whatever reason was unavailable to them. Yet, to get themselves elected, politicians play to the fears of uneducated people using events in San Bernardino, Paris, the presence of a barbaric Islamic state known as ISIS, and terrorist groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, to give themselves ammunition to present every refugee as a terrorist, criminal or intruder. One of them went so far as to say that even migrant children under age five should not be allowed into the United States. 
This shameful political fear mongering has encouraged many members of the public to shun compassion for those less fortunate and instead become preoccupied with personal survival by holding tight their prejudices, possessions and ideologies. They forget that a central tenet of Christianity is loving one’s enemies to prevent the constant seeking of revenge and an endless spiral of retaliation.
Our conservative sisters and brothers claim to be Bible-believing Christians, but they don’t know their bible very well. The truth is, the Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. The Biblical message is very clear. Excluding and discriminating against immigrants is simply wrong. In fact, the Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. The author of Exodus reminds the Hebrew people not to oppress aliens because they, too, were once aliens when they were in Egypt. To paraphrase Exodus, God told the Israelites, “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” If you recall the narrative of the Book of Genesis, the Jewish people experienced famine and immigrated to Egypt so they could be fed. The price, however, was to be slaves to the Egyptians. They were not welcomed as sisters and brothers in need. Instead the Egyptians took advantage of their necessities and exploited their labor.
Our conservative sisters and brothers are fond of quoting Leviticus to support other parts of their agenda such as their campaign against the L-G-B-T population. But when it comes to refugees and immigrants, they replace Leviticus with unmitigated xenophobia, which means fear of someone different than you are. Leviticus, however, contains many references to immigrants. Leviticus tells us we should treat aliens the same way we would expect to be treated. The prophet Ezekiel tells us that the children of aliens and native born children are to be considered equals. Doesn’t that sound like something Jesus would say? So why can’t we do that here in the United States in the Twenty-First Century?
In telling refugees America does not welcome them, we are not allowing love to cast out fear. To contemplate love in a world now living in an age of terrorism is a challenge indeed. But history has shown us that when fear pervades a society, more often than not the society reacts unwisely by choosing and supporting strong, authoritarian political leaders who are expected to scapegoat and decimate those who are the objects of popular fears. In today’s world, that’s our Muslims sisters and brothers.
We Americans are pre-occupied with defending our way of life, our little comfort zone at the expense of doing away with the Gospel of Jesus. That Gospel starts with the proposition that all of humanity, not just us, is created in God’s image. We have forgotten about why God sent us baby Jesus. God did this because God loves us. God came to us as a human person to be among us, to drive home the idea that humans were, in fact, created in God’s image. We are, ontologically, what God is. We are made of the same substance as God. Our will, our emotions, our intellect, and our spirituality, all reflect what God is. The incarnation of Jesus, the Word of God, was the personal demonstration of that fact.
By proclaiming that all humans are made in God’s image, the Bible does not limit this privilege to Caucasian Americans. Yet our conservative sisters and brother prattle on with empty twaddle about obeying immigration laws, even if doing so means inflicting tangible human suffering on those powerless to resist. They forget that the supreme commandment, before all others, what’s called the Shema Israel in Deuteronomy, is, “Hear, O Israel!* The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength.”
The creation of all persons in God’s image applies to both people born in the United States, and those born outside it. When we look into the eyes of immigrants and refugees, we are looking into the eyes of God. We are looking into the eyes of baby Jesus, who supremely embodied God’s divine image and provides us an avenue for a relationship with God.
Jesus demonstrated what it means to be a child of God. In fact, Jesus gave us some pretty explicit instructions about how to treat those who are less fortunate than we are. In Matthew twenty-five, Jesus identified himself as a stranger to be welcomed. He told us, “ For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
In creating us as His Children in His image, God expects us to adopt and carry out His agenda, not just listen to it or read it. That agenda is to bring about God’s kingdom where we live. Caring for the least among us, particularly immigrants and refugees, in the manner detailed in Matthew twenty-five, is part of what that looks like. But refusing to house immigrants and refugees is just like telling Mary and Joseph there is no room for them at the inn and sending them to a barn. But the worst was yet to come. Shortly after Jesus was born, evil King Herod flew into a jealous rage and decreed that all male children under two years of age would be killed. Herod was a terrorist with a crown whose despicable decree forced the Holy Family to flee into Egypt. In doing so, they were in the same situation as the refugees from Syria. They must either leave, or be killed by religious extremists. The Holy Family is thus the archetype of every refugee family.
Mary and Joseph are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, pilgrim and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is compelled to leave native land and family to seek safety on foreign soil. The newborn Jesus stands for all political refugees, all those in despair of having a place to lay their head. To quote the late Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, “Jesus is always present with those for whom there is no room." We are dealing with family after family who are now in the same predicament as Mary and Joseph were. Slamming doors in the faces of refugees, as was done to Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve, is unthinkable.
And immigrant issues are not just an American problem. As you may recall from reading headlines, Europe is also dealing with waves of immigrants. With over forty-five million displaced persons, we face a world-wide holocaust of homelessness resulting from war, natural disasters, persecution and discrimination of every kind, depriving a multitude of people of their home, employment, family and homeland. Let us also not forget that a substantial number of refugees are the victims of the religious extremism that people of faith have a solemn duty to oppose.
Because human persons were made in God’s image, promoting the dignity of every person is a fundamental obligation of every Christian, no matter what denomination. Solidarity with immigrants and refugees is inscribed on our hearts based common membership in the human family. The welfare and dignity or persons is more important than political interests and national security. Taking care of people comes ahead of winning elections and balancing accounting books.
In the New Testament, the Epistle to the Hebrews exhorts us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that thereby some have entertained angels without knowing it.” In opening our country to refugees, we are opening our hearts to Jesus and entertaining God’s angels. Opening one’s heart to Jesus is not just mouthing prayers or participating in ceremonies. It is a commitment to see Jesus in others. It is opening our hearts to God’s love, and allowing that love to shine through our souls in the decisions we as a society make addressing every scenario afflicted with human suffering of any kind. As followers of Jesus, we are called to welcome the strangers of our time, be they from Syria or elsewhere. God calls us to open our hearts and our doors to those seeking refuge this Christmas season, regardless of their religion. To contend that non-Christians worship a different God is blasphemy…because there is truly only one God, who made us as one human family, and that family includes everyone born everywhere, without exception.
The Christmas story is there to remind us of a family struggling under the twin oppressive regimes of the Romans and the Herodians. The former compelled them against their will to leave their homeland to be counted in a census, and the latter threatened to kill their infant son. In our own world, it is now winter in Syria and Iraq. Little kids are straining at the wire fences, dreaming of a warm place. But some of our political candidates would rather they stay there, regardless of how sick their parents are, or how hungry the kids are. Some refugees may be terrorists, but more might become terrorists if our response is to deny them refuge. There’s never an excuse for terrorism, but sometimes, desperate people often do desperate things.
Tonight’s Gospel reading should open our eyes and hearts to those most vulnerable, those whose only hope is to travel for days in search of a livable life. Many of them are Middle Easterners, just like Mary and Joseph. Let’s make room for them in the inn of our hearts. AMEN.