We do love this story, don’t we? We hear it every Epiphany, which technically is Wednesday, but which we’re celebrating today. It’s the story about the magi following a star, finding the child to whom the star points them, and paying him homage. Honoring him.
They honor him, but notice they don’t worship him. These adherents of another faith–likely Zoroastrians–journey for up to two years to honor a small Jewish baby, then take another two years to return home to their own country. They don’t experience conversion; they simply go on pilgrimage, offer their gifts, then return home.
It’s a good story…and a great example of interfaith engagement, of showing profound respect for people of another faith. But it’s not the whole story.
In the usual narrative flow of the season, we go straight from Epiphany to Jesus’ baptism. When we do that, though, we miss a lot. Listen.
The Escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15)
Now after the magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
The Massacre of the Infants (Matthew 2:16-18)
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
The Return from Egypt (Matthew 2:19-23)
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
Truly a tale of terror…one that might resonate with what our sisters and brothers in Syria have been experiencing the past several years—people doing whatever they can to keep their families safe…even when it means heading to one place, only to be turned away and have to flee again and again and again because of more and more violence.
In patriarchal cultures–like most Middle Eastern cultures are–it’s the husband and father who heads the household. Care for the entire family falls on him. The weight of that responsibility when there is no place to go, when there is no home to be had–I wonder what that stress is doing to all the Syrian fathers trying to find safety for their families? The image of that father selling pens, holding his little girl–the anguish on his face–speaks to the heartbreak of so many fathers trying to care for their families at any cost.
I’m grateful to Keith for singing “Joseph’s Lullaby” again this morning. So much of the Christmas story focuses on Jesus and Mary. Joseph always seems to get shoved to the margins of the story. But when you read all of Matthew 2, you see that Joseph, too, was determined to do whatever it took to keep his family safe. …which meant going from region to region, town to town until he found a place that would welcome him and his family. That place? Nazareth.
In a different telling of Jesus’ story–the Gospel of John–a disciple named Philip talks to his friend Nathaneal about a prophet who comes from Nazareth. Nathaneal responds: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Reading Matthew 2 and hearing of all the travails of one refugee family and knowing that their arduous journey ended when the people of Nazareth welcomed them in? If Nathaneal had known that back story, I don’t think he would have asked the question. Because a town that welcomes a family beaten down by a life on the run? That’s a place that’s going to raise up some mighty fine people.
The Syrian refugee crisis remains dire. Some countries have extended welcome quickly and confidently—Germany, Ireland, Canada. Other countries—like our own—have been slower to extend a hand of hospitality. Regardless of how any of us feels about whether or not we should receive Syrian refugees and, if so, how many and by what process, none of us can deny that this moment is calling all the world’s countries to ask if we will extend the same kind of hospitality the Nazoreans did with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Will we also welcome refugees?
Of course, welcoming refugees isn’t as easy as that question makes it sound. There rightly is a regulated process for receiving refugees. But there also is a processing of preparing ourselves—our thoughts, our hearts—to receive refugees. It’s not just a matter of persuading our elected officials to make the right call with welcoming refugees, writing letters, making phone calls, that sort of thing.
As important as that work is, an equally important part of the process is searching our own minds and hearts, and cultivating in them an informed and authentic hospitality. One step in that searching process in the current refugee crisis is learning what we can about Islam.
Many of my colleagues have taken presidential candidates to task for their calls for registering Muslims, barring immigration of any adherents of the Islamic faith. I haven’t said a lot because I honestly can’t believe people believe any of that extremist talk. Do I really need to say that what those politicians are espousing is ignorant, evil, un-American, un-Christian and—in some cases, perhaps—actionable? If I do, let me go on record as saying that registering people of any faith, barring immigrants because of their faith, advocating the use of firearms against people because of their faith—it’s ignorant, evil, un-American, un-Christian, and—in some cases, perhaps—actionable.
Writing letters is important. Making statements like I just made, that’s important, too. But when I think about those folks in Nazareth who welcomed a frightened, weary family into their community, I’m aware that writing letters and making statements isn’t enough. If we are to live our community life with integrity, if we are to live out our faith in authentic ways, if we are to do our part creating the world God is hoping for, we’ve got to start right here where we are.
So, what might we do? How might we begin to counter all the anti-Muslim rhetoric happening these days? The best way to counter mis-information is to share correct information. So, maybe a good place to begin is learning more about Islam. What better way to do that than to spend time with friends who are Muslim?
We’ve got two opportunities coming up to do just that—one this afternoon, and one on February 7. This afternoon and this week, some women from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community will help us serve meals to our Family Promise guests. The one time Mahmooda and her crew weren’t able to help out, their presence was sorely missed!
A couple of weeks ago, ten of us attended a prayer vigil and information session at Ahmadiyya Community in Norcross. Our own Julie Binney spoke at the event about our work together in Family Promise. At that event, Mahmooda’s husband, Nafis, offered to come meet with us sometime. We’ve cleared our schedules. On February 7, Nafis, Mahmooda, and hopefully some other people from their community will come share with us in a time of fellowship and learning.
I don’t know where any of this will lead—that’s part of the fun of being on a journey!—but in this season of rampant Islamophobia, learning more from our friends who are Muslim seems like the next logical step. Once we meet together, I suspect the next steps after that will become clear.
On sunny days at certain times of the year, we call this area (by the kitchen) the “Road to Damascus” section. Often you’ll see people wearing sunglasses to help cut the glare of the sun. We got the phrase from the story in Acts 9 about Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a Jew who was systematically destroying Christians. On the road to Damascus, he experienced a bright light. A voice from the light asked Saul why he was persecuting his followers. In that moment, Saul became Paul and began following Jesus. It was a moment of conversion.
A couple of weeks ago, it struck me that Damascus is in Syria. On my first trip to the Middle East, we flew from Frankfurt into Damascus. I think of the Umayyad Mosque, of our bus driver Walid, who since has had to immigrate to Sweden. I think of this Qu’ran I bought in the Suq in Damascus. I think of the wonderful meal we had at a venerable restaurant in the city. I remember posters of Hafez al-Assad plastered on everything. I think now of the city as little more than heaping piles of rubble.
We’ve used the “road to Damascus” as a playful metaphor, likening our experience of being blinded by the light with Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Perhaps now when we look to this section and see the glare, we might think of those who have been forced to travel the road from Damascus, those refugees who have gone from place to place looking for a community to welcome them.
And as we think of those frightened, weary people, let us also remember those folks in first century Nazareth who extended hospitality to a frightened, weary family. Let us learn from them how we might extend hospitality to frightened, weary families looking for a community to welcome them. Who knows? We might just experience an epiphany of our own.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2016