If you haven’t seen the photograph yet, you will eventually.
The body of a drowned three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach. His family, denied refugee status in Canada, received passage on a boat leaving Turkey that capsized on its way to the Greek island of Kos. Alan, his five-year-old brother Ghalib, and their mother Rehanna were all drowned. Abdullah, the father and husband, was the only survivor.
The photo is heartbreaking. The whole situation is unimaginable.
At a time like this, especially during an election campaign, the politicians will react and give their comments. Such comments are drafted with extreme care, so there is sometimes an element of truth to what they say in times like this, even if we don’t agree with all of it. We’re all educated people. We have our own well-reasoned and well-informed political views that we will not explore at this time.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Politics do belong in church. Our business as Christians is God’s work among people, or citizens – which is where we get the word “politics.”
But we Christians live as double citizens – citizens of humankind’s cities and structures, and Kingdom citizens. The Kingdom of God has its own politics – gospel politics. That’s what we’re going to talk about. So in the midst of all of these campaigns, let’s revisit our campaign through our family story, and allow ourselves to be swept up into the sometimes frightening beauty of God’s love and our covenant as baptized ministers of Christ’s Body.
We must because we committed ourselves to be shaped by this story.
We must because today’s story is the perfect story for this topic.
This Syro-Phoenician woman does not exist solely as a literary character. She is as real today as she ever was. And she is reaching out to us, the Body of Christ, and we are weary. We have been healing and feeding and dueling with Pharisees. We often do this work with little help from Caesar. We have, in the wake of many recent scandals and hypocrisies among our supposedly most devout, insisted to a skeptical world that we truly do believe that it is the inner actions of the heart that determine righteousness, and not outer devotions and actions. We are stuffed full of the bread of anxiety, and a media which runs on shock value gleefully crams more in.
And this Syro-Phoenician woman, who is not of our tribe, not of our kin, finds us at our worst.
Like Jesus, we can try and tell her to wait her turn, and not to be so impatient, because the children must be fed first. It is in human nature to care for one’s own family and tribe first. It is something we cannot escape. There is a concept called, weirdly enough, Dunbar’s number, that claims that brain size in primates is related to the size of social groupings, which basically states that the human animal is hard-pressed to care on a deep level about more than around 150 people at a time. This may explain why what we call compassion fatigue occurs, and why there is such widespread apathy about certain issues. If it’s true, I might reflect that it is one of the symptoms of our Fall from Eden. Rather than being one with all things, we were separated and, fearful of the vast world which was no longer known to us, we formed social groupings to survive the fear and loneliness. Eventually any unfamiliar tribe becomes simply a part of that “other” background, along with the rest of the world outside.
The Syro-Phoenician woman shatters that truth. God in Christ found the key to unlock that chain of fear: the human face. Social movements around the world have been galvanized by the human face of suffering. Alan Kurdi’s heartbreaking photo is only one in a long line of photos that have changed the world, and already journalists have been making the connection between it and the infamous photo of a young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack which had burned off her clothes. She survived, and currently lives in North America, where she spends her time writing on the power of forgiveness.
We cannot afford to hide behind Dunbar’s number, whether we mean to or not. Even Jesus could not hide from the human face of suffering. She sought him out, just as she seeks us out, refusing to be ignored or silenced, no matter how weary we may be.
When she has found us, we face a temptation that Jesus did not face in this story. We may be tempted to find some romantic way to rescue her, to act upon her and become the hero of her story as we see fit. We might try to make her into the deaf man in the story following hers in today’s Gospel – the deaf man who is almost totally a passive object in the story. He is brought to Jesus by friends and receives a strange traditional ceremony of healing. Afterward, he does the one active thing he is permitted in his whole story: he speaks. But we don’t get to hear what he says! His friends are the ones who tell his story to the world. Maybe they were too used to the earlier dynamic of them talking and him being quiet.
This is always a risk when one is a citizen of a privileged group. We are to be friends to the voiceless and proclaim their need to the world, but we should allow those very voiceless to tell their own stories, to let the world see their faces and be moved by the Spirit to act.
The Syro-Phoenician woman didn’t come to Jesus with the help of friends. She came alone. She is never acted upon in the story – she is not even the subject of the healing! She busted down all the doors of propriety. It would have been scandalous for a foreign woman to speak to Jesus, a Jewish man, but none of those things matter when your beloved needs help. She will find us wherever we have been hiding and strike down every platitude – and every insult – with her need.
I need spare change.
I need a home for my children.
I need respect.
I need to be seen.
I need love.
If we’re calm, we might explain that we will help on our own terms. If we’re weary or suspicious, we might say, “Go away!” And if she won’t, we have a name for her – a name that Jesus himself uses – that is not fit to speak in church.
But she responds. The gall.
She says, “You have more than enough, and you’re messy with it. There are crumbs all over the floor. I’m not asking for much. To you, what I’m asking for would look like nothing, because you’re used to always getting the whole loaf. To me, the crumbs are everything.”
Because Jesus is Jesus, he does her one better. He heals her daughter, and then, after he heals the deaf man, he feeds 4,000 Gentiles.
The dogs asked for crumbs…and Jesus invites them to sit at the table.
This is what we are supposed to do. This is what we must do.
The photo of Alan Kurdi showed us the face of suffering. His family became part of our tribe. The world, through the photographer who took that picture, did the inviting. I think that’s why God loves the world.
Jesus does not expect us to do anything he has not already done. The way is open. We just have to walk.
When we leave this place, as your deacon I always commission you to go in peace rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Today, I commission you anew to rejoice in the power of the Spirit to change the course of history from outside and inside time. This is the great miracle of our faith: that Christ Jesus, the Holy Child of God, came among us to make God’s truth and work manifest in humble flesh – in humus, in soil, in the messy mud of our mortality.
We can no longer afford to be wrapped up in despair over the state of the world. All-consuming weariness which ultimately breeds only further inaction is a tool of Satan. Let’s reject it, and take up the tools of Christ – our voices to bring good news, our hands to feed and heal, and our hearts to liberate and set fire to the cosmos. If you do not know how you personally can do this, ask God to come to you as this woman came to our Lord, and shout that need into your face. We all have our own ministries to the world God loves, and it is up to you to figure out where you are called to do them, with God’s help.
We have so many loaves, and we were only asked for crumbs.
When the world comes asking for crumbs, let’s all do one better.
Let’s do a thousand better.