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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God In The Escape - 01/01/2017

I know in these contentious times it's hard to talk about certain topics and issues … things that the current divisions in our country seem to escalate into bitter disagreement before a word is even spoken.

These topics and issues rarely have a chance to become a discussion or even a healthy debate before they are overtaken by strong emotions and gridlock; before they send people back into the corner of their perspective again and again. When this happens we have no chance to offer others insight from the way we see and understand the world; nor do we have a chance to learn and grow as a children of God and citizens of this  creation from hearing others' insights.

I think many of us would agree that the refugee crisis is one of those topics, this age-old issue has grown, in our time, to become an deadly and heartbreaking reality for millions of people in this world who are desperately trying to find safe places to sleep at night, to find a job, to take care of their families, to draw a breath. We live in a world where almost 34,000 people are forced to leave their homes because of war or persecution every day.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, “We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.

“An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

“There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.” (http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html)

It's an issue we don't talk about very well. It gets muddied by other issues. For instance, suddenly we find that these millions of refugees are getting blamed for all the actions of terrorists and extremists of the world. And then in our fear of things like terrorist groups that give us no specific people or place to protect ourselves against, I think we often make the sinful misstep of going back – again –  to the corner of our perspective and turning our backs to the suffering and inhumane circumstances being experienced by the vast majority of these brothers and sisters, these neighbors of ours.

But today it seems, we cannot remain long in that corner of our perspective because our gospel reading really doesn't let us do that, does it? It pushes us into places and topics and issues that are uncomfortable, challenging, and sometimes even force us to recognize our own sinfulness.

It feels to me like we find parts of  this story retold in the lives of people everywhere. From the past we get a reminder of it when the Gospel writer tells us “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: '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.'” (Matthew 2:17-18)

You don't have to look very far to find a contemporary version of Rachel weeping or Mary and Joseph fleeing to another country to protect their child. 

I'd like to share with you today one of those stories. It offers us the gift of deepening our perspective of the refugee issue by hearing it from someone living this reality. It's a story from the Doctors Without Borders website about a woman named Umm Leen who has seven children and, as of Nov. 29, had not left war-torn Aleppo in Syria. In fact, she has never left aast Aleppo her whole life. She tells the story of the birth of her youngest child this past summer.

The siege has been bad, but we didn’t fear it as much as we fear the bombs ...

My eldest daughter is 16. She was six months pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage two weeks ago. I had a son of 12, but he was killed by a piece of shrapnel which pierced his heart. My youngest is a baby boy, aged three months—I gave birth to him during the siege.

I gave birth a month early, because of the panic attacks and the heavy shelling ...

Because of the siege, there are shortages of all kinds of foods. There are a lot of underweight babies because of their mothers’ diets.

In the first week of August, the midwife told me to prepare myself for the birth and buy the drugs I needed. I got the medications from pharmacies, as they weren’t available in hospitals.

Two days later, at 5 a.m. my waters broke. There was no one to take me to the hospital, and there was no public transport either. We couldn’t call an ambulance—there is so little fuel that ambulances only come for the most critical cases. In the end, my husband stopped a car in the road and begged the driver to take us to any hospital.

There was very intense shelling, and we didn’t know if we would make it. He drove at incredible speed because of the bombardment—we got there in just 12 minutes. My biggest fear was that we would run out of fuel in the middle of the road with the shells raining down around us.

During the labor, I was on my own. There’s no one here in east Aleppo from my or my husband’s family. We are the only ones left. My husband waited downstairs.

Five hours later, I gave birth. It was after I delivered the baby that the problems began. I was haemorrhaging, so they put ice bars on my stomach and inside my womb to try and stop the bleeding.

I did my best to breastfeed the baby, despite having had nothing to eat and being undernourished.

I was discharged on the same day, because the shelling was so intense and the hospital was inadequately protected. After I left the hospital, four missiles exploded right in front of the building.

My baby stayed on in the hospital for another 15 days. He weighed just 1.2 kg [2.7 lbs] and I didn’t expect him to live. But he has hung on.

 In August, during the early months of the siege, things weren’t as bad as they are now. They still had formula milk in the hospital, so they’d fix a bottle for my baby and feed him, or else I would express my milk into a bottle and feed it to him. 

But now there’s no formula milk around, and I’m grinding up rice and feeding it to him instead of milk. He is losing weight and is very weak ...

My other children are all incredibly thin, too, because we have almost nothing to eat...

When a baby is born, some people believe they are making up for the children they have lost. But for me, in these conditions, I think it’s a huge mistake. After I gave birth to him, I felt so sad. Did I give birth to him to see a life like this? (http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/east-aleppo-mothers-lament)

Perhaps we can imagine Mary thinking or saying or praying this too. “Did I give birth to him to see a life like this?”

They'd been through so much to bring this child Jesus into the world already – becoming pregnant before she and Joseph were married, being forced to travel so late in the pregnancy when she and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census. And then when they got to Bethlehem, dealing with the overcrowded chaos of the town while Mary went into labor a few weeks early. And, of course, the astounding and surprising experience of the birth itself. It happened in a less than ideal place for sure – but the visits that followed ... the shepherds and the foreign kings, the stories they told – this child was the promised One, Mary and Joseph were sure of it.

But Herod was convinced now too, and he was not about to let some poor, common Jewish baby born under a strange star in Bethlehem undermine his rule, his riches, his power. He was king of the Jews – period, end of story. And if that meant he had to kill every boy under 2 years of age in Bethlehem, so be it.

So they fled – Mary and Joseph and Jesus.

Now, you may be sitting there thinking, “Good grief, Pastor – way to squelch the joyous Christmas spirit.” That's probably what I'd be thinking – at least for a moment.

And I'm sorry for coming down so hard and heavy, but I am following the text on this First Sunday after Christmas – and it takes us to an awful place.

It is a reminder to us that while the birth of the Savior of Creation is indeed a joyous event, and that while this birth – along with the life, death and resurrection of this child –  is the remedy to anything that tries to get between you and God, it does not eliminate the reality of sinful and dangerous forces in our world. It does not eliminate our call to respond as followers of Jesus to these situations. That is plainly laid out for us in the story of Mary and Joseph seeking safety and refuge in the country that once enslaved and brutalized their ancestors. It is clear in the story of Umm Leen and countless others trapped in places like Aleppo.

Or perhaps you've seen it in those among us here who are bullied or abused … or in other places where the oppressor or the powerful are not people but things – like those among us who struggle to escape from addiction or other brain health issues, those among us who have far less chance to realize their calls and their dreams because of the color of their skin or who they fall in love with. The Herods and warlords of our world and our lives can take many forms.

But this difficult chapter of our precious Christmas story also tells us that these sinful forces in the world – as loud and dangerous and damaging as they can be – do not have the last word. That is a bold truth we claim every time we come to the font and mark another of us with the forever Cross of Christ. It is the bold reality we relive each time we come here for this seemingly small bit of bread and taste of wine.

The last word, my friends, is God's word.

God said to Rachel: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, ... (your children) shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future.” (Jeremiah 31: 16-17)

God said to Mary and Joseph “Do not be afraid … 'Look, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means 'God is with us.'” (Matthew 1:20, 23)

God says to Umm Leen, “You are mine and no matter how difficult and dangerous the Herod's and warlords of today make your life on earth, you will ultimately have the perfect home with me, where your son and your grandchild and countless others you've seen die wait for you also.”

And God says to you all of these things too … “there is hope, do not be afraid, you are mine – God is with us.” Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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