I hope I can preach this sermon without tears, but either way it is necessary that I talk about this because when I see a picture of a dead child lying on the ground it affects me deeply for weeks…months even, and I just can’t keep silent about it. It doesn’t matter if the child is 18 and looks like Michael Brown, or if the child is 2 and looks like Aylan Kurdi; the images burn holes in my heart, as I struggle against imagining that it is my own child lying there – exposed, vulnerable, and alone.
Maybe that is why I feel such kinship with the Syrophoenician woman in today’s story. She did not want to watch her little girl die. She didn’t want her daughter to be a blip on the next day’s news feed as they reported on the demon takeover that ended her baby’s life. She was willing to do whatever it took to end her child’s suffering – even if it meant approaching a stranger from hostile territory to beg for mercy and healing.
Aylan Kurdi was a Syrian Kurd from Kobani, a town near the Turkish border that has witnessed months of heavy fighting between Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish forces. He, along with his 5-year old brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, drowned after the 15-foot boat that was taking them from the Turkish beach resort of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos capsized shortly before dawn on Wednesday. His father, Abdullah, was the only family member to survive.
Aylan’s father Abdullah, like the Syrophoenician woman, was willing to do whatever it took to end the suffering of his children – even if it meant approaching strangers from hostile territory to beg for asylum. But, unlike the woman’s story, Abdullah’s story does not have a happy ending.
Yet, even with its happy ending, this story about the Syrophoenician woman is one of the most unsettling stories in the bible. It’s not too terribly surprising when we hear people clamoring to close the borders to refugees – sickening maybe – but not surprising. But how can Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, turn away a desperate mother by telling her that she and her little girl are “dogs”? This just doesn’t sit well at all. It doesn’t even come close to stacking up against everything else we know about our perfect Jesus. Is this even the same guy we’re talking about here, or is this some sort of evil Jesus twin? We can’t even chalk it up to Jesus having a bad day – it’s just too out of character. Or is it?
We make an awful lot of assumptions about Jesus after all. From his long flowing brownish blond hair, to his aristocratic European features and the glowing halo around his head… For as long as humans have been trying to understand Jesus, there has been a great deal of discomfort over the matter of his humanity. As children, we learned that he was perfect; he never cried, or got angry or married, or – gasp – enjoyed the touch of a woman. And it seems as though there was one Sunday school teacher who pointed out that he never even needed to take potty breaks! The Council of Nicaea, the Council of Constantinople, the Council of Chalcedon, the Council of Ephesus, and many others, were completely invested in nailing down once and for all the issue of the of Jesus’ divinity, which was complex because of his inconvenient humanity. So it’s not too terribly surprising that this exchange with the foreign woman blindsides us and makes it hard to recognize that Jesus was merely reacting to his own human experiences and perspective that grew out of living in a specific cultural context.
This woman had a lot of strikes against her before she even said a word. She was, after all, a woman; and in the first century world, women had very few rights and even fewer opportunities to voice their opinions. In Jesus’ world, she was the “other” – a woman, a Syrophoenician, and to top it all off she showed up unannounced in the house where Jesus was staying. She was a Greek-speaking, unannounced foreign woman challenging the social norms. Up to this point, Jesus’ mission had been to his own people, the Jews. And he lets her know that she is on the outside of that audience, by using an ethnic slur.
Well if there was any doubt as to Jesus’ humanity, this erases it because this is the type of behavior we humans are famous for. We draw our lines in the sand; we erect fences and walls and we patrol our borders all in an effort to keep other humans out. We dehumanize the ones we want to keep out with ethnic slurs and ridicule; we dismiss desperate parents with seriously sick children.
Across the world, news organizations published the image of Aylan, with many expressing editorial outrage at the inaction of developed nations to help refugees. Ironically it is the poorer nations like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon who have taken in millions of refugees from Syria and Iraq.
We live in a time when more people are being forcibly displaced than at any other time since World War II. War, conflict, persecution, human rights abuses and a largely indifferent world have driven nearly 60 million human beings from their homes, including 14 million newly displaced in 2014. Children make up more than half of the world’s refugees and almost half of all refugees have been in exile for more than five years. Can you imagine what it would be like to lose not only your home, but have to leave your country as well?
As the developed nations struggle unsuccessfully to come up with coherent and unified responses to multiple crises, thousands lose their lives annually in perilous journeys across the Mediterranean (where 5,600 have died in less than two years), the US-Mexico border, the Andaman Sea, the Sahara desert, and elsewhere.
But as we know, there’s more to the story about the Syrophoenician woman’s encounter with Jesus – lots more because it ends on a happy note; which leads me to believe that there is still hope for our story as well. You see, this cheeky Syrophoenician woman calls Jesus out when he tries to shut her down. She refuses to assume “her place” under the table eating crumbs. Borders and boundaries of all kinds are being crossed here, and in so doing, she pokes holes in all of his assumptions about how things work. I have heard it said that well-behaved women seldom make history, and although we do not know her name, she certainly changed the course of our history by winning Jesus over and changing his mind – not just about her child – but about a whole new inclusiveness of all of God’s children in the gifts of grace. The woman touched Jesus’ heart and moved it in a new direction because her love for her daughter would not allow her to back down. This kind of mother-love is at the heart of God’s own love, and something deep inside Jesus recognized this mother-love and his heart was opened.
We want our Jesus to be perfect in all ways, fully divine, fully in charge, and sometimes I wonder if the reason for that is because it provides a convenient loophole for us. If Jesus is perfect, then we don’t have to worry about being like him because we are clearly not perfect. But, if Jesus is human – just like us – if Jesus can be changed by his encounter with the “other” – then we can be changed too. In the long run isn’t that more useful to us?
We have learned something about ourselves this week that was in truth, something we already knew. We rediscovered a simple, human weakness: and that is that we cannot conceive of an abstract problem, or even a concrete problem involving huge numbers, except through one individual – in this case, Aylan Kurdi, a silent toddler washed ashore on a beach, his face down. People in desperate search of refuge have been drowning at sea for many months. The civilians of Syria, including children, have been dying by the hundreds of thousands for more than four years. So we can’t pretend we didn’t know. But somehow, it seems, we needed to see those little shoes and bare legs to absorb the knowledge, to let it penetrate our heads and hearts. That’s how it worked for me anyway as I sat there crying my heart out.
Ahead of us lies another long election process… one that will seek to address issues such as refugees, immigration, health care, hunger and poverty. Issues that leave the bodies of more children than we can count in their wake. I shudder to think about all of the ugliness ahead as we argue over who’s out and who’s in, who deserves crumbs and who deserves to feast at our table of plenty.
But maybe our discussions about what the government, or those at the top should do are actually a large part of the problem. Maybe the only way things are going to change is from the ground up, starting with a family, a household, a town. Just as the story of one boy allowed us to see the problem, maybe a scale that is small and human is what we need in order to get a good look at the solution. What if every town in America agreed to take in a certain number of refugees? What if every town in every country in the free world agreed to take in a number of refugees? What if every household offered refuge to just one person?
God’s vision for the world is a profoundly expansive notion of a kingdom that includes everyone – no exceptions! Newcomers, strangers, people who are different from us – they stretch our perspective and teach us things about themselves, about the world, and about us. Can we be changed as Jesus was? Can we allow ourselves to seek first the kingdom of God trusting that all things will be added to us?
Let us pray…
Gracious and loving God, source of all compassion, we lift up in prayer this morning all of those who are fleeing Syria and other places of violence. We ask that you hear the cries and bring healing to those suffering from the loss of loved ones. Comfort those mourning the dead. Empower and encourage all who care for and welcome the refugees. Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms, and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace. O God of hope and mercy, your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs. Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with enemies. Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria, and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all. We ask this through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever.