Preached at First Church in Sterling, MA, September 6, 2015
Scripture: Mark 7: 24-37
This is the beginning of September, I can’t believe it. September is the month that we on the worship team have decided to explore the theme of Homecoming: the Practice of Radical Hospitality. So what better way to open up that theme than on a communion Sunday? We have an open communion table here at First Church, for those of you who haven’t been here before. It’s the dining room table of our home, and everyone is welcome to it, whether you believe a little or a lot, whether you’re baptized or not, whether you “belong” to this church or another church or no church at all. We believe that Jesus welcomed everyone to the table—sinners, the un-baptized, Jews and Gentiles, women, men, whether they “got” what was happening at the table, or not. We know that he said, “let the children’ come to me.” And we know that he dined even with people he knew who would deny and betray him. This is the greatest banquet in all the land because there is room for all of humanity around the table. We bring out our best silver and linens, and our best welcome. And we beckon you to come. And we say that this bread of life is for YOU. And this cup of hope and salvation is for YOU. And by you we mean: the poor ones, the rich ones, the young ones, the old ones, the broken ones, the ones who have it all together and the ones who just seem like they do, the addicts in recovery and not, the confused ones, the cool ones, the not so cool ones, the gay ones, the straight ones, the cisgendered and the transgendered ones, the American and the non-Americans ones, the Baptist ones, the Congregationalist ones, the Unitarian ones, the Trinitarian ones, the Muslims and the Jews, the communists and the tea partiers. Jesus welcomes you, so we welcome you. As a beloved child of God.
And we’re so glad you’re here.
But I have to say, Jesus is not throwing me a bone here with our lectionary text this week when it comes to the topic of radical welcome. The Syrophonecian woman story that we heard today in our gospel text from Mark is one of those texts that stops preachers dead in their tracks because Jesus sounds a little more like Donald Trump than the Jesus we know and love.
So I’m just going to talk to Jesus for a minute. I need to have a talk with Jesus this week, about this text, because we have beef. I hope you don’t think that me telling Jesus I have a bone to pick with him is sacrilegious. I don’t really know what else to do with this text but argue with Jesus about it a little bit, and God is big enough to handle our anger, even if our anger is at God. Sometimes this is what prayers sound like--sometimes they sound angry.
Jesus. Dude. I try really hard to be a humble servant of your word. Admittedly, sometimes I may go a little off track, and take slightly too much authority with your word to make it conform to how I want the world to be. My congregation’ll tell you that. I’m only human. But, I try to faithfully follow you. I have pledged to lead people in your name because I believe in you. I’ve been listening to you and studying you for awhile now. My job—the job you called me to-- is to help make sense of your word and your world, and its not easy today.
But I’ve been listening to you carefully. I’ve been listening. And here’s what I’ve heard you say:
You said, “blessed are the persecuted.”
I’ve been listening.
You said, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
I’ve been listening.
You said, "I have come in My Father's name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him.”
I have been listening.
And Jesus, in your most pointed teaching regarding "the stranger," you received the righteous into eternal life because, as you put it, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." But to the others you said, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for ... I was a stranger and you did not welcome me."
I have been listening.
You said, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" And your disciples were shocked that you would even talk with a woman -- any woman -- regardless of race or religion. But by promising the woman "living water," you offered your disciples a lesson on how to treat "the stranger."
I have been listening.
In a world that routinely viewed the poor, the lame, and the blind as "the stranger," you offered this counsel: "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or our kinsmen or rich neighbors ... but when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, [and] the blind" (Luke 14:12-14).
I have been listening.
Your friends who were trying to follow you said things like “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
I have been listening.
Jesus, you said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Of ALL nations, you said.
Like I said, I’ve been listening.
Jesus, in the story we read about you this morning, there is a woman who comes from a different race/a different culture/a different religion than you. She is Syrophonecian. She is not a Jew. She asks you to heal her daughter, and you compare her daughter to a dog simply because she is different from you. You suggest that healing her daughter is a waste of your healing power. You say, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
Jesus, why do you call another child of God a dog, what essentially amounts to an ethnic slur? “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” That’s what you taught us. How are we to understand this story, Jesus? That’s what I want to know. In saying this, you suggest that there really is a pecking order in the kingdom of heaven. That some of us are God’s children, and some of us are dogs. And this is not consistent with the Jesus I know.
You do something peculiar and awesome in this story, as well. Something I greatly admire. You graciously lose an argument. You listen. And then you change your mind. The mama bear who you are talking to takes your own metaphor and turns it on you, like the fierce woman she is. She says, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs." And that’s a pretty tough cookie thing to say to a religious leader of your magnitude. She sassed you, is what she did. And you actually have respect for that, and you change your mind. When the woman persists because she loves her daughter with the fierce love that only a mother could, YOU LISTEN. You heal her daughter.
So I want to say to your people that perhaps this is a lesson for us to follow you in listening to the voices of those we don’t usually listen to and changing our minds as a result. Correct me if I’m wrong. But I want to say that this is a story about listening to the cries of the mothers and fathers whose children need healing—the cries of the people who are not like us, who come from cultures and religions and countries and races unlike our own, far from our own. And perhaps you want us to do what you did in this story--to turn around and LISTEN and CHANGE.
And maybe this is also a lesson for us to be like that sassy woman mama bear—maybe it’s about courageous prayer: about CRYING OUT TO GOD with the desperation and tenacity of a woman trying to protect and heal her baby girl UNTIL GOD LISTENS. Maybe this is a lesson on NOT GIVING UP on yelling at God until our prayers are answered. Maybe you want us to learn a lesson on courageous prayer from a fierce mama who won’t give up until her baby is healed.
Maybe this is a lesson that the strangers in our land should be listened to and our minds changed, because once you were a stranger, Jesus. And we gave you food, not a jail cell and a one way ticket back to a country you no longer know.
We are listening, Jesus.
Jesus, I’ve been watching the news this week, and I saw with my own eyes a chilling photograph I can’t unsee: this three year old drowned little boy washed up on the shore of a resort in Turkey, face down in the sand. The picture was titled “humanity washed ashore.” He was a little older than my little boy, wearing clothes and sneakers like my little boy wears. He was 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, from Syria, part of a group of 23 trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. They'd set out in two boats on the 13-mile Aegean journey, but the vessels capsized.
Aylan Kurdi's 5-year-old brother Galip also drowned, as did the boys' mother, Rehan. Their father, Abdullah, survived. In all, five children from that journey are reported dead.
A distraught Abdullah Kurdi described his family's ordeal in an interview with Syria's opposition Radio Rozana, quoted in the Globe and Mail by NPR.org:
"The Turk [smuggler] jumped into the sea, then a wave came and flipped us over. I grabbed my sons and wife and we held onto the boat," Mr. Kurdi said, speaking slowly in Arabic and struggling at times for words.
"We stayed like that for an hour, then the first [son] died and I left him so I can help the other, then the second died, so I left him as well to help his mom and I found her dead. ... what do I do. ... I spent three hours waiting for the coast guard to come. The life jackets we were wearing were all fake. ... "My wife is my world and I have nothing, by God. I don't even think of getting married again or having more kids ... I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms."
I don’t know a lot about the war in Syria, Jesus. I know it’s complex. But it seems to me that these parents sending their children out in a boat is a courageous prayer for God to listen.
My favorite colleague, Jake Morrill, sums up the situation in Syria this way: “Carbon based energy use brought climate change. Climate change, plus agricultural mismanagement by the dictator Assad brought drought to rural Syria. Drought sent rural Syrians cramming into the cities. A surging urban population brought political instability. Political instability opened the door for the nightmare of ongoing war, including the evil of ISIS. That nightmare, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, brought Syrian parents to the decision that it was worth it to put their babies in overcrowded small boats on the ocean, because a high stake gamble that their children would live is still better than no chance at all. Those decisions have brought the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. To those who wonder, “Why don’t they go back?” One response is, “Back to what?” Another is “this is the consequence of climate change, coming full circle. It turns out our gas wasn’t so cheap, after all.”
Or, as poet Warsan Shire puts it:
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
Turn around and listen, you are saying. Right, Jesus? Listen to the parents all over the world, willing to send their babies on boats and across deserts because home is the mouth of a shark. Be brave enough to change your mind, you’re saying, right? Be brave enough to hear the fathers crying out for their lost children and wives:
"My wife is my world and I have nothing, by God. I don't even think of getting married again or having more kids ... I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms."
We are listening now, Jesus. Because we can all understand the feeling of grieving so hard, we have no breath left. We are listening now, Jesus. We are listening to you remind us that these refugees, these people fleeing wars deserve more than just the crumbs left on the floor. They deserve to be served at our tables, and have our help to safely pass over the ocean that threatens to swallow them whole.
When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, you said. We are listening now, Jesus. Amen
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.