Beyond Bethlehem, Christ child, Christmas story, Colorado Springs, compassion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, Gospel of Luke, gun violence, human community, Mike Slaughter, Paris, San Bernardino, Syrian refugees
Scripture is the story of God’s activity in the world, among peoples and cultures, with a universal scope of concern for all creation. The God we come to know in scripture is a God who seeks to gather all of humanity into a community of sisters and brothers, a community of mutual care and hospitality.
The gospel accounts for this time of year set the stage for the Christ child who enters the world in an ordinary stable. We tell the story of Jesus’ birth each year, of course, and like any good story, we don’t mind hearing it again and again. We love the familiar details of shepherds standing transfixed under the night sky and angelic choir visitations.
There is one line though in Luke’s telling of the story that gives me pause this year: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” ~ Luke 2:7
This is how life begins for Jesus, with the doors to a place of warmth and shelter closed. Jesus once said of himself – “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” – a poignant reflection from someone who seeks to take up residence in our hearts and lives.
I am led from these traditional images in the story of Christ’s birth to the images of refugees fleeing war, oppression, and violence in our own day. The gospels reveal many of the same conditions in the ancient world. Indeed in Matthew’s telling, the holy family is forced to flee Bethlehem after Joseph is warned in a dream of Herod’s plan to destroy the child. This is followed by a massacre of all of the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. It is a brutal reminder of the inhumanity that has plagued humankind since the dawn of time.
However, it seems as though the world has had more than it can bear of tragedies of late. Most recently in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, we have been witnesses to indiscriminate violence with unclear motives. The victims have been people of diverse races, colors, nationalities, religions, genders, and stages of life. We cannot comprehend the ideology of those who kill so freely and value human life so little. What we do know is that hateful ideology is not defeated on the battlefield. We know that the goal of terrorism is to instill fear; yet scripture teaches us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” ~ 1 John 4:18
The story of Christ’s birth, you see, is not told in a vacuum. It is told and retold into the very places that make our hearts ache. It serves as a reminder that it is precisely into the world of human suffering and pain that God finds a way to come and be among us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Only a suffering God can help.” God is with us in the tragedies of life in ways that help us cling to hope.
Some lawmakers are suggesting that we shut the doors to refugees from certain regions of the world. They are feeding the fear of the stranger to promote their political careers. Our faith causes us to look at the issues differently, through the eyes of Christ who walked in compassion with the poor and the oppressed and invited them into the kingdom of God.
Recent United Nations statistics tell us that three quarters of the Syrian refugees who are waiting to enter the U.S. are women and young children. Followers of Christ have always felt the call to show compassion to the most vulnerable members of our human family. Times like these test where our true allegiances lie.
I encourage you to go to www.cokesbury.com/beyondbethlehem to see what Pastor Mike Slaughter and Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, Ohio are emphasizing this Christmas. They are challenging their congregations to spend only half of what they normally do on their own family Christmas and give a sacrificial offering that will serve the 60 million refugees Christ loves. Pastor Mike writes, “As Christians entering into this expectant time of advent, let’s welcome those seeking healing and hope as we build strong communities of acceptance, inclusivity and harmony.” May it be so.
Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson
Photo credit: http://www.milwaukeejewish.org/syrian-refugee-crisis/