SERMON 6TH SEPTEMBER 2015
None of us can have escaped the news this week. The migrant situation in Syria is extreme. Digging a little beneath the surface of the news, I looked up some of the news about Syria itself, not just those who have left it.
It looks like pictures of world war two, after the Blitzkrieg. Streets that were once well to do, looked like the Georgian streets of Edinburgh, just as wealthy and prosperous, are now rubble, reduced to lumps of stone and masonry. And this is happening all over the country, as the leaders of that place bomb their own people, subdue those who challenge their authority, with every dirty weapon that has ever been banned by human rights organisations. The people who are fleeing that place literally have nothing left to lose but their lives, and many of them, as we have seen, have lost even that.
One Sun journalist three months ago said that rather than use rescue boats for refugees we should use gun ships to stop them. “show me the bodies floating in the water, and I still won’t care” she said.
She got her wish.
And the west is in a panic. Leaders don’t know what to do. Do they enforce the rules in the EU zone, which were never intended to be able to deal with a crisis like this? Do they shut up their borders, and say that we need to solve the problems of Syria, not the problems of migration. Do they welcome them with open arms? One UK politicians said they should all be shipped out to a camp until they can be processed, to save us from the inrush of people who are different from us, with their many difficult needs.
And in all of this, there is a question of identity. They are different from us, and we don’t know what to do with them. We’ve had one referendum which was at least in part about how we saw ourselves, and we will be having another one about the European Union, and whatever the logistics of this, about reform of the EU and tax and trade laws etc, I suspect the debate will in the end boil down to something about how we see ourselves, what we think ourselves to be.
In our Gospels, and I haven’t specifically chosen this Gospel, this was the Gospel set for the day, Jesus is being asked exactly the same sort of question of identity.
At this point in Mark’s Gospel, he knows who he is. He is the Messiah of Israel. He’s the anointed one of the Jews. He may not know the implications of what is going to happen to him, but his fight, and it is a fight, is with the jewish authorities. He may not be advocating violence, but he is advocating revolution, and he believes that the gifts of healing, which are hugely prominent in Mark, are the gifts that God has given him to achieve this purpose. God has made him, shaped him, to lead the Jewish people into a new episode of their chosen life.
And then he meets this woman. Now this woman, like the refugees escaping Syria, isn’t a beggar woman, a woman in rags. She’s named as a lady, that doesn’t mean nobility, but it does imply an upright citizen. She was a decent upstanding woman, only this time she wasn’t upstanding. She fell at his feet, humbled herself, humiliated herself, a greek woman, prostrating herself at the feet of a jew, a race known in the greek world for their superstition and ignorance, and stubbornness, she humiliates herself in the hope that this man, this jewish man of which she has heard so much about, might be different.
And he isn’t. he’s on the same scale of that Sun columnist. He doesn’t say “I can’t help” – he doesn’t say “gosh it’s really difficult, I don’t know what to do” he says “I don’t want to help”. He says, “these are my children, and you, and your sick daughter, you’re the dogs, and it’s not right to give the children’s food to you.”
That was his identity. Jewish Messiah for the Jewish people. That’s how he saw himself.
Now many people have commentated on the woman’s reply, and said that she was clever, in her response “even the dogs may eat the scraps from the children’s table” – clever in that she was arguing theologically with Jesus, clever in that she acknowledged her place as a dog! Clever that she showed him she thought that only a little of his immense power was needed to save her daughter. In Matthew’s Gospel, a later version of this story, Jesus says “great is your faith” and comments that her faith has made her daughter well. That was Matthew’s interpretation, it was a matter of faith that saved her. But in this version, the earliest version of this story he doesn’t say that.
What was it about the woman’s reply that changed Jesus’ mind? What stopped him regarding her as a lesser human being, and begun in him the process that allowed him to see himself, not simply as the saviour of the Jewish people but of the world? Because let’s be clear about this, this is the point at which Christianity becomes a religion for the world, and not just a version of Judaism, this point, when the greek woman replies to Jesus and he listens, is the beginning of Christianity.
What was it about her that made him change his mind. Was it her words, her manner, her eyes, her desperation?
He was so fixed on his identity, his Jewish Messiah identity, and then something swept that aside. And it was compassion.
Because it doesn’t matter what your identity is, about how you see yourself, about what the rules are, when compassion overtakes you. It doesn’t matter what it means to be Scottish, or British, or European, when we see people who are suffering, and need to help. Because all of that gets swept aside, when we see those who are suffering and we say “it doesn’t’ matter. All those other things don’t’ matter. You matter. You matter to me, and you matter to God, and I need to help you”.
We’re told that Britain’s full up. Well my house isn’t. I’ve got two spare rooms. We could house a family of refugees. How many spare rooms are there in this congregation? How many people could we take? How many lives could we save? How many empty buildings are there in this country? People have said the cost would be millions. What price a life?
Jesus was shamed that day, shamed out of his small, little identity, into a greater, truer self. He stopped seeing himself as part of a tribe centred on a geography, and on a religion centred on history. He saw himself in a new light, a truer light, an honest light. He saw himself as he calls us to see ourselves. A people centred not on tribal identities, or even on culture or history. But a people defined by their compassion, their love.
Because that is who we truly are.