Refugees in their own backyard

A sermon preached on Luke 2.1-20 at Wine Before Breakfast,
December 8, 2015

A refugee in his own backyard.
That’s what Joseph was.

Bethlehem became a refugee camp.
But these were refugees in their own backyard.

These were folks who had already been displaced.
They had already left home years earlier,
maybe even generations earlier.

Having lost their land through taxation, debt and expropriation,
having been reduced to indentured slaves on their own land,
folks like Joseph became economic refugees,
migrating north,
abandoning their ancestral lands,

Joseph had already left home in Bethlehem
to find a new life in Nazareth.
He knew what it meant to be a displaced person.

And here it was happening all over again.

It was the empire that rendered him a refugee before,
and now the empire was making him a refugee again,
in his own backyard.

That’s what was going on during the census.

A forced migration,
but not away from home,
but back home to a place that was no longer home.

Forced back to Bethlehem … to be counted.

It is kind of like Bashar al-Assad sending out a binding order
that all Syrian refugees,
those settled in other countries,
and those in transit or in camps,
were to return to Damascus, Aleppo, Homs,
and countless villages
so that they could be counted by the regime.

The Roman empire was all about control.

Control of people, of land, of resources, of commodities.
And any accountant will tell you that if you want to control things,
you need to count them.

Go to be counted or risk the penalty of crucifixion.
That’s what the Christmas story is all about.

And Luke wants to make sure that we know why this is happening.
Luke wants to situate his story as clearly as he can in the context of empire.

So he names names.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.”
The saviour of the empire, the lord of all, the son of god issues a decree,
and it would be treasonous and ungrateful to not obey.

And so anyone who could trace their family lineage
their ancestral inheritance,
back to Bethlehem had to return home.

But there was no ‘home’ to return to.

That Joseph and Mary had to look for shelte
in what had become a nightmare of migrants,
shows that Joseph had no kin left in Bethlehem.

Or if he did, he had totally lost touch with them.

And so, there was ‘no place’ for them.
No place in any of the possible accommodations.
They have been forced back to what was Joseph’s ancestral place,
in which there was no place.
They are placeless.

And the irony is cruel.

If there was any place for Joseph and Mary,
any place in the ancient world of Israel,
any place in which they could live their lives in covenant,
any place that was legitimately theirs,
any place imbued with deep sacred meaning,
any place of deep memory and identity,
any place that should be home for them,
then it was Bethlehem.

The precise place that could no longer be home.
The precise place where the empire forces them to go.
The precise place in which there is no place for them.

But Mary and Joseph aren’t the only placeless folks in our story.

So were the shepherds.

It is highly unlikely that these shepherds were guarding their own flocks.
It is more likely that they were watching the sheep of a landlord,
who had gained ownership of their land.
It is likely that these shepherds were poor farm labourers
serving another man on what was once their ancestral inheritance.
“Living in the fields” these guys are pretty much homeless.
Dispossessed, disinherited and displaced they too are refugees,
they just haven’t left yet.

But the placelessness gets even deeper still.

Whether dispossessed on their own land,
economic refugees who have left to find security in Galilee,
or even struggling villagers and farmers still hanging on to their homes,
they were all still homeless,
because they were all still in exile.

There was no way to be at home in the promised land
if the promises remained unfulfilled.
There way no way to live out the covenantal economics of the Torah,
if the economy was under imperial control.
There was no way to embrace the shalom of the people of God
if you were under the violent repression of the Pax Romana.

And it didn’t matter if you were a shepherd, a carpenter,
a tradesperson or a priest,
exile was the great leveler.

And the people of Galilee and Judea knew that as long as Rome ruled,
they would remain in exile.

Their literal placelessness was an economic, social and political mirror
of their even more profound symbolic placelessness,
their exile, their homelessness in their own backyard.

So the question becomes, when will the exile finally end?
When will a displaced people whose story is firmly placed in the land be placed anew?
When will they be able to come home?

Well, just as Syrian refugees can never go home
as long as Bashar al-Assad is the President of Syria,
so will these ancient Palestinian Jews remain homeless
as long as Caesar is the lord and saviour of the empire.

Therein is the political subversion in the angel’s message.

He announces the birth of a saviour and messianic lord
who will set them free from the bastard rule of Augustus and all his lackeys.

And when the rest of the heavenly host get to singing
they proclaim a peace on earth that will shed shalom
where the Pax Romana has littered the landscape with crosses,
where the domicidal empire had rendered so many homeless.

And it all happens in that refugee camp that is now Bethlehem.
It all happens in the midst of these displaced people.
The return from exile begins in a manger.
Homecoming begins in the cry of a tiny babe.

Bruce Cockburn puts it this way in “The Cry of a Tiny Babe”:

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you’ve got ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It’s a Christmas gift that you don’t have to buy
There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Redemption rips through the surface of time,
homecoming is begun anew,
exile comes to its end,
in the cry of a tiny babe.

And I wish that was the end of the story.

But the empire does not die without a fight.
The forces of placelessness are resilient.
The powers that renders so many homeless defend their vested interests.
The idols of the first century, like those of the twenty first century
demand sacrifice, and they have an insatiable appetite for children.

There will be more children crying.
There will be more refugees.
There will be more who are homeless.
And more and more of us will find ourselves placeless,
refugees in our own backyard.

So what do we do?

Well, we sing in defiance,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven
and on earth peace to all people.”

We sing, “Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo
not as a sentimental Christmas carol,
but as a revolutionary call,
as a proclamation of the birthing of the Kingdom of God.

Come soon, Lord Jesus. Come soon.




Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

2 Responses to “Refugees in their own backyard”

  1. Meeting The Shepherds - Empire Remixed

    […] The reality is that I need a Christmas as messy and guttural and powerful and life-affirming as birth. What I need more than anything is the costly, messy, and liberating story of one born in a sea of blood and amniotic fluid in the makeshift shelter of those who were refugees in their own backyard. […]


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