Attention to the Details: A New Years Sermon on being a refugee

Synopsis: meaning of life is found in the details.

Scripture: Matthew 2 The Massacre of the Innocents
uncited, unedited by J. Lavoy

Our scripture for today is difficult. In most nativity scenes, the imagery from today is often called The Flight to Egypt. However, in most scripture commentaries, its called The Massacre of the Innocents.

I’ve always wanted to believe about myself, that I’m a brave preacher. I want to believe that I’m able to be prophetic in and around a community of people with whom I live and love. And yet, my initial inclination was not to preach on this text. I said to Karen, “you know, it doesn’t really feel like a New Years text, maybe we should omit it this year.” Was that a cop-out, or was it sincere?

This terrible text – about King Herod’s maniacal attempt to eliminate Jesus, by killing every toddler boy in the region ­– is one of the darkest, I think, in the New Testament. If we use our empathy skills, we might be incapacitated for a time.

Truth be told, this text comes up each and every year, on the first Sunday after Christmas. Usually, the first Sunday after Christmas is two or three days after Christmas Eve, and church attendance is down. I think the people who planned the lectionary knew this. Usually, on the first Sunday after Christmas, we have a hymn sing.

But as I sat with this text over the past few weeks, I had a few insights.

Now, I want to be clear. I’m not doing this text any justice today. I’m going to use it as a sermon illustration for New Years Day, rather than deal with the brutality of it.

There is a controversy brewing. It’s a pedantic controversy, but some people are up in arms about it, nonetheless. It is worth pointing out that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived in the Roman province of Syria. It was a large geographic area that spanned several modern Middle Eastern countries. But you remember the scripture, that Laurie so beautifully read on Christmas eve… While Quirinius was governor of Syria… Its geo-politically situating Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Syria. Now, the prefect for the particular region in which Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived was named Herod, and he obsessively held on to his rule, as essentially mid-level bureaucrat in the Roman Empire. He had heard, from the 3 sages, that a new king was to be born, Jesus. So Herod ordered all the toddler boys in his jurisdiction to be killed. According to scripture, Joseph was warned in a dream, to flee the area. So, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus quickly go to Egypt, where they will be safe. This makes Mary, Joseph, and Jesus Syrian refugees, and the idea has been circulating, in order to draw attention to the plight of present Syrian refugees.

There are three components to the scripture lesson for today. The first movement describes Herod’s decision; the second movement describes Joseph taking his family to Egypt, and the third movement describes, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returning to Israel, and taking up residence in Nazareth which is where historical Jesus scholars believe Jesus actually lived: a tiny town, in the middle of nowhere, with some proximity to Jerusalem.

It’s a compelling narrative, I think. But where is the New Years message in it?

Well, at Christmas and the New Year, I think we have a tendency to fixate on the positive things in life. And that’s a fine impulse. For many, it is a joyful time of year.

But I know you, and I love you. I have heard many of your stories, and I treasure them. I know that our lives are not black and white, but hues of many colours. In each of our lives, there are moments of great joy, and profound sadness. Anger, resentment, and healing. Connectedness and isolation.

But as we navigate through our challenges and our joys, I wonder, what is it that brings our attention to each moment?

I believe our life is to be found in the details: cooking and preparing; building and dreaming; cups of coffee and conversation.

You’ll pardon me if this all sounds so hokey, and I am a lover of tradition, but I think the ball dropping on New Years Eve is hokey. We are all so desparate for profound signs that we miss the Holy Spirit working in our midst. When we grieve, we want all of our pain taken away. When we are joyful, we want a huge display. But the mystery is found in between.

Mary gave birth in an unknown place, in uncomfortable conditions. She traveled many, many miles with a newborn to a foreign land, because her husband had a vision of terror. She set up a home in Egypt, and then she returned right back to Nazareth, where she made a new home.

I can’t imagine that Mary was thrilled by these things, but I do believe she found peace, by preparing food and nourishing; by holding her loving family together amid very unlovable situations.

I imagine that Joseph felt incredibly vulnerable. I imagine he felt homesick, and thought, “this is not how I imagined my life to go…” but he found peace by making sure that Mary and Jesus were cared for.

Perhaps you can identify with some of this in your own life.

I offer a quote from the theologian Barbara Brown-Taylor:

To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—
these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require
is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of
pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet                     these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and
sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where
faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that
faith is a way of life.
(an altar in the world)

As I contemplated Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as Syrian refugees, and I thought about what helped them to find purpose and meaning amid the challenging and constantly changing circumstances they found themselves in, I wondered about Syrian refugees here in Canada. A cursory google demonstrated, that once basic needs were met, the way in which Syrian people felt at home in Canada, was by doing basic things with great love.

In nearly every city I looked up  – Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg – there has been a concerned effort for long-time Canadians to gather with Syrians and cook. Here is a picture from Winnipeg. Refugees cooking and sharing food with Canadians.

We don’t create a home or a future or a life together through grand, sweeping programs and projects. The ball dropping in times square does not enable our New Years Resolutions. Instead, the meaning and purpose found in life, is through the little things we do together. Mary and Joseph preparing dinner for their newborn. Residents and refugees preparing a meal of understanding together.

As you go about your preparations for this New Year, may you find hope in the details.