Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
Thanks to Dr. Neal Walls who shared this picture with me. The original artwork depicted here is a mural on a wall in a church in Egypt. This particular image is taken from pg 37 in a book called The Escape to Egypt: According to Coptic Tradition (Cairo: Lehnert and Landrock, 1993). No author is listed, but the photo is attributed to Nabil Selim Atalla.
Flee to Egypt- Matthew 2:13-23
There is this scene in the film Milk, a film based on the life of 1970's activist and politician Harvey Milk, where Milk answers a phone call that he didn't expect. He was running around busy, I think running a campaign, and he answered the office phone, thinking it was his boyfriend and campaign manager, Scotty. It wasn't Scott, though. It was a teenager, a stranger from Minnesota. He said that he had learned about Milk in the newspaper. He said that he was thinking of killing himself. The next morning his parents were planning to take him to a hospital where they would "fix him." He didn't want to go. He sounded afraid. Milk told him that there was another option: he could run. Milk said, "There's nothing wrong with you - listen to me: You just get on a bus, to the nearest big city, to Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, it doesn't matter, you just leave. You are not sick, and you are not wrong and God does not hate you. Just leave." You might be concerned about a grown man telling a teenager to run away from home. You would not be the only one. But, Milk understood something very clearly. Home is not always safe, especially if your family feels the need to "fix" you. Sometimes, the best option is to leave, and try to build a new, richer life elsewhere. So, that's what he told the young stranger on the phone.
In December of 1956, Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her bus seat for white passengers. Parks, after years of training in non-violent resistance, chose that day to stand up to the system that treated her as less than human simply because she was black. While she was not the first black citizen of Montgomery, Alabama, to be arrested for violating Jim Crow-era laws, she was the one that the activist community rallied around. Inspired by her act of resistance, the black citizens organized a successful boycott of segregated transit systems. After the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, the city could no longer enforce segregation on public buses.
While most people count Parks' action and the boycott that followed to be a victory for human rights, at the time, the white citizens of the Montgomery didn't appreciate Parks' bravery. She was fired from her job, as was her husband and no one else would hire them. While this was happening to the Parks family, other leaders in the boycott were being targeted. Dr. Martin Luther King and E.D. Nixon of the NAACP had their homes bombed. Churches were being burned. Increasingly, it became clear to Parks and her family that the city they had been fighting to make more just and free was not going to be a place where their family could thrive. While they had never truly been safe there while living under the Jim Crow laws, at least they could find work and meet their basic needs. It was increasingly difficult to do even that. The Parks family would join the more than 6 million African Americans to leave the poverty and segregation of the South during the period between 1915 and 1970. They moved to Detroit, Michigan, a city that had gained a reputation as a place where one could live and work with greater freedom. I am not at all sure that they would have chosen to move had they not felt unsafe and unable to support themselves. They knew that their best option was to leave and build a richer life elsewhere. So, they did.
Poet Warsan Shire, raised in London, of Somali-descent, and born in Kenya, often writes of migrant experience as she has experienced it living in Europe. After spending time with young Somali, Congolese, Eritrean, and Sudanese refugees in Rome, she wrote these words: "No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark." Her words, along with the scene in Milk and the memory of Rosa Parks' move to Detroit have echoed in my head this week as I have returned to the story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing into Egypt. This story makes it clear that their home had become the mouth of a shark. Now, Joseph had some angelic guidance that helped convince him to leave his ancestral home. That is pretty common in the earliest parts of Jesus' story in Matthew. The angel said to him, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Joseph learned the name of his shark: Herod.
Herod was both a puppet and a tyrant. As a king appointed at the whim of the Roman emperor, he knew that his reign was tenuous. He would shore up his own weak power under Rome by taking advantage of the people he was supposed to rule and protect. When he heard from foreign scholars that the long-awaited Messiah, God's appointed ruler and savior of their people, had been born, he did not rejoice. Remember, most Jews thought that the Messiah would grow to be king. Herod wanted desperately to be king. He would protect his title at all cost. As he grew more fearful, he grew more violent. Matthew tells us that he ordered the murder of every infant and toddler in Bethlehem in hopes of catching the Messiah in his bloody sweep. Such is the danger of barely checked power. He got to decide who's lives had worth. He got to decide who could live in safety. He was able to destroy countless lives in order to preserve his own. Judea became the mouth of a shark and Jesus' family had to leave in order to be safe. There was a richer life... well, any life, available elsewhere. They left in order to save their child.
I freely admit that it can seem like a hard shift to go from hearing the radical and celebratory stories of Jesus birth one week and, then the next, hear this story of corrupted power and destruction. I mean, we had a lot of fun last week at church. We sang and ate bread and talked about potential and new life and brave parents and sweet babies. We had been waiting weeks, like the whole entire Advent season, to get to some joy, and we hardly get to enjoy it before we get to this hard, bloody story so early in Jesus' life. Can we not rest in the sweetness of Bethlehem and shepherds and new babies just a bit longer? Probably. I'm sure that plenty of people have stuck around in the sweetness. Or they've sought refuge in one of the football games that will be on today. But, even though it's hard, I think it's worth spending some time with this story right now, remembering the ways pain and heartbreak rub right up next to celebration and joy in this season and in our lives. Because, surely, this world and our lives give us plenty of reminders of heartbreak. This story reminds us that God's heart gets broken, too, and Jesus is right there, fleeing home, seeking renewed life in a new place among the powerless and vulnerable.
When we see Jesus' family displaced by political persecution, we are reminded of the long history of war and empire-building taking a toll on the least powerful members of a community. Joseph and Mary, despite knowing that their son had great Divine potential, were not powerful people. They were common to the point of being expendable to the king. Because they did not have the means to make themselves safe, they had to uproot their entire lives in order to survive. They had to be willing to leave the place that they had called home in order to find a place with they could live. In a way that mirrors the history of the whole Jewish people, the Holy Family were certain that God was present and working in their lives, but that certainty did not exempt from the tragedies of war and oppression. Jesus' own particular Divine calling did not protect him from the petty and dangerous whims of powerful people. His particular brand of divinity would not excuse him, or his family, from the struggles of powerless people living in the empire. In this story, we can see that he was right there, is right here, with anyone else who has ever had to move to be safe, who has had to escape the jaws of the shark that their home has become.
At the same time, reading this story can call us into action. While it reminds us that God lives among the refugees, it also calls us to be where God is, to help make a home for the displaced and to help make our home a bulwark against the insecure and powerful who would chew up the vulnerable for their own gain. It is clear in this story where God's allegiance lies and where is does not: with the family on the move and not with the mean-spirited and powerful. The story calls us to remember that our first allegiance is to God and to the ones that capture God's attention. It reminds us that we have a place in the midst of the struggle between those who destroy and those who work to live. We can be a way-station, a place of safety on the journey, a place set apart in order to welcome those who seek a new home. If we do it well, we may even become the place that people on the journey call home. You see, there are Josephs and Marys and Jesuses fleeing every day. May we be willing to open our doors wide and welcome them home.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3121
Karyn Wiseman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1883
Mark Allan Powell: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=17
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4785
Sermon Brainwave podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=830
Wanna read some more about Harvey Milk? Here are some quotes from the film about him: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1013753/quotes
Here is a very good, short biography of Rosa Parks: http://www.biography.com/people/rosa-parks-9433715#early-life-and-education
A helpful introduction to the Northern Migration: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129827444
The poem "Home" by Warsan Shire: http://www.commondreams.org/further/2015/09/04/no-one-leaves-home-unless-home-mouth-shark
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.