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Catching the First Train out of Town
A homily based on Matthew 2:13-23
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

Another season of peace, and goodwill. The colored, bulbs adorns our homes, the flood lights directed at our churches make it glow in the evening hours, candlelights on window ledges; singing once again Silent Night Holy Night. Having family members and old friends over again this year, Christmas cards stacked on our mantles with the bright images of Christmas. For me, the symbol that captures this season is the crèche. That's what I remember most growing up.

Each Christmas season I would travel from wherever we happened to be living, to Ma and Pa's farm in Minnesota. Each year, though we all grew older and presents were exchanged and forgotten, it would always be there. That beat up old nativity scene made out of cardboard with a few pieces of straw glued on the floor of the barn. Joseph would be standing there hovering over Mary who cradled baby Jesus. In the foreground oxen and sheep stood frozen, transfixed by the Holy Family. I remember how peaceful and how like a sanctuary that little nativity scene was to me. You could almost hear O Little Town of Bethlehem, or Silent Night breaking out of the silence. Wherever families are together and love is present, there is a peace and hope for the world. We've experienced another season of Christmas. Peace and Goodwill to all.

But in our gospel lesson this morning, Matthew pulls us to the side to show us a very different side of Christmas. Shows us the dark side. The Holy Family-for all the angels bending near the earth, for all the peace that emanates from the crib-the Holy Family was also a dirt poor family and in imminent danger. The danger has a name: Herod. Herod was the son of a sick family; they had a history of murdering anyone-including family members-who stood in the way of progress, their progress toward political power.

In our lesson, Matthew tells us that Herod was dumbstruck paranoid over news of a baby who was being called a king. Imagine that! A three-week old is stealing sleep from the King! Being who he was by nature-a bully and dictator-Herod pretends that he too, wishes to worship this newborn "king." But when the wise magi fail to return-as was prearranged-Herod gradually realizes that he, the schemer has himself been out-schemed.

So Herod, true to nature, takes another course of action, an ominous, terrible solution. He calls for a reign of terror against civilians. Maybe he thought that if killed enough young boys he might kill the king-kid. So the Holy Family become refugees and catch the first train out of town. The Holy Family wasn't the first and certainly hasn't been the last to flee for their lives.

This week I read about some other refugees, like Phoy Souvannasap, a Laotian soldier who with American troops in his country during the Vietnam War. With no training Phoy was given an M-16 and 200 rounds of ammunition and grenades and sent to fight in the communist-controlled mountains near Vietnam. Phoy took a bullet in the head, just over his eye; woke up three months later and then decided to become a refugee and bring his family to America. In one poignant part of his story , Phoy made a raft and held on to the raft from under the water. He used hollow bamboo tubes to breathe through and stayed under the water for half a day. Then, at night, they would continue downstream towards freedom. Just escaping Herod and getting to Egypt can be a life and death struggle.

This morning as we sit in this sanctuary, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled their homes in Afghanistan and now sit in squalor in the border refugee camps in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran. The war on terrorism has caused over one million people to leave their homes and run for their lives. Many of them have been cleansed--permanently. The cost of being a refugee is pricey. The Holy Family understands what it is to be forced out of home and country; to leave everything behind but their lives. To head to some godawful refugee camp, God knows where, just to survive another day. They know too well what it’s like to be jobless, homeless, friendless, and have a kid.

It was 9:15 pm on Monday, December 23rd. We had just finished a combined choir and orchestra rehearsal. My son, Ben and I wanted to get home ahead of the rest of our family so that we could get a Christmas gift ready. I was so interested in getting this prize possession in the house that I still hadn't become aware of anything unusual. But when I opened the door I ran into a wall of smoke. Part of our house had caught fire from an Advent Wreath left unattended. We had placed all of our Christmas cards in the center of the piece, so that when the candles burned down they ignited with the cards. Our table was in flames and for almost two hours the smoke had permeated the house. I remember running through the wall of smoke to the kitchen and calling 911; I was incoherent and still in shock, I guess. The firefighters put their masks on and entered and threw some of our furniture over the balcony and then sprayed it down. I will er forget the feelings of loss and loneliness that I felt as I stood by and watched the throbbing lights of fire engines and watching my house smoke. For the first time, I began to understand just a fraction of what it must be like to be a Phoy or a Serbian refugee or a Holy Family. I was lucky--my house is still standing. But what is it like to flee from your home and belongings, never to return ?

In Matthew's story, the immediate task was not to find five-year goals for Jesus, but to keep him alive for another day! It calls for a very disruptive, stern strategy. So don't go around thinking angels are fluffy cut little creatures. In the Bible, they are often fierce and direct, "tough love" types.


God's angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, "Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child and wants to kil1 him."

Thank God Joseph caught the gist of the message and high-tailed it out of town with Mary and Jesus. The immediate strategy is called sanctuary. Sanctuary means a safe place to live and to grow out of harm's way. In the wake of the racial riots in Los Angeles in 1992, some United Methodists decided it was time for the church to jump into to these war-torn parts of the US and to start providing some sanctuary for refugee-type folks. They called it, "Shalom Zones." The strategy is simple. Shalom shows churches how to work with their communities to stimulate economic development, improve race and class relationships, address health issues, and develop congregations-all in the name of Jesus.

Shalom Zones is one specific response to people, like our Holy Family, are in jeopardy of their lives; it is a safe place where people can have room to grow physically, economically, and spiritually. Sanctuary in Egypt and in our homes and in our society and in our churches. Thank God, Joseph sought sanctuary for his family in Egypt. Rejoice that Mary and Joseph nurtured Jesus in Egyptian safety. Someone must have been in Egypt to shelter them.

I was standing outside my smoldering home, when suddenly my yard turned into an unofficial Shalom Zone. First, Charles and Jim and Darrel from my church, along with concerned neighbors, came just to stand beside me as the firemen went through my house. They offered me their own homes. Said my family could stay with them as long as we needed to. That night we stayed with a family from our congregation; they gave us food and shelter-and lots of warmth and peace.

And when I went to church the next evening-Christmas Eve-I discovered that once again I had entered a sanctuary, a shalom zone. For just before the program began, another church member had heard of our situation and had on his own made some calls and gathered some much-needed money to help us get by in the immediate emergency. Then following the pastoral prayer an offering was gathered to help us. The ladies group came to us; members from other churches responded and called in their encouragement and prayers. Yes, Virginia, there is a God in our town.

We were out of our home for about a month, but the support that we received in prayers and finances and emotional support greatly impacted my family.

Remember that little game we used to play? We would have a safety zone--usually a tree-that if we could reach it, we would be safe. Might I encourage all of us to continue to create safety zones, little Egypts for other families? Little shalom zones around our community? When we decided to open our church up so that the wee Boy Scouts, the Webelos, could use it, we became a shalom zone; when we opened up our church to provide space for older adults, we become a shalom zone; when we take the show on the road and bring worship to those in retirement villages each month, sharing just a little time and concern for some lonely folks, we create a sanctuary for holy family folks. A place for others to grow and be encouraged-out of harm's way.

Let me close with some words that Albert Camus addressed to Christians almost fifty years ago:

What the world expects of Christians is that they should speak out loud and clear . . . Perhaps we

cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured, but we can reduce

the number of tortured children. And if you don't help us, who else In the world can help us do this?