Is there any room at the Inn?

imageEvery Christmas we ask the question: “Is there any room at the inn?”

This year over One Million Refugees have been on the move throughout Europe. This became a personal story for me in September when we flew to Eastern Europe to begin a cruise along the Danube River.

We landed in Budapest, Hungary on the very day that they closed their main train station in order to keep out the thousands of refugees who were moving through their country. We saw first-hand the mothers and fathers and children who were risking everything in order to reach Western Europe where they would be safe and free.

We learned that this is the largest movement of refugees that the world has known since the end of WWII in 1945…70 years ago.

My first encounter with refugees was when I was a young girl in Chicago. There were several children who came to my school that spoke no English. They were of Polish and German descent. The term we used for them as the time was not “refugees” but DP’s or ”Displaced Persons.”

They arrived as strangers in our midst. They spoke languages I didn’t know, and the foods they ate had unusual tastes and smells.

Looking back, I believe those new kids in my class must have felt alone and afraid. Fortunately, they landed in Catholic schools where the nuns “mothered them.” We were taught to welcome them to our school and to help them feel at home in our parish and neighborhood. Within no time, they became our friends.

It helped tremendously that many of the sisters in my school spoke Polish and German. They could speak to the newcomers in their native tongue.

They taught us not to fear the newcomers and especially not to make fun of them because they were different. We were all God’s children. God loved us all.

We all played games together in the school yard and also enjoyed special treats like cake and candy on our birthdays and holidays. We looked for similarities, not differences.

The refugees in our midst became our classmates and our friends. But why did they come to our shores?

During World War II…millions of people were killed and others were wounded or displaced. The numbers are staggering.

Statistics vary, but most agree that over 70 million people were killed during WWII. Well over 20 million were military deaths. The rest were civilian casualties. And that doesn’t count those who were severely injured or whose homes were destroyed.

After the war, people from Western Europe became refugees and fled to the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries willing to take them in. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, many found themselves trapped behind the Iron Curtain which would remain in place for several decades.

Why do I bring all this up on Christmas morning? Because now there are upwards of a million people on the move, and we cannot ignore them. We have a choice. We can reach out to them with love and compassion and help them find safe havens. Or, we can fear them and even mock them for being undesirables, and close the borders of our hearts to keep them out.

I recall the lessons I learned from the good Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who were my teachers. They encouraged us to reach out to strangers with love and compassion. We were told to always help those in need, and to welcome the stranger. They taught us how to help refugee children and their families make a new life for in America. And if the newcomers in our neighborhood caused any trouble, they would have to answer to the nuns. Believe me, no one wanted to cross them!

The sisters also taught us that when Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be counted in the census that they thought it would be a simple journey. Perhaps they would be gone only a matter of days. It might only be a week or so until they would be back home again.

But after they got to Bethlehem, and Jesus was born, events took a turn that no one expected. King Herod had heard rumors that a new King of Israel had just been born. He felt threatened by this news.

By the time the wise men arrived in Bethlehem, Herod had put out an order that all the Jewish boys under the age of two were to be killed. This would take care of any rivals for his throne.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said:

“Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:13-15)

Can you even imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt when they got this news? They could not return home, but would have to flee for their lives in order to protect their son.

Isn’t that the plight of every refugee? They have to leave all behind because it would not be safe for them to return home.

Would the Egyptians would give them shelter until it was safe for them to return home? You have to remember that the Israelites and Egyptians were not exactly friendly. In fact, they were often enemies who were at war with one another.

I wonder if when Mary and Joseph would have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt if they would have had to pass a background check.

Can you imagine them going up to a border crossing station and being asked:

“Passports please?” “We don’t have any.”

“Why do you want to enter our land?” And their response: “Because the Lord told us to flee to your country because our son’s life was in danger.”

What if they would have been turned away?

A friend of mine sent the following poem which was written by St. John of the Cross. It will help us to understand the significance of Mary and Joseph and Jesus being refugees.

St. John the Divine said to think of the Virgin as walking towards you on the road. She is pregnant with the holy and says, “I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.”

Would you let her in? She is bearing the Christ Child…the Savior of the World. And if you do…

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth forever, as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.

Do you have room in the inn of your heart to welcome in the stranger… because if you do, it will be as if you are welcoming the Christ Child.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we have the scene of the Last Judgement, where people are separated into two groups: those who welcomed Christ and those who did not. Those gathered asked how they were to know if Christ was in their midst. Here is the response.

I was hungry and you fed me.

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.

I was homeless and you gave me a room.

I was shivering and you gave me clothes.

I was sick and you stopped to visit.

I was in prison and you came to me.

I am telling you solemnly…whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me. (Mt. 25)

God’s message is clear! But we want to put qualifiers on it.

The overwhelming majority of refugees are good people and they are only asking for a chance to begin again after losing everything.

For those few who might have terrorist motives, I trust that our government can put checks and balances in place to weed them out.

Refugees go through a lengthy process to enter this country. Remember, they are not all thugs as some would have us believe.

In fact, many refugees are highly educated. They and their children have much to contribute to our country. A few of them could turn out to be the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs.

Recently it has been pointed out that Steve Jobs’ father was a migrant from Syria. He came to this country and his son grew up to become the co-founder of Apple, one of the most successful start-up companies ever.

Who among us doesn’t have an Apple product…and iPhone, iPad, Computer or Television set. And I bet there are at least a few of us who have an Apple product on our Christmas wish list this year.

Perhaps the most famous immigrant to this country is Albert Einstein. He was born in Germany and at a young age became of one the leading astro-physicists in the world. He will go down in history for introducing us to his “Theory of Relativity.”

In the early 1930’s, with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany, he knew that he would have to leave his country. If not, he would be imprisoned or put to death because he was Jewish. He fled for his life because Hitler had a plan to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth, and he would certainly be targeted because he was famous.

Einstein accepted an offer from Princeton University to continue his scientific work there, and he became an outstanding American citizen. One cannot even imagine what our country or the scientific world would have been like if he had not found refuge in our country.

It is important to realize that every immigrant has the opportunity to make significant contributions to our country and to the world if they are given a chance. Of course there may be some bad apples in the mix, but with due diligence we can limit their impact on our society.

Let us remember that it has been the waves of immigrants who have come to our shores that have made our country the great nation that it is today.

So on this Christmas morning, I pray that we can open our hearts and our minds so that we can reach out to the refugees who might come to our shores. Who knows? We might even be welcoming the next Einstein or Steve Jobs.

But more importantly, we will be welcoming strangers in Christ’s name. For that is the message of Christmas. Let every heart prepare him room.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

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Watch…Look…Prepare…Seasonal Themes of Advent

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There are more Mass Shootings in the News…this week in California and Georgia. Last week in Colorado Springs.

We are no longer shocked by the large numbers of people being killed … sometimes by terrorists, but more often than not by our own neighbors. While we look for reasons for the shootings, they continue…and it often seems like we feel helpless to make a difference.

Closer to home…there was a recent shooting in a local hospital…a murder/suicide.

I have visited this hospital many times over the years. My dad lived down the block…on Fletcher Avenue in John Knox Village…from the old University Community Hospital which is now Florida Hospital Tampa, part of the Adventist Health System.

Back when my dad was still alive, I took our grandchilden to visit him in that hospital, and I always felt totally safe going there until now.

Grandchildren…I feel so protective when they visit us. Just two years ago, Thanksgiving week, I took two of my granddaughters to see the new Hunger Games movie at our local theater in The Groves in Wesley Chapel. Less than two months later, there was a shooting there. A retired cop was annoyed at a man texting, and shot him dead in cold blood, and injured his wife. His defense: “Stand Your Ground.” I haven’t been back to this movie theater since this senseless killing there.

I try to live my life based on faith and not fear. But these senseless murders so nearby my lovely suburban home in a quiet upscale neighborhood have shaken me a bit. Where is safe anymore? I realize that if this trend continues, even a quick trip to the supermarket could end up costing me my life.

So I have asked myself, where do I feel safe? Don’t we all want to find safe places in a world that seems to have gone mad?

 

During the Season of Advent, we hear words like Watch…Look…Prepare.

Just what are we looking for? And how can we be prepared for what is to come?

The Revised Common Lectionary, which is the source of our appointed lessons for today, offers us two choices for readings from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first is from the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. In this passage, we are warned that God’s messenger is coming “with strong soap” and “refiners’ fire.” But who will be able to endure this stinging and burning?

Over the centuries, many artists have painted judgement scenes full of people burning in hell. You can almost hear them screaming in pain. I guess those scenes used to scare people into becoming “believers,” especially during the Middle Ages. But I don’t think they scare us anymore. We see carnage all the time on television, and people fleeing from the horrors or wars or bombings or shootings. We have become almost numb to these scenes.

An optional reading from the Old Testament for today is from the Book of Baruch. This is from the Apocrypha…from books sometimes included in Christian Bibles but not found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the Fifth Chapter of Baruch, we are given a very different picture of a messenger being sent by God to the people of Israel. It appears to have been written during the time of Babylonian captivity during the same period as the Prophet Jeremiah. It deals with the themes of comfort and restoration.

Listen to these words:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Put on the robe of the righteousness from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting.

For God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For your name will forever be called by God, ‘Peace of righteousness and glory of godliness.’

Arise O Jerusalem…

For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

These words are encouraging God’s faithful to be strong in the beauty and the glory of God.

Interestingly, today’s Gospel reading from Luke echos this image:

After the birth of John the Baptist, his father…who was a priest at the temple….offers this prayer…this prophecy:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,

As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from all our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers [and mothers]….

And to serve him without fear.

I needed to hear those words this week…to serve God without fear.

 

People throughout the centuries have faced difficult times…fearful times… yet the message we hear from God is “Do not fear…I am with you… even to the end of the age.”

It doesn’t mean being naïve, and pretending that we are not living in dangerous times. What it does mean is that God wants us to walk as children of the light…living in hope…trusting in the Lord with all of our hearts.

How can we do this?

First of all, we have to remember that we are children of God. By virtue of our Baptism, we have been joined with God in a bond that is indissoluble.

Remember…Nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord.

As St. Paul says in the Book of Romans:

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38).

Once we recall that we are God’s children and that nothing can separate us from God’s love, we are free to trust God with our lives.

It seems once we do this, we are tested.

Just this week, my very dear friend Virginia was admitted to the very hospital, Florida Hospital Tampa, where the murder suicide had occurred. My desire to visit her in intensive care overrode my fear of entering the hospital and being with her at her bedside.

She was lying there in ICU in an induced coma with a feeding tube in her mouth. It was hard to see this vibrant woman lying there helpless, hooked up to monitors and machines.

They have not been able to determine what is causing her seizures. I ask you to pray for Virginia, and all others who are suffering from medical conditions. While modern day medicine can help so many people, it often takes a while to get a good diagnosis, and hopefully treatment that can bring healing and wholeness.

During my visit, I realized that my love for my friend overcame my fear of going into the hospital that had been the scene of a murder/suicide not that many days before.

And I also knew that I now I would not fear going to our local malls during this busy holiday shopping season. Love can overcome fear.

I do not want to live in fear. Do you?

As far as the mass shootings go, a friend of mine posted a blog that made a lot of sense to me.

We hear these days about the freedom to bear arms as a constitutional right.

He reminded his readers that our country, the United States of America, is not only the home of the free but it is also the home of the brave.

We all want our freedoms given to us by our Constitution, but we also have to remember that it will take bravery to really discuss the mass shootings that are occurring daily in this country.

Another blogger suggested that we need to think of these mass shootings in the terms of the Twelve Step Program. We need to acknowledge that we, as a country, feel powerless to stop the mass shootings that are happening.

We can no longer remain numb and throw up our hands and say there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

We need to come together as a country, so acknowledge that we have a problem, and to finally face that the time has come to do something about it.

We should no longer just run to our corners and cry for either “mandatory new gun control” or “freedom to bear arms at any price.” The price is now too high to stay locked in that polarization.

I have my personal beliefs, but what I want to ask you today is to find it in your heart to try to solve this problem of mass shootings by discarding rhetoric of fear and replacing it with how can we bring about a more peaceful and hopeful society in which we can limit and perhaps even eliminate the daily shootings in our midst.

Is it fear of losing our right to bear arms that causes us to throw up our hands and say that there is nothing we can do about it?

Or is it fear of loved ones being shot down in cold blood that causes us to throw up their hands and demand stricter gun laws that may or may not solve the problem?

I don’t know how to solve the gun violence in our country. But what I ask is: What if both sides let go of their fears and start working together!?!

We may not be able to stop all the shootings, but we can stop some. Shouldn’t we at least try?

Maybe we should all turn off the television news for at least 24 hours and ask God…what should I do? What can we as a country do to stop the violence we are experiencing every day.

We can also ask ourselves: Do we view the world as all gloom and doom as in the Book of Malachi or do we see the world as a more peaceful place where children of God can make a difference in their world as in the Book of Baruch.

Let us Dare to think through what is calling us to do…and to beg the question…How Can We Make a Difference this Advent/Christmas Season.

Let us be watchful, and be prepared, and to live lives full of hope, knowing that with God’s help, we can bring light into a world of darkness, and peace into a world longing for messengers of hope. Amen.

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