Sermon: "The Refugee God," January 1, 2017

Christmas 1/Epiphany, January 1, 2017
Sermon: “”
Preacher: Rev. Karen Hollis
Scripture: Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23

I met Pastor Ryan about 2 years ago over skype when I took over for him as campus minister at UBC. We continue to communicate mostly by skype . . . meeting in person is a bonus! The student group I now lead puts a huge emphasis on Bible study and we study a book of the Bible at a time, taking on 2-3 chapters each week – over the fall they decided to dig into Genesis: creation, family stories, betrayal and hardship, generations of brokenness interspersed with generations of healing, and redemption that comes years later. I found in Genesis values of redemption and reconciliation I had only ever associated with God known specifically in Jesus. We often long for immediate answers to injustice or clear answers to complicated situations, crying out, how can we meet all the need in the world? Our need is so great! But while Genesis does set an expectation that God will heal and redeem our lives, it doesn’t say everything will be fixed overnight, rather affirms the way in which God acts over time and through humanity to bring about God’s kingdom. God works through betrayals, like Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery (Joseph, son of Jacob – not to be confused with Joseph, spouse of Mary . . . we’ll get to them soon enough). God works through betrayals, like Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, through Joseph’s ability to hear God speaking through dreams, which ultimately gives Joseph power in Pharaoh’s court, setting him up to save the Israelites from starvation during the 7 year famine. So, because Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, Joseph was ultimately able to use his gifts of interpreting dreams, problem solving and leadership to save his people from starvation. When Joseph’s brothers come to Pharaoh’s court for food and encounter Joseph unaware, the family begins a long process of reconciliation. You see, God had made a promise to Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham, “[God] brought [Abraham] outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then [God] said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be . . . ’ as numerous as the stars. God is always faithful and God showed up in Joseph’s situation to do something far bigger and greater than anyone imagined, and saved God’s people in a remarkable way. When Genesis concludes, Joseph’s family has settled in Egypt with plenty of food, resources and wealth, but in the beginning of Exodus, we learn that in a new generation of Israelites and Egyptians, their special relationship has deteriorated into a state of slavery for the Israelites. Egypt is both a place of salvation and enslavement. Again, God is faithful and shows up through the life of Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom.

Our text this morning comes from Matthew, the most Jewish of all the gospels and the one most concerned with how the story of Jesus relates to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), so in it you’ll hear about Jesus doing things, thus fulfilling various prophesies found in Hebrew texts. Jesus’ stepfather (let’s call him), also named Joseph, an often-silent character in the story of Jesus, does his duty as leader and protector of the family by following God’s direction and taking them to Egypt, thus fulfilling the scripture referenced from the Genesis/Exodus story. Jesus lives this movement as if he’s a kind of echo of his people or a microcosm of a larger reality. Take the stars, for instance. God speaks to Abraham of a great multitude, too many to count. When Jesus is born there is just one noteworthy star in the sky – an echo of a great many – leading the wise ones, and resting over the place where the baby lay. While God once promised countless descendants, God now promises just one . . . one, who through the works of his life and the words of his mouth exemplifies the God of creation. How do we meet the needs of the world? Through the one who has the power of God in him, who is promised to bring light to all people!

While Egypt ironically now represents safety for Jesus, I wonder what his first few years of life would have been like, growing up in a foreign land . . . that is literally all he would have known, being an outsider, being different, a refugee. It’s not difficult for us to imagine the travel conditions for refugees with their images constantly in the news throughout 2016. They are without belongings, without connections, at the mercy of local hospitality for survival, and then to build a life, however temporary.

James and I are not refugees of the US (though we’ll see what happens under a new administration), but moving just over the border had an enormous impact on our lives. We crossed over the border and were reliant on work permits (and the process of renewal, which I don’t wish on anyone), we knew a precious few people in town and relied on some of their hospitality until we had a place of our own, had to pay countless fees, and oh, the paperwork! I hope Mary & Joseph didn’t have to do paperwork when they went across the border. You have to really want to be Canadian to justify jumping through all the hoops. I’ve never been an immigrant before, but even moving from the Peace Arch into Vancouver we experienced significant culture shock . . . and I grew up in Bellingham! I’ve visited, vacationed in BC more times than I can count, but living here is a lot different than going on vacation. What’s the difference between Canada and the US? Nothing and everything. Both being North American countries, there are basic norms that we all agree to, like we all drive on the same side of the road, the license plates are the same shape, our traffic lights look basically the same. But why do I suddenly have to memorize a license plate that goes number-number-letter-number-letter-letter?? And why do your green lights flash all the time? Green lights don’t flash where we come from. Moving here was like jumping into a sea of subtle disorientation. But moving just across the border from Israel to Egypt is not just a simple border move, it’s a completely new continent.

So, this God of ours who has come in human form is known first as Emmanuel and second as an immigrant, as a refugee. Jesus knows specifically the experience of the displaced and the disadvantaged, because he lived it and stands with all who continue to do so. He has a heart for those babies whose fathers were not fortunate enough to hear the call of danger in the night. How will we meet the needs of the world? With a God who knows through experience what it’s like to be human.

Times have changed, circumstances are different, but just like in the time of Genesis, war is a reality, siblings deceive one another, jealousy gets the better of us, people are sold into slavery, people are displaced and some years are worse than others . . .

I think we need to light some more candles and say some serious prayers of blessing for the upcoming year after the relentless influx of bad news 2016 brought. My facebook feed has been filled with statements like, “2016 can burn in a fire,” “2016 is cursed.” As Americans, the election was a huge piece of what defined our year – and on top of that, there was Syria, multiple terrorist attacks, waterways and pipelines, school shootings and more. Last week Chicago passed the 700 mark for homicides in 2016. 700, that’s the highest in 2 decades. And now the handover of the US presidency has many people in North America and around the world terrified about the future. The world is a mess; we’re a mess. How can we meet all the need in the world? Well, we can’t.

          The Apostle Paul wrote many times about Jesus as our connection to God’s covenant with Abraham – if we believe in the power of God through Jesus, that power will move through us to facilitate healing in the world. . . . it’s a tough concept for us Uniteds to wrap our minds around . . . it was for the disciples, too. When Jesus sent them out for the first time to heal on their own, they had to wrap their minds around this idea that the power of Jesus is larger than what he can do directly, that the power is accessible to those who believe in him. Even those who knew Jesus were sceptical – they had to experience it for themselves to believe it. I’m the same way – James will tell you I don’t believe anything until I experience it for myself. This is our work as disciples of Jesus, to learn the stories of those who knew him, those who came before him, and after him; to pray for wisdom through those stories to guide us; our work is to believe more, experience more of God, to believe God is capable of more, we’re capable of more, and do something about it together. There is so much need in the world . . . and the only answer is God, who is powerful enough to meet the need, God who knows our need first hand, God who birthed healing and reconciliation into the world.

 Rev. Karen Hollis is Campus Minister for the United Church of Canada at the University of British Columbia.

Rev. Karen Hollis is Campus Minister for the United Church of Canada at the University of British Columbia.