30 December 2018
Matthew 2, Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs
This story we tell each year about Joseph, Mary and Jesus, rescued by a dream from the slaughter of the innocents and taking a refugee journey into Egypt, invites a moment to reflect on theodicy—the question of how a good God lets bad things happen. What about all the other babies in Bethlehem who were under 2 years of age and whose parents had no warning? Were they simply forgotten?
I remind you that these biblical accounts were written years after the actual events of the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s story about Jesus shares the typology of the birth story of the prophet Moses. Moses was also rescued as a baby. He was launched in a basket to escape the killing of babies during the Egyptian captivity of Israel.
Matthew’s gospel has the magi visiting the infant Christ from far away, as ones without any biblical or theistic training that might have prompted them. They followed the star and found a baby. The Magi represent ultra-Gentiles, ones who have no connection to historical Jewish traditions. Their visit sets the stage from the beginning of the story, that Jesus is God’s revelation to the whole world. Any dividing walls between cultures and races are already breaking down.
Borders are huge conflict zones in our world. There are many refugee children and families at our own southern border, fleeing threats of death and other situations in their home countries that are incompatible with their flourishing. They may be there because of a dream they have dreamed of peace and safety, like the narrator of our story, Stepping Stones and like Jesus’ family.
The bible doesn’t tell us what the journey to Egypt was like; whether Joseph used the gold from the Magi to pay a coyote to help them on their way; if they continued to have trouble finding accommodations; whether they found jobs or had challenges with the language or had to live in the shadows.
So, what about our children, relatively safe here in Ashland? How do we make sense of why some children in the world are endangered and others spared? Why do some seem to be forgotten? And how is it all connected?
There are many reasons people are migrating today, many reasons some children’s lives are in danger. In Central America, in addition to interventionist US policy and the struggle of the campesinxs for land, drought has impacted the ability of people to farm.
The United Nations has said that by the year 2050 we can expect that over 200 Million people will be migrating due to climate change related reasons, a very important challenge for us all.
Meanwhile, I got email this week urging me to send money to support the OFFICIAL BUILD THE WALL MEMBERSHIP, launching “the most important membership program ever.” This invitation (signed by Donald Trump) explained that “This is a fight between the rule of law versus open borders. This is a fight between hard-working Americans versus illegal immigrants.”
I’m just not seeing it that way. I’m seeing the God-story where those who crossed borders were wise and were part of the solution that kept at least one baby safe. Perhaps there were many others invited who were just too busy to make the trip. Throughout history, border crossing often enriches and expands our cultures and traditions, and we affirm in this church that the message of love and welcome Jesus proclaimed crosses all boundaries.
Bur where is God for those who feel forgotten? The best I can tell, God shows up in bodies. Even as we sing “Oh, come, Immanuel–God with us”, we affirm that God arrives in human form. So, we pray to a God who we call Sacred Mystery who somehow holds the cosmos and we invite that One to love and heal us in our deepest places. And at the same time, often when we experience God present, it is through the gifts of the natural world and through the efforts of human bodies: the earth that provides nourishment of air and food and beauty, and human bodies that offer love, support healing, distribute food, make just laws, give legal aid, or bring us to safety when risks are too great.
And God is showing up here in the Rogue Valley where many people have offered support to a family seeking asylum from the violence in Guatemala. Lilian and her family know God has not forgotten them because people bring them blankets and toys and food gift cards and take them ice skating and drive them to Portland for court dates.
Some of the refugees in Tijuana know they are not forgotten because there are Lyft drivers who offered them free rides to help them catch the caravan; there are lawyers and law students helping them understand US law for their attempts to gain refugee status; there are UCC ministers performing weddings for migrating couples; and over Christmas, many chefs assembled to create familiar food for those at the border waiting—thousands of Honduran tamales and paella cooked in a specially made 7 foot wide pan.
God is showing up through human effort across borders and throughout the threads of this, our current and local refugee border situation.
Here is a story from our larger UCC church: “Maria worked for years in a professional job in Guatemala, but she faced abuse and threats from her boss. He demanded favors that she refused, and then began to threaten her. As a director, he controlled her job, and he knew that an indigenous woman like Maria had few options.
“The demands became threats, and he threatened not only her job but also her life. Fearful, Maria needed to leave, so she made her way to a border checkpoint, to apply for asylum in the U.S. Maria got in touch with a friend who was part of the Labor Resource Center sponsored by Centreville Immigration Forum…in Virginia…
“When [these sponsors] paid the bond, [Maria] was immediately released and taken to the bus station in the middle of the night without money, food or a warm coat. She began the 54-hour bus trip across the country, happy to be out of detention but unsure about what lay ahead. [These new sponsors] remembered a network of friends across the country, and made phone calls to immigrant-welcoming congregations along the bus route. [A team from] Shadow Rock UCC, Phoenix Ariz., agreed quickly to meet her…prepared with food, a warm coat, and accompaniment to the right bus, just after midnight. In Oklahoma City…a member of Church of the Open Arms UCC, offered an “Open Arms” welcome and helped Maria to manage a bus transfer. Both groups offered Maria use of a cell phone to call her friend in Virginia.
“Finally, on the Thursday before Christmas, Maria arrived in Washington, D.C., welcomed again by…[new] friends from Virginia.
“’I was a stranger, and you welcomed me…’ This is the UCC immigrant-welcoming network, spanning the country, giving welcome in the face of broken immigration policies that keep asylum applicants in detention indefinitely. In this system, most people’s stories are lost, and family separation and abuse are the norm. The network’s hospitality keeps people and hope alive.“
Right here is Ashland there is plenty for us to do. We already helped to defeat Measure 105 so that Oregon remains a Sanctuary state.
In the 80’s, people in this church transported immigrants fleeing the violence in Guatemala and El Salvador as part of the Sanctuary network. Today, we are exploring what sanctuary means for us now and a task force has developed a proposal for how we might become a New Sanctuary Church. At an upcoming quarterly meeting we will have the chance to consider this proposal that will be presented including these objectives:
*Deepen the connection between immigrant and nonimmigrant members and families within UCC Ashland and throughout the broader community.
*Educate ourselves and our community about immigration-related issues.
*Advocate for a fair and humane immigration system.
*Accompany and support immigrants and their families at their request when facing immigration-related hearings and meetings or seeking change in their immigration status.
For Monday, the 14th of January, our friend Lillian is still seeking accompaniment for her court hearing in Portland.
The needs at the border seem to be ongoing and we can always be in contact with our legislators who are making the policies that could move us toward a more just humanity, the shalom world our faith tradition imagines.
I will close with some words of wisdom from Elvia Alvarado, a Guatemalan campesina woman who has been an organizer for many years, educating, protesting, and asking the hard questions about justice in her country. She writes,
“I feel like I know Christ because they talk about him so much in the Bible and everywhere. He was a human being who lived on the earth thousands of years ago. But I don’t feel like I know God. And I must admit that sometimes I wonder if he even exists…I don’t know how the world began, or who made it or anything. Sometimes I think that maybe nobody made it; that it’s just always been here.
“For me what exists is a spirit. What exists is faith and hope. If I’m walking along a mountain road and I’m thirsty but there’s no water around, I say, “God grant me some water so I can quench my thirst.” I have faith that I’ll come across a stream or a spring along the way. And after walking for miles, I finally come upon a stream. I thank God for the water, because what kept me walking all that time was my faith and hope.
“I have this same faith that God will help us win our struggle. I have this faith. And I have hope.”
My hope here at Ashland UCC in this time of radiant darkness, is that our understanding of God and our own call continues to evolve as we follow the light we are given; that we know we are not forgotten and work so that others know that as well; and that we have courage to journey on less traveled roads for the sake of all our children and future generations.