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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 6, 2015 – The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 7:24-37


From the poem “Home,” by the Somali poet Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay…

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey…

no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.


Most of you will have seen the photo by now. The one that’s been making the rounds on the news, in the papers, on Facebook and Twitter. The one of that beautiful three-year-old Syrian child, whose name was Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on the sand of a Turkish beach, with the waves lapping around him.

His parents had dressed him for the journey in a red t-shirt and blue shorts and tiny black velcro sneakers. They had paid more than $6,000 to set out in an overcrowded 15-foot dinghy piloted by a smuggler who said he would take them across the Aegean Sea to Greece. But they didn’t get far before the waves came up around them, and the little boat capsized, and they were plunged into the water. Aylan’s father, Abdullah, clung to his sons and his wife for hours but was unable to save them. And so Aylan’s tiny body washed up on the shore, where a photographer captured the moment that has broken open so many hearts since Wednesday.

We don’t know all the details of the Kurdi family’s story. We don’t know what particular horrors they faced, what particular desperations filled their hearts. But here’s what we do know: they were not alone. They were among more than 11 million people displaced from their homes by the now four-year-old Syrian civil war. They had crossed the border into Turkey and somehow made their way to the coast, where their only option was to place their lives in the hands of smugglers, to set out on a voyage whose odds of success, they must have known, could not be high.

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark …

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

Even if Aylan and his family had made it to the end of their voyage, there’s no telling what reception they would have found. The nations of the world have not responded with open arms to the Syrian refugees. Hungary, for instance, is rushing to complete a fence along its border to keep immigrants out, and the Hungarian prime minister is spreading anti-immigrant rhetoric that is as sharp and deadly as razor wire. Slovakia has made it clear that only Christians will be welcome there; all others need not apply. When the Kurdi family climbed into that boat, the United Kingdom had received only 216 Syrian refugees, and the United States, about 1500. Meanwhile, four million refugees have fled Syria already, with more crossing the border every day as violence there continues.


This story—the story of groups of people looking out for their own and showing shockingly little care for those they perceive to be ‘other’—is not a new one. Aylan’s name and photograph are new to us, but his story is as old as the hills. It has repeated itself over and over again through history, and every time, it is heartbreaking.

The institution of slavery. The decimation of Native American communities by European colonists. The German ocean liner that was turned away from the United States and other North American countries and sent back to Europe to deliver its 900 Jewish passengers into the teeth of the Nazis. The tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children who traversed the deserts of northern Mexico last year in search of safety and hope in the United States and were greeted by armed agents, detention centers, deportations, and flag-waving demonstrators who made it abundantly clear that Texas had no room at the inn.

This story is not a new one. We humans find all kinds of ways to divide in from out, us from them. They don’t speak the right language. They don’t worship the right God. They don’t have the right skin color, the right hair style, the right facial structure. They don’t eat the right food. They don’t wear the right clothes. They don’t follow the proper protocol. They don’t understand the way things work here. They don’t want to fit into our ways. They just don’t belong. And we have enough worries of our own, thank you very much.

This story is not a new one. And as today’s scripture reading reminds us, even Jesus fell victim to this all-too-human tendency to think that “charity begins at home,” that we’d better make sure our people get enough before we worry about anyone else.

Jesus had just departed from the Jewish region of Galilee and set out for Gentile territory. Perhaps he needed a break; perhaps he wanted a retreat; perhaps he was exhausted from all the feeding and healing and teaching; perhaps he was sick of the crowds swarming around him all the time. He left his home turf and went to Tyre, hoping to be anonymous there.

But a Gentile woman tracked him down and came to find him. She bowed down before him, the story says, and begged him to heal her daughter. And Jesus did not respond in the way we might have imagined he would. He did not respond in a way that lives up to our expectations of the Son of God. In fact, Jesus sounded an awful lot like that Hungarian prime minister, an awful lot like those Texan demonstrators. He said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Never mind that she was asking him to help her child. Never mind that he called her a dog—a little female dog, to be specific—which was as offensive then as it would be now. Jesus said, essentially, that he could not or would not help her because that would take away from the ones who were really deserving of his help. In that moment, Jesus was apparently influenced by the same divisive and selfish impulses that infest our hearts. In that moment, Jesus was apparently not entirely free from racism, nationalism, internalized prejudice. In that all-too-human moment, Jesus seems to have believed that there was not enough to go around, and that his people, the children of Israel, should be first in line.

But the Syrophoenician woman said to him, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In other words, “Hey, Jesus, remember? There’s enough for us all.” We don’t need to fight about who’s first in line. We don’t need to limit who can have a seat at the table. We don’t need to divide up who’s in and who’s out, who’s us and who’s them, because with God, there is always enough. In fact, with God, there is always more than enough. Jesus had demonstrated as much, just a chapter earlier in Mark’s gospel, when he fed 5,000 people from five loaves and two fishes, and there were twelve baskets of food left over. And he would do so again, just a chapter later, feeding 4,000 people from seven loaves and a few small fish, and again, there would be leftovers. The crumbs alone would be enough.

Thanks be to God, and thanks be to the chutzpah of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus did not remain stuck in that moment of scarcity and prejudice. Thanks be to God, and thanks be to that encounter, Jesus was reminded of who he was and what he stood for. Thanks be to God, and thanks be to that encounter, Jesus found himself opened up in a new way—a way that enabled him to go forth from that place to heal a deaf man, and on from there to more miraculous feedings and healings, no longer worried about who was in and who was out and whether there would be enough.

It is my prayer that we, too, will find ourselves opened up, moved from a place of scarcity and prejudice to a place of abundance and welcome. Because the story of exclusion is not the only one that is not new. The story of human empathy, of the expansive capacities of our hearts and souls, is also as old as the hills. This community has done this before—twenty years ago, when we helped to resettle Bosnian refugee families here in the Quiet Corner; and nine months ago, when we began a new relationship with the Community Kitchen; and three weeks ago, when we began to enter more deeply into conversations about race and racism; and so many other times throughout our history. People around the world are doing it now—the governments of Germany and Sweden are welcoming displaced Syrians, the people of Austria are standing by the side of the road with food and drink for weary travelers, the people of Iceland are rallying to invite refugees into their own homes. With God, there is always more than enough.

It may not be obvious at the outset how that will happen, or where the “enough” will come from. But it is my prayer that for the sake of Aylan Kurdi and his family, and for the sake of those whose names we do not know, whose faces we will never see, we will again find ways to feed those who are hungry, to heal those who are wounded, to bind up those who are broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to bring good news to a weary and hurting world.

May it be so.