Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
We live in a time of great darkness. In our country, the desire of our president to build bigger and more impenetrable walls around us has led to an impasse among our leaders and the shutdown of services and jobs needed by thousands of people. Many long for honest conversation and work on immigration reform that will provide security and provide compassionate response to the very human needs of feeling safe from violence, war, and poverty. Since the beginning of this country, people have come from faraway places seeking a new start, the possibility of hope for a better future for themselves and their children, a place where with hard work and creativity a life can be forged that is free from tyranny and oppression and blessed with the opportunity to make of yourself what God intends.
But across our world there is a rising tide of fierce tribalism and hatred of those who are seen as other. Refugees and immigrants, fleeing for their lives are being turned away, allowed to drown off shore, forced to live in camps that are filthy and grossly under resourced, making them uninhabitable particularly for the youngest of these who are fleeing for their lives.
Our own country is experiencing a crisis—not one as described by our leaders—but one where efforts directed exclusively at keeping people out rather than responding with reason and compassion has led to the deaths of children and a mounting flood of suffering as thousands of men, women, and children gather on both sides of our southern border hoping to apply for asylum.
In the New York Review of Books, in an article entitled “Has any one of us wept?” Frances Cantu says, ‘The dehumanizing tactics and rhetoric of war have created a zone where some of the most vulnerable people on earth are shown in countless ways the message, “You are not safe here, you are not welcome.” He says, “The true crisis at our border is not one of surging crossings or growing criminality, but of our own increasing disregard for human life.”
At a migrant shelter near the Mexican border, three girls from Guatemala—sisters aged 10, 9, and 6 cling to their teddy bears and a large bottle of Pedialyte to soothe their dehydration and flu. Their mother says that they got sick during the 12 days they spent at two crowded government detention centers. “It was very cold, especially for the children,” she said. “My children got sick. They gave us aluminum blankets, but it wasn’t enough.”
A border security network built over a period of decades to handle large numbers of single men has in the past several years been inundated with women and children, and as the number of families has peaked in recent months, the system has been unable to accommodate them. One example is The Annunciation House, a nonprofit shelter in El Paso, Texas that is now receiving roughly 200 new migrants a day, the same number it saw in an entire week only a year ago. The number of migrants traveling as families crossing the border from Mexico exceeded 25,000 in November, the highest number ever recorded. Our efforts to simply frighten the people into staying away, is not working. Tear gas, concrete walls, even family separation will not stop people from seeking hope. Because as Warsan Shire says in her poem Home:
“no one leaves home unless it is the mouth of a shark, you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well, your neighbors running faster than you, breath bloody in their throats… you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.”
Today is the feast of the Epiphany. The 12thday of Christmas where we remember the visit of the Wise Men who bring gifts to honor the baby born in a simple place in Bethlehem. The wise men or Magi, from a distant land have studied the stars and because of their faithfulness and discipline have noticed a particular star that they believe indicates that a king has been born. Many Christmas cards feature a bright star hovering over the holy family, but Matthew’s story suggests otherwise. Only the Magi notice the star among the thousands of others visible on a clear night. King Herod’s dependence on the visitors to lead him to the child indicates that neither he nor his assassins could follow the star without help.
And even these wise men almost missed God entering the world. They believed that a king would be born in a palace. So they go to Jerusalem and inquire of the reigning King Herod to show them to the new born king that they may honor him. This question causes fear for King Herod and as we hear “for all Jerusalem with him.” It is only through the intervention of the chief priests and scribes that the correct location is identified in Scripture. King Herod implores the visitors from afar to come back and tell him where this newborn king can be found so he too can go and pay him homage. But the story tells us that once the Magi find the child and his mother and present their gifts, they are “warned in a dream not to return to Herod, (and so) they leave for their own country by another road.”
This is where our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew ends today. But it is not the end of Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth. For you see, when Herod realizes that the Magi have not returned with the desired information, his murderous impulse to protect his power at all cost sets in and he sends his soldiers, not to seek out the new born child to pay him honor, but to kill him and all other children under the age of 2. Rather than lingering to ponder the wonder of the visit from the Magi, Mary and Joseph must flee for their lives to escape the infanticide and become refugees in Egypt, the land that enslaved their ancestors.
If we stop with the 12thverse, we do not clearly see that the Epiphany—the revealing of the Messiah—which is what Epiphany means—is more than just the recognition of the birth of Messiah by people who study the rhythm of the universe. Matthew is telling a more complicated story. In Matthew’s story, the Messiah is recognized by both the Magi who bring gifts and by Herod who brings death. The baby we remember and celebrate at Christmas is born into a world of brutality that does not cease with his birth.
Messiah enters the world– and his family in the tiny town of Bethlehem suffers violence and murder. The story told in Matthew knows this, and brings the Messiah right into the middle of it all. In Matthew’s story, Messiah is not with us as a worldly power figure suffused with riches, or seemingly invincible as a conquering hero. Instead God is with us as a neighbor who loses a child to Herod’s insane attack. God is with us in the midst of terror and pain and struggle.
In a hymn that is familiar to me from my childhood, O Holy Night, the lyrics say,
O holy night the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
These times can leave us weary, exhausted, drained. We can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the daily news of the atrocities humans commit toward all God has so graciously and lovingly created. Our world is weary with it all and words often fail us. When we do not know what to say, we remember that our silence carries with it prayers too deep for words. We give expression to God’s tears and God’s compassion. And we remember that it was into our world of darkness and violence that God chose to come to be with us.
We are members of a community that believes in the constancy of God. We are a community that believes in unexpected goodness and miracles breaking out in the most unexpected places and from the most unexpected people. We don’t know what will be. We do not get to choose when we were born nor where we will die. We don’t know the future. But we can live in the hope of God who is always present and invites us to join in love.
Our story is not a story of human triumph, but a story of God who through ordinary human beings brings about unexpected miracles, implausible outcomes, improbable second chances. We are people who God continually uses to bring hope, to shine light, to hold each other’s hand, to bear witness and accompany. Because God is with us right in all the weariness of the world, because God chose to come and be among us, we know that what is now, is not what always has to be and what will be.
Over Advent a group of Episcopal church leaders traveled on pilgrimage to the U.S./Mexican border. There they prayed, they met with religious leaders on the front line of this extremely divisive human issue not to engage in political action, protests, or service projects. They went to meet with those seeking asylum, with fellow Christians and other people of faith responding to the crisis; to learn from them, to pray with them, and to listen as to how to be of support. They went out of care; to bear witness to God’s call to seek the face of Christ in all persons, to offer reconciling love for our brothers and sisters caught in this cruel web of exile. They went because they knew that is where God would be.
Today is the day we celebrate the birthday of Grace Church: an Episcopal community in the Southern Berkshires. For six years we have not owned a building, but we have laid claim to a mission to try to follow God wherever we are led in the world. This has led us to commit our love and our resources to a small garden, named after the Rev. Gideon Bostwick, where we are able to partner with local farmers to nurture young people and feed those who are hungry. It has led us to continue our feeding through the Lee Food Pantry, where people in need are greeted with a smile, welcomed by name, asked about their families, and given multiple bags of groceries that will hopefully provide them with enough food for the week. We have partnered with our brothers and sisters who are immigrants to this country—some who are citizens and some who are dreaming of and working towards citizenship. Together with the Berkshire Immigrant Center, the Literacy Network of the Berkshires, and a group of faith leaders and non-profit agency members called BASIC (“Berkshires Advocacy and Support for the Immigrant Community”) we extend compassion, and support to those who long to find peace in a weary world.
Until all God’s children can go to bed at night with full stomachs; until all God’s children can find love and safety in their homes and neighborhoods; until all God’s children seeking peace are greeted with welcome, clothing and meals, we return for solace and strength to this manger, seeking the Messiah who came to be with us in a brutal world showing us the way to keep our eyes and our hearts open to God who leads us in the way of love.
No manger is too rough for the tenderness of God.
No threat of Herod too awful,no poverty too dire
for God to come and be at risk for sheer love of being with us.
No darkness is too deep, no banality unworthy,
no failure too utter for God; God’s love is more utter.
We, the flesh of God’s Word, can’t be without.