Isaiah 60; Matthew 2: 1-15
For the last few years Todd and I and the girls have gone to the airport right after Christmas in order to spend time with his family. It’s a crazy time to travel, so we try to make it easy on our-selves by packing as lightly as we can, wearing shoes that can slip on and off, limiting any liquids we need to bring on the plane, etc. etc. but there are always things that are difficult to plan for— longer than expected lines, my kids freaking out at the security dog standing idly by, snacks they decide they don’t like, planes that don’t take off on time. But every time, even with the craziness of it all, I get excited about it, because I’m going somewhere I want to go and I know I can return when I want to return.
The first time I really realized the privilege I had was when I was traveling with my friend Janak. Janak is from India and we were traveling as a group in South Africa. We wanted to just hop over the border in Swaziland, take a few pictures in the national park, and come back. But Janak couldn’t go. He had a visa in which he could enter the country once and once only. If he was to leave for any reason—even for ten minutes— he wouldn’t be able to get back in. So the other car went to the national park, and ours drove on, with me realizing I had privileges I never even realized.
And it’s not just travel that’s a privilege, it’s also a privilege to stay. Did you know that 65.6 million people were forced to leave their homes in 2016? 22.5 million of them are refugees. They had to leave because of war or famine or because of natural disasters. 65.6 million people who most likely had stability at one time, and then found themselves leaving the only place they’d ever known, to travel on— hoping to be welcomed. Perhaps if this was a new phenomena, we as Christians could put up our hands and say we’re not sure what to do about it all; but the truth is, the Bible has a ton to say about welcoming the stranger.
In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah welcomed strangers who dropped in by making them a feast and only later realize that they were angels in disguise. In Exodus the people are instructed, even when they get to the promised land, that they need to remember that they were once strangers, and that they’re responsibility is to welcome the strangers in their midst. In Leviticus 19:33-34, God tells the people, “The alien who resides with you is to be like a citizen. Love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
I could go on and on and on. How fitting this morning, that Mary and Joseph are told in a dream to go to Egypt too— the place where their ancestors had once been aliens; slaves; unwelcome. And yet they go hoping to find safety, security, and shelter for their new little baby, Jesus. They don’t have a choice. They were told to go to Bethlehem by their own government in a vulnerable time for their family, and now they are fleeing to Egypt— refugees from a ruler who finds them threatening. Rename Mary and Joseph, and they could be any number of refugees today— running not because of anything they have done, but because the people in power choose to use their power to create fear and devastation rather than unity and peace.
In southern Germany, in a little place called Wiesloch, the people of the United Methodist church are working to create a welcoming environment for the hundreds of refugees who have moved in. They have created schools to teach them the language; they have welcomed them with open arms and helped them find resources for food, jobs, and transportation. It’s not easy, by any means, but there really isn’t a clearer message in the Bible: it’s what they know Christ would do.
In Ephesians 2:19 we are told that we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens of the household of God. In Corinthians and Romans Paul writes that we are one body— and while he had no idea how big our world is— to him the whole world was the world around the Mediterra-nean Sea— I don’t think he would say anything different today. How we treat one another, how we welcome one another, makes an incredible difference in our own health as citizens of the world.
We all know that this story we read this morning, this story that happened over two thousand years ago, is still happening each and every day. And even when our governments make good decisions— I applaud the decision that the St. Cloud City Council made last month to make this a Welcoming City— it is up to us as citizens to create the community we want to see. You and I can make sure the wider St. Cloud region is a kind and generous place.
Just recently I read that so often we get it the message of Christianity backwards. We think wehave to save the world and God will make it more kind. At Christmas, with the story of God coming to earth in Jesus Christ—we see that in fact we don’t have to save the world at all. But it is perfectly within our call as Christians and our grasp as citizens of the world, to make this community more kind— to reach out to those who are new among us— no matter where they are from— and to make people feel welcome and a vital part of our community. We can, like those unnamed people who helped Mary and Joseph along the way, reach out in small and big ways to make sure that all children feel safe even when they are away from home, know love even when their extended family is far away, and learn to trust in God and in the followers of Jesus as we extend our reach to care for those whom God loves.
In that United Methodist Church in Wiesloch, Germany, it is not uncommon for refugees to come to worship since many of the volunteers at the shelter are from that congregation and let people know they will be welcome. One Sunday a woman and her daughter from Pakistan came for worship and then came forward for communion. They received the juice and the bread, and then, in the tradition of that congregation, joined hands with everyone else around the table for a final blessing. That woman and her daughter may have felt like strangers at first, but through the sacrament and through the blessing, it became clear to all that we are all united at this table. No one is a stranger. No one has more rights than others. No one has to leave for fear of being kicked out. All are welcome because we are all citizens of God’s household. May we take the time, the patience, and the persistence that is needed to make this church and this wider com-munity a place of welcome, a place of kindness, for all.