Friday, December 27, 2013

First Sunday after Christmas - Holy Innocents

How was your Christmas? Alison and I had our extended family over on
the evening of Christmas Day for what turned out to be a perfect mild
evening of relaxed and happy company with a marquee on the back lawn
and everything you could wish for by way of food and drink and
conversation. On Boxing Day we caught up on some way overdue sleep –
so all around our celebration was pretty much perfect. I hope you
also had the opportunity to take some time out for family and
pleasure.

Today however – the first Sunday after Christmas which is often called
Holy Innocents – we come back to earth with a thud. Isaiah tells us
of God's solidarity and saving presence among Israel – Judaism's
understanding of incarnation that predates the Christian message of
Christmas by centuries. Psalm 148 is an appropriate response to that
– the marvellous hymn of praise that depicts not only human beings but
the whole of creation singing with delight. Then Matthew pricks the
party balloons, because he tells us the blindingly obvious, he tells
us what of course we already knew but would generally prefer to gloss
over. The incarnation of God is not pretty. Not only does the birth
of Jesus take place in the midst of poverty and hardship but the birth
of Jesus – and the wild rumours of hope that swirl around it – provoke
a violent and shocking reaction from those in power.

Herod – as we know not only from Scripture but other historical
sources – was for all his long reign an insecure tyrant, put in place
by the Romans when they conquered Jerusalem around 40 BCE. Herod
cemented his grip on power by murdering several members of his own
family, and he knew that he held power only as long as he served the
interests of his Roman patrons. He made extensive use of a sort of
secret police, for example, in order to keep the lid on protest and
dissent. Today's story, then, is utterly in character. The rumoured
birth of a messianic king reported by visitors from the east meant a
new focus for popular aspirations for freedom and hope. And Herod
acts with typical decisiveness and ruthless brutality.

The grimness of this story for us, as we read it two thousand years
later, is that it is essentially modern. It follows a pattern that we
continue to see in the world we live in today, and it comments on
similar ruthlessness – and complicity – in our own world. A
population is decimated, and survivors flee across a border. A tyrant
butchers families and villages and ethnic minorities – sometimes with
swords, sometimes with poison gas or artillery rounds – we see grainy
images shot with mobile phones of the aftermath of a massacre, and men
and women and children carrying meagre possessions trudge across
deserts and mountains to whatever dubious welcome they may receive
somewhere – anywhere – else. The message of Christmas is that God
shares our reality, our circumstances, and that gives cause for hope
because that makes the circumstances of our lives holy. But which
circumstances exactly is Jesus born into? A homeless peasant woman
has a baby, saved only by the kindness of a stranger from having to
give birth in an open field. The child is born into a heady mix of
political and religious expectation and attracts some international
interest. Is this the expected messiah who will save Israel? And a
countryside is put to the sword. The baby's father listens to the
prescient anxieties of his own dreams and manages to flee the
impending massacre. Our Lord is a political refugee.

Two things we need to notice in Matthew's story. Firstly, notice that
Matthew is very careful not to say that any of this is God's will.
This is hugely important. He doesn't say, for example, as he does
elsewhere, that 'this happened in order that the scriptures might be
fulfilled'. He says, 'Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through
the prophet…'. Matthew is reminding us that not even the most
chilling human evil can thwart God's compassion or power to save. And
then in just one verse – half a verse – Matthew describes
matter-of-factly a deed so evil that we can't bear to hear more
detail. Instead, we hear only the voice of the matriarch Rachel,
crying for her children, as Matthew evokes her voice in mourning over
these latest of her lost children.

The second thing to notice is that it is Egypt that the Holy Family
flee to. And Egypt, in Roman hands since 30 BCE but beyond Herod's
jurisdiction, was in fact a popular place of refuge at the time.
Ironically, the place where Jesus' ancestors were enslaved, the place
from which they were led to freedom by Moses, is the place to which
Jesus and his parents escape. Egypt stands in the Jewish story of the
Exodus both for captivity and for freedom and safety, as it does in
Matthew's story. We might ask ourselves whether there are any
'Egypts' in our own lives – places of refuge which are also places of
loss.

Our Lord is a refugee. This isn't a glib left-wing point to be scored
from the Christmas story but a central reality of God's commitment to
the solidarity of incarnation. In Jesus we see the reality that God
is present in the heart of human suffering, that where inhumanity and
brutality diminish human life, there God is. That where men and women
and children flee the violence of the powerful and seek an uncertain
refuge, then God is with them. God is not apolitical. God takes
sides.

The Christmas story indicts political power, and it indicts the
complicity of passive acceptance of that power. This is an
uncomfortable challenge for us, as Australians, right now. Our Lord
is a refugee.

Our country is led by insecure politicians. What makes them insecure
might take too long to go into, but it is to do with our loss of
confidence, as a nation, in who we are and what we stand for. The
Labor government was insecure and ineffectual. The Coalition
government has inherited its own brand of insecurity, but we don't
know how that's going to play out yet. Our governments don't lead and
inspire, they follow the latest opinion poll. And both sides of
politics in Australia believe that what gives them more security, what
buys your vote, is to be cruel and paranoid towards asylum seekers.
Both sides enact ever more punitive and harsh measures in an attempt
to buy your approval. And we distract ourselves by shopping, and we
vote for whatever will make the problem seem to go away. Our own
insecurity makes us complicit in what is done in our name.

Amnesty International visited the detention centres on Nauru and Manus
Island and released a report just before Christmas. You might not
even have heard about it. Of Nauru, Amnesty comments that detainees
are housed in army tents that offer no privacy and have barely any
room between the stretcher beds. Every single tent Amnesty inspected
was leaking, temperatures inside the tents reaching over 40 degrees
during the day with 80% humidity and no outside shelter. Most
detainees find it impossible to sleep at night due to the extreme
heat, rodents and insects. The mental health situation is dire and
medical facilities are inadequate. Amnesty concluded the conditions
do not meet the UN minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.

On Manus the conditions are similar but here there is also a shortage
of drinking water, with detainees being given as little as 500ml per
person per day. Detainees must queue for hours in the heat for their
meals, their feet are burned by the hot stone surface of the compound
and requests for shoes are denied. Personal space is limited with one
dormitory house containing 112 men. Basic hygiene is problematic as
there are insufficient shower and toilet facilities. Detainees report
that requests for improvement are met with the advice that if they
don't like it they should go home.

On Christmas Island, where families with children are housed, a woman
lost her baby just before Christmas because she was denied an
ultrasound test. When she pleaded for the test she was told she
needed to 'lower her expectations'. As Christians, we remember a
refugee family who were given assistance at a birth and hospitality in
a foreign country. Our own country uses cruelty as an instrument of
public policy to force refugees to return to the very situation from
which they fled. We do this, not because we are unable to afford to
be hospitable, and not because we face any sort of security threat,
but because we feel insecure and threatened by our own uncertainty
about what we stand for. We feel insecure because we are a wealthy
country and don't want our privilege watered down. We try to insulate
ourselves from the suffering and the poverty of the world around us.
When it comes down to it, we only believe in globalisation of
opportunities, not of problems.

Our Lord was a refugee, and what this means is that when we look into
the faces of refugees, we see the face of Christ, and we stand
indicted by Jesus' accusation in Matthew, chapter 25: 'truly, I tell
you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to
me'.

A Bible commentator I read as I prepared this sermon commented about
the soldiers who carried out Herod's brutal order. How could they
have done that? What moral responsibility do they bear? What about
the inevitable informers who tell the troops, 'yes, Mrs So-and-so down
the road has just had a baby' – glad to see them leave their own
doorstep. The point is that we can be several steps away from
violence yet still, indirectly, responsible if only for not naming it
and resisting it. The soldiers' 'just following orders' excuse is
false and deadly - and challenges us to examine where we collude with
evil by not intentionally standing against it.

If we see Christ in our world by looking into the faces who have not,
or who are pushed aside and marginalised – then where in our world do
we see Herod? As Christians, what are we called to do about it? In
what ways might God be calling us to get out of our comfort zones? If
we did, might it not be that we would experience God-with-us in a new
and life-giving way?