Sunday 24th June – 9am Worship
Sermon Series: Radical Hospitality
Theme: Radical Hospitality – A Justice Perspective
Bible Readings: Deuteronomy 24:14-22 & Mark 7:24-30
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
So … what do we make of that gospel reading? It is the sort of reading that just raises a lot of questions… Jesus and his disciples have travelled out of Israel to Phoenicia where Jesus wanted to keep his presence a secret? Why? Jesus mission was to share the good news of God’s kingdom and yet in this town of Tyre he tries to go incognito. Then we have the Syrophoenician woman just broke all the rules. It was probably because was so desperate to help her very sick daughter, that she was willing to break the social rules.
She was a Gentile not a Jew, probably culturally Greek and ethnically Syrian. She was a foreigner to Jesus: from a different land, different in religion, different first language and different culture. They were from different social circles … Jesus was a poor traveler but she was probably socially elite and wealthy. And she was a woman. She should have been at home and not out without a man. She was ‘unclean’ or ‘impure’ because of her daughter’s illness. Jesus was a religious teacher, not one who should have been in contact with those who would pass on their impurities. She should not have approached him at all, let alone enter a private house and fall to her knees in front of him. Everything about the woman and her actions was an affront to how things should have been. It’s no wonder Jesus responded the way he did.
I think this story is one of the most powerful in the gospels. It appears in Mark as we’ve read it, and also in Matthew. It’s also one of the most challenging – confronting us with the image of a harsh and dismissive Jesus. Isn’t Jesus the one who reaches out to those in need, to those on the margins, those who are vulnerable? But not here, not straight up. It’s curious that Jesus’ first response to this woman was to turn her away. Out first reading today from Deuteronomy commanded the Israelites to care for the stranger (or ‘alien’ as it’s often translated). Jesus knew the scriptures and would have known this commandment. There are also many warnings about the consequences for failing to do so.
So why, when confronted by a begging mother, willing to risk everything to save her daughter, why did Jesus dismiss her so harshly and cruelly? He compared her to a dog.
Jesus reason for being dismissive was “Israel first”. He was there to feed the children of Israel and she was not one of them. His gifts of grace, his practice of God’s hospitality of love, were for his people, his nation … not for those who were from different nations, not for the dogs. There are many people and nations around the world at the moment who would agree with this approach by Jesus. We have to look after our people first before helping people from other countries. America First. Australian First.
I try really hard not to be political from the pulpit – it is much safer to me to stick to issues of faith … but sometimes a considered faith is one which wrestles with political issues. We have been exploring the biblical understanding of radical hospitality and it just happens that last week was refugee week. How does this idea of hospitality and refugees fit together? Also this week our TV screens have been filled with confronting issues from the border of the US and Mexico. Immigration is a hot issue and a bible reading like this forces us ask questions. Is it ok for the United States to lock people up with the reasoning that protecting the American people is more important than helping people who are fleeing danger in other countries?
Here is another people asking for help being locked up … but it is not the states … this is Nauru. This week we might have been upset with what has been happening in the US but we have been doing something similar here for years. I’m not saying that Australia is all bad when it comes to helping people escaping from war and just looking for help and peace for their families. I was so pleased last year when our government said that we would take an extra 12,000 of these people from Syria who are so desperate. But have you heard the same comments that I have heard in response to this? “Why are we helping them? We have homeless people in Australia … why don’t we look after them first?” Whilst there is some validity to the statement … there is this underlying attitude … why do we need to help them, we are only here to help Australians. Let their people look after them. “Let the children eat all they want for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”
Even the word ‘dogs’ is interesting … I’m not suggesting Jesus was actually doing this, but is referring to a person as an animal dehumanising them? Both sides of our nation’s politicians seem to have had a campaign to dehumanise asylum seekers in the eyes of most Australians – and I think that it has unfortunately been successful. To most Australians … asylum seekers are to us as the Syrophoenician woman was to Jesus and those in his society – ‘unclean’ and ‘impure’ foreigners; they are different – they have different religions, practices, clothing. They are labeled illegal (even though asking for asylum is not illegal). These labels help dehumanise people. They are dogs not worthy to eat the crumbs from our table. Am I being too harsh?
We are, clearly, one of the wealthiest, most secure and stable countries in the world, yet we have closed our borders to those fleeing persecution and torture, and those few thousand who managed to get too close are now been living for over 5 years in tents in poverty stricken countries in places too far away to be seen and in conditions deliberately designed to break people. Nauru is designed to be so bad that it discourages people from trying to ask for us for help. As a nation, both sides of our political system have decided that our response to asylum seekers who step on to boats to seek protection from persecution and violence – who seek our help and hospitality – is to say that we will never help them and discourage all others from asking.
I do find it interesting that when Jesus said “no” to the Syrophoenician woman, she did not give up. She didn’t retreat. This woman stood her ground and forced Jesus to engage with her. She was a human being not a dog. Her daughter was a human being. And they had a right to the grace of God as much as any else. In the face of this great truth, Jesus changed his mind. In verse 29, Jesus said, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Actually one could argue that Jesus didn’t just change his mind … Jesus was transformed by this encounter.
In the context of Mark’s story, Jesus’ ministry was never the same after this encounter. Until this moment, Jesus’ ministry was to Israel alone but from this point in the gospel the Kingdom of God becomes a gift of grace for all people.
Let me give you one example. In Chapter 6, ahead of this story, Mark gives us one of the great hospitality stories – the feeding of the 5000 men and uncounted women and children in Galilee, a Jewish place and a Jewish crowd. In Chapter 8, after his encounter with the woman, we read the story of the feeding of the 4000 set in the Greek region of Decapolis. A cosmopolitan place and Gentile crowd where a generosity born of faith became a miracle of hospitality. One woman stood up and said “No – This is not right” and things changed.
Look – I know that the world immigration issue is complex and difficult and we have so much baised news and opinions flying around that we don’t know what to think. And I have been here at Turramurra long enough to know that different people in this congregation have very different opinions on this issue … and because I love you all deeply, I respect your opinions, so I am not trying to preach from the front and tell you that you all have to think a certain way.
However, just as the bible reading made me uncomfortable, so does this issue of Asylum seekers and I am not sure if I am able to continue to just sit quietly when I look at what is happening around us. I don’t think we are following God’s laws about looking after and supporting the foreigner. I know it is complex but I feel that I should be doing something.
But … what can we do? This whole situation of Asylum seekers seems too big, too difficult, there are too many different opinions and we are not even sure if there is a clear answer… what can we do?
Actually I think that a way forward is the thing that we have been looking at for the past month – radical hospitality. How do we show hospitality to the newly arrived, to the refugee, to the asylum seeker? I want to share with us two ideas … and see if God stirs us to pursue any of these ideas.
The first is an idea from Sydney Alliance called Table talks. The idea is fairly simple, it is about getting people with differing opinions on refugees and immigration to have a conversation around a table (Isn’t it amazing … we say that radical hospitality is gathering people around a table!) It is designed to be informal and relaxed. A recent arrival or refugee is invited to share their story and Sydney Alliance provides an expert on hand to answer questions … but largely the night is about people talking and listening to each other. I actually attended one last year – about 4 different churches came together and there was about 50 people in about 7 table discussions – and it was amazing. I can’t say that it was a night where many people changed their opinions but we all left feeling that we had a better understanding of refugees and the complexity of the immigration problem. I don’t know if there has been anything up this way like this, but would you be interested in the table talk idea?
The other idea is a great idea that seems to resonate with our theme of radical hospitality. It is an idea called “Welcome dinners” and was dreamed up by a group called “joining the dots”. The idea is that the Welcome Dinners organisers bring together 4 people or families who were born in Australia with 4 people or families who have recently arrived for dinner around a table. (There is that radical hospitality table again). The structure, program, and organisation are provided … you just have to bring a meal that represents you or your country for the pot-luck dinner. These dinners have been an amazing success in breaking down barriers. And if you want to be part of this … you just have to register online. How cool is that. And after they do a number of welcome dinners in an area they organise large scale events for up to 100 people …. They just need a large community space to hold them. Once again – these dinners are about learning more about each other, finding the similarities between people rather than focusing on the things that separate us.
These are good ideas, aren’t they? I know, they are not going to solve the problem, but they are a step in the right direction.
Yes, refugees and immigration is a complex issue … but as followers of Jesus, maybe we need to be a bit like the Syrophoenician woman and stand up and say … the current way is not working and maybe there is a better way. And I just love the idea that the table – the table of radical hospitality – might be part of the solution and that through hospitality real transformation can come.
I am going to leave it there but I just want to encourage you to come along next week for the last of the hospitality series where we are going to attempt to do two things – be extremely hospitable to you and to explore the issue of social isolation in our community and what we can do about it.