Jesus put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”
When I returned home from Bend on Saturday night, the parking lot in front of my house was full of cars. And the people who were getting out of them were carrying what appeared to be birthday presents, balloons, cards...all the makings of a very happy birthday celebration. I watched as they were heading over to the armory and there were probably more children than there were adults. It was a wonderful scene filled with joy and laughter.
Sometimes I think we take these moments for granted. We just assume that children everywhere have this kind of joy in their lives. We just assume that there will always be places that welcome children and their families. But this is not always the reality.
In ancient times, in the time of Jesus, the life of a child was a difficult one. We know that people did not live to be very old (even though the biblical text has fantastic characters living to be 600 years old!), and child mortality rates were high. There were basically no sanitation systems. There were no medical clinics like we have today; and what “medicine” they did have was based on herb and spice combinations. There was no refrigeration for meat, milk or eggs. Infections, food poison, lack of clean water...these were the kinds of things that could easily lead to death in the ancient world.
Because the child mortality rate was so high, parents weren’t always “invested” in their children’s lives. Families had lots of children for a number of reasons: since it wasn’t always guaranteed that children would survive, there was a concern that the family line and inheritance carried on; children could be used to help the family with cooking, gathering of plants and crops, and hunting; children could be sold into slavery if the family needed money; and female children were married off as young as 12 or 13...as soon as they were able to bear children of their own.
So for Jesus to pick up a child and instruct the disciples, who had just previously been arguing about who among them was the most important, for Jesus to use this child as an illustration to suggest that by welcoming a child is to welcome God into their midst--this was actually pretty scandalous. While we may read this and imagine a nice pastel picture of a smiling Jesus with little children surrounding him, what Jesus is doing is basically saying everyone--even the children, those who are the most vulnerable, those who are often invisible and are easily disregarded, those whom society says don’t “matter”--everyone represents God among them. So pay attention! Stop trying to figure out who’s most important. Everyone is important. Everyone matters. Pay attention.
So who are the children among us? Who would Jesus use as an illustration in our current time and place?
I know I can think of a list of folks:
--The woman who has left her home to escape violence;
--The man who has lost his job and is now living on the street;
--The women who walk for miles in the hot sun to get clean water for their family;
--The families who pay coyotes large sums of money, who then put them into cargo trucks and try to smuggle them across the border;
--The teenage girl who ran away to escape an abusive homelife only to be pimped out by a stranger who now owns her;
--The refugee who is fleeing a civil war, looking for safety
--The tribe who was forced onto a reservation and now struggles to maintain their treaty rights.
Who else can you think of? To be honest, I think the list is almost endless. And it’s heartbreaking to think about all of these people--our brothers and sisters--the children of God--who are out there struggling to survive. We can’t fix all of these problems overnight. At best, in our volunteer ministries, in our participation in activities like the CROP walk, in our education, in our consciousness raising and advocacy, we make little dents in these larger systemic problems that are troubling our world. At best, we bring attention to these issues and lift our voices in support of those who are voiceless. And when we’re at our very best, we welcome them, as Jesus welcomed that child among the disciples, and we ultimately welcome God into our midst.
This week’s Episcopal News Service reported that “The Syrian Civil War, now in its fourth year, has unleashed a humanitarian emergency in which severe war crimes — including indiscriminate massacres, persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, sexual and gender-based violence, and other humanitarian abuses — have become widespread. According to...recent...reports, more than 4 million people (through the end of 2014) have fled their homes to escape the war in Syria, adding to a worldwide total of nearly 20 million refugees, half of whom are children. This is the largest and most widespread refugee crisis the world has known since World War II….”
Along with this report, the Presiding Bishop issued a pastoral statement about the refugee crisis. Bishop Katharine wrote:
The children of Abraham have ever been reminded to care for the widow and orphan and the sojourner in their midst, who were the refugees and homeless of the time. Jesus charged his followers to care for the least of these and proclaim the near presence of the Reign of God – in other words, feed the hungry, water the thirsty, house the homeless, heal the sick, and liberate the captives. We cannot ignore the massive human suffering in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, nor in Asia and the Americas. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and our lives are bound up with theirs. The churchwide ministry of Episcopalians has included refugee resettlement since the refugee crisis of World War II. It continues today through the leadership of Episcopal Migration Ministries, and I urge your involvement, action, and support….You will discover anew the power of good news in the face of the world’s tragedies.
Included in her letter were ways to to learn about the crisis and the Episcopal church’s response. Among these are:
In 2015, the United States is welcoming 70,000 refugees to our country as new Americans. The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, through Episcopal Migration Ministries, works in partnership with its affiliate network, along with dioceses, faith communities and volunteers, to welcome refugees from conflict zones across the globe. Your local resettlement agency is always preparing for arriving families and in need of financial support, resources and volunteers. Contact an Episcopal Migration Ministries affiliate near you.
As a global leader in refugee resettlement, the US can and must do all that it can to welcome Syrians to the United States. Reach out to your Senators, Representatives, and the White House and ask them to support a robust refugee resettlement program and significant increase in Syrian resettlement.
The Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) has written a sample letter you may send to your members of Congress urging them to support increasing the number of refugees resettled by the US in 2016. You can find this letter on the EPPN action center here.
Join the Episcopal Public Policy Network to receive updates and policy action alerts to your inbox. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
Follow Episcopal Migration Ministries on Facebook and Twitter. Share news articles and story online and through your social media networks. Generate discussions in your community about the issues refugees are facing.
Join the #RefugeesWelcome global social media campaign urging governments to welcome refugees to their countries.
I am happy to help you connect with these resources if you are interested. And I am also happy to help you connect with other local efforts to welcome the children of God in a variety of ways through the Warming Shelter, FISH Food Bank, the Voucher Program, as well as other local ministries who are reaching out to the most vulnerable and often invisible among us.
As the Daughters of the King motto states:
I am but one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do.
Lord, what will you have me do?
Lord, help us to welcome your children.
When I entered college in the early 90s, I didn’t have my own computer. In high school, my papers were written on a type-writer, and I didn’t know anything about computers. During my time in college, we were given email addresses...I had no idea what that even was. If I wanted to send a note to a friend at another college or back home, I had to hand write it, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and walk it to the mailbox. Getting mail from home or far off friends was exciting because I knew they’d gone through the same process.
And while the 90s weren’t that long ago, technology has moved us forward in the way we communicate with one another faster than I think most of us could have ever imagined. Now most of us carry small hand-held computers--our cell phones--in our pockets and purses. Now most of us can respond quickly with a “yes” or “no” to our spouse if we’re running late. Now we can pull up an email from weeks ago and resend it to the person sitting across the room in less time than it would take to get up and walk across the room and just tell the person the information they were inquiring about. Thanks to this miraculous invention, we can learn about emergencies faster, so as to move out of the way or be prepared to step up and help. These tiny connection devices are pretty amazing.
But with all this good stuff came some not so good stuff. We lost a lot in how we communicate with each other. Now we don’t take a moment to find pretty paper to write our thoughtful letters. Long emails are quickly scanned and details are missed. There’s a designation for these “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read). Simple responses--ok, fine, yes, whatever--can be read with an imagined tone that might imply that the responder is annoyed, insincere, or frustrated; even if they really are fine with whatever you’ve chosen for dinner, and it’s ok that you’re going to be late.
Facebook is both a blessing and a curse...we can stay connected with friends and family, pass along jokes and silly cat videos, and we can share photos of the first day of school, the sunset, and a family vacation.
And then within minutes find that we are antagonized and triggered by someone’s insensitive comments, we can be bombarded by political commentary that we may or may not agree with, and take the bait to engage in an argument that under normal circumstances we’d never have gotten involved with.
So what has any of this got to do with church? Have you already texted someone else “she needs to get to the point already?”
It isn’t often that I preach on something other than the gospel, but this week’s lesson on discipleship from James caught my attention in light of how I’ve been feeling about communication lately.
For the last several weeks, James has been calling us back to what it means to be good disciples of Jesus. To profess our faith, to put our faith into action, and now to be mindful of how we speak. He says:
For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check...the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits...With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
Ah...a lesson in mindful speech. I wonder what James would do with email and Facebook? What advice would he give us about being disciples in a technological age? I imagine he would probably suggest that unless we had something nice to say about one another, or were offering a prayer or some other uplifting thought, we’d do best not to even have one of these small computers in our pockets.
And while James is writing to a primarily oral culture, his words are still powerful and important. Let’s try a more contemporary version (the Message):
A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it... This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild…. With our tongues we bless God...with the same tongues we curse the very men and women...made in God’s image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
While I’d like to imagine that I’m preaching to the choir on this one, that we all only say nice uplifting things and never complain or gossip...well the fact is that I’m spending a lot of time working with folks because their feelings have been hurt by what another person has said or texted to them, or they’ve felt that their response to an inquiry was misinterpreted or misunderstood. And I’m spending a lot of time reflecting on my own word and responses...am I being mindful in my speech?
I read a blog recently that reminded me, “words make reality”. Think about that for a minute. We trust people based on their words and actions. And if we’re going to be disciples of Jesus, the words we use matter...they can either tell the love of God that is unconditional, forgiving, healing, and grace-filled, or our words can be judgmental, condemning and hurtful. Being on the receiving end of the words we use can be a blessing or a curse.
And so as we consider how we continue growing and developing as disciples of Jesus, I encourage all of us--myself included--to be mindful of what we say. As my spiritual director suggests, take a deep breath before speaking (or typing or texting) and ask:
--Is what I’m going to say true?
--Is what I’m going to say kind?
--Is what I’m going to say necessary?
Our words make reality. Let’s strive to make that reality one of healing and blessing.
I was faced with a choice this week when it came to the Gospel lesson. I could preach the Syrophoenician woman or the deaf man healed. One is easy and one is hard. I spent hours--HOURS--reading commentary, prayers, and having discussions with colleagues. In my heart, I wanted to present you with grand wisdom of how I had solved the problem of the story of the Syrophoenician woman, but I was also chicken to speak too boldly about the question of “is Jesus a racist”?
Then this happened. A press release from the Social Action Commission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was issued to all mainline Protestant churches, titled “Liberty and Justice for All.” Following that press release, on Tuesday a letter co-written by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings was sent out to all clergy of the Episcopal Church, designating that September 6--this Sunday--was to be “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday”. And so I present to you their letter and then a few reflections of my own regarding Jesus and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
On June 17, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered by a white racist during their weekly bible study. Just a few days later at General Convention in Salt Lake City, we committed ourselves to stand in solidarity with the AME Church as they respond with acts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice. (Resolution A302)
Now our sisters and brothers in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church have asked us to make that solidarity visible by participating in “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” on Sunday, September 6. We ask all Episcopal congregations to join this ecumenical effort with prayer and action.
“Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking,” writes AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson. “This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.”
The Episcopal Church, along with many ecumenical partners, will stand in solidarity with the AME Church this week in Washington D.C. at the “Liberty and Justice for All” event, which includes worship at Wesley AME Zion Church and various advocacy events.
Racial reconciliation through prayer, teaching, engagement and action is a top priority of the Episcopal Church in the upcoming triennium. Participating in “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” on September 6 is just one way that we Episcopalians can undertake this essential work. Our history as a church includes atrocities for which we must repent, saints who show us the way toward the realm of God, and structures that bear witness to unjust centuries of the evils of white privilege, systemic racism, and oppression that are not yet consigned to history. We are grateful for the companionship of the AME Church and other partners as we wrestle with our need to repent and be reconciled to one another and to the communities we serve.
“The Church understands and affirms that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant,” reads Resolution C019 of the 78th General Convention. May God bless us and forgive us as we pray and act with our partners this week and in the years to come. In the words of the prophet Isaiah appointed for Sunday, may we see the day when “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
President, House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church
After the publication of the letter, the world of clergy internet blew up. There was a lot of back and forth over the definition of white privilege, wrestling with the question of whether Black Lives Matter is a political or spiritual movement, the nature of sin, and of course, the gospel story from this Sunday was part of the discussion...Jesus calling the woman who asked for help a “dog”...an ethnic slur that was used during his time period.
So what do we do with all this?
Let’s begin with the gospel.
Jesus is out and about. If you look back to Mark, you will find that this story from chapter 7 comes after Jesus learns of the beheading of John the Baptist his cousin and spiritual mentor, after the feeding of the 5000, after walking on water, and after another argument with the Pharisees. If I had been Jesus, I would have needed a vacation as well. The gospel of Mark says that he went to the area of Tyre, which is in the country of Lebanon...I’m not a geography person so I looked up the distance between the two cities...depending on the route Jesus took, it’s anywhere from 85 miles to 120 miles primarily on foot. The gospel says that he was trying to keep his presence a secret.
So we get it, he’s tired. He’s trying to keep a low profile.
And yet, this woman comes to him to ask for her daughter to be healed, and Jesus snaps at her.
For years, scholars justified Jesus’ response as “he’s tired, cut him some slack...yes, he’s divine, but he’s also human”.
But that hasn’t always sat well with me. Aren’t we supposed to look to Jesus as a guide for how to treat one another? Even when we’re tired, aren’t we supposed to practice love and charity? I know I don’t walk around with my collar on when I’m on vacation, but if in conversation the topic of religion or spirituality comes up, I don’t dismiss the person because I’m tired or trying to keep a low profile. We have whatever conversation needs to happen because that’s where our journey has brought us in that particular time and place.
Let’s keep going though.
So Jesus responds to the woman’s request “First let the children eat all they want...for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”. Yikes! Really Jesus? That’s what you said?
The scholars report that Jesus’ mission and ministry is first for the children of the house of Israel...the chosen ones. So his response is basically a way of saying “my healings and teachings aren’t for you...you’re a Greek, a Phoenician even.” Scholars say that this conversation was the gospel writers way of showing how Jesus moves from a Jewish-only mission to an inclusive one. And all of that is fine and good...I’m glad that Jesus became more inclusive...but what about this dog comment?
How different is this dog comment from the “whites only” signs and policies of our own country not so long ago?
So scholars try to rescue Jesus again. As David Henson reflected, some scholars have emphasized “that the word for dog that Jesus uses isn’t the typical strong language usually associate with this racial slur. They explain that the word Jesus uses...implies perhaps a beloved pet or a lap dog, and therefore takes the sting out of the slur.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/)
Again, this doesn’t work for me. Not only has Jesus apparently uttered an ethnic slur, but scholars justify it by making it “soft”. Isn’t this the same as the racist but beloved “Mammy” or “Uncle Tom” archetypes of our own country’s history?
So this is why I’ve wrestled with this text. There’s no way for Jesus to be a “hero” or a model for good behavior. It’s just not there if we read the story as it is. And that frustrates me. I like cheering for Jesus. I like it when I imagine Jesus as a liberator, a healer and teacher. I don’t like to imagine a Jesus that would call another person a “dog”.
Where is the good news in this story?
In his reflections on this Sunday’s gospel and the calling from Presiding Bishop Katharine to make this a day of confession, repentance, and commitment to end racism, Taylor Burton-Edwards, reminds us of the struggle that we all face when dealing with any forms of oppression--be them racism, sexism, nationalism, ableism, homophobia, or any other ways that we socially and morally separate ourselves from each other. Burton-Edwards points out that yes, Jesus uttered an ethnic slur, and he did so probably because that was the “norm” for his place and time...being an Israelite (as opposed to a Phoenician) meant that you were not only “chosen” by God, but that you were from a tribe or nation that was “superior and worth of greater attention from God” than the other. (http://umcworship.blogspot.com/2015/09/day-of-confession-repentance-prayer-and.html)
But the good news in this story from Mark is the woman. She was persistent and a woman of faith. She stood firm in her conviction that even her daughter--who would have also been considered a “dog”--deserved healing. She believed in the kingdom of God that was accessible to all people, not just a chosen, privileged few. And Jesus changes. Her daughter is healed.
This is the only time in the gospels where Jesus seems to change his mind. He not only heals the woman’s daughter, but because of this encounter with the unnamed Syrophoenician woman, Jesus experiences healing too.
As David Henson so eloquently stated, “You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality. Both must happen in order to confront ethnic prejudice in any time — and, yes, racism in our time. We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true. This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a privileged race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us. But we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories. We must hear our own incompleteness.” And we must hear how we perpetuate oppression in the words we choose. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/)
This is not easy work to do. And we’re not going to fix or solve this problem today. But we can begin...which is what we are being called to do by Presiding Bishop Katharine. In his prayer litany titled “After the Vigils, Vigilance!” Bishop Adam J. Richardson reminds us:
Prayers can’t be answered unless they are prayed, and so we have honored the dead in vigils of remembrance, emotional prayers, heartfelt tributes, scripture-based homilies, fervent eulogies, thoughtful soliloquy, and appropriate words spoken….
Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on us...It is putting feet to our faith, power to our prayers, urgency to the present concern, momentum to the Movement. “I received no answer” said Frederick Douglass, “until I prayed with my legs”....
Vigil is the starting place, not only to feel God’s grace, but to do God’s will--taking action against injustice. The sequence begins in theological reflection, the upward glance, deference to the Creator; marching orders for a parade route out of bondage to a Promised Land….
After the Vigil, Vigilance, to be daily examples of love, peace, faith, hope, maturity, responsibility and excellence, so that succeeding generations will be motivated to become what they see in us….
After the Vigil, Vigilance, against racism. Race is unavoidable; racism is a decision and optional. Hate is a horrible heritage; injustice is a terrible legacy, intolerance is a hindrance to freedom….
Vigilance follows the Vigil!
Let us pray.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.