I’m probably not the only one here tonight who is happy to say goodbye to 2016. This year was absolutely devastating. What an emotionally exhausting year. We lost amazingly talented people, suffered terrible violence, and endured an 18 month long election, the ramifications of which we’ll likely feel for many years to come. I compiled a list the other day, which I am sure is incomplete, but you get the idea of how rough 2016 was:
- David Bowie
- Glenn Frey of the Eagles
- Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire
- Leonard Cohen
- Sharon Jones
- Alan Richman
- Gary Shandling
- Gene Wilder
- Alan Thicke
- Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court
- Nancy Reagan
- Muhammed Ali
- Elie Wiesel
- John Glenn
- San Bernadino
- Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub
- Police shootings, Black Lives Matter
- Civil War in Syria and refugee crisis
And that’s not even counting Carrie Fisher’s heart attack yesterday. As far as I know Princess Leia is still with us.
Each of us was impacted by these individuals and events in one way or another, and to various degrees. Prince’s music and persona defined my teenage years. John Glenn was an American hero, but also for all of humanity. I loved Gene Wilder’s movies and personality and Gary Shandling’s humor. The shootings in Dallas and Orlando were terrifying. But none of those tragedies and losses can match the scale of the refugee crisis as a result of the civil war in Syria and continued war in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Honduras, and many others. A quick internet search on the plight of refugees brought these statistics:
- Worldwide, more than 21 million people have been displaced from their homeland by violence, religious unrest, poverty, or famine. A refugee is not someone who voluntarily leaves home to find work or resettle in another country; they must leave home or die.
- Of those 21 million refugees, more than 13 million are from Syria. They are not only Muslims; many are Christian.
- Many of these refugees escaped their homeland by way of the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to reach the coasts of Italy or Greece. In 2015 one million refugees came to those shores-- half from Syria-- and 4000 drowned, many of whom were children. In 2016 5000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
- The refugee crisis in Europe is the worst since WWII.
- Of those 21.3 million refugees, less than ½ of 1% will make it to America-- roughly 85,000 (most of them from the Congo).
As the humanitarian crisis has reached unprecedented levels, here’s what’s most alarming to me: the response of Christians. A survey from WorldVision showed these results:
- In 2015 44% of committed Christians had taken some action on behalf of refugees; this year that number dropped to 38%. Only 19% of committed Christians said they were actively praying for refugees.
Here’s why this is important, and why it’s drawing my attention on Christmas Eve. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were refugees themselves. We heard in the gospel reading how they were forced to travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth to register for the census. This was ordered by the Roman governor, a foreign occupying presence. Israel lived under occupation during Jesus’ lifetime. Matthew also tells us the Holy Family had to resettle to Egypt during Jesus’ infancy to escape the wrath of Herod, who sought to kill all the male children under two years old. We serve and follow a refugee. So our hearts ought to break for other refugees, regardless of where they live, what language they speak, even which religion they practice, of any.
Listen to our second reading, from the Book of Titus:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
God’s grace has appeared to us-- it’s Christmas Eve, people-- but how do we deal with that? First, we examine our own behavior and attitudes. We stop doing things that are self destructive and choose to resist harmful temptations. We live upright lives, meaning we live, act, and love as Jesus himself did. We live to serve others. We see others as Jesus. And we honor God in everything we do and say. We live in such a way that God is glorified by our lives. Sometimes loving the stranger is difficult. But just as Jesus came into our world, we also must enter in to others’ sufferings. Jesus was born into a world of foreign occupation, poverty, and oppression. The shepherds had their peaceful night with the flocks interrupted by the angels, whose first words were, “Do not fear.” They visited the Christ child and left, sharing their joy with everyone who would listen. What would the world look like, if we responded to war, violence, and despair with the peace and hope of Christ? Let’s increase, rather than decrease, the impact committed Christians can make on suffering refugees. 100% of our offering tonight will benefit refugees seeking the most basic human needs: food, water, shelter, hope.
2016 has been a difficult year. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, may we honor God by our lives and attitudes, that we may make the world a more hopeful place in 2017 and beyond. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.