We are in the midst of the last long weekend of summer, blessed with what is pretty much perfect weather. I get that. We have had the privilege of celebrating the sacrament of baptism this morning, marking a significant point on a life-long journey of faith of one of our sisters and daughters. And we will celebrate the sacrament of communion, bringing in the “sheaves of summer,” and sharing the bread and cup. All of which would be more than enough blessing and worship of God on this beautiful late summer morning.
And yet, in the midst of all this blessing, we must pause, at least briefly, to hear the Word for this morning and to let it sink in, perhaps, like winter wheat, planting seeds that will germinate as the light grows shorter and steeper, to send forth shoots and grain to see us through the challenging times ahead.
I invite you to take a moment to look at the picture on the front of our bulletins this morning– such a beautiful, healthy child, held in arms that make him feel safe and secure, looking at a face that obviously delights her. (Who knows if this is a boy or a girl?) And yet, I cannot look at the picture of this child this week without also seeing in my mind the picture of another child, this one lying face down on a beach, the waves lapping around his lifeless body. His name is Aylan, and his heart-broken father buried him and his 5-year-old brother and his wife in their home town in Syria on Friday.
Another father brought his infant daughter out of a train packed with refugees in Hungary, begging for help for her, because she would surely die if she stayed on the train or ended up in a refugee camp. I see that picture too as I look at this smiling, healthy baby.
“The rich and the poor have this in common:” the writer of Proverbs says in the Hebrew scripture reading for today, “the LORD is the maker of them all… Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor… Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” (Prov. 2: 2, 8-9, 22-23)
It seems these scenes from Turkey and Hungary, from Calais and Greece, are not new in the history of human beings–the poor being robbed, the afflicted crushed at the gates. Our reading from James describes an all-too familiar scene: the rich being welcomed and made room for, the poor being shoved aside, discarded.
And in the gospel reading from Mark, even Jesus–the best of humanity–seems to be caught up and bound in his own cultural prejudices and stereotypes, using an ethnic slur common in his time, to refer to this Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter as “dogs.” It’s a troubling passage. It should make us pause. Some say Jesus is just testing the woman’s faith, calling her a dog with a twinkle in his eye. Others say he is presenting an object lesson for the disciples. Still others say the word is really closer to “puppy,” almost a term of endearment. I refuse to buy any of those interpretations, and find them all appalling.
What I can believe is that Jesus was a human being raised in a culture of prejudice, caught up, like any of us, in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy, as David Henson says (patheos, 9/2/15); so that when the woman, as desperate and heartbroken for her daughter as either of the two fathers we’ve already mentioned, when she hears of Jesus and what he has done for others, she enters the house where he was trying to escape–here in Gentile territory–, bowed down at his feet, and begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. “Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, referring to the children of Israel, ” for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The poison of that remark is still in the atmosphere of the planet–floating around Hungary and Austria, in Syria and Turkey, in Palestine and Israel, in Burma and in Sudan, in the United States and here in Bennington. “Let the children–our children–be fed first…It is not fair, it is not right, that your children, who are here illegally, who were born into poor families, whose parents are drug-users, that you who are polluting our Christian nation–you and your children have no right to our food…”
But she answered, “Sir–Lord–even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
But he answered, “Please, help my baby daughter–she will die if she stays in this train or is shipped to a refugee camp.” But they answered, “Please– ISIS is beheading our men, raping our women, the government is gassing our villages.” Can you imagine the horrors that make climbing onto one of those boats seem like the better option? “You have to understand,” one woman posted on Facebook, “That no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
The truth is laid on the table–for Jesus and the world to see. And Jesus, as David Henson says, “has the holy wind knocked out of him. He not only heard the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality… It is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.” (Ibid.)
According to a New York Times report, when the government of Iceland pledged to take in only 50 refugees in 2015, a group of Icelanders called on their government to permit 4,950 more to enter the country. They wrote on Facebook:
“Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.'” “If you can’t imagine yourself in one of those boats,” author JK Rowling tweeted this week, ” you have something missing. They are dying for a life worth living. (#refugeeswelcome)”(9:45 AM – 3 Sep 2015 JK Rowling)
“You have dishonored the poor,” the writer of the letter of James says. “Is it not the rich who oppress you?” As one of the relatively rich of the world, I recognize that our focus on the poor–on those people crowding train stations and refugee camps, on those people who flood our borders and are here “illegally,” on those people who say they cannot find work and who need assistance to feed their families or themselves, on those people living in “the horseshoe” on Pleasant St. or Benmont Ave. or at Applegate or Willowbrook or asking for money on Main St.–our focus on those people as the problem deflects attention from those of us with resources, who are as much of “the problem”–if not more–than the poor. Do the rich really need all that money that they defend so loudly against, saying “No more taxes on the wealthy”? Is all the work that needs to be done to make our communities more liveable, our children healthier and better educated, our environment cleaned up, our infrastructure safer–is all that really being done so that we truly have no more jobs to offer people? Can the United States really only accommodate a couple thousand Syrian refugees?
Now, I know that the issues are way more complicated than can be wrapped up in 15 min. on a Sunday morning. Good people of intelligence and faith have devoted their lives to many of these issues, and there are many, many people and organizations stepping up with courage and compassion and generosity. I would love for those in our congregation who feel a particular passion and calling for exploring responses to the truth-telling of the Syrophonoecian woman to gather and help us all live into a new and more just way of living. I know we can make a difference.
Coverage of the current U.S. presidential campaign says that various candidates are “tapping into the anger” of the American people–anger at Washington, anger at the way things are. There is certainly enough to be angry about, but anger is almost always a secondary emotion–underneath it can be justified concern for injustice and suffering, but/and underneath anger is more often than not fear–fear for one’s safety and the safety of loved ones, fear that there is not enough– enough food, enough resources for a dignified life, enough love. Fear can be a helpful and necessary response to certain situations and things–our bodies are hardwired to deal with fear–but it cannot be a long-term strategy, because it burns us up, shuts us down, keeps us from being able to imagine more creative, long-term solutions.
“Ephphatha–be opened,” Jesus said as he put his fingers into the deaf man’s ears. He was saying that as much to himself as to the man, reminding himself, having so recently heard the truth from the Syrophonoecian mother. “Be not afraid,” the message so often comes from God. “Be not fear. Don’t become fear. Become bread. Become wine. Bread and wine for one another and for the whole world. There is always enough at this table–enough love, enough life. Come, let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark