Scriptures: Exodus 22:21 and Mark 7:24-37
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Africa is a continent of untold wonders. From the Sahara Desert to the Nile River and Victoria Falls, the geographies and cultures of Africa are magnificent. On a trip to Kenya many years ago I remember coming around a curve in the road and there, laid out before us, for miles upon miles, was the vast Rift Valley. The cradle of humanity. Our home. It was an extremely emotion filled moment that took me by surprise.
In a sense, we could say that all humans are Africans, because we all come from ancestors who originated in Africa some 200,000 years ago. And over the course of thousands of years, homo sapiens has migrated from Africa to the Near East, to Asia and Australia, then Europe, and finally in more recent times, relatively speaking, across the Bering Straits to North America and South America.
As humans settled the globe, migration continued. People migrated with the seasons. In search of food. In response to the weather or a natural disaster. All the while seeking to sustain themselves and live. Such migration continues today, though in more complex ways. We still move for a better job, snowbirds migrate seasonally, and weather like Hurricane Katrina forces people to move to a new home. So, migration continues.
In our faith tradition, we are told of Abram and Sarai called to migrate from Haran to Canaan to begin a new branch of religious culture in human history. Later we are told of their heirs migrating to Egypt in search of food in a time of drought. We are given the story of the Hebrews liberated from slavery in Egypt and wandering for 40 years until finally settling in the Promised Land. In the Bible we also hear of conquests that lead people to lose their land and homes resulting in dispersion. Forced migration. And we hear of return to the homeland.
Our faith tradition continues the theme of migration when we think of the stories associated with Jesus and the early church. We have a story which tells us of Joseph and Mary fleeing with Jesus to Egypt for safety. Later, we are told of Jesus, so often on the go, seeking out regions beyond his homeland. He migrates to foreign lands and into hostile territory seeking to share the Good News of a loving God as we heard in the gospel read today. And Paul, the apostle, and his followers, go even further afield to the frontiers of the Roman Empire. There is all of this movement and migration in the stories of our faith in the Bible.
And the migration stories continue as we learn of people migrating to this continent, across the seas, seeking land, space, food, resources, and also coming to these shores for religious liberty. Every child learns in school of the Pilgrims and their journey from Holland in search of a place where they could practice their religion without interference. All well and good except that they robbed the indigenous residents of their liberty, religious and otherwise.
In our history, we also know of migration that occurs due to human trafficking. The slave trade within Africa and between Africa and Europe and the New World caused a great migration, though it was by force, not by choice. And we know of Australia and even Florida populated by migrants who were criminals and sent to these remote destinations where they could not be of harm to society at large.
Can any of us here in this room say that we are not migrants to this our home? We all come from Africa and have gotten here by many different routes!
Migration happens for many reasons. Some migration occurs because people are trying to get away from something – famine, war, oppression, crime, punishment, family problems, natural disaster, poverty. People want a chance for a better life. So they seek it through geographical migration.
Sometimes people migrate motivated by what they are going to. They want more land, space, food, water, natural resources, freedom, safety, economic opportunity, education, family, a more pleasing climate, adventure, a different kind of beauty.
The human story is a story of migration. Everyone, family , clan, tribe, ethnic group, has come from somewhere, and migrated, save those who still inhabit the Rift Valley.
The US had a dominant self image as a melting pot, or more recently, a salad bowl. We saw the diversity of the immigrant population to the US as a strength. We have benefitted from all of the different peoples that have come to this land: Their strengths and skills in industry, human service, agriculture, and the arts, have added to the richness of this country.
We prided ourselves on taking in dissidents from repressive regimes and welcoming those seeking freedom of conscience. We welcomed refugees from Vietnam and other war ravaged lands.
There have been moments that mar our self image as a welcoming nation. We think of turning away ships full of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and the interment of Americans of Japanese heritage during World War 2. We are ashamed of these failures because we declare ourselves to be a country of “liberty and justice for all.”
The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor has welcomed thousands upon thousands of immigrants and refugees to this country including my four grandparents. The US has been proud of its image as a place where anyone who wants to work hard can make a contribution and have a good life. This pride is captured in the poem “The New Colossus” written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish migrant, in 1883 for the base of the famous statue. I bet many of you memorized this poem in school:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It’s hard to imagine that poem being selected today for such a monument. A current contender for the Republican nomination for president, not Donald Trump, has declared that multiculturalism is bad for the United States. He adds that immigrants who close themselves off from American culture deny themselves access to economic rewards. [Tampa Bay Times, 9/23/15, “Jeb Bush: Don’t Close Yourself Off to Culture”, 3A] American culture? Is he talking about corn and deer and bison? Weaving baskets and blankets? Making decisions based on the wellbeing of 7 generations hence? Because anything on these shores that is not indigenous Native American is multiculturalism. And we used to be proud of that.
Regardless of current sentiments, humankind is a species characterized by migration. People on the move. To new frontiers. To new possibilities. To peace and freedom. And now we are even looking to migrate into space!
As a migrating people, as a people on the move, we surely know that migration requires the expression of hospitality and welcome. In a few weeks we will commemorate the classic image of American history: The Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down to feast together. If not for the Indians, who’s to say, maybe none of us would be here! Every immigrant, every refugee, every transplant knows the importance of help from the locals with getting the lay of the land and becoming acclimated to the new environment. We see this expressed beautifully today as vacationers on the isle of Lesbos in Greece help the people coming ashore in perilous vessels. Here are people on their summer holiday having breakfast then going to the store and getting food and supplies for the refugees and delivering them before heading to the beach for the sun and the sand. How beautiful. This is the love and compassion of the human spirit rising up and refusing to be suppressed by greed and ethnocentrism and self absorption.
This beautiful capacity of the human spirit for hospitality is expressed by churches, organizations, and communities that are working to help people from war torn, repressive countries find shelter and safety as they transition to a new home.
In the story we heard this morning from the gospel of Mark, we see the pleading of a desperate mother. She is so concerned about the well being of her child, she will resort to anything she needs to to take care of her child. She will lower herself to approaching a total stranger to beg for a favor. She will speak with a man in public which is against the law. She will risk the reproach of a foreigner and endure being insulted and demeaned. Being called a dog was a slur back then just as it is today. But she persists. She will not be daunted or intimidated because of her desperate love for her daughter. She will do whatever she possibly can to secure her child’s well being.
How many millions of parents around the world are risking everything, daring anything, degrading themselves willingly, for the sake of their children. They will resort to anything to see that their children are safe, have a home, and can go to school and play. Most of the migration today is about people fleeing horrific conditions to save their lives and give a decent life to their children. There are driven by desperation not greed.
I have been to Mexico numerous times. I love Mexico – the food, the colors, the people, the music, the churches, the art, the culture. To me, it is an amazing delight. Why would people want to leave this wonderful homeland? Hunger, violence, lack of opportunity, corruption. This is why people are leaving Mexico. The policies of the Mexican government particularly in partnership with its northern neighbor have devastated Mexico. The land is taken over by multinationals and people can’t grow food. Coca Cola has water rights while people have no drinking water. Cash crops are grown instead of food, crops that become drugs to meet the demands of the largest market in the world for these illicit substances just on the northern border of Mexico. Legitimate society is collapsing. People have no hope. That is why they are leaving.
Like the Syrophoenician woman, people around the world will resort to anything to save the lives of their children. They are fleeing to save themselves and their beloved families.
When the Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus in the story, he is not interested in her need. He tries to shut her down. He doesn’t want to be bothered. We heard echoes of these sentiments from European leaders as they met to decide what to do about all the people arriving on their shores. We can’t take care of our own. We can’t help these people, too. They’ll destabilize our society. But Jesus is moved by the desperation of the woman. She calls forth his compassion with her determination and resolve. He relents and helps her daughter.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin observes, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.” [p. 61] That’s what happens to Jesus in this story. Migration and the plight of immigrants and refugees today gives us the opportunity to be moved like Jesus. To become larger, freer, and more loving. It is our call to fulfill the demands of decency and morality as well as the compunction of our faith to offer compassion, generosity, and hospitality. As spiritual migrants, hopefully we are constantly progressing on our spiritual journey toward greater love. Humanity as a whole throughout the ages as well as each one of us in our individual lives are making a journey in our beliefs, our understandings, our attitudes, and our faith. The challenge posed by refugees and immigrants invites us to move further on the journey toward our best selves, toward our highest good, toward a fuller expression of the Christ within us. When we offer hospitality to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of teeming shores, the homeless, the tempest tossed, that kind of generosity and compassion help us move forward on our life long migration toward good, toward each other, and toward God our forever home. Amen.
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