“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Meditations on Matthew 2, adapted from a sermon preached at First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, July 29, 2018.
I became an immigrant this year. I have moved to Honduras, for my work, and I have applied for permanent residency in that country. Of course I did this by choice. I sought a job, was called by the Presbyterian Church, and I accepted the call.
In Matthew chapter 2, there is much migration. Magi from Persia to Judea. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Judea to Egypt. The magi back to Persia, by some other route. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Egypt to Galilee. There is much migration. But very little choice.
The only person who doesn’t move in this story is King Herod, a puppet king, a cacique or a maharaja, if you will, of the Roman Empire. King Herod stays still. He wields enormous power here, and holds it so tightly and so fearfully that he is willing to slaughter hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of infants. Simply because he was afraid of losing or sharing power.
Herod’s word was law, and these astrologers traveling from Baghdad or from who knows from where would have known this. The text says all of Jerusalem, or that is, all of the privileged courts paying homage to Rome, displayed their fear of this newly rumored “king of the Jews.” Even for the foreign astrologers, to disobey Herod was to disobey Caesar. To disobey Caesar was to disobey God.
So what are we to make of their decision to protect the holy child by going home on a different route? They certainly made a choice, and a risky choice. They could have been hauled in, arrested, tortured, forced to tell, forced to stay.
By grace, yes, but also by the civilly disobedient choice of the wise ones from the east, the Christ child’s life was spared. They made a radical, law-breaking decision. They could have taken the legal route—finding God where the powers of the day told them to find God: in the empire, in the law, in the king. But where did they find God?
And what does this teach us about where we should be looking for God? Certainly today we have many choices…where to seek god?
Do we think the magi had a choice?
I can tell you that in Honduras, choice or desire is rarely a factor in a person’s moving across borders, deciding where to live or whether to stay.
A springboard for my ministry in Honduras was time spent in 2014 on the border in El Paso, Texas. I volunteered with an organization that housed and helped hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant children and mothers who were seeking asylum, mostly from Central America. This summer, the same organization started helping thousands more, mostly parents reunited with children after cruel separation.
And now I see these mothers and children from another perspective. Since moving to Honduras six months ago, I have not gone a week without meeting a family who has someone in the states, either documented or “mojado” or undocumented. I have met a couple who work as coyotes, smuggling people across borders for a fee. Every family in Honduras is touched by migration.
Remittances, or money sent back into Honduras from other countries, make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Central Bank of Honduras and the World Bank, and that number has increased faster than the country’s overall GDP in the past year. The economy has no momentum of its own. Honduras is hugely dependent on the United States, on the International Monetary Fund, on the World Bank.
What does this mean to us today, when we in reading this text in Matthew? When you read in the scripture “Galilee,” think of Honduras, the “developing” neighbor of Judea. When you read “Jerusalem,” think of Tegucigalpa, and remember its iron-clad connection to Rome, that is, Washington D.C., the seat of political and economic power. When you read “Egypt” think of the Texas-Mexico border, where the refugees flee. The dynamics of dependence and power are strikingly similar.
Of course, the gospel writer likely chose to emphasize these details in order to concretize Jesus’ claim to divinity, as outlined in the Hebrew scriptures as well as within the Roman political structure. This text is subversive in both directions. And the infant Jesus, making no choice of his own, becomes a refugee, confounding all expectations of where divinity should be found—that is, not in Jerusalem, but on the highways and byways and the in-between places.
As I said, I’m an immigrant by choice. I have the enormous privilege of a U.S. passport. Earlier this summer, I traveled twice, once with a Honduran Presbyterian woman and once with a youth group, because eight of the youth and one Presbyterian Women partner were barred by the U.S. Embassy from completing the trip. These teens and 20-somethings, even with letters of support from U.S. Presbyterians, could not provide enough “evidence” in a three-minute interview that they were not intending to stay permanently in the United States.
Imagine if you were denied that visa. Imagine that your family is permanently separated, that your husband or one of your children is in the United States, and that you have no resources to continue applying for tourist visas. Imagine that you have a job that pays you $15 a day. Imagine that you live with many other family members in a barrio of Tegucigalpa that is governed by a violent gang that is recruiting your younger children. Imagine that the police refuse to enter your neighborhood for fear of their own lives, or else they collude with the gang to keep residents in and non-residents in fear of entering.
What would you do? Would you flee? Would you try to reunite your family? And perhaps a more profound question: Where would you be finding God, among all these dire choices? Where would you be looking for God? In the empire, in the law?
Now imagine that Joseph and Mary had been denied permission to travel to Egypt. Or to return to Galilee. Imagine that the Crucifixion had not happened when Jesus was 33 years old but 3 years old. Where would we be expecting Joseph and Mary to find God, or to look for God?
I can tell you where I have found God. I have found God in the faces of immigrant children eating a peanut butter sandwich, their first meal in days. I have found God in the faces of the youth of Puerto Grande, Honduras, who long to make their hometown a place they don’t have to leave to survive. I have found God in the efforts of the Presbyterians of El Horno, struggling against government efforts to remove them from farmland because they don’t have ownership papers, even though they have lived there for generations—struggling to remain in the home they know and love.
I have found God in the face of the Presbyterian elder of Buenos Aires, who is doing seminary-level work even though he never attended school a day in his life and can barely read and write. He wants to better himself, to better his church, to better his community and make it a place that young people can choose to stay and make a home in.
Where do we look for God, and where do we truly find God? This story of the slaughter of innocents tells us: Not where you think you should find God, among the rulers, among the powerful, among those where conventional wisdom tells us we should find God. We find God in the innocent, the lowly, the vulnerable, the endangered. We find God among the movers and migrants. We find God among those who resist and defy. We find God among the law-breakers.