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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=218

 


 

Proper 23 Year B (September 6, 2015)                          St James', Peace River

 

I started looking at the readings for today before the Syrian refugee crisis “broke” as an international news story. Even without that background, they are still pretty clear about the attitude towards other people that is involved when we say we believe in God. “The Lord is the maker of us all”, Proverbs says, so we don't get to pick and choose between rich and poor, between us and them. To play favourites in this world is actually to betray our faith, because from where God sits we are all the same – something the astronauts have been trying to tell us from their vantage point, too, for quite a while now.

The letter gives us a vivid picture of how that plays out in ordinary life. If the right person comes in the door, our attention lights up – we want to make them welcome, and comfortable, and give them the honour that they deserve. But what about the wrong kind of person? We don't turn them away, but we don't give them the same kind of attention either. It's more about, “I wonder what they need, and how we can address the issue they create by being here?” Even recognizing the real need is a step in the right direction, though – James also points out how easy it can be for people of faith to promise their prayers or blessings, or warm wishes, and then not do anything. Archbishop Peers, the leader of our Anglican Church, used to refer to this as “offering all assistance possible, short of actual help.”

The gospel story shows Jesus encountering a couple of people from the margins – the “wrong kind” of people. First a Gentile woman. The very word highlights how the “right kind” and the “wrong kind” played out in Jesus' time and place. There are hints in the gospels that Jesus at first thought of his mission as being to God's chosen people. That wouldn't necessarily have meant any hatred of outsiders– it was just a matter of putting your own first, like most of us would say our children come first. So when Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman pleading for her daughter, it's a significant test. Nobody had ever asked him to think in those terms before. She gives him a chance to see that the household of God is bigger than anyone realized – it includes not just the children the parents want to make a fuss of, but the dogs under the table, and for that matter anyone and anything else living in this planet household with us. There is enough of God's love to go round.

The other story is a bit more like what we have come to expect from Jesus. The practicalities of being deaf must have been so much more challenging in his time than in ours, and inevitably would have led to this man being left out of almost everything. It's interesting that Jesus makes a point of dealing with him in private, out of sight, keeping it personal rather than turning him into a public talking point. Jesus knows what he needs and resolves both sides of the communications gap – giving the man both speech and hearing. Ironically, even the formerly deaf man's friends don't get it – they go out talking about how Jesus makes the deaf hear and the mute speak, keeping “those people” firmly in their categories instead of seeing their individuality as Jesus did.

When we read those stories, we know what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to be like Jesus. We're supposed to recognize and dismantle the barriers and labels that stop us from seeing other people as, well, other people. We're supposed to befriend, empathize, advocate, and heal, in a way which honours the uniqueness and holiness of the person in front of us. And sometimes we try to do that. We've had some practice with it around the church here this summer, as we've had visitors camped out overnight, gathering on the office steps, and looking for something to eat. We know we're not the kind of place that turns the needy away. But some of the conversations I've had with people this summer have broken through that barrier too, with the hope that we might recognize our visitors not as “the needy”, not as “these people”, but as Kevin, and Eric, and Shirley, and so on. I've been amazed at how much difference it can make simply asking someone's name – that changes the whole conversation.

But sooner or later, we hit a wall. Our patience runs out, or our courage or imagination. We feel like we have to get back to paying attention to ourselves and the people closest to us. Or we simply are overwhelmed by the needs of the world around us. When you see children dying because they cannot find their way to a safe country, and then read how many millions are in the same situation, maybe that feeling isn't so hard to explain. But it is hard to square with the gospel, and with our faith. In God's story, everyone's story matters, and there is enough love to go round.

There are two paths we can take with ourselves at this point. One is guilt. There's a lot of that to go round, too. We really should do more for others; or, if we get to the place we got to this week, we really should have done more for others. Or, if we don't like to face up to our own complicity in systems that keep the lines drawn beside the right kind of people and the wrong kind – then, somebody else should have done more. One of the things that I found unusual and heartening about the response to the refugee situation this week, was that I saw relatively little of all that blaming ourselves and others, and much more thinking about how to act. Most people seemed to understand why the blaming behaviour isn't constructive – the situation is too urgent. We may have the luxury to get upset about it, but the people whose lives are at risk daily, don't.

I did, however, also notice some reflections along the lines of “haven't we been here before?” There have been refugee crises, famines, and genocides before, and each time we go through the same motions. We care when something grabs our attention, but then, after a while, we don't any more. Even though we know there are still people, just like us, who need our help, and we know that we should care more about them – we just don't. It's no use feeling guilty about it, that doesn't change the reality. But maybe what we can do is ask ourselves, “Why don't I care enough? Why don't I want to do more?”

There are many superficial answers to those questions. We can talk about things like donor fatigue and limited attention spans, but those are just ways to dodge the issue. Closer to the truth are the things we identify when we're feeling guilty: we don't feel like we understand enough, or are powerful enough to make a difference; or even closer to the truth, we don't dare risk our own welfare in order to reach out to people we don't know. But right at the heart of the matter is that unavoidable fact about the human condition, that every one of us is the main character in our own story. Other players come and go on the stage we build for ourselves, but because we know the story is really about me, those other characters don't have any lasting significance. That's the ultimate barrier between us and other people, whether they are far away or near at hand. There really are two kinds of people – me, and everyone else.

To cross boundaries the way Jesus does requires us to recognize that we are not the centre of our story: God is. To become different people, people who can keep caring when the world has moved on, people who can want the best for those we don't even know – we have to change. Or, more accurately, we have to be changed, since we are no more capable of making our selves less self-centred than we are of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But where guilt paralyzes us and leaves us unable to be any different, the gospel persuades us that it is actually possible. We can be changed, because there is someone who changes us. We can become people who make a difference, not by gaining more power and influence but by letting go of our need for control and security, which we learn to do as we let God into our hearts. We can become people who see over the barriers and start taking them down, not through our innate goodness or deep insight, but out of a desire to respond to God's love.

That's what it takes to care more. If we want to be more like Jesus, if we want to see people as people, if we want to keep our focus on those who need our help even when it's hard, or even when the world has stopped watching – then we don't need to try harder, we don't need more effective programmes, or better leaders. We need to be different people. People who remember that we were “the wrong kind of people”, on the wrong side of the barrier, until God came in Jesus and took that wall down. People who have been loved and healed and accepted by God, and know how much that means. People with parts in a story where God is at the centre, but where that means (by the goodness of God) that everyone matters. There is no doubt that we can be people like that. That is the whole point of Jesus' life and teaching; that is the whole reason we are here. This is where we tell God, “we want to be different”, and where we hear God say, “You are”. That is God's gift to you and me today – and not just to us, but to a world full of people who need us to be different too.