Suzanne's Challenging Sermon for the New Year 

By Revd. Suzanne Pattle

More than 60 migrants have been picked up while attempting to cross the Channel in small boats. Forty-nine people in four boats were met by Border Force and brought to England, while a further two boats were dealt with by French authorities. The Home Office said it would try to return anyone who arrived in the UK illegally back to mainland Europe. Charity workers said the government's "tough talk" was "extremely irresponsible".

A search-and-rescue operation was launched in the early hours, with a coastguard helicopter, aeroplane and two Border Force vessels taking part. An RNLI lifeboat was launched from Dover shortly before midnight on Christmas Day. French authorities rescued 14 migrants, some of whom were said to be suffering from hypothermia, after a dinghy got into trouble off the coast of Boulogne-sur-Mer. They were met by border police and medics on their return to the French port.

Since January, more than 120 people who arrived in small boats have been sent back to European countries, the Home Office said. In the same period, more than 1,800 people have crossed the Channel in such vessels. The Home Office said: "Illegal migration is a criminal activity. Those who seek to come to the UK illegally and the ruthless criminals who facilitate journeys are all breaking the law and endangering lives. "When people arrive on our shores unlawfully, we will work to return them to mainland Europe." It said patrols of French beaches had doubled, with "drones, specialist vehicles and detection equipment" deployed.

Kent Refugee Action Network's Bridget Chapman, who works directly with asylum seekers arriving by boat, said the Home Office's response was "disgraceful". She said the government's "very tough talk" did not "take account of international law," citing the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that "refugees should not be penalised for their illegal entry". She added: "There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker."Ms Chapman said it was an "extremely irresponsible statement," which "appears to be politically motivated and designed to whip up ill feeling towards desperate people". "I would remind the Home Office that Jesus was a refugee," she added. "Would they have turned him away?"

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, which often encounters migrants before they attempt the crossing, said it was "disappointing to see the Home Office criminalising refugees in this way". She added: "Nearly all the people we work with in France have genuine asylum claims. "The issue is that there is no safe and legal way for them to get [to England] and have their claims heard." Source: BBC news website report 26 December.

The starkness of the Gospel reading and of this news report cuts right through the carefully curated cosyness of Christmas. We have so domesticated the Christmas story, and colluded with the commercial fantasies peddled at this time of year, that we gloss over its more challenging aspects. Most of us, and who can blame us, would rather retreat from the world, close the doors, turn up the heating and escape from the news headlines for a little while. But the gospel does not allow us to do this. Matthew tells a powerful story about the clashing cultures of kingship and authority. Though the child born to Mary and Joseph is so vulnerable, he poses a huge threat to those who want to maintain the political status quo. Herod wishes to hold on to power and rules by fear. The child born to be the King of the Jews comes in vulnerability and littleness, to rule through the power of love. But though the light shines in the darkness, the darkness has not understood it.

We might be forgiven for believing at times that the darkness threatens to overwhelm and engulf this tiny flicker of hope. Rachel continues to weep for her children – and there is no cry so heart-rending that that of a parent who has lost a child. The world continues to be, as so often has been the case down the centuries, a dark and at times threatening place. Whatever the events that lie behind the story of the slaughter of the innocents; whether indeed Matthew used the story as a device to place the Holy Family in Egypt to support his narrative, I do not think we need worry too much about its historicity. The fact is that the slaughter of the innocents takes place with wearying and devastating frequency. We see it writ large on news reports and in our newspapers. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a report on the 30th anniversary of the downfall of the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu in December 1989. I well remember the reports coming out of Romanian orphanages – the blank faces of the innocents who had been so mistreated that the light had gone out of their eyes. And since then we have seen the suffering of the innocents in the Yemen, in Syria, in the Holy Land; in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Those who seek to wield power are prepared to pay a terrible cost to hold on to it. And untold suffering is the result.

Meanwhile in our own country it seems as if we are becoming more and more closed to those we consider to be other; we are suspicious of their motives; we see the needs of those desperately seeking our help as a potential threat – because they might place additional demands on scant resources. It seems to me that as a nation we are tempted more and more to pull up the drawbridge and keep people out – or send them back to where they came from. We seem increasingly afraid of opening our borders and our hearts to those – including many innocent children – who are desperately in need of refuge. You have to be desperate to get into a vessel that is barely seaworthy and make such a perilous journey in the depths of winter as those asylum seekers were doing while we were replete with Christmas dinners and snoozing in front of the television.

You may be thinking that I have deflated your Christmas bubble - but this is the kind of world that Jesus entered in order to bring light and hope. We cannot hide away from its realities. I echo one of the verses in the carol ’It came upon the midnight clear’
‘Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angels’ strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong.
And man at war with man hears
not the love-song which they bring:
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife
and hear the angels sing.' 

Let us not forget that the world Jesus entered two thousand years ago was not exactly a place of welcome for him; ultimately those who were threatened put him to death on trumped up charges. It seemed that darkness had won the day. But the flame of love has not been extinguished. Now as then as Christians we believe that there is more to this story, more to hope for, more love to be shared, because the light of Christ continues to shine, never defeated by even the worst that the powers of darkness could throw at him. Though we struggle still, the angels’ song is still there to be sung – peace on earth, goodwill to all – and as followers of the light we are called to echo that refrain. Each time we take a step towards reconciliation we are reflecting the light; each time we seek the wellbeing and welfare of others we are reflecting the light; each time we open our hearts a little wider and challenge prejudice and misunderstanding of the other we are reflecting the light.

As we wrestle with the issues of the world in which we live, and allow our faith to shape our attitudes and our actions we do well to remember the parable of the sheep and the goats told in Matthew 25:

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 who are members of my family, you did it to me.

It is to the least, the poorest, that Jesus came, in poverty and humility. How then as we enter another decade will we meet the challenges of our faith?