Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills that we may serve you now and always. Amen.
In his book The Spiritual Life of Children, psychologist Robert Coles writes about his work with African American school children in the south in the 1960s. He saw first-hand how faith helped minority families cope with the injustice of segregation - even young children often thrived during these dangerous times. In 1962, an eight-year-old black girl in North Carolina said to Doctor Coles, "I was all alone, and those [segregationist] people were screaming, and suddenly I saw God smiling, and I smiled." The little girl continued, "A woman was standing there [near the school door], and she shouted at me, 'Hey, you little n .... , what you smiling at?' I looked right at her face, and I said, 'At God.' Then she looked up at the sky and then looked at me, and she didn't call me any more names."What enables this little girl to cope and thrive in the midst of the racial hatred around her is the faith that she was raised in that told her she was a beloved child of God. Too often when we think about racism in this country, we think of it as something from our past like this story and not our present time. Slavery, forced removal of Native tribes, Jim Crow laws, Japanese Internment Camps, segregation are from our past but the consequences of these actions still haunt us today.
For the unjust centuries of the evils of white privilege, systemic racism, and oppression are not yet consigned to history. The point of the “Black Lives Matter” & “Native Lives Matter” movements are not that their lives matter more than those of others, but that they matter equally, and that historically (even up to now) they have been treated as though they do not. The AME Church and other churches have asked us to consider that “racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation.” It is easy to distance ourselves from those who murder because of race; I think of the Charleston 9 who died at a bible study in their AME Church or the man convicted of killing 3 at 2 Jewish businesses in Kansas, but racism can be subtle too and we must live fully aware of all the ways racism can corrupt us.
I think of the pictures of the little boy who washed ashore after the overloaded boat he and his family were in (along with many other refugees) capsized just off of Turkey. His name was Aylan Kurdi. He was 3 and a refugee from Kobani, Syria. My heart sank when I saw those images. How awful. But he wasn’t the first picture.
Peter Bouckaert, from Human Rights Watch, argues that the child’s ethnicity played a role in the image’s impact. “This is a child that looks a lot like an European child,” he says. “The week before, dozens of African kids washed up on the beaches of Libya and were photographed and it didn’t have the same impact. There is some ethnocentrism [in the] reaction to this image, certainly.” (from Time.com)He was right. I saw those pictures, but I didn’t react… were the clothes so different? The color of their skin? But it was Aylan that I identified with and reacted too…
All of those children are part of our common humanity, and we should weep at such death. We all have bias; part of that is our human nature. But the challenge we live with today, is to overcome that bias; far too often we ignore the bias and it infects our way of being and racism occurs.
In the letter of James, the church community is confronted with the challenge to not show favoritism or partiality. In a way, the community is called to not act on its bias, to root out racism and classism.
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? […]You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin...”As I thought about little Aylan, I also remembered the words of Chris Kyle, the American Sniper credited with 160 kills during the Iraq War. He called the Iraqis savages and wished he had killed more. Such thinking is what caused Aylan and his family to flee their home. We can too easily look at others, often another race or religion, and see them as the other and forget our common humanity.
Today’s Gospel has Jesus traveling outside the land of Israel, and encountering Gentiles, those outside the Jewish faith. In the first story, Jesus is confronted with the faith of the Syrophoneician woman, a gentile from outside Israel, along the coastline of the Mediterranean. He does not escape notice even there.
She finds Jesus & there she kneels at the feet of Jesus & begs that the demon tormenting her daughter be cast out. But Jesus response is not what we expect from him… “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”
To be compared to a dog was an insult. You can feel the tension between Jew & Gentile. It makes us uncomfortable to hear such a rebuke from Jesus, in a racially and religiously charged situation.
But that woman will not stop fighting for her child, and turns the metaphor to her advantage. She answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Right back at Jesus!
The disciples & the Jewish leaders never engage in such a challenge with Jesus. It took guts for her to approach Jesus in the first place and even more so to respond to him and Jesus knows this. Jesus said to her, "For saying that, you may go-- the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
It was faith that led her to Jesus but it was the fight for her child, her response that brought the healing. Would we follow Jesus lead and graciously end an argument when we know the other person has the better argument or do we continue to justify our own? In our racially and religiously charge days, how will we respond to others, to the Gentiles in our midst?
The letter of James reminds us, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” - How will we put our faith into action?A Litany by Bishop Adam J. Richardson, Jr. of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, gets us to think about such action in our faith: “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on us,” so says the thoughtful theologian. It is putting feet to our faith, power to our prayers, urgency to the present concern, momentum to the Movement. “I received no answer” says Frederick Douglass, “until I prayed with my legs.” Something must follow our worship – ACTION"
As people of faith, we have a responsibility to help end racism, to turn from all that is evil, to seek peace, and pursue it. To not return to the foolishness of inhumanity toward others but to model the love we have from Jesus in what we say and do; to show that Black Lives Matter, Native Lives Matter, Refugees Lives Matter, Yours and Mine and all of humanity matters, as it does to God, now and always. Amen.