Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

When Jesus Was a Refugee

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 2:13-23


Looking back at my records, I was surprised to find that I have only preached on this text once before.  That was in 2001.  A rough survey of some of my colleagues let me know that many of them have avoided preaching it too.   We might be more willing to hear this story at another point in the year, but it only appears in the lectionary right after Christmas.  We are still fresh from the sweet baby in the manger and songs of peace on earth, good will to all.  We are still wishing each other Happy New Year.  Who wants to read about Rachel weeping for her children and Herod’s slaughter of children?  Who wants to think about fierce Mary, who is healing from childbirth, and obedient Joseph and a tiny newborn fleeing for their lives right now?


Theologian William Placher warns that there is a danger in sentimentalizing the Christmas stories, focusing on the cuteness of the newborn child, rather than the mystery of the Incarnation.  But, he also says, that if we can get directly to the stories themselves, they are remarkably resistant to sentimentality.[1]


This one qualifies.  This is the story of one family.  It is also the story of many families.  It is the story of a tyrant named Herod and every tyrant before or since.  It is a story about politics and power and fear, and also the story of love and courage.


I looked at my notes from that sermon.  In that sermon, I said that there were 12 million refugees in the world.  That was the United Nations estimate of 15 years ago.  Today there are about 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons.  In fifteen years, the number of refugees has quintupled.


The experience of refugees is anything but sentimental.  Warshan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali woman who lives in London.  You may have heard her poem “Home.”  Let me quote some of it:


no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.


you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

. . . .

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here[2]


This story could not be more relevant to our world today.  Some years ago, the refugees reaching our country were from Guatemala and El Salvador.  One woman who worked in the sanctuary movement providing safe haven for them talked about joining some of them at Christmas.  It was a painful time because they missed their families and didn’t know if they would ever return home.  But what struck her most was how meaningful it was to them that Jesus knew the tragedy they had known. They identified with him as someone who, from the time of his birth, had to flee from his own country for safety; as someone who grew up many years as a refugee, who had to exist outside the establishment and was a victim of the powerful.[3]


We cannot and should not sentimentalize this story.  Joy Carroll Wallis argues for keeping Herod in Christmas because as she says, “Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That’s how the church is described in scripture time and time again – not as the best and the brightest – but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God.” [4]


There are two primary Christian understandings of God – the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.  Both are true.  Each should be held in tension with the other.  The theology of glory stresses God’s power and majesty.  We see it in the appearance of the angels and we hear it when we imagine an angel choir filling the night sky.  The God of glory is worthy of worship and adoration and awe. There is nothing God cannot do.  This is probably the dominant theology of most American Christians. 


The second understanding of God is the theology of the cross.  This one resonates more when life is difficult, when we are experiencing brokenness and pain.  A theology of the cross remembers that God came in human flesh and died a torturous human death.  What God chose to do was to come to us, to live and suffer and die as one of us.  God chose to forsake glory to demonstrate God’s love for us. 


Luke tells us about the glory of the angels appearing to the shepherds.  Matthew tells us about Herod and the flight to Egypt and the suffering of the people of Bethlehem.   Taken together, we have the theology of glory and the theology of the cross, and we need the truth of both.

When the magi first arrived and asked where the baby was, it says, “King Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.”   King Herod was frightened of another contender for his throne, that throne which constantly had to be defended.  And the people were frightened because they knew that they would feel the consequences of his fear. 

We also know the consequences of fear -- fear that is stirred up by those in power, those who want to maintain that power,  fear that makes us suspicious of each other and inhospitable to refugees, to members of other races and other religions. It is an election year; the fear-mongering is likely to only intensify in 2016.

It is fear that contributes to suffering and weeping.  Matthew refers to Rachel weeping for her children.  In ancient times, Rachel had died giving birth to Israel’s son, Benjamin.  “Tradition had it that she was buried in the vicinity of Bethlehem.  Weeping Rachel was the image of inconsolable grief.  And years later, when the children of Israel were being killed or carried off into exile, first by Assyria and then by Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah said, ‘A sound is heard in Ramah, says the Lord, the sound of bitter weeping.  Rachel is crying for her children; they are gone, and she refuses to be comforted.’ ”[5]


Today, Rachel is weeping for refugee children, for those who are dying and those who are badly traumatized, those who may spend years of life in refugee camps.  Rachel is weeping for the parents of children who were victims of gun violence.  Rachel is weeping for the 1100 young black men killed by police last year.[6]  Rachel still weeps and refuses to be comforted. 


Little Man has invited us to choose joy.  I second the motion.  If, for some reason, you cannot choose joy right now, I beg you at least to reject fear.  Remember the angel told Mary, “Do not be afraid”.  The angels told the shepherds “Do not be afraid.”  The angel told Joseph “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” “Do not be afraid.”  Can we hear that?  Can we trust it?  Can we choose joy in spite of the fear that swirls around us?  I believe those are the best moments of our faith – the times when courage leads to joy


Some years ago, when the government of South Africa cancelled a political rally against apartheid, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu moved the rally into St. George’s Cathedral and turned it into a worship service. Soldiers and riot police followed and lined the walls of the cathedral with weapons and bayonets drawn. Tutu spoke about the evils of apartheid and how rulers who supported it were doomed to fail. Tutu is a small man physically but not spiritually. He pointed a frail finger at the soldiers and police (the Herods of that moment) —“You may be powerful, but you are not God. God cannot be mocked. You have already lost.”


It was a moment of unbelievable tension. Then Tutu came out from behind his pulpit and flashed his radiant smile. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side.”  The crowd roared. The police and solders put their weapons away and left the cathedral.[7]


Brothers and sisters, this is the realistic good news of Christmas.  Do not be afraid. God did not come to declare war, but to proclaim peace, not to conquer armies and empires, but to defeat evil and death.   We can choose joy because God reigns, not from a throne that must be defended, but from a manger, in the vulnerability of a baby, a refugee, an outcast, and from a cross.  The Herods of our day must be resisted, but they have already lost. Thanks be to God.




[1] William Carl Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001), p.52

[2] The entire poem may be found here


[3] Rev. Victoria Curtiss in her sermon In the Midst of Nightmares, http://fourthchurch.org/sermons/2013/122913.html

[4] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[5] https://maryharristodd.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/rachels-tears/#more-629

[6] https://www.rawstory.com/2015/12/its-an-epidemic-us-police-killed-1134-young-black-men-in-2015/

[7] Jim Wallis story quoted by John Ortberg in “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, August 9, 2003.