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Sermon: January 5, 2020

Christmas 2 – January 5, 2020

Matthew 2:13 – 15, 19 – 23

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 fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ 

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ 

Immigration is a strange and complicated world.  When my call to serve All Saints in Marysville was becoming clear, I began asking the border guards in Port Huron what I was going to need in order to legally work in the United States.  I would be coming across on what’s called an R-1 Visa – a religious worker visa.  As I began my research, I learned that R-1 Visas were for a total of 5 years.  The first one you get comes from the border where you’re entering and lasts for 3 years and then you can get a 2-year renewal. Sounded easy enough.

First thing I learned in the process was this was a pretty rare Visa at the Port Huron border.  Every single guard I talked to told me I needed something different to get my Visa.  After a number of hiccups and several attempts, eventually I left the Port Huron border office with a newly acquired Visa safely stapled inside my passport.

The next three years everything went pretty well.  About six months out from the end date for that first Visa I was all set to apply for the renewal.  This time I knew exactly what I needed.  Or so I thought.  Armed with all my paperwork I crossed back into Canada and turned straight around to enter the U.S.  

Having arrived to apply for my Visa renewal, I was sent into the border office.  It was the beginning of a very long and very stressful process.  After consulting his computer, the border guard spoke.  “Ma’am, you can’t apply for your renewal at the border.  You must apply by mail.”  I went home and looked at the paperwork.  To say it was confusing, would be a tremendous understatement.

It seemed like some help with this process was definitely in order.  I called the Diocesan office looking for the name of an immigration lawyer.  Eventually we got the name of a lawyer in Detroit. And he helped get the paperwork filled out and sent in.  We had six months and I was confident that we had plenty of time.

Almost six months later I still had no renewal in my hand.  A trip to the mailbox revealed what seemed like quicksand and I was beginning to sink in the mess that was my immigration process.  A letter from immigration had arrived letting me know I only had 2 weeks left on my Visa and if I didn’t receive my renewal, I would be required to leave the country for at least one year.  At that point I was free to begin the entire process again.  

I called the immigration lawyer and learned that my application was in a pile somewhere in the system and there was nothing he could do.  R-1 Visa’s had been abused by some churches and now every single application was being investigated to the n-th degree.  

Where is God when you find yourself in a strange land?

Joseph is a man of dreams.  It was a dream that had brought him to this place.  A dream that encouraged him to take Mary for his wife and to accept the responsibility of helping to raise the Son of God.  Today he has another dream.  One that has him up in the middle of the night, packing his tiny family up and moving them to an entirely new world.  Egypt.  

Can you imagine the thoughts running through his head as they travelled as quickly as they could to a new land?  The wise ones have visited and affirmed that this was a bright and shining moment.  Now his dream had been shattered, leaving in its wake a nightmare that was inconceivable.  Joseph, Mary and Jesus had moved from dreams for the future to terror in the blink of an eye.

I suspect that Joseph had the entire map of his future laid out.  He was a carpenter and perhaps had a thriving business that would be able to support his now growing family.  His friends were all in town.  He knew the language, the customs, how to get around town. 

Now, now he found himself in a different country.  He had so much to learn.  New customs.  New language.  He had to start over again getting his business anchored.  He and Mary would need to make new connections with new friends.  The list of changes seemed to be endless.

I’m sure as the days and weeks and months and years progressed, there were many times where he found himself asking the question, “Just where is God in this new and strange land?”

If we’re honest with ourselves, there are times in our lives when things are so different, so confusing, so weird, that it feels as if we’ve entered a new and strange land.  As we try to acclimatize to a new way of being in the world, we might also find ourselves asking where God is in the midst of all that we are experiencing.

We don’t know a whole lot about what Joseph and Mary and Jesus experienced in Egypt.  Really, today’s passage is the only information we have.  Joseph had a dream, moved his family to Egypt, had another dream, moved them back to Israel.  Again, Joseph had a dream and moved from Judea to the district of Galilee and Nazareth.  So, I asked myself, where else have we heard the story of God in the lives of people experiencing a new land?

Way back in the 12th Chapter of Genesis we hear God speaking to Abram – this is before Abram was renamed by God to be Abraham – “Go from your country,” says God, “Go from your country to a land that I will show you.”  God didn’t even tell Abram where they were about to journey.  They couldn’t look up what they might expect in this new place on Google.  They had no address to punch into their GPS.  Just get up and go, invites God.  

Where will God be in the midst of this unknown?  God tells Abram to go to the land that God will show him.  God was going on this journey with them.  God would be there as they began.  God would be there with every step they took.  God would be there as they stepped into this new land that God would show them. God would be with them.

We hear that same kind of certainty in the book of Isaiah.  This part of Isaiah was likely written during a time of exile as the people of God had been run over by oppressors and carted off to Babylon.  They were living in a strange land and felt that they’d been abandoned by God.  The prophet speaks into their situation and God makes it clear that God is with the people.  Hear the words of Isaiah:

I will lead the blind
   by a road they do not know,
by paths they have not known
   I will guide them.

I will turn the darkness before them into light,
   the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
   and I will not forsake them.

                        (Isaiah 42:16)

God was in Babylon.  God was with them.  Even in this strange land.  God would lead them.  God would guide them.  And God would NOT forsake them.  EVER.

Those are powerful words that speak into those places in our lives when we find ourselves in a strange land.

I knew God’s presence in my immigration process.  A short time before I received the letter from Immigration reminding me that I had a time limit on my work here in this country, we welcomed a new family into the congregation.  Her brother was an immigration lawyer in Florida who specialized in sports immigration.  A phone call to him connected us with another immigration lawyer in Buffalo.  They used to work together and now this man focused on challenging immigration situations.

Perfect, I thought.  This whole situation seemed more than challenging to me.  I sat in the conference room at my Sr. Warden’s husband’s office on a conference call with both of them and this lawyer.  He asked how he might help and I detailed my situation and where we were at, stress underscoring every single word I shared.

“Oh, this is an easy case.”  That’s what he said.  “Easy.”  And he walked us through what we would do if we hired him.  He was about three times as expensive of my original lawyer and the church had no money but we hired him on the spot.

God was there.  Supporting me in this challenging situation.  Walking with me.  Helping me to know I wasn’t alone.  I won’t tell you that all my stress immediately faded away.  It didn’t.  Turns out that the immigration rules were not consistent across all the border crossings.  You couldn’t apply for an R-1 renewal at the Port Huron crossing and you couldn’t apply for that renewal in Detroit either.  

You could, we were told, apply for the renewal at the Buffalo border.  We were told by the expert and yet I didn’t believe him.  I was certain that some weird glitch would occur.  I can horribilize with the best!

So, one cold day in April, my Sr. Warden and her husband bundled me up in their car and drove me into Canada.  I hadn’t crossed the border in months.  When you apply for a renewal, you have to send in your Visa.  That means you can leave the country but you can’t get back in.  We drove to Niagara Falls and crossed back into the States at the Rainbow Bridge.  

We had a backup plan at the church in case I didn’t make it to church the next Sunday.  My parents were set to welcome me home to live with them in their tiny apartment.  We had a fan-out-call-list to let the congregation know what happened.  And we arrived for our already set-up appointment with all my paperwork boxed up and beside me in the car.

And it worked!  A short wait time past the appointment time and $6 later I had a brand new Visa safely stapled into my passport.  Pictures from that day reveal stress etched onto my face.  I’d lost sight of the fact that God was with me and yet, there God was.  Right in the middle of the strange land of immigration.  I lived the reality of all those stories we read about in the Bible.  God is there.  Leading us.  Walking with us.  Never forsaking us.

Where is God when we find ourselves in a strange land?  Right there.  Guiding us.  And, when we need, carrying us.  Thanks be to God!