READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Mark 9:30-37)
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
I went to church a lot when I was getting a divorce. It was the only place I could go and hide in a corner and listen to the music and wait for God to take everything that was broken and make something new with it. I was scared to leave the house that year, scared to walk down the street that year, scared to run into friends that year, scared to talk to my parents that year, scared to be with my kids for fear I would break down, or that they would ask questions I couldn’t answer that year. I was terrified of taking my kids to all of their events, which I just saw as shame landmines. I was terrified of going to things like back to school nights. Those back to school nights were the worst. And Thanksgiving and Christmas were nightmares. My family was as devastated as I was. I couldn’t take care of myself, and there was no way that I could take care of them. I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. I was showing up depressed and anxious if I showed up at all. I was fearful that people’s disappointment of me and my failed marriage would color every conversation. I had nothing to give anyone when I wasn’t at work. And when I showed up, I didn’t show up because I was brave, I showed up because I had no choice. It helped that I was numb. There wasn’t enough Wellbutrin in the world to make the numbness go away. It was the most vulnerable experience of my life.
But I went to a church that had a practice of confession and communion every single week, because I needed that. It was the only place in the world where I could go and feel like I wasn’t wearing a gigantic sign on my back that said, “broken person.” Or, more realistically, it was a place I could go where everyone was wearing that sign. My church was the only place that normalized broken people; where others admitted they were broken, too. Every week, we confessed our communal sins, and I confessed my own sins to God fervently in my head (and I think that just sounded like, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again), and every week the pastor told me that nothing in heaven and nothing on earth could separate me from the love of God in Christ. And I wept hearing that, every week. I was like a very small and lost child. I needed to hear that I was loved unconditionally like I needed food and water.
And the people at church, who barely knew me, they prayed for me. They asked me how I was. They played with my kids. It was hard to be a mom then.
I was mostly just vacant and empty when I wasn’t crying. It was messy. I showed up messy. It was the only way I could show up.
Showing up is important, because that’s the only way to live. And I want to tell you that I’m worried sometimes, as your pastor. I am worried that sometimes some of us are too afraid to show up messy. I am worried that we only come to church when we are capable of putting on our best happy face; our best pretend self. I am worried that we only come here when we are feeling well, or when we can at least pretend to be OK. I have met with too many of you who say that you can’t come to church for whole periods at a time because you “are not at your best,” or “can’t smile right now,” or that you “don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
We need to think about why this is, church. We need to normalize not being OK for one another. We need to help each other lay our burdens at one another’s feet.
I’m just going to be honest. None of us are as OK as we look, and I think we’re tired of pretending that we are. Ain’t nobody got the energy anymore to pretend. We can’t wait until we are all OK to show up for one another. If we’re going to be church to one another, we need to learn to take our own vulnerability seriously, and be brave enough to admit our vulnerability to each other.
This is hard work. I get it. I do.
But the message we get from our scriptures says something different, something that we Christians just don’t pay enough heed to. Our Bible says that God’s welcome looks like loving us up at our most weak and tired. Our Bible says we are supposed to be messy, supposed to be broken, supposed to be human.
We are told over and over again:
The meek shall inherit the earth.
God is most present in suffering.
We are extravagantly loved in our brokenness, weakness, despair.
Do not be afraid.
In perhaps my favorite passage from the Bible, the scripture we read from Mark begins with Jesus teaching his disciples that he will soon be killed. That he will be betrayed by one of them. He was admitting his vulnerability to his friends and followers, and it totally freaked them out. They didn’t understand what he meant and they were afraid to ask him.
I can imagine that. If a person I have trusted, a leader I felt lost without, was telling me that he would soon be killed, and it may even be my fault, I’d be afraid to ask him more about what he meant, too.
There is something about learning about the vulnerability of someone you depend on that makes you feel all the more scared for your own safety. The disciples wanted to stay comfortably in denial about the vulnerability of their teacher and savior, and who can blame them?
So they did what we always do when we are afraid.
Instead of admitting their helplessness and terror to one another, they had an argument among them about who was the greatest disciple. Isn’t that so what human beings do in the face of their own fear, their own mortality, their own uncertainty about the future? I feel scared, so I’m going to puff up my chest, boast about how awesome I am and pretend I’m not freaking out. So many wars have been fought because of this reaction to our own human frailty. So many relationships have ended.
And when we don’t have the energy to puff up our chests, go out in the world and pretend that we are perfect and our family is perfect, we just stay home. Both are dangerous, because the former is a lie, and the latter is giving over to our fear of our own inadequacy. But our job is not to be perfect: it is, instead, to tell the truth with as much bravery as we can muster.
Jesus points to a new way of responding to fear. When he finds out that his disciples were arguing about who is the greatest among them, he says, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant to all.” And then he does a little street theater, and grabs a child from the crowd, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
I want to say that this is my favorite thing that Jesus says about welcome. He says, essentially, whoever welcomes the most vulnerable among us—welcomes me. Welcomes God. He suggests that vulnerability is the source of our power, and that our job is to welcome it in ourselves, and in others.
And he says this has something to do with welcoming children.
One thing we have in common is that we were all children once. We all know what that feels like. Some of us romanticize childhood, because there are some really great things about it. No responsibility other than coming to dinner on time and doing some homework. No bills to pay, no people to take care of. But we were also so powerless as children. Try to remember what that was like, if you can. We were so small. We needed adults to carry us around when we fell down. We had absolutely no choice than to trust the people charged with taking care of us, for better or for worse. We had power over absolutely nothing. We imagined that when we grew up, we could have some control over our lives.
Madeleine L’Engle says that “when we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
I think that’s Jesus’ message to his disciples in a nutshell. Admit that you are just as vulnerable as you were as a child, and accept it. Revel in it, even. When you are scared or lonely or sick or sad, if your response is to pretend you’re not; you’re doing it wrong. Jesus says the keys to the kingdom of God—the way you can model godliness in this world—is to be courageous enough to stay soft, open, trusting, truthful, real and vulnerable, like a child.
The last shall be first.
I know to some of us, the word “vulnerable” sounds like the word “weak,” and weak is the last thing we want to be. But vulnerability and weakness are not at all synonymous.
Brene Brown is a brilliant shame researcher who wrote the book “Daring Greatly.” I commend it all to you. In her research, Brown asked people to finish this sentence stem: “vulnerability is________”
Here’s how some people finished the sentence:
• Sharing an unpopular opinion
• Standing up for myself
• Asking for help
• Saying no
• Starting my own business
• Helping my thirty seven year old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
• Calling a friend whose child just died
• Signing up my mom for hospice care
• The first date after my divorce
• Saying “I love you” first
• Getting fired
• Getting pregnant after three miscarriages
• Waiting for the biopsy to come back
• Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
• Admitting I’m afraid
• Being accountable
• Asking for forgiveness
• Having faith.
Does this sound like weakness to you? Brown says “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Vulnerability means taking off the masks we wear and owning up to the people hiding behind them, warts and all. It means facing tender moments with bravery. And that practice is for the tough, not the weak—vulnerability is the place where courage and fear meet.
We need to attempt this kind of courageous vulnerability with one another. We need to challenge each other to show up in community when aren’t ready to—before we have put on our make-up, before we have been cured of our disease, BEFORE we get on meds for our depression, BEFORE we get sober, BEFORE we have gotten re-married, BEFORE we have put on our best Sunday wardrobes and our BEST Sunday smiles. Before our family is perfect, before we have gotten that GED and gotten accepted into a four year program, BEFORE we get a job after a long time of unemployment. Our job is to be brave enough to show up before we’re ready to. To risk exposure. To risk being disappointed in the outcome. To trust others to be able to hold our brokenness, even when we know they could fail us.
Our job is to risk vulnerability, which is the ultimate source of our strength.
David Lose says that “Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.
These are small things when you think about it. Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger. But they are available to each and all of us every single day. And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.”
Grace F. (Cannata) Gray, 85, and formerly of Holden passed away peacefully on Monday, August 31, 2015. She was born in Boston, daughter of the late Phillip and Concetta (Micciche) Cannata.
Grace was a woman who lived up to her name: tall, beautiful, and meticulously dressed, elegant, her hair and nails always done, Grace had a smile that lit up rooms, melted hearts, stayed with you.
Life wasn’t easy for Grace. She grew up in an Italian immigrant family at a time when Italians were seen as second class citizens in the Boston area, and she and her family lived in Medford, significantly removed from the Italian neighborhoods of the North End and East Boston where there was at least safety in numbers. Nevertheless, Grace was proud of her Italian heritage. She loved being Italian.
Grace had a difficult childhood plagued by the mental illness of her mother who she adored, and her parents’ divorce and her father’s consequent re-marriage. Grace cried each time she talked about her mother, Connie, who ended up institutionalized for much of Grace’s life, even living with her and the family at times, and eventually tragically dying of ALS. “She couldn’t catch a break,” Grace would say about her mother. She restored the good memories of her mother for her siblings, children and grand children, so they wouldn’t remember her only for her illness. Grace didn’t let illness be the thing that defined ANY of her people. She let love be the thing that defined them instead.
Grace was a sickly kid herself, and once had to miss a whole year of school because of pneumonia. Her mother sent her to Italian witch doctors in East Boston who would rub olive oil all over her and chant strange chants to rid her of illness. Her mother was convinced that when she got better, Grace had a debt to pay back to God for all of the prayers that her mother had prayed on behalf of her in church, so she made her wear a monk outfit to school every day for a year.
Grace loved being Italian, but she didn’t love Italian men. Following World War II, Grace's unexpected introduction to a young Navy sailor, Charles Gray, led to their marriage in 1947. They met roller-skating, when she was supposed to be on a date with another man she found far more boring (in fact, she compared him to a lamppost). They went roller-skating again the next weekend, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Together, Grace and Charlie celebrated 68 years of marriage on Monday, the day she died. It was a good day.
Grace and Charlie lived in Malden, Medford and Wakefield before settling in Reading where they raised their family of three children, Ken, Patricia and Janet. Grace and Charlie also enjoyed a country home in Meredith, NH where they relocated for 20 years before moving to Holden and Rutland in the past 10 years. Grace spent almost 20 years as a sales operation manager for the sales force at the Skyr brand clothing company before retiring. She was great at her job.
Grace and Charlie’s lives together were marked by art, music, parties, friends, and family. Pat says that the first word that comes to her mind when she thinks of her parents’ relationship is respect. And the two of them loved to be together, so much that they were often wearing matching outfits. Charlie said, “I don’t want to describe Grace as needy, but she was always needing me. If I wasn’t there, she was always looking for me. “Charlie! Where are you? Where’s your father?” She’d say. “He’s always hiding on me.”
Grace and Charlie were fabulous dancers and dance partners to each other. They threw parties almost every weekend for their many friends, and the parties were infamous for their hilarity and hijinks. It is fitting that our celebration of Grace’s life takes place on labor day weekend, because Charlie and Grace threw a labor day party every year that was three days long, and culminated in a ceremonial march of the lobsters.
Grace was the center of their social group, and the ultimate hostess, and guest. She was an incredible cook, with an attention to presentation. She brought coolers full of food to every event she attended. Her friend Pat described Grace as “their life”, saying “every weekend we had something to do because of Grace.” Their friends adored Grace and Charlie, and wanted to be in their orbit. Their grandchildren even remember two couples vying to be their grandparent’s only Jewish friends.
Grace had a magnificent voice, according to her husband, Charlie. This was the first thing he told me about her when we met at their granddaughter, Jen’s wedding this spring. She sang “O Holy Night” like an angel in the Methodist church choir. “We haven’t been to church since she stopped singing, it’s too sad,” Charlie said that night. Grace studied voice as a young woman and was a talented lyric soprano. She was a member of the Velvet Tones, a female singing group that had an agent and was even on TV.
Grace and Charlie were charter members of the Colonial Chorus in Reading, MA, and Grace adored musical theater. She starred in musicals such as Carousel, Pajama Game, Bye Bye Birdie, Oklahoma, Songs from the Left Elbow, Rhapsody in Blue. They were theater people—emotive, artsy, fun, bold. Grace loved politics, and was a dyed in the wool liberal. She loved Barack Obama who she thought was very handsome, and could be found having spirited and loud political debate with just about anyone willing to be her opponent. Grace loved to travel, and visited Europe several times with Charlie.
Grace is described by her grandchildren as fiercely loyal to her family, almost to the point of absurdity. They mused that probably if the grandkids had ever come home and said that they ran someone over with the car, she would have immediately responded with: “Well, they shouldn’t have been in the street then.”
Family came first. Grace spent hours and hours talking with and getting to know her adult grandchildren and their children. Grace was a fabulous cook, famous for her sauce, her Christmas antipasto and her pizzelles. She cooked her granddaughter Kate’s meals for two weeks every night after she came home with her baby from the hospital. When her daughter Pat had cancer, she and Charlie kept the family running. Grace saved her granddaughter, Jennifer’s, life according to Pat…keeping her going through the darkest night of her soul. She was present when she got her CNA, and present at her wedding. In fact, Grace went to every event that ever happened for every single one of her people, bearing the best gifts. Showering people with gifts.
Grace was non-judgmental. She didn’t put up with anyone’s crap. She was funny.
Grace was a survivor, but never a martyr. Grace was a four-time cancer survivor, of four different kinds of cancers, and she survived the death of her youngest daughter, Janet, which was the deepest pain she had ever experienced. She was never the same after that. It was after Janet’s death that the family began to slowly lose pieces of Grace to dementia over the last 8 years of her life, the cruelest disease for someone so vibrant, so fierce, so alive, so sharp. “She was a prisoner of her own mind,” Kate said. “It was her world, we were just living in it.”
What a life. What a wild and precious life.
My favorite Sweet Honey in the Rock song is called “Wanting Memories,” and I want to share some lyrics with you now. It is a song about how we piece together memories of our dead in order to continue living in their image.
The words are:
I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you're with me.
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.
I know a "Please", a "Thank you", and a smile will take me far.
I know that I am you and you are me, and we are one.
I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand.
I know that I am blessed,
again, and over again.
This describes what resurrection is. All of you, and especially this beloved family--you are blessed again and over again by the life of Grace Gray—the voice that whispers all you need to hear, which is “I am you and you are me and we are one.”
We do the work of resurrection together. Grace has been and will continue to be, resurrected in the memories, in the bodies, in the mannerisms, in the lives, in the stories, of the people who love her—and so Graces lives on. That is eternal life. To carry on the work of Love that Grace embodied in this world is ours to do now. May we live as she lived—bold, singing, proud, loyal, beloved.
Grace Frances Gray: well done, good and faithful servant.
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.