January 3, 2016

Church of Peace, UCC

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

John1:9-18, Matthew 2:1-15

Introduction to the Scripture

Today we come here perched on the cusp of a new year. You may have your two thousand sixteen all planned, or maybe not. You might have goals, and resolutions, the conviction that “This will be the year…” or maybe not.

Friends, there is so much about two thousand sixteen we don’t know. Chances are, this year there will be people we love who get born and people we love who die. Some of us in this room might move into a new home, or get into a car accident, or adopt a cat, or meet the person who changes our life forever. You can bet that our lives will be changed by the events of this year, but how exactly, I don’t know…

It is in this place all charged up with possibility that we’ll hear part of the poem which introduces the Gospel of John and paints the mystery of the incarnation. Jesus was a stranger to the world; the world did not know him. In him, the word of God became flesh and lived among us. No one knows what will happen this year. No one has ever seen God. We bump into the truth that we just don’t know. But if you want to see God, you can see Christ, you can see the people who show up in the wild bearing the very light of God in their being.

There’s a saying about writing, but I think it also applies to faith. It’s like driving at night… You can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.[1] It is okay to not know, and yet, this can be really hard for us. It is okay to find ourselves on a journey we never meant to take, and yet, who would sign up for that?

We live in a culture that values having information and being in control. We live in a culture that values being established, trusting the business that has been in the same spot for twenty-five years. There’s a tendency to look with skepticism upon those who move around a lot. And there’s something appealing about being in a position where you can settle in and put down roots. Whether it’s a neighborhood, or a routine, or a hotel room after a long day, we understand the longing to settle in and stay for a while.

But what if life won’t let us settle down in one spot? Or worse, or better, what if our faith comes to light in those wild regions of transition? All through the Bible, that seems to be the case. Remember the Israelites leaving Egypt. They followed God into the wilderness, the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Remember when they were taken from their homes, taken into captivity by the Babylonians, then remember when they came back to start over.

The stories of our faith come from the wilderness between heaven and earth, as though there is something we need to learn from those travelers, fugitives, and refugees— something we can only learn from the place of being forced out, then what… Remember to love the widow, and the orphan, and the stranger, because we were strangers once, all of us (Deuteronomy 10:19).

As we hear the scriptures, I invite you to consider two things. First, in your own life, how have you been unable to settle, forced out and made to go on a journey you never signed up for? Second, what can we learn from our sisters and brothers on the road?

Blessing be upon our reading and hearing of this word.

Reflection on the Scripture: Needing A Place to Sleep

Today in our scripture from Matthew, we remember the story of the Magi, astrologers from the East who have come to bring gifts to the Messiah. This is clearly not the story of silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. This is a trek through the wild with unsettling twists and turns.

Right away, they show up in Jerusalem at the palace of King Herod who assembles a council to study the scriptures. (It’s what you had to do in the days before google.) The priests and scribes advise Herod to check out Bethlehem, and being crafty and clever, he enlists the Magi to go to Bethlehem, find the baby, then come back and report where he is, “so I can pay him homage too,” he says.

The Magi are getting played, but they go on to Bethlehem and stop at the house where the star stops overheard. There’s a baby in that house, and they are overwhelmed with joy. You can bet they are overwhelmed with exhaustion, and I’m guessing Mary and Joseph gave them a place to sleep. That’s the thing about traveling, you’ll always need a safe place to sleep.

There in the place between heaven and earth, in their dreaming, the Magi were warned to go back a different way and Don’t tell Herod where the baby is! Some time after they left, the angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him, “You have to leave right now. Take the baby and his mother and flee to Egypt. Don’t even wait until morning!”

So here we are: forced out, uncertain about what the coming weeks will bring, our human vulnerability fully exposed, entrusted with the care of a baby. What if this is exactly the place to hear the Gospel? In between heaven and earth. In between leaving home in a hurry and needing a place to sleep.

A few months ago, I read an account chronicling the story of a twenty-four-year-old law student named Ghaith, who was risking his life to get out of Syria.[2] If he stayed in Syria, he would be conscripted to join the army. In his words, “The thing that frightened me most was that I would become a victim of the civil war—or, even worse, a killer in it.” Both his wife and his mother pressed him to leave Syria and go live with his brother in Europe.

Of course if you’re a Syrian citizen these days, moving to Europe is not easy. First he tried unsuccessfully to get a visa. Next he planned to apply for asylum, but that meant he had to get to Europe. His family paid a smuggler who supplied him with a fake passport, but the airport officials identified the passport as fake and sent him to jail for six days. Ghaith was returned to Syria and banned from entering Lebanon.

Things had become more dangerous in Syria. He saw his friends from law school, fleeing, or being imprisoned, or worse. This time, he flew to Turkey and paid a smuggler for passage on a “boat” to Greece, but the boat fell apart in the water, sending its passengers swimming back to Turkey. After another trip by bus and by raft, Ghaith made it to Greece. Then his journey continued through Serbia, Hungary, Austria until eventually, he reached his brother in Sweden.

In reading about his journey, two things made an impression on me. First, I was struck by the physical demands involved with this kind of travel. This may have been a spiritual journey for Ghaith. Certainly it was mentally exhausting, and terrifying, and wrapped up in the grief of leaving behind  his home and his family. But his body paid a cruel price along the way.

He saw other refugees burning off their fingertips with cigarettes so they couldn’t be fingerprinted. He got seasick being pressed into the tiny boat that broke in the water. On the train to Belgrade, he and his friends had to ride squished in the train’s bathroom. And you can bet there was not much sleep to be had!

When Ghaith arrived in Greece, he did manage to get a nap on the floor of a shelter that used to be a swimming pool. He said, “For the first time in years, I knew I could sleep without waking up with sweats from fear. No bomb could fall on my head, no one would try to take me. In Europe, it’s better to sleep for two hours than to sleep for fifty hours in Syria.”

The second thing that impressed me was the terrific number of people who helped him along the way and whom he helped. Traveling exposes our human vulnerability. People on the road are at the mercy of the conditions and of each other. Ghaith befriended another refugee in Turkey, and they relied on social media apps which act like modern-day Underground Railroad conductors directing refugees to safe places and advising them when to hide.

On the first boat, Ghaith found himself helping a pregnant woman and her toddler Fayez. Later in Greece, a Dutch couple broke the law to give this woman and child a ride. All along the way, strangers took great risk in helping the refugees. There was the police officer who pointed them in the right direction and the elderly Greek woman who gave them apricots. All along the way, the people kept saving each other’s lives.

I mean, can you imagine being smuggled as a little child, forced on this journey because the risk of dying out here is more desirable than the certainty of dying at home, because this is exactly what happened to God.

The travelers teach us there are always angels out in the wilderness. Maybe not everyone you come upon, but there are always angels who will interrupt your dreams, and lead you by the right road, and break the law to give you a ride to the shelter. Grace upon grace.

And so the word becomes flesh and lives among us. And no one has ever seen God. Except we have, in Jesus. Except we have, in each other. Except we never would have seen each other if we had never left home in the first place.

It may be the truth that we are unable to settle down and stay in one spot undisturbed. Life has a way of disrupting that particular agenda. But maybe the truth is even better. Maybe we are unwilling to settle, and give up, and risk missing out on the mystery. Friends, there’s a star to follow, and a baby to find, and people all along the way who need our help, and we can’t do that by settling in one spot forever. God is on the move. And so are we.

Traveling mercy be upon us all. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/E._L._Doctorow

[2] “Ten Borders: The Perilous Odyssey of a Syrian Refuge” by Nicholas Schmidle. The New Yorker, October 26, 2015, pages 42-53.

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