Sunday 29 December 2019
The Fifth Day of Christmas, The First Sunday of Christmas
The reading from Matthew that we have this morning comes at a bit of a strange time. Next week, on January 6th, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember how the magi came from the east to find Jesus, whom they understood to be the newborn King of the Jews. But even though we haven’t gotten to that reading yet, this week, we have the section of Matthew that comes right after it. The magi have already met with Herod and told him of their search for a newborn king. They have already learned from Herod’s scholars that the messiah should be born in Bethlehem. They have already followed the star to find Jesus. They have already worshiped him and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They have already heard the warning of the angel and returned to their homes by another way, leaving King Herod to wonder what has happened to them and what to make of their story of a child who is a rival to his power. It is in the aftermath of all of those things that we get the story assigned to us this morning.
It’s King Herod the Great that we’re talking about. From 37 BCE until 4 BCE he ruled the entire Jewish homeland on behalf of the Romans: Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Idumea, the Decapolis, Transjordan. His official title, granted to him by the Senate of Rome, was “King of the Jews.”
In Herod’s lifetime, Judea had gone from being an independent kingdom to civil war to Roman control. Then his immediate predecessor as King of the Jews, Antigonus II, had led a successful revolution against the Romans and become king under the protection of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s greatest enemy at the time. Herod came to power by leading a Roman army to retake Judea for the Romans. Upon his victory, he handed Antigonus over to the Romans for execution.
Herod had no previous claim to the throne. He wasn’t a royal. He wasn’t even Jewish; he was Idumean. But with the backing of the Roman state and their legions, Herod became the most powerful king the Jewish people had known in generations. He built new cities. He built new fortresses. He built a technologically state-of-the-art port at Caesarea Philippi. He made a massive remodel of the temple in Jerusalem. He made Judea great again.
And he ruled with an iron fist. He did not hesitate to kill in order to maintain his power. He had one rival claimant to his throne assassinated in 35 BCE. He put down rebellions and riots. He employed a secret police force to monitor the loyalty of his own people. He kept 2,000 soldiers as a personal bodyguard. Shortly before his death, worried that people would not miss him, he ordered that when he died, several prominent Jews should be executed so that there would be greater mourning. Herod achieved a huge amount as king, but he was also capable of incredible violence and cruelty to maintain his rule. Judea was always on the edge of violence, always on the edge of rebellion, but Herod kept things under control. Herod maintained order. He was not a king who was loved; he was a king who was feared.
And toward the end of his reign, Matthew tells us, Herod was confronted with another threat to his authority: a child born in Bethlehem. A child whose birth was predicted by a strange celestial phenomenon. A child who was being sought by religious scholars from Rome’s greatest enemy, the Parthian Empire. A child whom they were calling the newborn King of the Jews.
Herod’s first response was to use these Parthian wizards, these magi, as agents to help him find this potential threat to his power. One way or another, this child would have to be dealt with. The easiest way would be to let these magi lead him to him. But when the magi double-crossed him and his plan failed, Herod decided on another plan. If he could not identify the one child who was a threat to his authority, he would simply eliminate every child who could possibly be the one he was looking for. He would kill every male child in Bethlehem under two years of age. If Jesus poses a threat to empire, then through Herod, the empire strikes back.
This is supposed to remind us of another story, of another child who was born to save his people, of another child who narrowly escaped genocide. In the time of Moses, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered that all male children born to the Hebrew people be immediately killed, because he feared that the enslaved Hebrew people were becoming too strong to be controlled. However, several women from different social stations conspired together to save the life of baby Moses and have him raised as a prince of Egypt. Moses would later lead his people out of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. He would go on the be the lawgiver for Israel, the greatest of the prophets, the architect of the people of Israel.
In a kind of reverse of the Moses story, Jesus must escape Herod’s kill order on young boys by fleeing to Egypt for safety. An angel visits Joseph in his sleep and warns him about the impending slaughter. Jesus and his family flee political violence in their homeland, like so many others, and become refugees in Egypt. Separated from family, separated from property, separated from their means of livelihood, they have to make a home in a foreign land. They have to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and try to find a way of supporting themselves in a new society.
As a United Methodist, I’m familiar with the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in all sorts of situations of violence, dislocation, and poverty around the world. And I know that services to refugees is a part of the work that UMCOR does. I also know that Lutheran World Relief serves a somewhat similar function for Lutheran churches.
What I didn’t know until recently is the special affinity that many Lutherans have with immigration and refugee services. There is, in fact a separate institution that is devoted completely to that cause. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has been operating in the United States for 80 years now. In those 80 years, they have resettled more than 500,000 refugees in the United States.
LIRS was originally formed in 1939 to help with the resettlement of Lutheran refugees from Europe. During and after WWII, a large number of European Lutherans found themselves expelled from or unsafe in their homes. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, LIRS resettled more than 30,000 displaced persons from Germany and Eastern Europe.
It originally started as a program to help fellow Lutherans, but it quickly expanded to include others. In 1956, LIRS resettled Hungarian refugees following a failed uprising against the Communist government in Budapest. In 1959, they assisted in the welcome of Cuban refugees on the ascension of Castro. In 1972, LIRS started welcoming Ugandan refugees who were fleeing the dictatorial government of Idi Amin. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, LIRS resettled 16,000 refugees from Southeast Asia. In the 1990’s, LIRS welcomed refugees from Bosnia and Albania. In the first decade of this century, LIRS has been involved in resettling refugees from Sudan, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Thailand.1
Currently, LIRS is working to put pressure on the US government to increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year. It’s the President who determines this cap, with consultation from Congress. “On average, since 1980, the annual Presidential Determination number has exceeded 95,000 persons. Since the year 2000, Presidential determinations have ranged from a low of 27,131 (in the year after the 9/11 attacks) to a high of 110,000 refugees. Although President Obama authorized 110,000 admissions for Fiscal Year 2017, President Trump later decreased that number to 50,000. Ultimately over 53,700 refugees were admitted in fiscal year 2017. For Fiscal Year 2018, President Trump authorized 45,000 refugee admissions. As of August 1, however, only 18,214 refugees had actually been admitted, and it is likely that the final admissions numbers will be no more than 20,000 persons–the lowest number ever in the history of the refugee program.” LIRS is lobbying for the ceiling to be raised to 95,000, which is the average ceiling over the last three decades.
LIRS states: “Aside from the obvious moral implications of closing our doors to refugees who have fled persecution and fear for their lives, the consequences of decreasing the refugee ceiling will directly impact America – economically, culturally, and geo-politically. With refugee arrivals at an unprecedented low, the communities and organizations that have formed around welcoming new Americans are feeling the repercussions. Economically, many small towns in America have come to rely on refugees as a key component of the local workforce; socially-speaking, cities and universities are missing out on the vibrant cultural contributions of refugees; and politically, U.S. allies are beginning to question our shared commitment to addressing international humanitarian crises.”
LIRS also notes that refugees have historically not posed a security risk to the US: “Refugees are subject to intensive screening and review before they are admitted to the United States. Each refugee is hand-selected by the Department of Homeland Security and screened by security agencies in an exhaustive process that involves DHS, FBI, DoD, DoS, HHS, and the US intelligence community. At the end of 2017, most refugees waited at least two years from the time of initial identification to arrival in the United States; that time has now stretched to 3 to 5 years because of new levels of processing and vetting requirements. There is no evidence that this extended time period has helped protect the United States and many experts believe it is unnecessarily exposing individuals to harm, separating families, and undermining U.S. interests abroad. Even before the high level of vetting that exists today, the refugee program has historically been a low-risk admissions program. In fact, a Cato Institute study assessing risks associated with immigrants and terrorism found that no refugees admitted to the United States after passage of the 1980 Refugee Act have committed a lethal terror attack on U.S. soil.”2
What is more, refugees often contribute significantly to the communities where they find a new home. “While there are some upfront costs associated with resettling refugees, numerous studies have found that refugees quickly begin to contribute more to the local economy than they receive in short-term federal assistance. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, a long-term study of the impact of refugee resettlement in the area found positive economic contributions through consumer spending, payment of state and local taxes, entrepreneurship, home purchases, and job creation. A 2017 study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that refugee households earned 77.2 billion dollars in 2015, resulting in 6.4 billion dollars in state and local taxes and 14.5 billion dollars in federal taxes. Big cities and small towns alike have often made refugee resettlement a priority as part of their plans for economic development because the investment in welcoming refugees nets a positive return in revenue, human capital, and cultural diversity.”
But in addition to all of this, we must remember that Jesus himself was a refugee of state violence. Jesus was an immigrant. He and Mary and Joseph certainly did not have legal permission from Egypt to enter their borders. Jesus, the one we call Lord of Life, Christ, Messiah, Son of God, was found among the most vulnerable people anywhere, among the refugees.
It is easy to dehumanize people who we don’t know personally. It is easy to paint immigrants and refugees as dangerous, risky, strange, other, foreign. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that Jesus was a refugee, Jesus was an immigrant, and that we should see the face of Jesus in every refugee and immigrant. Because, as we are reminded in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, wherever we encounter the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the unclothed, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, it is there that we encounter Christ: “When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”
Welcome for the stranger is a part of our DNA as Christians. It finds a particularly strong voice in our heritage as Lutherans. Immigration is essential to the story of our nation. Even more, it is essential to the story of our faith. It is essential to the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so, when we encounter the refugee, the immigrant, the sojourner, let us remember that it is then that we encounter the Christ.