There were signs telling them change was coming.
First was a large, brilliant star, almost as bright as the sun as it streaked south across the night sky.
Next came the birds, thousands of them, big and black, of a kind never before seen in the village, filling the sky for an entire day, following the path of the star.
Then came the shaman’s daughter’s dream. A man with a moustache, clearly a god, appeared and told her that it was time for them to leave, to go to Thailand. He promised he would keep them safe.
Now the entire village had come together to discuss the signs and what they should do. For generations they had lived in the remote mountains of Laos, isolated from most of the world, living much the same way as their ancestors had for centuries.
But war had come to Laos, even to the remote mountain villages of the tribal Mien people. Some of the tribes had helped American soldiers in the war. Now with the Americans gone, the Communist leaders’ retribution was brutal. Rumors had reached them of other villages where everyone had been slaughtered by Lao soldiers.
For days they had wondered what they should do. If they stayed would their village be next? If they left could they make it to safety?
When Fou Tong, the shaman, told his friends about the dream, the answer became clear. They must leave, must travel south to Thailand, where they hoped they could resume their way of life in that country’s mountains.
So Fou Tong, his wife and 10 children, and the rest of the villagers fled in the middle of the night. For two weeks they walked through the treacherous mountain jungle. At times they could hear soldiers nearby. They gave the youngest children opium to put them to sleep so that their cries wouldn’t be heard. One baby never woke up.
They made it safely to Thailand. But after crossing the Mekong River to the new country they were met by soldiers, who took them to a refugee camp. There would be no setting up a new village in Thailand’s mountains.
I met Fou Tong and his family when I worked in the Thai refugee camp. They were among the lucky ones accepted to come to America, to start a new life in a strange and foreign land where not one thing would be familiar.
* * *
More than 2,000 years ago another dream sent a family fleeing in the night in fear for their lives.
In that dream an angel appears to Joseph with an urgent message. “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.”
Joseph does as he is told, waking Mary, grabbing their few possessions, heading out in the night with their newborn child into a strange and foreign land.
All the commentaries on this story talk about how it fulfills Biblical prophecy about the messiah, that it strengthens the parallels between Jesus and Moses, who led his people out of slavery in Egypt.
But what this story says to me is that Jesus, the incarnation of God, begins his life as a refugee.
And I wonder. How did Mary and Joseph keep the baby from crying, giving their presence away as they fled in the night?
Who helped this young family along the way? Did those strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh help buy food and shelter?
How were they received in Egypt? Were they reviled as outsiders and aliens, and told to go back where they belong?
How did this experience shape Jesus’ life? Did Mary tell him stories of how they fled in the night?
Did he worry about the innocent victims of Herod’s rage and wonder why he was saved when others weren’t? Was Mary haunted by the wailing and lamentations, the voices heard in Ramah, of parents weeping for their children who were no more?
Did Mary teach her son that he should always be kind and generous to those who were different, because he, too, had been an alien in a strange and foreign land?
* * *
The story of families fleeing in the night continues today. In 2015, there were 65 million displaced people in the world, more than the populations of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined, all leaving their homes in fear of war or persecution.
Recently I heard an official from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees say he fears “compassion fatigue.” He worries that people are tired of hearing stories of persecution and war, tired of caring about those forced from their homes.
Compassion fatigue in this country is combined with fear of those who are different, much of it stoked by some of our political leaders, including the man who will soon be president.
Much of that fear and anger is targeted toward refugees who are Muslims, many of whom are from Syria.
In five years of civil war in that country a half million people have been killed. More than 11 million have been displaced, almost half of them have left their country.
Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old boy in the Syrian town of Aleppo has become a symbol of the suffering of his people, after a photograph taken of him shortly after he was pulled from the rubble of his bombed home went viral. His 10-year-old brother died in the bombing.
In your bulletin today is a photograph of an icon of that boy by Judith Mehr, entitled “Omran, Angels are Here.” Angels surround the dazed and bleeding boy, offering comfort and hope.
As Christians, as followers of the one who began his life as a refugee, we are called to offer comfort and hope to those who flee in the middle of the night.
Soon we will have a president whose campaign rhetoric inflamed anti-Muslim fears by calling for a ban on all Syrian refugees, and suggesting that Muslims already in this country be registered.
This kind of rhetoric is profoundly unchristian. As Christians, we are to reach out to those whom the world has cast aside.
It is so easy to turn away from the difficult stories and pictures of today’s refugees. It’s easy to give in to the fears. It’s easy to be indifferent, or to think that it is someone else’s problem.
But God tells us otherwise.
Last fall I began to feel that God is calling us to sponsor a family of Syrian refugees. Others on the vestry and in the congregation agreed. My Laotian friends, Fou Tong and his family, came to America with the help of a Methodist church in Seattle.
Surely someone along the way helped Jesus and his family as they fled to Egypt.
Now it is our turn.
I’m happy to announce today that parishioners have stepped forward and offered a challenge grant to support refugee ministry. They will match every dollar given, up to $5,000, to help the Omrans of the world make a new home in a strange and foreign land.
We, thankfully, have not been called to flee for our lives in the middle of the night.
But we are called to hear the cries of Ramah, the cries of parents weeping for their children, and to respond.