Sermon preached at Christ Church on January 29, 2017
8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him . . . 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live . . . . 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews* you shall throw into the Nile. (From Exodus, Chapter 1)
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men* from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,* and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd* my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men* and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 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.’ 14Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.* 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘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.’ (From Matthew, Chapter 2)
By the mid-1800s, thousands of slaves had poured into free states via networks like the Underground Railroad. Following increased pressure from Southern politicians, Congress passed a revised Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This new law forcibly compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves. It also denied slaves the right to a jury trial and increased the penalty for interfering with the rendition process to $1000 and six months in jail. In order to ensure the statute was enforced, the 1850 law also placed control of individual cases in the hands of federal commissioners. These agents were paid more for returning a suspected slave than for freeing them, leading many to argue the law was biased in favor of Southern slaveholders. (From Wikipedia on The Fugitive Slave Act)
In response, the abolitionists increased their zeal for ending slavery and all the unjust laws that attended it. More and more people signed on to the underground railroad and joined in the resistance.
The full-fledged civil war erupted in El Salvador in the late 1970’s and lasted for more than 12 years. Extreme violence came from both sides. It also included the deliberate terrorizing and targeting of civilians by death squads, the recruitment of child soldiers, and other violations of human rights, mostly by the military. An unknown number of people disappeared during the conflict, and the UN reports that more than 75,000 were killed. The United States contributed to the conflict by providing large amounts of military aid to the government of El Salvador during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
The United Nations has estimated that the guerrillas were responsible for 5% of the murders of civilians during the civil war, while approximately 85% of all killings of civilians were committed by the Salvadoran military and death squads.
In February 1980 Archbishop Óscar Romero published an open letter to US President Jimmy Carter in which he pleaded with him to suspend the United States’ ongoing program of military aid to the Salvadoran regime. He advised Carter that “Political power is in the hands of the armed forces. They know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.” Romero warned that US support would only “sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their fundamental human rights.” On 24 March 1980, the Archbishop was assassinated while celebrating mass, the day after he called upon Salvadoran soldiers and security force members to not follow their orders to kill Salvadoran civilians. He was murdered by a member of the one of the US supported death squads. (From Wikipedia on The Salvadoran Civil War)
Refugees escaped the violence by running away—heading north to Canada where they were welcomed. But they first had to cross the United States where, if caught, they’d were returned to El Salvador into the hands of government forces. It was a death sentence. So there arose a new underground railroad—a series of churches, faith communities and people of good will who had a passion for justice—who provided sanctuary and transportation—helping thousands to reach Canada safely.
Shortly after moving to Maine in 1980, I met The Rev. Henry Byrd and his wife Hildegarde (affectionately known as Hildy). Henry and Hildy established St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, in Mars Hill, Maine, as a way station on the underground railroad. Every week, sometimes several times a week, late model sedans filled with gray-haired elderly women would pull away from St. Anne’s, to drive to New Brunswick, Canada, less than a mile away, for shopping trips where the exchange and tax rates were more favorable. It wasn’t unusual for people from Mars Hill to shop in Canada. But the St. Anne’s ladies’ trunks were filled with Salvadoran refugees. This was their parish outreach ministry.
Pharaoh’s, Kings, Congresses, and Presidents issue decrees, executive orders, and laws. But when some of those are in conflict with the moral and ethical teachings of faith—people of faith are cast into a dilemma: obey the dictates of the law of the land or follow their consciences and engage in civil disobedience.
Early Christians often faced this dilemma: worship Caesar or Jesus. Stand with the vulnerable or give into the power of the legions. Some paid with their lives—we call them martyrs which means witnesses: those who bore witness to the faith—just as Jesus did as he stood in fierce silence before Pilate.
Jesus knew that his followers might be confronted with difficult choices, so he taught them to prepare for those times—holding before them dreams of God’s justice and compassion: that they might be a sanctuary and place of safety.
So he taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who morn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (From Matthew, Chapter 5)
The church is a sanctuary. In the words of the popular hymn:
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary
Pure and holy, tried and true
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for you.