What if Joseph and Mary Were Separated at the Border and Jesus Died as an Infant?

 

Matthew 2:13-15

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

What if, as recorded in Matthew 2, when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus arrived in Egypt as refugees, they were separated by the Egyptian Border Patrol? Then because he was young and prone to the illnesses of infants, exhausted from his journey, dehydrated, and denied medical care by the Border Patrol; Jesus died. What if Jesus died? Where would we be today?

The decorations must come down. The purple and blues of Advent are no more. The bright greens and reds of our poinsettias and trees must be dispersed to the four winds. White is our color now. This is the color of grief, mourning, and death; for we are about to bury a child. An innocent child has died. Where the manger stood days before; the wood is being repurposed to build a tiny coffin.

The mother and father can only watch from a distance. They can offer nothing but their overwhelming sadness and grief. Their child is dead. Jesus, the name chosen and the word given, is no more.

Those who witnessed the miracle of birth are gone. In fear of their lives and unable to make the border crossing, the shepherds returned to their villages in the hills.

In the frenzy of the dark, among the whispered threats from death squads and gangs, the beauty ended, and the killing began. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled through the wilderness to a place of safety. Egypt was guarded, grand, and beyond the reach of those who killed children. This they believed.

They traveled at night. Darkness was the desert’s only blanket. Wrapped in the safety of its blank anonymity, they moved toward Egypt with other migrants. The rhythm of sleeping and moving was a delicate dance to preserve their limited supplies of food and water. On occasion, they met others eating east or south. Out of charity, they would offer them water and fruit. These days were rare.  However, every day was frightening. Only when they reached Egypt would they know they were safe. The Egyptians, Joseph thought, would treat them fairly and honestly. He knew he was wrong.

Safety is such a meaningless word. Joseph is locked in a cage with other men. His wife is sitting in chains. This is for their safety. The Border Patrol cares about their safety yet they didn’t care about the safety of their son Jesus, who they watched die.

Jesus, the refugee child, died in their care. Christmas is over. It ended before it ever really began. Christmas funerals are hard. This one may be the toughest yet.

Richard Lowell Bryant

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/7-year-old-migrant-girl-taken-into-border-patrol-custody-dies-of-dehydration-exhaustion/2018/12/13/8909e356-ff03-11e8-862a-b6a6f3ce8199_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.bac4832f2511

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Is Church the Best Place to Celebrate Christmas?

 

Where is the best place to celebrate Christmas? Is it at home with family and friends? Perhaps it is around a Christmas tree singing carols? Even with all the ongoing events and holiday distractions, many think one of the best places to observe Christmas is in church.

For centuries, churches had the monopoly on Christmas. Christmas and the church were synonymous. If the church wasn’t involved, Christmas didn’t happen. The events of Christmas gave birth to Christ which subsequently led to the formation of the church. What better place to celebrate the birth of savior with a staged reproduction of the events surrounding his conception and birth? There’s nothing like a mid-20th-century church decorated to look like our preconceived notions of a 1st-century Palestinian village. Perhaps there’s a different way.

I was wondering if the church is the best place to celebrate or remember the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. We take one of the most sacred events in human history and turn it into a syrupy mish-mash of historical fact, myth, American traditions, and Hallmark cards. In the end, what ends up being told, bears little or no resemblance to the story of Jesus’ birth. We tell a Christmas story where Jesus is simply one character among many. This tale makes us feel good about ourselves and our way of life. The gospel narrative of Jesus’ birth is unsettling to the core. It should move us in ways that challenge our notions of justice, fairness, right, and wrong. Christmas services; the way we do them in most churches today is not about challenge. They are about comfort. In this, we (the church and pastors who lead them) are wrong.

There is little comfort or safety in the story of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was born on the streets. His story should be told beyond the comfortable walls of Advent sermons, choral presentations, and candlelit Christmas Eve services. His story is too important to relegate to a once a year extravaganza of color and light. Given the state of the world, our Jesus at Christmas storytelling game is weak.  Children and adults in bathrobes aren’t bringing the world peace we’ve hoped for.

The joy of the angels, the joy we sing to the world on Christmas is a subversive message. It is not a joy which proclaims, “We were right, and they were wrong.” It is a joy that justice has come for those who have been locked away in the prisons, starving from hunger, tortured for no reason, and left to die will now know freedom and healing.

This is no self-serving joy. What we tell from the mountains on Christmas Day will get us arrested on Maundy Thursday. The message is the same. Jesus is Lord. The incarnation is a reality. Say that enough, someone will notice. Live that way, the world will become uncomfortable. You might be arrested, marginalized, and attacked.  You and Jesus will find each other.   I can promise you, wherever you are, it probably won’t be at church.  Why?  Most of the people I know wouldn’t be seen anywhere near the places Baby Jesus and his Mother will have to go to stay alive.  Right after he’s born, he becomes a refugee and has to flee the country.  Some good, God-fearing people have real hangups when it comes to looking after refugees.

My prayer for the remainder of Advent: take Christmas to the streets. Release your monopoly on Jesus. Find Christ in the place where he was born.

Richard Lowell Bryant

This Is Now

I am thankful Thanksgiving has ended. It felt like it took forever. We make a one-day orgy of carbohydrates and turn it into one of the most extended shopping weekends of the year. I do, from the bottom of my heart, hope everyone is grateful for the experience.

With that out of the way, I’m ready to move on. No, I’m not putting gratitude or thanksgiving behind me. As I said, those are daily challenges. Whether you’re a Methodist, Quaker, or Shaker; gratitude is an art we practice not an application to download. So what’s next? I would like a more significant challenge.  What?

I’m looking forward to Christmas.

Before you get excited and expect to see lights draped on the fence and reindeer dancing on the parsonage roof, hold on to your Blitzens. I’m not talking about “Christmas” or the “Christmas” you’re picturing. To be honest, I’m ready for Advent. People, even Christians, use the word interchangeably and it’s almost lost all meaning. Even at church, I’ll catch myself saying “Advent/Christmas.” Despite my hardcore, old school liturgical high church upbringing, I actually say “Advent-slash-Christmas.” Sisters and brothers, forgive me for this concession to the War on Advent. I pray you’ll give me strength this year to fight the good fight and sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ for four weeks straight.

I need Advent because I need Jesus. I could do without Santa. Santa is a creepy old man in a red suit. He’s an amalgamation of so many northern European folktales and religious traditions; the only people who really know what Santa means are the marketers who make money from his image. Santa’s story makes us feel good about ourselves and the choices we’ve made. Santa causes us to look inward. Jesus’ story demands we look at the world around us.

We must rehear Jesus’ story. Jesus is an impoverished child from a part of the world most of us think we understand. His mother is a teenager. A local gang leader murdered every male infant in his village because he was threatened by Jesus’ birth. When all is said an done, they are a mother, father, and infant fleeing for their lives. Jesus is born into violence. Jesus seeks sanctuary. Jesus asks for asylum, not only in hearts but in our churches. Why? The incarnation is a present tense reality. This is us. This is now.

If we do not see him, we are ignoring him. I am prepared to deny Santa and all he has come to represent. I cannot reject Jesus, in all his many forms, moving in our midst.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Methodist’s Confessions

I inherited from my ancestors a story about God.

I accepted this bequeathed God as my God.

Faith is a gift, not a mandate.

On receiving of this faith, I understood that I did not possess God nor did God posses me.  God was not something I needed to prove.  God was an experience to live.

I realized I might have personal experiences with God in places like the ocean, forests, or walks home from school,  at church, and moments of serenity while driving home from work.

Within God’s creation, I exist among all life.

I believe in Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph the Carpenter and his wife, Mary.

Jesus was a carpenter, teacher, preacher, healer, and instigator of change.

Friend to ill-defined sinners, his life and work serve as role models for every Christian community.

Neither at home among his people or welcomed by the Romans who occupied his country, Jesus found his place among the outcasts. His work with the sick, homeless, impoverished, and marginalized of Galilee provides a foundation for the church’s ministry.

Jesus embodies the totality of God’s love for humanity.

I believe God’s spirit is the unseen reality of God’s presence.  To be open to God’s spirit is to be open to God’s presence working in the lives of other people.

I believe the church is a community and a place to proclaim new life and God’s love for all people; regardless of race, sexual orientation, worth in dollars, or any other factor used to discriminate human beings.  

Richard Lowell Bryant

Truth Telling Jesus

Did Jesus Ever Wave a Bible Around When He Preached?

Human beings have the unique ability to create fear and crisis from thin air.  I think this a gift unique to our species.  If there is no real threat to our lives, way of life, or ability to worship; we will find one, exploit it, and draw others toward the fear.  For some reason, we seem happier when we’re afraid.  If we tell others about our fears and they agree that our concerns are valid, even better.  What are we afraid of?  Our Methodist anxieties range from the innocuous as a bump in the night, or our understanding of traditional marriage, at other times it’s a caravan of migrants from Honduras.

Because an idea isn’t real doesn’t mean the concept can’t be shrouded in the garments of truth; especially if I want your vote, money, or to attend my church.  It takes work to make a lousy lie seem respectable.  Look at the political ads, rallies, and speeches over the past few months.  They are full of outright lies, half-truths, and deception. Despite the apparent distortions, we allow ourselves to be lied to and consider lies as part of our rational political (and in some cases theological) discourse.   Enough money, television airtime, and words spoken at the right time can make some lies seem accurate.  We tolerate lies (“they all do it”) because no one expects to be told the truth.  The truth is undermined at critical moments.  Is there anywhere to go but down?  Where do people of faith turn for the facts in a world full of willing distortion? What do we do if we’re sick of the lies?

First, we commit to living as truth-tellers.  Then we turn to Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’ description of himself as the “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6 provides an appropriate benchmark.  Jesus is our standard for truth, truth-telling, and truth-living.  If something doesn’t measure up adequately with Jesus’ standard of truth, then we know we’re dealing with plans, propositions, and ideas which run counter to unfolding Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Jesus’ ideas about truth aren’t confined to the pages of the Gospels.  They are to be applied to the pages of our life journey.  Jesus’ truth should be a lived experience.

We read scripture to understand Jesus’ embodied truth.  Jesus lived in an era before the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils.  His truth was not a doctrinal statement of faith.  Instead, his truth was built on relationships with those who could not read statements of faith, would never be allowed near altars, and lived on the margins of society.  Jesus believed in the truth of economic justice and fair wages for lower-income workers in Galilee.  Those closest to the land were closest to God.  Subsistence farmers and local fisherman lived the parabolic truth that Jesus spoke into being.  Jesus believed that the truth of God’s love could be best experienced by restoring the physical and mental health of hundreds upon hundreds of people.  Jesus believed in the truth that said real wealth could not be measured by traditional means.  The truth about prayer said Jesus, was nothing like it was done, taught, or practiced.  Jesus’ truth taught that forgiveness is more significant than any distance perceived between humanity and the being we call God.

Next time someone has a plan, perhaps to start a new denomination or build a huge fence with beautiful barbed wire, ask yourself, “How do these plans measure up against the truth-telling, life-giving, all-loving, never Bible-waving Jesus?”  Do you want to try and answer the question?

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

 

Calling Myself Christian

It is hard to imagine being a Christian in the wake of a great tragedy, such as the massacre in Pittsburgh.  On one level, the suffering and violence are a challenge to my faith.  When people die violently, whether by accident or malicious intent, I question the goodness and benevolence of God. After years of reflection on suffering and the nature of God, I ask why and my faith compels me to question God.  That’s one way I respond.

It’s also tricky to claim the name of Christian when I see the muted and sometimes tone-deaf responses of those in the Christian community.  Everyone seems to know an appropriate level of compassion, regardless of your stance on the 2nd Amendment, after a school shooting.  I do not see it.  I’m observing a fair amount of “what is he talking about” when I bring up anti-Semitism and mention how our grandfathers (veterans) went to Europe to defeat fascism.   Instead, the deaths of innocent Jewish senior citizens have morphed into insidious talking points for the fear-driven ideologies driving the final days of the political campaign.  I’m not sure many Christians, self-defined and self-selected in the age of Trump, are moved by the same human suffering which inspired Jesus to teach and preach.

I have always called myself a Christian.  I self-identify as a Christian.  Were there Christian pronouns available, I might use them on my Twitter biography.  This is the primary way I understand who I am, how I live, and what I do.  However, I’m no longer sure it’s worth struggling over an identity that is being diluted to the point of nonexistence by people who see no problem in booing a United Methodist pastor, at an event about religious freedom, who is quoting scripture.  What does it mean to be a Christian if Jesus can’t get a fair hearing?  I don’t think it means anything other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s era of “Religionless Christianity” has definitively arrived.  The old symbols, words, and means of identifying Christendom are dead.  My black shirts are going to the thrift store.  I think I’ll turn my collars into bookmarks.  I’ll call myself Richard, a follower of Jesus.  That, in and of itself, is a dangerous statement to make.

The world is changing fast.  When the General Conference finally meets to decide what it means to be a United Methodist, will any of it matter?  By that time I’m afraid many American Christians will think “Lock Him Up” should be applied to Jesus.  Anybody who is that loving, forgiving, and travels among caravans of migrants cannot be trusted.  I can hear it now. You know it is coming.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus Found Me Part II

Today, somebody out there is like me.  I am not lost, but I need to be found.  Don’t we all need to be located and reminded of our presence within the kingdom of God?  I don’t think this is a bad idea.

What does this mean?  It’s simple.  Jesus is embodied in the lives and experiences of my neighbors, friends, and community.  This is occurring in the present moment.  Part of my responsibility is to look for Jesus while Jesus searches for me.  I know, through the Holy Spirit, Christ lives and works through all of us.

Nonetheless, like my interactions on Tuesday, I wonder if there’s something I’m missing.  The nature of modern life makes each of us a moving target.  Our spiritual settings at dawn, when viewing sunrise are sometimes different when seeing the sunset.  That’s part of the human condition.  It is essential that at the end of the day, when we shut down we don’t shut off.  To reboot spiritually and morally is harder than you think.  Ignoring rest is not an option.  However, unplugging from a light in a world growing increasingly dark is merely foolish.

I do not want to miss the “doings and happenings” in this tiny sliver of God’s kingdom.  As the kingdom of God is measured, there’s nothing more significant than a 14-mile stretch that’s only two miles wide.  Could heaven be any bigger?  I know God is at work in ways I cannot see.  Mystery is God’s default operating system.   Perhaps God’s mysterious ways need an upgrade?  That’s a silly question on my part.  Maybe there’s more human interface than we want to admit.  I know this: I want to see more.  Perhaps I and others called Methodist can help.  There are the glaring needs and there are the subtle urgencies. Glaring needs receive publicity and people.  Subtle exigencies fall beneath the crack.  I want those to find me and be found by such demands.  Who knows what might happen? At the least, my prayer list will become a little longer.  That can’t hurt.

I’m ready to find and be found.

Richard Lowell Bryant