This sermon was preached on Monday, April 24 for Genocide Remembrance by first-year José Daniel Pinell. The readings for this sermon are: Isaiah 2:2-5, Psalm 70, Revelation 7:13-17, and Matthew 2:13-18.
This is a story of escape, a story of forced migration, a story of massacre. Reading this horrific story, it is hard not to think of our current migrant situation. As the story tells us, some managed to escape to safer lands, others were not so lucky. Jesus, the migrant, is forced to flee Bethlehem with His mother and father. They are able to flee with the help of an angel of the Lord, who warns them in a dream to take the child Jesus and flee to Egypt. And as with millions of migrants before them, and millions of migrants after them up to this date, the Holy Family is forced to flee their land in the middle of the night.
Today we are commemorating the victims of Genocide. We are living in unprecedented times of forced migrations. The Syrian refugee situation is a major humanitarian crisis, with over 5 million registered migrant refugees. These number don’t include the over 400,000 that were killed as a consequence of the Syrian civil war. And south of our border, we encounter the humanitarian crisis of the unaccompanied minors who are venturing into foreign lands, in a treacherous and unforgiving journey from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In the first year since the crisis broke the news in 2014, it is estimated that anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 unaccompanied minors were crossing our borders. Anywhere we look, the crisis is almost impossible to make sense of, the lost of life too high, our regard to human life too low, and sometimes we are tempted to look away lest we become overwhelmed and too disturbed. Like today’s Gospel story, sometimes we don’t know what to do or think about the horrors of state sanctioned persecution and the senseless violence we see at the fringes of our lands.
In today’s Gospel story, Herod becomes infuriated once he finds out that he was fooled by the wise men. A few verses before today’s reading, we see Herod troubled over the news of the birth of Jesus, and how all Jerusalem became troubled with him. They became troubled because of the unpredictable, jealous and schizophrenic character of Herod. They probably thought, “What would Herod do this time?” Herod, in his fury, sets out to massacre innocent male children in Bethlehem from 2 years and younger. His power threatened, his urge for self protection knows no bounds and is willing to sacrifice innocent children to keep his throne. In this manner our nation can also act like Herod. In the name of self protection, many in our nation are calling the government to close our borders to thousands of refugees seeking shelter in our country. We don’t know what these children will grow up to be! They say, sure, most of them will probably not turn out to be a threat to our society, but just in case! We are willing to sacrifice thousands to an uncertain fate in our self made altar of protection and safety. Power and privilege are intoxicating, and once it is tasted by a nation or a king, we are willing to sacrifice God’s creation to keep it.
Now, as our New Testament professors are quick to point out to us, outside of the biblical text, there is no evidence that Herod ever ordered this massacre. For this reason, some scholars doubt the historicity of these accounts. Other scholars, however, point out to how the story is in alignment with Herod’s character, who at one point arrested many Jewish leaders on false charges and ordered them to be killed when he died, so that people would shed some tears at his death. Some scholars also point out that since we are talking of the death of a few children, since Bethlehem’s population was not large back then, it is not unlikely that this act would not have been recorded during such violent times.
My point here is not to argue the historicity or not of the accounts, but to propose that perhaps one of the reasons it was not recorded outside of the gospels is history’s tendency to easily forget and label as insignificant events like these. History is more prone to remember the leaders who are killed, the war heroes and religious heroes who died for a nation. Perhaps history had much more “significant” things to report than the death of a dozen or so innocent children. Perhaps this is the same tendency we have whenever we ignore the cries of the Rachel’s weeping over their little ones being washed on the shores of foreign lands.
Perhaps this is why so many of us in the privileged and developed world are willing to shut our hearts, our doors, and our borders to the overwhelming lamentations of those fleeing violence and poverty. Today’s Gospel reminds us that there are no insignificant little ones who are not worthy to be remembered, even if they are not great in numbers. Today’s Gospel reminds us of the horrors that can be pursued in the name of self protection and security. Today’s Gospel also reminds us of the dangerous and unsafe life many people in the margins go through, where one’s home is ever fleeting, and one’s seeking of a better life is seen as a threat to other people’s ways of life.
As some of you know, this past Thursday I received a letter from immigration telling me that my application for permanent residency had been approved. After 14 years of waiting as an undocumented immigrant I finally took a big sigh of relief. I felt blessed. I felt joyful. I also felt a little guilty. Why me, Lord? As I was in fellowship with some friends this past Sunday morning, including one who is still an undocumented immigrant, I felt a sense of guilt for being so blessed while others still suffered in the shadows. Why me, Lord? We met this undocumented friend when he was in Juvenile Hall in San Francisco, while doing ministry outreach among the incarcerated. When he was released from Juvy he moved out to a transitional home we used to have in the mission, and he lived there for a couple of years. He got clean from drugs, got a job, started attending church, and got baptized. We witnessed how God transformed the life of our dear friend. Before he was released from Juvy, however, the judge informed our friend that now that his fingerprints were in the systems, he would never be able to “fix his papers” that is, he would never be able to get documents in this country. Our immigration system leaves no space for grace. It has little room for reconciliation.
I felt guilt, then, this past Sunday, as I told the news to my undocumented friend “ya me aprovaron los papeles!”, my papers have been approved. I remembered that unless our current immigration laws change, he would most likely never have this opportunity. My joy was cut short. Why me, Lord? I wonder if Jesus felt the same way years later, as he learned the family story of his escape to Egypt, and the fate of those who stayed in Bethlehem and did not make it. I wonder, as He was discerning His call of Who He Is, the Son of God, I wonder if He prayed to His father and asked, “Why me, Lord?”
Now, to those of us privileged enough to be sitting here without fear of deportation or living in the shadows, it is not my purpose to instill guilt in your hearts. But are we asking the question, Why me, Lord? Why am I so privileged? I hope you look back at history straight in the eye and ask of it the reason of why we stand in privilege while others stand in misery.
This morning I want to move you from guilt to conviction. Guilt paralyzes people, conviction moves them into action. This morning I want to move you from shame and survivor’s guilt to the freedom found in forgiveness and reconciliation. I want to move you from simple inspiration to self emptying sacrifice. I want to move you and exhort you, my dear brothers and sisters, to the imitation of Christ, who being in the form of God, took human shape and emptied himself, seeing equality with God something not to be grasped at. God took human form, as an infant was the sole survivor of the massacre at Bethlehem, grew up in the wisdom of God to serve and live with those in the margins, those whom society ignored, those whom history had little regard to. He lived and then He died for our sins. He died at the bloodthirsty hands of a power hungry empire. And on the third day He rose again, showing us the way of discipleship: come, follow me and die, for whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Come then, let us follow Jesus, and let us find him in the stranger among us, in the migrant who lives in the shadows, in the midst of the cries of Rachel for her little children. If you seek Christ, this is where you will find Him.