I wasn’t really thinking about the current world refugee crisis in terms of historic American immigration until Nathan and I went to the Tenement Museum here in NYC on Friday. It reminded me of all those who came from Europe to flee persecution and famine and hardship and found their own hardships here; my own family arrived at various times, but I particularly remembered in my family history two German boys who came to the US in the 1880s at age 12 and 14, I believe. Their parents sent them so that they would not be conscripted into the army during the German wars of unification in that decade. Alone, they sailed from Germany to the US to join extended family members in Chicago.
It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of love and desperation that it would take to send your children on a dangerous voyage across thousands of miles knowing that you would likely never see them again. And yet, thousands, maybe millions of our ancestors did just that. And people are still doing it today. Getting on an overcrowded boat, walking across Europe, risking their lives from a combination of a hope for a better future and complete and utter desperation at the danger and violence where they came from.
We hear a very similar kind of love today in the Gospel. The Syrophonecian woman comes to Jesus, finds him even though he’s traveling through what was a foreign land for Jews and even though he is effectively hiding out in a home. She’s like a lot of these refugees from our perspective because we don’t know her name, or really anything about her, except that she has a daughter who “has an unclean spirit”… something is preventing her daughter from having a future. And so she finds Jesus and comes before him to seek healing for her daughter, humbling herself by kneeling respectfully before this foreign man she knows only by reputation, because she loves her daughter so much… and Jesus humiliates her. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
My people are children. Your people are dogs. Don’t take what belongs to us.
And faced with such abrasive prejudice and arrogance, she loves her daughter so much that she will do anything to heal her, even humiliate herself further.
And she says, “Please treat me as well as you would treat a dog. Just give me the leftovers.”
A couple of years ago, when Matthew’s version of this Gospel story was the reading, I preached about how it appears in this story that Jesus sins—he looks at the Syrophonecian woman, judges her based upon her clothes and her accent and her religion, calls her a dog, and then repents and restores her dignity. If any one of us did what Jesus did in this story, we would say it was sinful—and I asked how then does this story exist in the Bible of a church that historically holds to a theology that Jesus was without sin? Because for the first 2000 years of the church, it never occurred to the powers that be that to treat a foreign woman badly was a sin. Calling a woman a dog? Totally not sinful. Discriminating because of religion or language or ethnicity or economic status? Go right ahead—that’s what Christians are supposed to do!
And so in that sermon I preached the surprisingly good news that we can FINALLY see the sin in this story. Good news—Jesus sinned! Because it is only now that we look at these actions and these biases and say wait—that’s not being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus. It is wrong to treat someone badly because of their faith or their gender or their race.
I’m finding this a much harder gospel story to live with this year. Partly it’s because the Proverbs reading today and the Epistle from James, where he is saying—along with Paul elsewhere in the Epistles—that we cannot make distinctions in how we treat people differently because they are rich or poor. They knew then that this was a sin… and they knew 500 years ago, and 1000 years ago and 100 years ago that the Christian is called to show NO partiality between rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek. When we are faced with ANY human being, we are to treat them as Christ, whether they look like us or not, whether they agree with us or not, whether they are powerful or powerless. We already knew that.
But I think the main reason that I am finding this gospel harder to live with this year is that I’m identifying more with Jesus in this story than I want to. Usually, when a priest says they feel like Jesus, it’s arrogant and hubris, but this time it’s a really bad thing to be identifying with Jesus. Four years ago I guess I was feeling more or less positive about the fact that the world and people were getting better at not discriminating and understanding that people are people and need to be treated as people no matter where they come from, I am no longer so sure. And I find it convicting myself, because the sermon I started writing this week, when I worked on it again this weekend, sounded so very first-world-privileged. I was angry at Jesus for how he treated the woman, and I was even angry with her—in a way—because she let him do it. I wanted her to stand up and be empowered and assertive. I’m in a space where I’ve been reading Brene Brown and listening to female empowerment pop songs… and it is an incredible privilege in this world to have the time and leisure and luxury to be concerned with my self-image and not with the survival of myself and my child.
It’s not all bleak—I mean, Jesus does change his mind, and save the woman’s child. We can change. But it’s a long way to go.
Bishop Dietsche sent out a letter this week asking us all to make today “end Racism Sunday” and that was obviously intended to focus on racism in the United States. And that’s important, and related to today’s Gospel. We will be praying for that in our Prayers of the People, and focusing on Racism in our Adult Education in October. But today… here is this gospel, think about the photos and stories you’ve seen and read this week about refugees from all over the world. Think about your own story of how you or your people came to this land. Think about how each of us, and our nation, contributes to the conflicts that cause people to flee. Think about how you and our nation contribute to helping those as they flee. Think about whether you are open to welcoming communities of refugees in our city, our state, our nation—or even in our homes. And think about how we treat our dogs on the Upper East Side. And that’s not a suggestion that we should treat our dogs worse than we do now…
And then pray. And act.
The following is a portion of a poem by the Somali poet Warsan Shire; she was born in Kenya in 1988 to Somali parents, and was raised in England. The title of the poem is Home.
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
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
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.