Sunday, 6 September 2015

On being a migrant people

 (Homily for 6th September 2015:
Isaiah 35.4-7a; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37)

First it was the Visigoths. Then…

Swabians, Franks and Alemanni. Across the Rhine they came, their creaking ox-carts piled high with wives and children and all their goods and chattels. They fought, and they conquered. For when they fell there were always more behind to take their place. Thousands were slain, but tens of thousands followed. This period is known as the time of the Migrations. It was the storm that swept up the Roman Empire and whirled it into extinction.

And they kept coming - followed by Huns, Ostrogoths and Vandals…

“It was migrants who brought the Roman Empire to an end.” I read that in a newspaper article somewhere last week. But then looking in E. H. Gombrich’s Little History of the World, I find that’s exactly how he sums it up also in the words I’ve quoted. Perhaps he’s a little too concise in a world survey which can’t give very many pages - or even paragraphs - to the massive topics he deals with.

But you know what these people are saying… From our rather parochial worries about the pressure on the Eurotunnel fence by a couple of thousand migrants at Calais, our attention has shifted to the hundreds of thousands who are making their way through eastern and central Europe, largely unregistered, camped at railway stations, pressured unwillingly into reception centres - but intent on making their way to a better life. For some it’s been a journey of as much as four years - the prospect at last of crossing the German border and the promise of asylum beckons. For others the journey fails in the attempt to reach Europe in the first place: the picture of three year-old Aylan Kurdi’s dead body washed up on the Turkish shore strikes us in a way that stories of the thousands of other lives lost in perilous sea crossings could not; it’s made all the more painful by the tenderness with which a policeman cradles him in his arms, while elsewhere in Europe body-armoured police officers with batons and stun grenades attempt to bring order or turn back the disorderly crowds seeking to continue their journey.

And how do we respond? The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has called the present movement of peoples a threat to Christian civilisation and culture. On the other hand there are those who say that the true Christian response is one of welcome to all who are in need - generosity not fear should characterise our attitude. But then there are those who ask if this would simply encourage more to leave their homes for a better life in western countries which have only finite resources. And critically we might ask ourselves: would I give a refugee a home in my house?

“Something should be done.” We all feel that, even if we differ as to what should be done. But on the whole we want it not to require anything of us that might require action, still less disrupt our lives. I don’t have the answer. But when we see the violence, fear and injustice with which so many live in the war-zones of our world, when we see the precariousness of life for those who have taken to inadequate boats to Europe, when we see the chaos which seems to spread as the migrants journey on, there is a question which strikes at us - why should we be immune to all of this?

There are religious implications - as ever... Many people would say that religion is a critical factor in causing the problems in the first place. Hopefully more would see that it is a perversion of religion which motivates the forces of Islamic State, Boko Haram and the other forces who have generated such a crisis from Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa through the Middle East and beyond. It’s people who dare to believe differently from them who are their victims - and so often that means Christians. So many Christians have suffered violence, death and displacement. How should we respond to them? If they have held to their faith, what does our faith mean to us?

Today’s Gospel reading is quite shocking - the encounter of Jesus with a woman of Syrophoenician origin, a Jew meets a Gentile. It’s Jesus who has crossed a border - the only recorded instance of him leaving his native Palestine as an adult. No great importance is given to that journey in itself. The Roman Empire is the Schengen area of the first century without border checks. That had enabled Mary and Joseph to flee in fear from Bethlehem to Egypt after the birth of Jesus - if you want to say that all migrants should stay in their own lands, then you will have a problem with the second chapter of the New Testament, Matthew chapter 2!

What is shocking in today’s Gospel reading is the response which Jesus makes to the request made by this Gentile woman. She wants Jesus to heal her daughter, and he replies: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It reads as a rejection of this woman and her daughter in their need. Jesus had brought healing to the people of his own land, who were fellow-Jews; it seems like he doesn’t want to extend this healing any further. Is it a test of how far the woman’s faith will reach? She persists: “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus gives in - the young girl is healed.

Some interpreters of the passage say that all along Jesus intends to heal the girl - he’s showing that Gentiles as well as Jews can be the object of God’s mercy; we only need to ask. Others say that it’s the intention of the Gospel writer to show that the Christian faith would be shared with Jews first before it would be taken to the Gentiles. Still others say that the word Jesus uses for “dogs” is a diminutive - so it translates as “puppies,” rather more cuddly than a first reading might suggest. But however you take it, there’s a challenge to our perceptions. God’s love is not confined to a particular people. Nothing qualifies us rather than people from Syria or Africa to be the special object of his favour. Only our humanity makes us worthy of God’s mercy - and them as well. It’s to other people in their humanity that we must make our response.

Are these people any different from us? I’ve been thinking of the links which people in our church have with other lands. Families whose children have moved to work in other countries or who have married someone of a different nationality. I have a brother who moved to the United States because that’s where the work was - over there he has a partner who comes from South America. One of my best friends here is an American who has picked up Canadian and British nationalities in the course of his travels. Another has just left this country to work in Canada. None of these people was forced by absolute need to make the moves they did - but many have benefited because they have made their life’s journey.

Perhaps the oldest part of the Bible is to be found in the book Deuteronomy (chapter 26). It’s what to say when you come to make a Harvest offering, recognising God’s guidance and provision for you. The person making the offering should begin: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…” He was a nomad, a herdsman travelling wherever his flocks could find food.

The Israelites were a people who only discovered themselves - and God - while they were on the move. Abraham, the Father of their nation, had journeyed with his family from the region we would now call Iraq through Syria to the land of Canaan - and there he lived as a guest, not by any right. His grandson, Jacob, would make the move with his family to Egypt to find refuge in time of famine. And the return journey would take them 40 years in the wilderness with only God as their guide. The story of faith revealed in the pages of scripture is one of travel, encounter, hospitality and hostility, and finally understanding of the self and of God. Still we are called on the journey. May we know ourselves the better for it, may it help us know God and his purpose for all his people.