Could Jesus come to Canada as a Refugee?

This is story of what happened after Jesus was born. Imagine Mary and Joseph as new parents—excited to see this new life grow up, wondering what he will become. Imagine them living their lives–struggling as peasants to make ends meet. Imagine them wondering where the next meal will come from. They will get by. Their people always have. Life might be precarious but it isn’t hopeless.

And then there are visitors that come seeking their child. These visitors recognize something Holy and special in the child but they have unintentionally alerted the king to a potential threat. They realize while they are with Mary and Joseph the danger that Jesus is in and so they leave quickly. Mary and Joseph and Jesus have to decide on a moment’s notice what to do next. They could stay where they are and ignore the warning of coming violence or they could pack up and leave. Leaving is the only way to save themselves and their child. Imagine their fear and uncertainty as they left the family and community they knew and headed into the unknown.

They set off on a journey through wilderness and desert probably walking for many weeks and finally arriving in Egypt. The Egyptian people could have chased them out or had them killed. But instead, tradition tells us that Jesus spent his childhood growing up in Egypt. These foreigners found a home. These foreigners maintained their identity and religion in Egypt. The story tells us that Jesus arrived safe and sound at adulthood and was able to return and offer ministry to his people in Israel.

There are other possible endings for this story:

  • Mary and Joseph stay in Bethlehem and Jesus was killed.
  • Mary and Joseph were unwelcome in Egypt and they continued wandering – perhaps dying of thirst in the desert.

In either of these scenarios Jesus would not have grown up and the world would be different because of his absence. This story has something to tell us about the current refugee crisis.

When we think about the refugee crisis around the world, it is easy for us to think politically, practically, financially. We might consider the humanitarian need, worry about our own safety and the identity of our own country. These are all lenses with which to view the crisis but as people of faith there is another lens that we need to keep in mind. How do we view this crisis through a theological lens? What does scripture tell us? What do our ancestors in faith tell us? Our scripture reminds us that Jesus and his family were refugees. Jesus reminds us to love God and to love our neighbours. Jesus reminds us to do to others as we would have done to ourselves. Jesus reminds us that when we care for the most vulnerable among us, we care for him.

refugee 2What would you do if Jesus turned up here tomorrow as a refugee? Would you recognize him? Would you classify him as a terrorist or trouble maker? Would he make the cut to come to Canada? I suspect Jesus would have trouble getting into Canada as a refugee. His skin isn’t white. He isn’t Christian. He’s young. There’s no record of him being married and therefore no children so he’s not a family man. If Jesus can’t make it as a refugee who can?

As we enter the season of Advent preparing for Christ among us, may we be reminded of what it means to receive Christ in this place. May we be bearers of hope in a world filled with hopelessness and fear.

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Choosing love over violence

The book of Hosea uses family images to describe the relationship between the Hebrew people and God. In this particular passage the focus is on God as a parent of a rebellious child. The passage begins with love and protection. God watches this child grow up and learn to walk. God was there through nightmares and illness. God was the one to comfort and feed and play with the child.

As the child grows up, they begin to experiment. This child worships Ba’al and offers incense to idols. In other words, this child that is loved and valued, strays from the way in which they are raised. God is patient and tries everything possible to show the child they are loved, tries to bring the child back, tries to help them heal.

And God, the parent, can see bad things coming because of the choices the child makes. God can see an enemy on the horizon and war waging around them. The survival of the Hebrew people is dependant on returning to God and God’s ways. If the Hebrew people cannot find their way back to God, just like a rebellious teenager, they are in danger of being lost. God can see this child, the Hebrew people crying out in anguish and is helpless to change the course of their life.

And God laments and cries out.

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?”

This lament contains so much more than just lament. Ephraim is used as a name for Israel. According to laws found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 a rebellious and unmanageable child is to be taken to the city gate, where they will be stoned to death. By law, the rebellious child is to be destroyed for the good of the larger community. The references to Admah and Zeboiim are cities that were destroyed in a fire storm along with Sodom and Gomorrah. In this part of the passage, not only does God see disaster looming but God is required by the laws of the Hebrew people to participate in the destruction of a beloved child.

And God can’t do it. God cannot be the bringer of destruction. The thought of destroying a beloved child is repulsive to God. The NRSV translations says, “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” The Inclusive translations says, “My heart is aching within me; I am burning with compassion.” The sense lament and even horror at the violence that is expected comes through in this part of the passage and David Garber writes that “God is moved by compassion to pursue justice by forgiving, not punishing.”

In our own lives it is tempting to want to destroy people who seem to be going in the wrong direction or—at the very least—cause some hurt so they might reconsider their ways. As a child, I can remember more than one fight with my brother where I tried to get him to do what I wanted or what I thought was best by hitting or shoving. Most of the time it didn’t work. Our culture encourages us towards violence and punishment as a deterrent towards crime. War often comes from a place of what we might perceive as righteous anger. Most of the time, this violence only entrenches the divisions. My violence towards my brother often made him more determined to do what he wanted instead of what I wanted.

In this passage, we see a God who is struggling. We see a God who has tried everything and nothing helps this beloved child. God doesn’t know what to do and so violence looms as a real possibility and even as a requirement. This is a God who has wrestled with the same questions we are faced with. How do we respond when things are going in a bad direction and nothing seems to make any difference? Can the violence be justified if it has good intent? We are made in the image of this God who struggles with violence. Walter Brueggemann writes that “God’s recovery, [from violence] like everyone’s recovery, is slow and sometimes disrupted. The kicker, moreover, is that we are made in the image of this God. As the newspapers make unmistakably clear, we also are “in recovery” from violence. We share that addiction with the God in whose image we are made.”

As much as we might dislike violence and the hurt it causes, most of us have at some point used violence—physical, verbal or emotional—to force others in a particular direction or out of sense of revenge for being hurt. It is hard work to choose something else. Denis Bratcher, reminds us that “God chooses to do less than his law allowed. . . . Here is a God who is totally free, and who exercises that freedom, not in a capricious way, but for the sake of compassion and mercy.” God could have chosen the violence and destruction because the law allowed. How often we do we witness violence or punishment and say things like, “they deserved it” or “that’s what they get for…”

The witness of this scripture suggests that in the moments when we want punishment or revenge we are called to respond differently. But God doesn’t just throw up her hands and walk away at the end of the day. God remains present—still loving and still inviting into right relationship. There is a sense as this scripture moves on that God continues to encourage the Hebrew people to return to walking in God’s way and return to worshipping God. As followers of God and being made in God’s image, we are also being invited to struggle with how we use violence. We are being invited to choose love and compassion and mercy in our lives, in our relationships with the people around us. We are invited to seek hope and healing for the world rather than the destruction that comes with violence.

Will you be the prophet?

This week’s story involves a showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al.

Elijah is a prophet. One day, God tells him to go to King Ahab to announce that there won’t be any water until God says so. Because there is no rain there is a famine in the land. God sends Elijah into the wilderness and the ravens bring him food. The stream that Elijah is living near dries up and God sends him to a widow who feeds him with her last bit of food—only the food doesn’t run out. The widow’s son dies and Elijah is blamed for the death but Elijah is able to resuscitate the boy. The famine is still on three years later. There has been no rain and people and animals continue to starve.

For Elijah the famine is the fault of the king. King Ahab has chosen Ba’al over God. Ahab listened to his foreign wife, Jezebel, and allowed the worship of Ba’al to flourish. If it weren’t for that king Ahab, life in Israel would be good. And Elijah knows it. Elijah is the one prophet of God left in the whole world and he knows that the problems of Israel all have to do with the king allowing the worship of foreign gods instead of the true God.

There are four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba’al and only one Elijah. Elijah calls a showdown of the Gods. Who will it be? Will it be Ba’al with four hundred and fifty prophets or Elijah all on his own? The odds seem to be stacked against Elijah. One small voice for God against so many. How did Elijah even have the ability to receive an audience with the king? He should have been shut out before the conversation about what to do about the famine even started. And yet here is Elijah speaking to the king and addressing the prophets of Ba’al and the crowd that has gathered for the showdown.

And Elijah sets up a contest. Which God can bring rain and end the famine? Ba’al is the storm God—the God of lightening and rain. If anyone can bring down rain it should be Ba’al. Which God is capable of giving life to the land and feeding the people?

Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al and gives them the choice of bull for the sacrifice. Whichever God responds by burning the offered sacrifice is the true God. So the prophets of Ba’al butcher their bull and lay wood for a fire. The chant and they dance and they pray and whatever else they do to communicate with their god. After several hours, Elijah grows bored and starts taunting them. “Where is your God? On vacation? Taking a nap? Busy with some other project? Your god is not responding.” Then the prophets get desperate and they begin cutting and maiming themselves to draw Ba’al’s attention. They add their own blood to the sacrifice. Imagine the noise and activity of four hundred and fifty prophets all chanting and dancing and cutting themselves to add their own blood. It must have been a horrific scene but would draw and hold attention for all its garishness.

Eventually Elijah steps up. He gathers stones and rebuilds the alter to God. Elijah cuts and lays to wood for the fire. He butchers the bull and places it on the alter. Then he starts digging and digs a deep trench all the way around the alter. I imagine the people watching and wondering what Elijah is up to all on his own. Once everything is ready—once all the groundwork is laid—Elijah enlists the gathered crowd and has them fill buckets of water to pour over everything. Then he has them do it again. And again—a third time. Everything is sopping wet. There is absolutely no way that a fire should start under these conditions. I imagine the people thinking that Elijah has just set himself up to lose the contest.

Why would Elijah even bother? He’s one small voice in a sea of Ba’al prophets. Why not just give in and join the prophets of Ba’al? If he can’t stomach joining them why not just go hide in a cave somewhere, keep a low profile and live out his existence? That would be the simplest thing to do.

He has to speak for God because no one else will. He has to act in favour of life because no one else will.

In our own context we look around and see violence in our own community. We might see violence in other places in the world. We witness and experience racism. We witness and experience homophobia. Those voices often seem very loud and feel like they are the majority around us. Those voices of hatred often sound overwhelming. It sometimes feels easier to give in and join the hatred and violence. Sometimes it feels easier to just stay in our own safe little bubble away from the troubles of the world. Sometimes it feels like we might be the only one speaking for compassion and love amidst a garish scene of poverty and violence. It can be a scary place to be.

Elijah took courage and spoke for God. No one listened. And then he got busy reminding the people how to worship God by rebuilding the alter and preparing the bull for sacrifice. Elijah wants this showdown to prove once and for all which God is the real God and so he makes it even more dramatic by adding water to the sacrifice. The Ba’al woship is dramatic for it’s horror. Elijah needs to create a scene that is equally dramatic for the ability to bring life. And what is more life giving than water? By having the crowd participate in pouring the water, Elijah gains their allegiance. They are no longer bystanders but people who have chosen God.

In our own lives we need to make a choice about where we will place ourselves. Will we join the hatred and violence because it is comfortable and convenient? Will we be part of the crowd that has gathered to watch the showdown—just waiting to see which way the contest will go? Will we be like Elijah, choosing to be the voice that is different from those around it? But Elijah didn’t just talk. He worked hard. He engaged in activity to bring his God to life for the people around him to see. Elijah didn’t just speak and work. Elijah also prayed. In his work and prayer Elijah had confidence that God would come through and the people would return to God and God’s ways.

Own world needs prophets like Elijah. Perhaps we ourselves might be a prophet for the world around us. We need people who speak and act against the violence and hatred and poverty in our community. And it is easier and often more comfortable to just go with the flow or just let the world swirl around us. But if there are no prophets, no one speaking and working for love and compassion and healing then the hatred and violence—the false gods—win.

I don’t want to live in a world where hatred and violence and poverty are seen as normal. I don’t believe that is the world God intended in creation. Will you speak and act for God’s love and compassion in the world? Will you be one of the prophets our world so desperately needs?