Mt. 1: 18 “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
If we could travel to Egypt today and hire a tourist guide, and if that guide were one of the millions of Coptic Orthodox Christians of Egypt—not all Egyptians are Muslim—he might take us to any one of many sites said to have been visited by Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus during their time of refuge in Egypt. There is a well where they are said to have rested and refreshed themselves. And a tree, still alive, under which they are said to have taken shade. And a stone that allegedly still bears Jesus’ footprint, among other monuments and places related to him by tradition. I’d like to think that all these traditions are true, but if they all were, then the Holy Family must have moved around Egypt a lot. On the other hand, the Egyptian city of Alexandria was the second largest city of the Roman Empire, and the Jewish community there was quite big and influential in the time of Jesus. So it would not have been unusual for Jews from Palestine, like Joseph, Mary and Jesus, to have sojourned in nearby Egypt, or even to have friends and family there to receive them. And no, contrary to what a little child once drew on a picture in her Christian Education class, Mary, Joseph and Jesus were not flown by airplane on “The Flight to Egypt” by Pontius the Pilot.
That Jesus and his family would have to live in Egypt as refugees seeking asylum would also fit with the rest of his life story. As Jesus told one wannabe disciple, “Foxes of the fields have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
The flight and return from Egypt also fits with his own people’s history, the history of Israel. That’s why Matthew quotes the words from the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Those words, when first spoken by the Prophet Hosea, were more a summary of the past, than a prophesy about the future. Hosea didn’t have a coming Messiah in mind. The son referred to was Israel. But those words, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” are a good way of recapping Israel’s story, and so they apply to Jesus. All of Jesus’ life and ministry is like a recap, a replay, of the Hebrew Bible, from the Creation by the Word of God, to the birth of the son of promise through a barren womb—Isaac–to the Exodus from Egypt. The names Jesus and Joshua are even the same names in Hebrew. Just as the First Joshua led twelve tribes to conquer Canaan, so did Jesus, the Second Joshua, lead twelve disciples through Israel. But the Second Joshua’s way of warfare reversed the sword, and made it a cross. And though Israel clamored for a king, and got Saul, Jesus resisted the temptation of worldly kingship when the devil tempted him in the desert. So where human nature failed in the story of Israel—and who would do any better?–Jesus did Israel’s story over and got it right.
But its not just with his nation of Israel that Jesus identifies. Their story is more universal and wide-spread. In Black American spirituals like, “Go Down, Moses,” and “Oh, Freedom,” and in theologies of resistance to oppression in Latin America, Israel’s groaning for freedom and deliverance from Egypt has become a script by which people all over the world see themselves, and find hope and strength to resist injustice and to labor toward the creation of their own Promised Land. So it stands to reason that Jesus, as the refugee and asylum seeker in Egypt, identifies with our stories, especially with the epidemic of loneliness and homelessness, and the search for refuge, or asylum, sweeping the world today.
The United Nations says that there are 26 million refugees worldwide, including refugees displaced within their own countries, like Kurds and Christians in Iraq. Or Southern Sudanese and refugees from Darfur in Northern Sudanese camps. Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers live in this very part of Minneapolis. In a surprise development for me, I’ve found myself relating as a friend and occasional translator for that part of the Somali community from the tiny country of Djibouti, because of the French language we have in common.
Numbers are harder to come by for the people displaced not by war or persecution, but by poverty, or environmental decline, or the lack of opportunity and investment, like the 12 million undocumented workers here in this country, mostly Mexican, many of them in this neighborhood, too. For most of them its been a wrenching, difficult experience all the way. Earlier this year, I got a sense for how deep is their longing for people and places left behind, after the NFL championship game that the Vikings lost in January of this year. The next day I turned on the Mexican radio station to hear a lot of angry, animated talk about the previous night’s game of futbol. My feelings exactly, after that last minute interception that threw away the game. Arrgh! But then I realized: Oh! They’re talking about a soccer game in the Mexican city of Morelia! But isn’t that the essence of homelessness, even when there’s a roof over our heads: when our feet are in one place, and our hearts are in another?
Then there are those who haven’t necessarily left anywhere or gone anywhere, but who find that home has effectively left them. That’s the Native American experience. And that of people in my old home town of Toledo, so tied to Detroit’s auto economy, whose jobs and neighborhoods dried up and blew away. As the bumper stickers said: “Last one leaving Toledo please turn out the lights.” But many of them never had the means nor the connections to leave, or they felt responsible to stay and take care of their parents or their grandchildren, and so lived out much of their lives on the horns of a dilemma: Do we stay, or do we go, like so many others? And if so, where do we go? Many of my unemployed, or under-employed, high school buddies are such “refugees in place.”
To some degree, we may all be cultural, technological or spiritual refugees. Again, we may not be going anywhere, but the world certainly is, and its hard to keep up with changes in technology, morality and values. Even though we are constantly being encouraged to buy or embrace everything new because its “new and improved,” we learn by experience that not all of changes are worth keeping up with. Unless we wish to be like jellyfish swept around by every wave and current, we need firm values by which to discern whether any change is worth taking on, or not. Or just wait until you’re back in fashion, The Kentucky poet and writer, Wendell Berry, speaks of a farmer friend who still splits and saws firewood by axe and saw, instead of a chain saw. The farmer says it keeps him fit, sane and safe. But while he’s sawing away, patiently and slowly, the woods around him are fairly screaming with chain saws. That’s got to be a lonely feeling. And he gets some razzing and ridicule.
We spend our young adult years trying to find a home, and to make a home. And now, in our current foreclosure crisis, we have older adults fighting to keep their homes, and losing them. Driving on the freeways I see barriers and fences around overpasses, to keep homeless people from seeking shelter there. Homelessness today is about more than the lack of a roof over one’s head: its a picture and a parable about the human condition in a world that resembles an anthill that’s been kicked over.
It’s taking more time now for young adults to find and make a home today, and for more reasons than just a tough economy and changing technology. In Christian Education today we’ll hear from some of the many young adults who are getting wonderful experiences relating to other cultures, other people and other parts of the world, during their education, and even just through work and travel. While very enriching, it also can be very wrenching, especially if you come from a home or a church that have been sheltered, and you suddenly discover that not everyone thinks the way you do, or that people can treat each other in some of the most heinous and horrible ways. More than shock, it can be a form of trauma. The son of a missionary in Ivory Coast overheard his father speaking with a civil war survivor from Liberia, and began to experience some of the effects of secondary trauma: detachment, disassociation and alienation from his own self and community, almost as though he was as mad at his family for having sheltered him from such things, as he was at the criminals in Liberia for having done them.
Even in the best of homes and churches, without fail, adolescents and young adults eventually discover that their families, their communities and their churches don’t always live up to all their own values, or that their parents and pastors may be clueless about their own contradictions and shortcomings, or worse, that they are aware and are trying hard to justify them. Whether they leave those values and beliefs behind, or whether they try in their own way to be more faithful than their parents, theirs is still a difficult journey, fraught with loneliness and struggle much like that of homelessness.
In all these examples, I hope I’ve touched on reasons why we all, at times, might feel homeless and uprooted in this world, even if we haven’t changed our address in a while. Society and the economy are not kind to those who value place and people over possessions or profession. The world does not readily reward rootedness and stability. For all who have lost the innocence and rootedness of home, and who long to belong, the good news this morning is that however lonely we may feel, we are not alone. Through Jesus the refugee and asylum seeker, God has declared himself in solidarity with us, even, that he is with us in our Exodus and desert wanderings. Jesus the Refugee, the Son called forth from the Egypt, is now our pillar of cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night, traveling with his pilgrim people and guiding them.
And as he stands and walks in solidarity with the world’s homeless, aliens, sojourners and wayfarers, whatever the reasons for our up-rootedness, He calls us also to stand and walk in solidarity with the world’s homeless, aliens and wayfarers, whatever the cause of their wanderings. He is with us in our journey from homelessness to homecoming. But our own homecoming is all bound up with the homecoming journeys of others. We will not come home, nor find a home, nor make a home, without making space in our lives and a home for others. Our homecoming from homelessness, in all its forms, is tied up with our callings to hospitality.
That explains some of the fascinating and exciting new forms of church popping up in our multicultural urban centers, like the two most recent additions to our Central Plains Mennonite Conference: Missio Dei in Minneapolis and Third Way, in St. Paul, and some of the young adult Christian communities in this neighborhood. While they seem like new forms of church, there are also some ancient things about them. They’re sometimes called “new monastic” communities because they borrow some features and wisdom from ancient monastic orders, like the Benedictines. Especially the practical wisdom about how to live, work and worship together. Central to such communities is the practice of hospitality. Its a form of homecoming in a rootless, restless age.
In our own church, with members and attendees coming from all over the Twin Cities, we can provide something of home and hospitality to fellow wayfarers from the Egypt of this world, even as we pursue our own homecoming. The two movements—coming home and offering hospitality–belong together. Being all strangers to even ourselves, we must take to heart the words of Hebrews 13: “Do not neglect to entertain strangers, for some thereby have entertained angels without knowing it.” We do this through our small groups, through our many forms of fellowship and communication, and through our many ministry connections. Our church’s local mission plan, with its high priority on hospitality, calls us to welcome people into our living rooms and around our kitchen tables, and not just into our sanctuary. Church doesn’t just happen in church. Through hospitality to our fellow pilgrims and asylum seekers, we address two of the scariest, but most important things in our lives: the need to be known, AND to be loved, when really, deep down, we’re often afraid that if anyone really knew us, they would not love us.
That puts us all in the same boat. No, make that on the same journey, the same desert journey out of the Egypt of fear, worldliness and loneliness that Jesus and his family walked, and that he still walks with all of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers today, on their lifelong homeward journey. So again, I say, embrace your place and join the longing, limping crowd of pilgrims, coming home, out of Egypt, with Jesus, God’s Son.