Abdul and Jesus and Me

Abdulkadir answers the door the way he always does: a smile, a nod, a quiet “hello,” and a handshake. His smile is a little pinched this day, though, the handshake awkward. He’s just had shoulder surgery a few days ago, and his right arm is in a sling, his face flickering with grimaces of pain.

“Come in,” he waves, lefthanded, indicating the narrow hallway to the room beyond. I shrug off my shoes and walk through to the snug but sunlit living room. There I place the flowers I have brought for him, my get-well gift. I remember the way he came by my house after I broke my foot, concerned for my welfare.

“Flowers,” I say as awkwardly as his handshake. “For you, or maybe for Halima—since she has to take care of you.” Abdul’s wife is just coming down the stairs, adjusting her hijab as she descends. “Hello, Halima,” I say to her.

Halima smiles and nods her own quiet “hello.” She quickly takes charge of the flowers, the awkwardness defused. With a tut of pleasure she disappears into the kitchen to find something for a vase.

Abdulkadir motions me toward one of the couches while he takes his place in the corner chair. It looks well lived in, pillows and blankets placed strategically for him to find a pain-free position.

A movie is playing on the computer monitor, streaming from somewhere. The film looks Middle Eastern, the language Arabic, but dubbed. I wonder what the original language had been. Farsi, maybe? Or maybe Kurdish, Abdulkadir and Halima’s mother tongue. Anything is possible in this household, forced into multilingualism out of harsh necessity.

“Qahwa? Shai?” Abdulkadir asks, as he always does. Coffee? Tea?

“Qahwa, please,” I reply, as I always do. One small cup of that strong Turkish coffee is enough to buzz me through a whole day.

A string of Kurdish zips from Abdulkadir to Halima and back again. Abdul settles back into his chair with another grimace, and we settle into our regular pattern of stilted conversation. They have been in Canada for a full year now, and their English has improved enormously—no more Google Translate, most of the time. My Kurdish still amounts to zero.

As we talk about his surgery, their children, my family, and more, my eye keeps being drawn back to the film still streaming its dubbed Arabic. Something about the scene strikes me as familiar. A group of men getting out of a boat at a lakeside village. One of them standing out from the others, strikingly handsome.

“Isa,” Abdulkadir says, noticing where my attention has turned.

“Jesus, yes,” I say in reply. “I thought maybe it was a movie about Jesus.”

Abdulkadir looks at me with a smile in his eyes. “Isa is good.”

“Yes, Jesus is good,” I respond, knowing it’s inadequate. I remember my religious studies classes, my previous inter-faith experiences with Muslims. Jesus, whom Muslims call Isa, is revered in Islam as a miracle-working prophet and teacher, even a bringer of the gospel—though not the crucified Son of God.

I have a hard time reconciling this reverence for the peace-loving Jesus with the flag of Kurdistan on the wall, adorned with the silhouette of a gun. But then I can’t always reconcile Christian reverence for the peace-loving Jesus with our own justifications of violence abroad to secure a homeland for ourselves.

We watch the handsome, Middle Eastern Jesus for a while. He teaches his disciples by the lake. He talks to a woman in the village.

“Maryam,” Abdulkadir says, another connection made.

“Jesus’ mother,” I reply, nodding. A virgin mother, according to Muslim theology. Does Abdul believe this, which I as a Christian find so difficult to believe?

Halima brings the qahwa and some almond cookies. We eat and drink in silence, the three of us, watching the Muslim Jesus. He heals a woman bent over with pain. He raises a child from the dead, bringing life to a whole community.

I remember last year during Ramadan, Abdulkadir and Halima sharing a meal with us at 9:30 at night, breaking the day’s fast. Normally this would be done with brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, all living nearby. But their family is far away, shattered to the ends of the earth by war and terror. Even Abdulkadir and Halima’s teenage sons are separated from them by an ocean of sorrow and pain. I and my family were there instead, taking their place, inadequately, awkwardly.

I remember, over that Ramadan meal of spiced rice and grape-leaf rolls, Abdulkadir beaming at me: “You are our brother.”

“Yes, we are brothers,” I remember replying with a smile in my eyes. “We are all sisters and brothers.”

Refugee Jesus

Let me paint a picture for you.

A family is fleeing for their lives: a husband and wife, with a child.

They are Middle Eastern: olive-skinned and brown-eyed, the man with thick, dark, curly hair and a finely trimmed beard, the woman with a shawl over her head, carrying the young child in her arms.

They stop to rest. They fled as soon as they heard the news—soldiers coming, coming to kill—and they’ve been on the move for 24 hours. Twenty-four hours through hills and desert, along a road by the sea, all their worldly possessions on their backs, or in their arms. They need to rest.

They stop at the crook of a stream, away from the traffic of the main road. They should be safe now, but one can never be too sure. They settle in for a restless night, snatches of sleep amidst dreams of terror.

The man keeps watch, one eye back on the road, the other on his wife and child. He feels all the things you would expect of any man: protectiveness, pride, worry, struggling to be strong for them.

Tomorrow will be a better day. Tomorrow has to be a better day.

The picture is one that has been seen all too often over the years. Too many years, but even more so in recent years. A refugee family, fleeing violence and terror, traumatized by the past, trying to look to the future.

We’ve heard the numbers. More than 60 million people worldwide forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. More than 10 million in Syria alone, of whom 4 million have been forced to leave the country. More than half of that 4 million are children. The worst refugee crisis in 70 years, since World War II.

We’ve also heard the stories. Whole cities, utterly destroyed. Mosques, churches, hospitals, burning. Boats capsizing, too many passengers, drowning. A boy washing up on a Mediterranean beach.

And we’ve been reminded of the stories from our own past. Our parents, or our grandparents, or our great-grandparents, themselves refugees fleeing war and violence for the safe haven of Canada.

So this picture—a refugee family, fleeing violence and terror, traumatized by the past, trying to look to the future—is an all too common one in our world.

But that picture I painted for you is actually of a particular refugee family, from 2,000 years ago. The picture I painted is of Joseph, and Mary, and the child Jesus, fleeing the violence and terror of Herod’s jealous anger, fleeing south to Egypt, fleeing as refugees.

The story is told in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s part of Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, but it’s not one we typically highlight in our church nativity plays. It’s much more comforting and cozy to end with the Wise Men kneeling before the baby Jesus tucked away in the manger. Herod’s slaughter of the infants, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as refugees—that’s not typical children’s story material.

And yet there it is, plain as the nose on Rudolph’s face: Jesus was a refugee, one of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees over the centuries.

Many of you attend churches that celebrate Advent in some way: perhaps lighting Advent candles, maybe focusing on Advent themes, in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. In Advent, Christians look in two directions: we look back to the first coming of the Messiah, the baby sleeping in a manger; and we look forward to the second coming of the Messiah, the king sitting on his throne.

And so it’s appropriate for us not just to look back to the often untold Christmas picture of Jesus the refugee, but also to look forward to the often ignored Second Coming picture of Jesus the judge.

The picture is also painted for us in Matthew’s Gospel.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

It’s a sobering picture. A judge. A judgment. A reward. A punishment.

And most sobering of all is what the judge looks for in that last day. Have you given food to the hungry? Have you given drink to the thirsty? Have you given clothing to the naked? Have you welcomed the stranger?

And most surprising of all is that the judge—Jesus—puts his own face on the faceless hungry and thirsty, the faceless naked, the faceless stranger. What we do for these, we do for Jesus himself.

Lentz - Christ of MaryknollJesus as “the least of these.” Jesus hungry, thirsty, naked. Jesus as a stranger, an outsider, a foreigner, in desperate need.

It’s hard not to wonder if Matthew’s Jesus was thinking back to his own experience, back to his own experience as a refugee child. I wonder, who welcomed him in with Joseph and Mary? Who fed him, and clothed him, when he was one of “the least of these”?

This Advent and Christmas season, I invite you to consider Jesus the refugee. I invite you to consider the refugee as Jesus. I invite you to resist fear and step out in faith, to step out in compassion for those around the world who are “the least of these,” the stranger waiting to be welcomed.

This post is adapted from a talk I gave this morning at the Morden Men’s Prayer BreakfastCross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.