Tag Archives: Syria

Refugees Welcome – God sent YOU to us

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Read the whole passage)

 

Sermon

As the plane descended, it broke through the orange grey cloud cover. As Mara looked out her window, she could see the lights of the city sprawling off in all directions. There were little cars and trucks moving along streets and highways. Buildings rose up tall in some places, and in other areas fields and parks broke up rows and rows of houses. All of it was covered in white… like a great sandstorm had covered the city, but not quite.

Soon the airport and runway came into view. This was a the 4th and final landing that she, her husband Yusef and her two year old son Isa would be making on their long journey. 72 hours before, that had left the Zataari Refugee camp for Amman Jordan.  In Amman they boarded a plane destined for Canada. They had been chosen for resettlement. They had been interviewed, screened, and interviewed some more. When the news came that they has been chosen to go to Canada, they couldn’t believe the news.

The plane touched down and began taxi-ing into the terminal. The plane was nearly empty with only a few dozen others. It was dark outside and the family was tired. They gathered their belongings to exit the plane. However, as Mara and Yusuf made their way up the gangway and through the airport, their anticipation was beginning to build. They were about to finally arrive at a new life, in a safe country. Mara noticed right away that there were no soldiers or guards, nor police officers to be seen Late at night the airport was nearly empty, except for the friendly airline staff waving them on towards the baggage claim with smiles and greetings. The government officials who had been with them the whole way were leading the group as they walked.

Through a final set of security doors, the group spilled into the escalators leadings down to the baggage area. The quiet airport all of sudden was filled with noise. There were people shouting and cheering, clapping. As Mara, Yusuf and Isa stood at the top of the escalators she could now see crowds of people. Hundreds – waiting just for them. Many were holding signs. In English and Arabic,

“Welcome Refugees. You are home”

As the group rode down the escalator it was thrilling. The gathered crowd began singing (Mara would later discover that they were singing O Canada). People were handing out coffee cups that looked like Christmas sweaters. And little sugar-coated balls of dough to eat.

The government officials were helping the refugees to find their sponsors, but Mara had already spotted hers. There was a group holding a sign in Arabic with their names on it. Underneath their sign it said, St. David’s church. Mara noticed it because Yusuf’s family had always said they were related to the great King of Israel – David.

There were about 20 church members. An older priest, surrounded by all kinds of people. A woman stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Mara – Marlena the woman said pointing to herself.

“My name is Mara” Mara said practicing the English she had been learning for the past two years in the Zataari Camp.

After many more hugs and introductions, Isa was off playing with boy and girl around 11 or 12 years old. Yusuf was trying on a number of winter coats the group had brought. Mara couldn’t believe all these people were there for her family.

Soon the three were packed up in a big SUV and on their way to their new home. Marlena and her husband Jim with their children David and Lizzie took the family to their new apartment. Mara was exhausted but exhilarated. She didn’t know how relieved she would feel to finally be safe, for the first time in years. For the first time since she and Yusuf had left Damascus with only what they could carry and walked to Jordan. She had been quite pregnant at the time and she had given birth to Isa their first night in Jordan. During the past 2 years they had lived in a Refugee camp wondering if they would ever go home again, wondering if they would ever have a home again. Isa had been a Refugee, a stateless person, a homeless person his entire life. He didn’t have a home until now. But now he was, with his parents, a Canadian.

Marlena’s family said goodbye and promised to be back the next day. They would be going to church for Christmas Day. Yusuf put Isa to bed while Mara explored their new home. It was full of furniture, food and more. Finally late into the night, Mara and Yusuf, happy and content, drifted off to sleep…

In the morning, the doorbell rang. Mara went to the door. It was Marlena.

“Are you ready to head… Where did you get that sweater?” she asked surprised.

“They gave to us in camp” said Mara.

“What? How?” said Marlena.

“C-L-W-R” Mara said trying to remember the letters.

“I gave that sweater to the Lutheran church across from our church to years ago, that is incredible that YOU have it.”

Mara was wearing a St. Francis Xavier University shirt. It said Volleyball on the back. Marlena pointed to the arm. Stitched onto the arm it said Marlena – 1994.

“Amazing” said Marlena. “Just amazing.”

The two families arrived at St. David’s about 5 minutes before church was to start… they were greeted by too many people to remember. Finally, the two families found their pew on the right side of the sanctuary.

Father Angelo processed into the sanctuary to begin worship and the congregation began singing, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Two years in the refugee camp and now two days in Canada had been full of unfamiliar things, this church was more like home than either Mara or Yusuf expected. They were Syrian coptic. The liturgy at St. David’s was very familiar to how they worshipped back in Syria. Even though they couldn’t always keep up with the English, the familiar pattern of standing and praying and singing reminded them of life back in Damascus. They listened to the sermon, they joined in the prayers when they could, and they went forward to receive communion. Father Angelo smiled as he put some bread in Isa’s hands.

At the end of the service, Father Angelo made a few announcements. And then he slowed down and said very clearly,

“As-salamu alaykum” which means Peace Be with you in Arabic.

“Today, we are also welcoming very special new members. Yusuf, Mara and Isa are joining us from Syria.” before he could finish people started clapping.

Overtop of the clapping Father Angelo asked the family to stand.

Marlena leaned over to Mara and Yusuf and gestured to stand. Uncertainly Mara stood up, Yusuf picked up Isa and joined her. As they stood the clapping almost immediately died out. People were gasping and some were even pointing. Mara became very self conscious. Trying to formulate the English words, she said, “Thank you. God has blessed us and given you to us. We are so happy.”

Still people were staring and pointing, until Mara realized they were pointing behind her. Behind Mara, Yusuf and Isa hanging on the wall was a Christmas Banner. It was a dark navy blue starry sky above a brown desert. Walking across the desert were two figures, one holding a child. Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt. Mara looked strikingly like Mary, with her white headscarf, blue sweater and blue dress matching Mary’s look exactly. Yusuf’s shaggy hair and beard, with his brown corduroy sport jacket and brown pants matching Joseph’s brown tunic. Even Isa’s red shirt and white pants mimicking the infant Jesus’ white and red clothes.

Father Angelo finally broke the moment.

“No” he said. “No, God did not give us to you. Here you are in our church, a family from the house of David who had fled across the same sands as the holy family, who has known fear and danger, who has sought refuge in a foreign land.”

Father Angelo took a breath.

“No, God did not give us to you. God has sent YOU to us. We are blessed because you have been given you us. You are the ones that we have been waiting for. The ones that we needed to receive here. You are the ones who have reminded us that we have not saved you. But you have saved us. Your little family has travelled across the world to remind us that we are the ones who needed the saving. That God is the one coming into our world in order to bring light into our darkness.”

Father Angelo took another breath and then said,

“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Amen

*This is part 3 in the series. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

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Mary and Joseph in Al Zataari

*Part 1 of this series is found here.

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Read the whole passage here)

 

Sermon

As he walked along the rough and sandy road, Yusuf looked up to see his fiancée. She was sitting in the back of a cart being pulled by a horse. She gave him a gentle smile and then closed her eyes once again to try and sleep. Every time the cart hit a bump in the road, the whole thing bounced and shook. Undoubtedly, Mara was not getting much rest. Rest that she, and the child within her womb, needed.

Mara and Yusuf had joined with the caravan of people walking south to Jordan. Mara was sitting in the cart with few elderly people, some children and another pregnant woman. The two had left everything behind, their home, their jobs, their family, their lives. Yusuf was angry at himself for having to make Mara embark on this long journey while she was pregnant. He had hoped that they could have stayed a little longer in their homes. He wanted the baby to be born in Damascus, but the bombs were dropping and the government troops had ordered everyone out. Anyone who was suspected of being a rebel was being thrown in prison or worse, and people were turning on each other, accusing friends and neighbours of rebellion in order to stay in the government’s good books.

Yusuf had told Mara that he would find them a place to hide out, where she could have the baby safely in Damascus. They would only have to stay a few weeks. But Mara had insisted they leave. She didn’t want their baby to be born into such a dangerous and chaotic world. And so here they were, traveling in winter on a hard and rocky road, from Damascus, Syria to Al Zataari, Jordan so that they could make a new life, one free from bombs and guns and soldiers. Yusuf was not happy about it, but every time Mara gave him that small smile of hers, he was relieved that she had insisted on leaving.

______________________________

Zataari was bustling full of people. There were NGO workers, peacekeepers, kids running around in packs, adults visiting, people working. Zataari was the same distance from Nazareth that Bethlehem was, the home of King David. Yusuf was a coptic Christian, and the family legend was that he was a descendant of King David, not that this was something to advertise back home.

Yusuf and Mara were hoping to find some of Yusuf’s relatives already in Jordan. He  heard that his cousins had already fled Syria. But as he asked around, no one seemed to know his family, it was a long shot in a town of 80,000 refugees. Yusuf was worried that they might have to make camp on the outskirts. He only considered this as his last option, for the threat of thieves and bandits was too great, especially with Mara being almost ready to have her baby.

Finally someone who seemed to be a distant cousin offered Mara and Yusuf a room to themselves…. Well kind of… it was a tattered tent with a faded UNHCR logo on it… it looked like goats and sheep had been living there before they came. Mara and Yusuf would have to make due.

 

Yusuf led Mara to their temporary dwelling and they settled in. Mara didn’t seem mind, she was just grateful to sit somewhere that wasn’t bouncing down a road. Yusuf’s distant cousin had given them some food and blankets and sweaters. Not long after they had sat down to eat, Mara dropped her food and grabbed her belly. Yusuf knew what this meant, the baby was coming.

Throughout the day and well into the night, Yusuf stayed by Mara’s side. Helping her as best he could through the labour. Finally, through gritted teeth, Mara told him,

“The Baby is going to come now”. Yusuf got into position as she gave her final pushes and then all of a sudden into his hands slithered a slimy and wailing bundle of legs and arms, hands and feet. Yusuf gave the baby to Mara, it was cold and there was nothing to wrap the child in. So, Yusuf took one of the sweaters his cousin has given to him and tore it into strips. Some he dipped in water and helped Mara to clean the child and with the rest they wrapped up the baby warm and tight.

Once the baby had been cleaned and fed, Mara and the boy slept. A short time later, while it was still dark, Mara woke up and called for Yusuf to take the baby. She wanted to clean herself up from the birth. She couldn’t quite stand on her own, so Yusuf put the baby down in the nearest convenient place — a long metal bucket or trough full of straw, probably for the goats. Yusuf was so proud of Mara, she had come all this way and now given birth, he was all of a sudden overjoyed that he had not left her when he had found out that she was pregnant, and he was overjoyed that she had made them escape the dangers of home.

______________________________

As Yusuf pulled Mara to her feet, they heard voices coming near their tent. At first Yusuf thought it might be his cousin coming to check in on them in the early morning, but there were several voices… several men. Yusuf peered out of the tent into the darkness and coming towards him was a group of men with weapons, with sticks and staffs, and rods and slingshots.They were boisterous, loud men… Yusuf’s anxiety grew and his heart began to pound. These men must be a gang of thieves.

“Stay in here” he told Mara and he pulled out one of the few personal items he had brought with him from Damascus, his carpenter’s hammer. He was ready to die for wife-to-be and child.

As the men got closer they quieted themselves, Yusuf was ready to fight. He put himself between the tent and the men, blocking their way. He raised his hammer above his head to signal that he would not allow anyone to come in. But the men stopped and only one came forward.

“Is he here?” the man asked excitedly. “The one the messengers told us about? The Messiah? The child in the manger? We were watching our sheep not to far from here, and were told by messengers – Angels  –  that we would find the great prophet here”. Yusuf’s jaw dropped, along with his hammer, in shock. How could anyone know that Mara had given birth already? Angels? Messiah? He turned and looked back to the tent. Mara was standing at the door, nodding her head and beckoning the young men to come forward. One by one the men came and knelt before the baby, saying prayers of thanksgiving as Mara watched on, looking totally unsurprised that these rough men had arrived. Yusuf’s head was spinning.

Finally, when the men had finished looking at the child, NO when they had finished worshipping the child, Yusuf looked to Mara who was holding a squirming Isa in her arms.

“Angels, Messiah, a baby in a manger! Our son is special isn’t he?”

Mara looked at Yusuf for a long moment. She thought about all that she had been through in the last 9 months. The visit from the angel and surprise pregnancy, the shame of being unmarried followed by Yusuf’s continued willingness to marry her, the time she had with her cousin Eliza while she gave birth to her miracle child in her old age and now the journey to Zataari. Mara was amazed at how her life had been so dramatically changed, how this baby had come into her world and changed everything. This tiny baby that could not lift his own head, who could not survive unless she kept him warm with her own body heat, who could not be fed unless it was she who gave him food, who could not be alive unless she worked to keep him so. This little child had come into her life and nothing was the same as it was.

Yet before tonight, the message from that first Angel had not seemed so real and grand. For certain she had been pregnant, but for her child to be the Messiah… well that was something she could not imagine. Yet the Shepherds had come, they told them of messenger Angels coming to the fields, telling them about the birth of her child, of this tiny little baby boy, so vulnerable to the world, of how he would be their saviour!

Returning to Yusuf’s question, was their son special?

“Come and look into his eyes Yusuf, see for yourself”, Mara finally said.

And together as they looked at this little child, so new to world, wiggling and gurgling like newborns do, they saw skin and hair; ears, eyes and a nose. And yet as they looked longer, they saw something more, something so much more. As they looked into this child’s eyes they could see themselves, they could see everyone that they loved, they could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, they could see the divine, they could see a great passion for all creation, they could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at this little miracle in their arms, Mara and Yusuf saw the whole world differently than it was just a moment before. A miracle bigger than they could hold. A world with God in it.

As the first wisps of light began to breach the horizon with the sunrise, the little family stood at the door of their tent, watching this new light come into the world. As starlight and sunlight danced with each other across the sky, Mara could almost hear voices singing from above and she listened to the heavens.

Yusuf whispered to his son,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Amen.

Why Christian? – The difficulty of having a Progressive Faith in a Conservative Tradition

I consider myself an orthodox Christian.

Not Eastern, but orthodox in the sense that I adhere to the essential core doctrines of Christianity, like the Trinity, Original Sin, two natures of Christ, the real resurrection, etc…

I also belong a Lutheran denomination (ELCIC) that allows same-sex marriage, ordains women and LGBT people, teaches its pastors historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship, and does any number of other things that many Christians consider heretical.

There is an inherent difficulty in operating in an orthodox and small “c” conservative faith tradition while adopting socially progressive ethics and post-modern scholarship. This difficulty has been churning in the back of my mind for months, and this week it is about to come to the forefront.

My wife and I are headed to the Why Christian? Conference hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans. In preparation for the conference, Rachel Held Evans asked the question on her Facebook page “why christian?

And the question was asked in light of recent events in news: The hype around Kim Davis’ stand for “Christian values” in refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples contrasted by the photos of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee washing up on a Turkish beach.

When fellow Christians are rallying behind someone trying to use the government to impose her beliefs on others in the name of religious freedom, how does one stick with this Christianity business?

When ‘Christian nations’ seem so passive about doing anything about the plight of refugees escaping violence because they are muslims, how do you continue to call yourself Christian?

By definition, Christianity is a conservative faith. No, not conservative in the political sense. Christianity is conservative in the practical sense. Christianity seeks to maintain, protect, promote and conserve the teaching, preaching and good news of God in Jesus Christ. Christianity is trying to bring the past forward – a conservative way of being. And yet, along the way Christianity has also conserved things like patriarchy, sexism, systems of power and abuse, bigotry and racism, judgementalism and close-mindedness.

Christianity has a lot of baggage to contend with, and our baggage is frequently getting in our own way. Our baggage is often the thing Christians mistakenly hold up and shout loudly to the world that this is what God – not just Christianity – is all about.

A common refrain among those who struggle with the conservative baggage has been to drop the Christian label in favour of “following Jesus.” And who can blame them? Considering the Christianity that is so frequently presented in the media and practiced so widely, or when Kim Davis or Donald Trump or Fox News is our spokesperson, we should want to say, “I am not with them.”

The Kingdom of God is Near - the Lion of St. Mark
The Kingdom of God is Near – the Lion of St. Mark

Ten days ago, I got a tattoo (insert joke – “a pastor walks into a tattoo shop…”). Getting a tattoo is a very intimate experience. For four hours I had to lay still as someone literally did artwork on my body. And yet, during those four hours I had an extremely familiar experience. My tattoo artist and I talked for hours about all the ways that Christians are judgemental, agenda-filled and often put off and offend unchurched people like her. Yet she didn’t find me that way.

My tattoo artist told me that I was not like any pastor she has ever met (well, not quite, as my wife spent an afternoon with her a couple of  weeks before me). I get told that a lot. When I meet with unchurched couples coming to get married, when unchurched families come to have a child baptized, or when unchurched families come for funerals they often tell me that I am not what they expected. Most unchurched people that I get to spend some time with tell me I don’t sound like the Christians on TV, or like their one friend who can’t stop talking about their megachurch pastor, or like their grandma who looks down on them for having tattoos, piercings, not going to church, living in sin or whatever else. I don’t sound like those other Christians because I am cool with questions, even encouraging of them, I share my doubts, and I even share my own frustrations about the judgemental behaviour of many fellow Christians.

Maybe this should make me wonder if I got Christianity wrong along the way? Is the way I practice it so uncommon?

It isn’t.

I have spent far too long studying history and theology in university and at seminary to not know that the way I practice Christianity is fairly consistent with the way it has been practiced throughout history. And most of the Christians I know approach faith the way I do.

Yet, despite the baggage that Christianity carries these days, despite the undignified death that Christendom is undergoing, despite the pop-culture caricature that Christians have become, I can’t walk away from the religion.

I am a Christian, even if Kim Davis gets to speak for me, or Fox News or even… heaven forbid… Donald Trump. 

And I am Christian because following Jesus means being a Christian. It means hanging out with sinners and other people who struggle with the baggage. With people who want to hold on to the baggage at all costs, or people who have been trying to toss it from the bandwagon since before they can remember.

Because believing in Jesus just doesn’t work outside of community. Because taking up our cross and following means we don’t get to avoid all the crosses in the world, but instead Jesus’ ministry happens right where the crosses are. The crosses of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, abuse, control and power.

Dumping Christianity to follow Jesus doesn’t jive with the God who put our baggage on, who literally became our baggage, who used our baggage as his flesh in order to come and meet us in the incarnation.

And of course our baggage, our flesh, made things much more difficult for Jesus, but that was the only way to reach us.

As much as I shake my head this week every time I see a Kim Davis news story scroll by on Facebook. As much as I get enraged when I read that Christians are rallying behind Donald Trump, or rallying behind Stephen Harper here in Canada. As frustrating as it is that the Christianity that is represented in the media is one I neither recognize nor practice.

But I know that this is not the whole story.

I know that the church I grew up in is full of people just like Kim Davis, and they have sponsored 3 refugee families over the past 15 years. In fact, churches are some of the most frequent sponsors of refugees. I know that the grandmothers who guilt their grandkids into bringing their babies to be baptized also knit quilts for Canada’s northern communities and brought sweaters by the truck-load so that Canadian Lutheran World Relief could send 70,000 sweaters to Syrian Refugees last winter. I know that church people who struggle with how fast world is changing and who long for the golden age of Christendom are also regularly volunteering at the soup kitchen, filling the food bank, visiting people in hospitals and old folks homes and are caring for the world in their own small ways.

But most importantly, I know that Christianity is at its best when it is practiced by sinners. Even when those sinners like to tell everyone outside the church that they are the sinners. Christianity is still for sinners.

Christianity, the religion with all this baggage, is also the means by which God meets our broken world and speaks words of promise, grace, and mercy. The baggage filled traditions of Christianity are the means by which God washes and claims us as God’s own, the means by which God feeds us with God’s very Body.

Christianity is the community where God transforms us from broken and flawed people into forgiven and whole. 

And as filled with baggage as Christianity is these days, I need it. We all need it.

Because we need God

and those promises

and that washing

and that food.

I can’t believe in Jesus alone, I need all these messed up people – Christians – to do it with me.


 

Why are you still a Christian? What are your frustrations with Christianity? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Alan Kurdi, the Syrophoenician Woman and Breaking Jesus’ Prejudice

Mark 7:24-37

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  (Read the whole passage)

Sermon*

Most of us had a moment this week when we first saw the image of little Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey. The scene seemed unreal: childlike innocence contrasted with devastating tragedy. It seemed to jar the world out of our summer sleepiness and into a deeper awareness of the reality of the humanitarian and refugee crisis happening out of Syria.

It’s not that there haven’t been news reports, articles written, and videos posted showing the thousands of migrants clashing against police, migrants struggling to cross borders or telling us of migrants dying trying to make their way to a better life.

It’s also not that we haven’t responded to the crisis, which has been going on for 5 years: CLWR asked our national church for 10,000 sweaters and we responded with 70,000. We’ve given with financial support, we have hosted fundraisers, and we have even had ongoing conversations in our congregation about how we can support refugees.

And yet, the reality of this crisis has always seemed far away. Something distant and removed from us. That is until this week when one photo scooped us up from our living room couches, plucked us away from computer screens, and transported us around the world.

Unlike the news reports, the articles and videos of migrants, one photo of a Turkish beach made us feel like we were standing just a few feet away from little Alan Kurdi and demanded that we come near and truly see this humanitarian crisis.

Perhaps it is serendipity or perhaps the Holy Spirit is up to something, because Jesus has his own close encounter with a foreign woman this week. A parent doing anything she can to provide a better life for her child.

And it is this desperate parent who seeks Jesus out, hoping that he will help her and her demon possessed daughter.

As seems to be usual in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is tired and cranky. He is seeking refuge from the demanding crowds, and so when this woman comes into the house where he is staying, Jesus is well… very un-Christ-like with her.

She begs for his help, and Jesus puts her off. In fact Jesus tells her off. Jesus compares her to a dog. And not the beloved family pets many of us have at home, but a pest and nuisance. The word he uses is more akin to that pejorative name for a female dog.

Mark the gospel writer, doesn’t usually provide details unless they are important, so the fact that he mentions that this woman is Syrophoenician should not escape our notice. Syrophoenicians were mixed race gentiles living in the border lands of Tyre and Sidon, just beyond Galilee. Syrophoenicians were half Phoenician and half Syrian (the coincidence here should not be lost on us).

The Israelites of Jesus’ day saw these particular gentiles living just beyond their borders as lesser peoples. People unworthy of Jewish attention or compassion.

As the Syrian-Phoenician  woman comes to Jesus, she humbles herself at his feet, and she begs for his compassion on her daughter’s behalf. And she crosses the boundaries of proper social behaviour, by being a woman who speaks to a man in public, by being a gentile who approaches a Jew, by being a beggar hounding a respected teacher and authority. And Jesus responds to this woman’s bold yet desperate plea by expressing a common Jewish prejudice of his day in the way he deals with this desperate mother. He is willing to put her off, because her needs, her tragedy, her desperation are not worth his immediate action. Jesus makes it clear that she, and others like her, will only get help once the people the world has deemed more worthy have their needs met.

Jesus sounds a lot like our political leaders have sounded this week… and that should not sit well with us. In fact, it should make us squirm in our seats. This is not the Jesus who eats with tax collectors and sinners, the Jesus who is forgiving prostitutes, the Jesus who is welcoming the unworthy.

Jesus today sounds too much like world leaders who can’t be bothered with people who are just too different from them. Jesus sounds like those who blame others for the problems facing the poor and marginalized, passing the buck. Jesus sounds a little bit too much like us.

It is uncomfortable to watch Jesus succumb to the same prejudice that we fall victim to. It is disturbing to see him place walls and barriers in front of suffering people just like we do. It is strange to think that Jesus would deny anyone compassion just because they are different from him, just as we are often guilty of doing.

Our prejudice often affords us the excuse to remain passive in the face of human suffering. This week it was a photo of Alan Kurdi that reminded us of this fact. Last year, it was the story of Tina Fontaine. The year before, it was the case of Brian Sinclair… and the list goes on from there. Maybe it goes all the way back to the Syrian-Phoenician woman.

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”

Just when we expect the Syrian-Phoenician woman to reject Jesus’ prejudice and bigoted words, she does the opposite. She holds them up as a mirror to Jesus’ prejudice and accepts the dog epithet. She is still begging for compassion, she is still asking Jesus for help. But instead of asking for help person to person, she is willing to lower herself… she is already on her hands and knees at Jesus’ feet… to the place of a dog. She is asking for the least that Jesus could do.

And in that moment, Jesus is faced with either turning her away and abandoning not only her humanity, but his own, or dropping his prejudice in order to show compassion.

Ephphatha. Be opened. 

It is not just the deaf man who is opened up today, but he instead re-iterates the opening up that Jesus experiences just before. When Jesus unplugs the ears and loosens the tongue of the deaf man, he makes a connection to a person who had no voice, who was on the margins and excluded from normal community. The deaf man can now speak because Jesus is listening.

It is a connection that Jesus first learns through the Syrian-Phoenician woman who presses him to show compassion. Jesus learns something about giving up his own prejudice, Jesus learns what it is like to have his own walls and barriers broken down. By holding Jesus’ prejudice up before him, by making her need for compassion heard, Jesus breaks open God’s compassion into the world. Compassion and mercy given to more than just the children of Israel, compassion now for Jew and gentile alike, compassion for all creation.

What starts as a tired and cranky Jesus refusing to help a person whom he thought was too other, too different, too unworthy becomes the means for God’s transforming compassion and mercy to enter the world. As Jesus is opened, God’s compassion meets a Syrian-Phoenician woman and a deaf man. As God is opened, the world is opened.

And it is the same thing that happened to the world and to us, this week. A single photo of a young Alan Kurdi, holds up a mirror to our prejudice, to the walls and barriers we build between ourselves and people who are different from us. When faced with tragedy like this, we are left with the option of going on with life as usual, where people like Alan don’t matter, or having our prejudice broken down and our compassion broken open by the realities of the Syrian migrant crisis through the heartbreaking photograph of a three-year old boy lying dead on a beach.

Still, even as the world now calls for compassion, even as we have been sending sweaters, praying, giving what we can, and discerning how to do more, even if our country opens our doors to as many refugees as we can take… we know that it is not enough. We know that our compassion has not and will not save the world. The power of the human spirit cannot do it alone, if at all.

Today, we are reminded, even as the Syrian-Phoenician woman pushes Jesus for compassion, that God is doing the work of breaking us open. God is speaking to us Ephphatha – Be open. 

There is no human cry for compassion, no human grief that will save Alan. There are just some walls of prejudice, some walls of indifference that we cannot break down.

And so like the Syrian-Phoenician woman, like the deaf man, and now like Alan Kurdi, we turn to God.

God alone who can meet our prejudice and open us up. 

God alone who can meet the walls and barriers we place in front of the suffering of our brothers and sisters.

God alone who can meet death,

God who knows what it is like for a son to slip from his arms and die on a cross. God who knows what it is like to die in the borderlands of a foreign and oppressing empire.

God alone who on the third day walked out of the tomb, breaking open death once and for all.

Today, we turn to God who speaks to us in the midst of prejudice and tragedy –

Ephphatha – Be Open. 

Amen

*This sermon was co-written between my wife, Courtenay @ReedmanParker and I. We haven’t done this before, but as we talked about our own reaction to the photo of Alan Kurdi this week, we decided to come together and write one sermon. It is something we will definitely do again. 

When our words are weak – A Lament for Alan, Ghalib and Rehanna Kurdi

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my social media feeds and a vivid photo of a beach passed by. I scrolled back to see a very young boy in shorts and a t-shirt laying in the sand.

It took me a moment to piece together that this wasn’t a child playing on the beach, but instead a wordless and unimaginable tragedy. It was Alan Kurdi.

 I have a son. A little boy that has often been dressed in shorts and t-shirts this summer. Those hands and feet, those legs and arms, that little body is one I see everyday.

It was heartbreaking to see the same arms, legs and body as my little boy lying lifeless on a turkish beach. It was guilt inducing and gut wrenching to be grateful that there was dark hair and not my son’s reddish blonde.

I have regularly prayed for Syrian refugees in my church. I have just slipped in a few words for them along with prayers for rain in spring and sunshine in harvest, prayers for world leaders and peace, prayers for church ministries and programs, prayers for sick and dying people. It was the very least I could do.

I have regularly forgotten to pray for Syria when all those other things took all my attention.

I have have encouraged my congregation to collect sweaters for displaced Syrian refugees, to give money to our denominational aid organization working in the refugee camps, to be open minded about our muslim neighbours.

I haven’t pressed them as hard as I could have.

A few months ago as I sat in my office, a muslim refugee family came to me to ask for help. A father and mother just like Abdullah and Rehanna, 6 children just like Ghalib and Alan. A family just like Alan’s sat in my office and I hemmed and hawed about how much help I could provide, secretly wondering about how much effort I would need to put in helping them.

As a pastor, I have had grieving mothers cling to me. I have had to offer failing words and inadequate comfort to those who are grieving the death of a child – young and old.

My job is to point to hope, even when no one else can. My vocation is to be the one who declares “Life” when everyone else declares “death.” My calling is to give words to the grieving.

Words for Alan, Rehanna and Ghalib. Words to Abdullah.

Words that somehow make sense of death.

I wish I could say there is some purpose in this tragedy, but there isn’t. I hope that Alan’s  photo becomes as significant as the naked Vietnamse girl’s is, but it would better that neither needed to be taken. I wish that Alan’s death had some greater meaning, but would you volunteer your child’s life to be the one that moved the world to action?

I hope that Alan reminds us that the words ‘Syrian’, ‘Migrant’, ‘Refugee’ are synonymous with ‘person.’ I hope that we remember that Syrians, migrants and refugees are human beings, not numbers, not news headlines, not problems to pass off, or expenses we don’t want to incur.

The world – 5 years too late – cries out for Alan and for Syria.

Finally. 

Yet, world leaders, NGOs, military campaigns, and good intentions will not solve this crisis. At best, they will mitigate it, they will make things slightly less tragic.

That is where my job to speak words for Alan, Ghalib and Rehanna comes in…  to speak words that somehow spark hope in the midst of tragedy and death.

Words that are not mine… words that belong to and are given by God. 

Because when are confronted with images of tragedy that make us cry out,

Because when we know that our leaders don’t have the will to respond, nor could they adequately respond if they did will it,

Because our good intentions have never solved our problems.

Because the human spirit, as noble as it might be, will not save us.

Because when we cannot redeem senseless death, God can. 

God makes sense of that which we cannot. 

God turns our tragedy into something better – into mercy and resurrection.

God does have the answer, God has life and love for a little boy laying on a beach.

God has life and love for our broken world.


Featured photo courtesy of Leadnow.ca

It is overwhelming to care about Ferguson, Gaza, Ebola, Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, etc…

These days, checking twitter feeds, listening to news updates, reading online articles can be depressing. There are so many crises facing the world at the moment, with new information and action happening moment by moment. As a pastor, the prayers I write and pray for things going on in the world is getting as long as it has ever been in my memory.

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Protestors in Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri is boiling over with tensions between the white police and african american community after the shooting and murder of an unarmed Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is committing atrocities with the hopes of drawing more to their cause.

Syria continues to be a mess with millions of refugees spilling into neighbouring states.

Skirmishes in Ukraine have brought down planes and resulted in death.

Israel and Hamas can’t seem to stop firing rockets and launching airstrikes at each other.

The Ebola outbreak in Africa is spreading and more people are dying.

Red Cross agent disinfected a hospital room
Red Cross agent disinfecting a hospital room

And these are just events from the past week.

This year we have seen #BringBackOurGirls, #YesAllWomen, issues of poverty and homelessness, environmental damages caused by resource extraction and more ongoing issues.

It is exhausting keeping up with it all.

It is harder to invest what little energy we all have to care about all these things. I am sure many are getting tired of it all.

As Christians, called to pray for our world and to serve our neighbour it is hard to know where to begin. What articles should we read? How much do I need to educate myself about each issue? What does it look like to get involved?

imagesAnd in the face of these overwhelming issues, the ultimate apathetic question is always just below the surface.

What difference can I make?

As with most big, complex issues that we face, the prevailing wisdom is to start with small steps.

Pray for our neighbours, help our children develop healthier attitudes towards those of different ethnicity, religion, socio-economic class. Getting involved locally is a logical step. Volunteer, help educate others, support active charities and organizations that are working in the midst of crisis to alleviate suffering.

Last fall, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, managed to collect nearly 80,000 sweaters for Syrian refugees living in camps. Our small national Lutheran NGO managed to do this amazing thing and response was overwhelming when the initial goal was 10,000! Yet, the UN estimates that there at least 2.5 million refugees. That means we collected sweaters for 0.032% of them…

Our achievement feels hopeless in the face of so much need.

And that was one small piece of the Syrian refugee issue? What about the war? What about medicine and food? And what about all the other crises?

Now, I am not trying to say that this is all hopeless… but I think there are a few things we need to admit to ourselves before we can figure out how to respond as people of faith.

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Crisis in Ukraine

Firstly, our political leaders are in over their heads. I often hear that politicians don’t care or are only interested in re-election. Some might be that way, but I think there is good news and bad news. I think most politicians would make the world a better place if they could. However, it is becoming clear that our modern political systems are failing us. At the end of day, most politicians – from top to bottom – probably feel as powerless as we do. The systems that they serve value the status quo. Governments, electorates and human beings are not good at accepting sweeping change, despite our clamour for it. Politicians realize that daycare credits, cheaper cell phone bills, and lower taxes buy votes in elections. Not social reform.

I wish these crises are left unresolved because of political apathy… because then we could elect un-apathetic leaders. But it is worse than we thought, those whom we trust to fix these problems are not capable of fixing them.

Secondly, we need to admit that we contribute to these problems. I need to admit that I am complicit in the poverty and lack of development that is allowing Ebola to spread. My prejudices contribute to tensions in Ferguson. People are dying at the hands of ISIS because of my lifestyle. Russia is breaking apart Ukraine because of the people my grandparents, my parents and I have elected to power. Israel and Hamas are constantly at each other’s throats because of the freedoms I enjoy. Syria is at war because of my attitudes about Islam and the Middle East. I am a part of the problem.

Thirdly, these problems are really just symptoms of a larger issue.

The crises that we are facing today are not entirely caused by one problem, but there is one issue more than any other that fuels their fires:

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY

I recently watched Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality for All (you should all watch it on Netflix). The movie clearly lays out, over and over again, the relationship between an unequal society and social problems. The last time inequality was as high as it is today was during the 1930s. The world was starving, unemployment was sky high and wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few.

I have no doubt that a large reason the world fell into World War II was because inequality had pushed people to edge, allowing them to find reasons to justify racism, intolerance, and eventually global war. Germany was putting Jews in concentration camp. The United States and Canada were putting Japanese in internment camps. Racism and intolerance was on both sides, the world was recovering from economic crisis. People needed someone to blame.

I also have no doubt that during the period of the highest level of equality, the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights issues and the liberation of women gained momentum and achieved change in leaps and bounds.

6490813449_f0c51a7cc0When people are struggling to make ends meet, they become more conservative, more fearful and more close minded.

When people are not worried about paying bills, buying groceries or affording a home, they are able to open themselves to new ideas and different people.

We are in a time of high inequality today. Extreme global Inequality. In fact, this year 85 people are more wealthy than the bottom 3.5 billion.

Yes, I wrote billion.

The number of people that can fit in a public swimming pool have more wealth than half of the people on the planet.

What chance does peace, tolerance, development, open-mindedness, or social change for the better have in a world that is so unequal?

What chance does Ferguson have at bridging the racial divide when it is based on a 400 year old economic one?

What chance do under developed African nations have at fighting off a deadly disease like Ebola when hospitals are tents and sanitation is nearly non-existent?

What chance does peace in Gaza when both sides are fighting over the scraps of the western world?

What chance does democracy have for the people or Iraq or Syria have when the fighting is just as much about control of resources and wealth than it is issues of religion?

What chance does Ukraine have at bettering its quality of life when Russia desires to keep Ukraine under its thumb to prop up its own power and wealth?

We treat wealth and equality like a zero-sum game. For you to have more, I need to have less. But it is not zero sum. We can all become more prosperous together.

Christ.In_.A.Suit_In the Bible nearly 2000 verses deal with money or wealth, more than prayer, faith, and hope combines. Jesus talks about money in 1 of every 7 verses. Over 1/4 of his parables were on wealth. And let’s not forget that when Jesus talked about keeping the law, clean and unclean, or making sacrifices in the temple, he was talking about inequality. Those who could afford access to God, and those who couldn’t.

In a very unequal world, Jesus declared the abundance of God’s grace. God’s love is not a commodity to be hoarded or controlled by a few at the exclusion of the many. Wealth and prosperity are, likewise, not to be hoarded. God’s creation, wealth included, is not to be hoarded or controlled by a few at the exclusion of the many.

As one christian, one pastor, one blogger sitting in relatively calm Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, it can feel overwhelming to hear about every crisis that seems to be popping up this week, and wondering what I can do about it. It is like trying to play Whack-a-Mole with one mallet on a game the size of a football field. There isn’t even time to see all the moles popping up, let alone choose which one to think about whacking.

But if there is something that can be done to address all these issues at once, even in some small way, it would be to work towards greater economic equality. Elect leaders who will introduce policies that help level the playing field. Support programs that encourage education, which is the greatest tool to help us all become more prosperous. Look for ways to stand for political change that will distribute wealth more equally. Teach our kids that everyone deserves the same access to education and opportunity, and they will see past the racial, religious and political divides on their own. And lastly, find others who are talking about this issue. Join with them. Educate yourself.

And if you are a Christian, remember that Jesus thought this issue was important too. He talked about it more than heaven or hell, he preached against the extremities of wealth and poverty more clearly and definitively than just about anything else.

And when you pray for peace, for tolerance and understanding, for help for those who are suffering, remember to pray for a more equal world too – because equality will help bring about the rest.


How does this news cycle make you feel? What do you think we can do about it all? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik