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Encouraged and challenged

Sermon Emma Swarbrick 6th September 2015

May I speak the truth in love in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This week as I have been preparing this sermon, I have really felt a burden of responsibility. It is both an immense privilege and terrifying prospect to read God’s word and to read the signs of the times and stand before you with encouragement and challenge. There has been nothing light-hearted about the news that has presented itself on our screens, over the last few days especially, but progressively so for some time now.

When do we hear about the plight of others more than when it affects our cosy lives?

Last year we were disturbed by the news of whole boats of men, women and children drowning in the Mediterranean as they tried to escape war and oppressive regimes to the safety of southern Europe. The Mediterranean! We go on holiday there! And since then, so many thousands more have continued to drown, but the news has left our screens for a while.

Then this summer, our cosy lives were shattered by long queues down the M20 into Dover with ‘Operation Stack’ as ferries were delayed going to and coming from Calais as a result of a growing refugee camp full of hopeful people desperate to come to Britain. Dover – Calais! That’s our holiday route!

And this week, the body of a young boy and his brother and mother were washed up on a Turkish beach, the same as many others who have drowned in the sea before them, but this time with photographers on hand for an emotive image to be shared and shared and shared again on social media and printed in our papers and shown on our television screens. A Turkish beach! We’ve just come back from a holiday there!

And once again we are jolted from our safety and security and our eyes are opened to the lives of so many millions of people who have no safety or security, no home to return to after time away, no money they have access to any longer, no food in no fridges, no water in no taps never mind the opportunity to boil it.

I don’t know about you, but I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed because I came back from a camping holiday in which 50% of the time it rained and I have complained bitterly. But I had a home to come back to. I sat in my tent, which was at least dry on the inside, with my camping cooker and furniture, warm bed and changes of clothing and even if they were all my worldly belongings, even in the rain, I was far, far richer than the majority of the world’s population. And although I wished it was sunny, I was safe. And though I worried about whether we would be able to get the car off the muddy field, I knew I had a warm and dry home to return to.

The news at least serves to remind me of just how privileged I am. We are.

Syria, not so long ago, was a beautiful country with a rich heritage. And today we meet in our reading a woman from that rich country with that rich heritage. A Syrophoenecian. A Syrian. Her tale is also one of sorrow; her daughter is ill and she is desperate. Like the Syrians who flee their country today, she is desperately searching for someone who she knows will be able to help her – a man she has heard about, no doubt – who can do miracles. Even though Jesus is keeping his head down and hoping for some time away from the ever-pressing crowds, she finds him and she pleads with him for his help.

When we read his response, we are shocked. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love, the Jesus we have a developed image of in our heads. It is hard to stomach. It is hard to understand. The commentaries tell me that the conversation that follows is banter, likely spoken in Greek, but Jesus comparing the woman to a dog is still difficult to hear, especially this week.

The nub of the matter is this – she is a Gentile and Jesus has come primarily for the Jews. The time will come for the Gentiles, but firstly the ones Jesus has come to give his message to are the Jews. The children are the Jews, the Gentiles are the dogs. When I read that I think about scabby, stray dogs, but the words that Jesus use mean something more along the lines of puppies; pets or house dogs. The woman picks up on this meaning and her response is that even the puppies get fed under the table whilst the meal is still going on. She acknowledges that Jesus could minister to both her and the Jews at the same time, even if all she was able to receive would be scraps from the table, for her that would be enough. So Jesus sends her on her way telling her that her daughter was well again. He may well have said, “Your faith has made you well” or “Your sins are forgiven” as he does on so many occasions. The woman sought Jesus out, demonstrated her faith in him and Jesus accordingly met her needs.

The fact is – we are all Gentiles. None of us here, to the best of my knowledge, are Jewish by heritage. But now the time has come for us. The message of Jesus is for us. Jesus will and does meet our needs. All that is asked of us is to seek Jesus out, to have faith and to receive. Each week in the Eucharist we pray, “I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy.”

And once we have received, then what? It is time to do as Jesus did. Our nature should be always to have mercy.

I feel ashamed by our nation and an attitude that “We are a small nation, we are already full.” But that voice need not be the loudest, and this week one voice has been much louder. The cry instead has been, “How can we help? How can I help? What can I do?”

Feeling ashamed is of no benefit if we do not turn that shame into action. Feeling powerless needs to turn into empowerment. At the back of church there is a sheet detailing ways you can help, kindly compiled by Mandy. And there are many ways we can help, actually. We can pray. We can donate money and even items to send to the camps. We can lobby our MP. We can even register our homes and pledge to take in a refugee family should any be relocated to our area. One charity, Home for Good, are calling on more people to put themselves forward as foster carers so that there are loving, safe homes ready for unaccompanied, traumatised children when they find their way into our country.

And when the news dies down and summer turns into winter and we no longer hear about Syria and its children, I pray that we don’t forget. I pray that we remember the millions of people across the world who are forced from their homes because it is no longer safe for them, whether that be Syria or Tunisia, Egypt or the Sudan, Zimbabwe or Eritrea. Whether their lives will ever intersect with ours or not, we have a duty to pray for them, to help them, to remember them and to show mercy to them, just as Jesus shows mercy to us each day.

Let us end with a prayer, written by my friend Janet Haworth:

Wise and compassionate God, help us to bear the burdens refugees and asylum-seekers carry and not simply seek to shift the burden onto others. Call our leaders to justice, generosity and compassion. Help them create and implement strategies that are fair and just and treat refugees and asylum-seekers with dignity and care.

God bless our eyes so that we will recognise injustices. God bless our ears so that we will hear the cry of the stranger. God bless our mouths so that we will speak words of welcome to newcomers. Amen.

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