Paul Jeffrey's sermon for October 14, 2007
The United Methodist Church, Santa Rosa, California
Text: Mark 7:24-30
Because churches like yours make it possible for me to be a missionary, I get to travel a lot. So far this calendar year, I've been on 89 airplane flights and 6 helicopter trips. Now some people have a sort of romantic notion of what that entails, but to be honest, much of it is pure drudgery, so I spend a lot of time on the internet reading websites dedicated to frequent flyers who are thirsty like me for knowledge about how to make travel more comfortable. I love getting upgrades into business class, for example, where the seats are wider, the oxygen level higher, it's easier to sleep, and the booze is more abundant.
Traveling is hard, even scarey for some. That's why a few years ago Holiday Inn had an ad campaign that claimed that wherever you went, its hotels offered "no surprises." In other words, whether it was Santa Rosa or Sao Paulo, the room would be just the same, everything predictable, no surprises.
Some travelers consider crossing borders, with all the paperwork and strange people pawing through your underwear, to be a particular burden. But I want to suggest that it's a privilege to cross borders. In fact, I consider it an element of our faith, Holiday Inn notwithstanding, to be surprised.
Jesus traveled a lot. From the beginning of his life, he traveled across regional borders in utero because the empire demanded that his parents be counted for the census. As a newborn, he traveled across the border into Egypt, swaddled against the elements by a mother and father who feared for his life and so became refugees themselves. Jesus the traveler, Jesus the refugee, Jesus who grows up to become an itinerant preacher, incarnating with his life and preaching the demand of faith that we cross borders of class, of gender, of religion.
The reading this morning from Mark's Gospel fleshes this out for us. Jesus sneaks off to a foreign land for some solitude and anonymity, but his reputation has gone before him. Instead of respite from the maddening crowd he encounters a woman who was, to Jesus' Hebrew brothers and sisters, an outsider, a pagan, a heathen. She recognizes him. And because she knows he is a healer, she begs him to heal her daughter.
This story is often used to illustrate how Jesus grew into his mission. Indeed, how in crossing a border, both a geographic and cultural border, he is forced to rethink his sense of self, his sense of God and God's people. But the encounter doesn't start off well: he first responds to her entreaty with a not very kind line that healing should be reserved for God's chosen people and not wasted on dogs, that is, on this woman and her daughter. But thank Yahweh for uppity women. The Syrophoenician woman is not willing to take any guff from Jesus, and she responds by telling him that there must enough scraps that fall on the floor under the children's table, that even the dogs can be satisfied.
It is, by every means, a lesson for Jesus. This woman, this pagan woman, is preaching theology to Jesus, a Jesus who is still learning about his own mission. To his credit, he accepts his comeuppance. He tells her that because of what she has said, she should go home where she will find her daughter healed. And she does.
What's this story got to do with us?
It's easy to sit in Santa Rosa, or Eugene, where I live, or New York or WashingtonDC, and look out at the rest of the world and see only threats, only enemies, only people who are different from us, and thus bad. Just like Jesus' contemporaries, we are quick to draw a circle in the sand around us and say, inside this circle are the chosen people, with God on our side, and anybody on the outside of the circle, the border we've drawn around us, is in deep trouble.
Now, if we never cross that border, it's easy to remain afraid of those other people. It's only in crossing over, with the same willingness as Jesus had to rethink our prejudices and preconceptions, that we can begin to grow, as Jesus did, into a more mature sense of our self and our discipleship as people of faith.
Sometimes other people cross borders to come to us, to where we live. We live in a fascinating historical moment when massive movements of people and capital are changing both our concept of neighborhood as well as our concept of marketplace. And our sacred obligation to offer hospitality to the migrant, as well as the Biblical responsibility to deal justly in the marketplace that's why we drink fair trade coffee-challenge us not to shrink the circle we've drawn, or try to protect it with weaponry, but rather to accept its increasingly porous nature with grace and creativity.
When we follow Jesus across the borders of our world, we do not do so as tourists. Tourism is the commodification of culture. Rather, we are called to be pilgrims, to go on a pilgrimage, to set out into the world with the goal of being changed, of being transformed. Not of taking pictures to show people back home the ugly cement block church building we built for the people "down" there, not to come home with all those tales about how we dealt with diarrhea or where we got the cheapest bargain on those beautiful rugs. But rather, in our encounter with people who live across the chasm of class or ethnicity or language or spirituality from us, we can hopefully report how we found new meaning for our lives.
We struggle a lot in our churches here about how to reach out to groups at the margins of our communities. When I was in Pakistan last year I did a story on the ministry of the Methodist-relatedChurch of Pakistan with female sex workers. That's a very conservative society, and in that hierarchical matrix of class, caste, religion and gender, women prostitutes are among the lowest of the low. But the Christian community in Pakistan is also to be found among the poor and low caste, and so reaching out to women sex workers involved crossing fewer cultural borders than if we, for example, in our middle class churches here in the US, were to decide tomorrow that we wanted to start a ministry among a similar group here. When the church lives and breathes at the margins of society, among the poor and desperate where Jesus hung out, ministry is easier than having to climb down from steeples of privilege to launch paternalistic enterprises of mercy. Where we start in the adventure of mission has a lot to do with where we end up.
Casimira Rodriguez is a Quechua woman who at the age of 13 came from her village high in the Andes to begin working as a maid for a wealthy family in the city of Cochabamba. She worked from 6 am til midnight, everyday for two years, with no pay, before her mother came and took her home. But poverty soon brought her back to the city, to another job as a domestic servant. Eventually she got a job where she had Sunday afternoons off, and she began attending a literacy program for domestic workers that was jointly sponsored by the Catholic and Methodist churches. As she and the other young women talked among themselves, their consciousness grew, and with the support of the two churches eventually went on to form a union and demand legislation that would protect the rights of young women working in homes. Before their first public demonstration, however, they were terrified. These were timid girls. None of them had spoken in public. So they made their placards and spent several days marching around in a circle inside the courtyard of the Methodist Church, chanting their slogans, gaining confidence until they were ready to take to the streets. They chose Casimira to head their union, and it took them 12 years to get the legislation through the Bolivian Congress. Last year, when Bolivia inaugurated its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, he named Casimira to be the country's minister of justice. The country's bar association, a group of lighter-skinned men who all wear suits and ties, were scandalized that the new president would name a non-lawyer, a former maid, an indigenous woman who wore her native dress proudly, as the head of the justice ministry. They raised a political ruckus. Casimira met with the Methodist bishop and other church leaders who presented her with a Bible, prayed long and hard with her, and then sent her out to a press conference where she told the lawyers they could all go jump in Lake Titicaca.
Casimira lasted a year in that job before moving onto another task, but what sticks with me from her story is that image of the women marching around in the church courtyard. The faith community became a school of empowerment for people long relegated to the margins. What's the role of the church? Does the church mirror the dominant culture, or does it challenge it? Does the church maintain the borders and walls between us, or, like Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, does it "bring us close, by the blood of Christ"?
"For he is the peace between us," Paul wrote, "and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart."
Unfortunately, we have not inherited many good models of what it means to cross borders. By looking around the room, I would assume that many of you like me inherited a big part of your DNA from those European immigrants who arrived on the shores of New England. I learned from elementary school plays, where the Native Americans had a feather in their hair and carried a paper fish, but where the pilgrims always got to wear those cool hats with the big buckles, that those European immigrants were pretty cool people. A careful reading of the historical texts, however, suggests a different reality.
In his book entitled 1491, historian Charles Mann documents how Native Americans often thought that European settlers were kind of dumb. They viewed Europeans as "physically weak, sexually untrustworthy, atrociously ugly, and just plain smelly." Several tribes, according to Mann, "scoffed at the notion of European superiority. If Christian civilization were so wonderful [they asked], why were its inhabitants all trying to settle somewhere else?"
Mann tells about the voyage of Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian mariner whose journey to the New World in 1523 was sponsored by the king of France. In several locations the native communities traded willingly with him, but in some places along the coast of what's today Maine, the Indians denied Verrazzana permission to land and even refused to touch the Europeans. Mann writes, "They passed goods back and forth on a rope over the water. As soon as the crew members sent over the last items, the locals [according to Verrazzano's diary] began `showing their buttocks and laughing."'
And I always thought my friends and I had invented mooning in junior high school.
The more times have changed, the more they remain the same. In a rather depressing book about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, entitled "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," Raj iv Chandrasekaran details how people were picked to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority based not on their experience of living in Muslim countries or speaking Arabic, but rather on who they had voted for in the last presidential election or their position on Roe vs. Wade. As a result, in the Green Zone, the former palace of Saddam Hussein where the CPA set up its fortress, you could dine for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread, or a lamb kebab.
The fare included "a bottomless barrel of pork; sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. There were bacon cheeseburgers, grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, and bacon omelettes. Hundreds of Iraqi secretaries and translators who worked for the occupation authority had to eat in the dining hall. Most of them were Muslims, and many were offended by the presence of pork. But the American contractors running the kitchen kept serving it. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food. None of the succulent tomatoes or the crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. US government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations."
There is no shortage of bad models for crossing borders.
Now contrast that with the experience of a guy who's a full-blown saint of our Christian history but whom we've too often trapped safely in garden statuary. In 1291, sickened by the sacrilegious brutality of the Christian soldiers participating in the Crusades, Francis of Assisi and 12 of his disciples traveled to Egypt to seek a meeting with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, the head of the Muslim armies in the Fifth Crusade and someone who was vilified in Europe as an absolute beast, sort of the Osama bin Laden of his time. Francis' group was quickly captured and roughed up, but at Francis' insistence were finally taken before the sultan. Francis greets him with his characteristic "May the peace of God be with you," which is close to the Muslim's cherished As-salaam a lakum. And what then transpired is fascinating. Francis and al-Kamil, who Francis found to be kind and open minded, engage in a lengthy dialogue, with Francis trying to convert al-Kamil to Christianity, but doing so with profound respect. Al-Kamil is so impressed that he gives Francis written permission to preach the Gospel throughout Muslim lands. Muslim literature records how Al-Kamil was changed by his encounter with Francis, and yet Francis changed as well. Impressed with Muslim devotion, when he returns to Europe he brings with him some elements of Muslim religious practice that end up changing the face of European Catholicism. He had gone to Egypt as a pilgrim, sharing the Gospel, but also open to new experiences of faith.
Francis tended to see the whole trip as a failure, though, because on his way out of Egypt he went to the camp of Cardinal Pelagius Galvani, the leader of the Christian Crusader armies, and tried to broker a peace treaty. The sultan had told Francis he was willing to talk peace. But the cardinal was not, and despite Francis' best efforts, the wars continued, a terrible cost both in human life, and in centuries of tension between two great religions.
Since I moved back to the U.S. three years ago, I've been struck by how afraid we are as a society. That fear is cultivated by politicians who create wars simply as a way to make their friends rich, and it's encouraged by a whole genre of hate media that provide ideological justification for such corrupt political projects by convincing us that it's just you and me against the whole world.
The world, however, is a more complicated place than some people would like us to believe. In 2001, 1 went to northwest Pakistan to cover the churches' work with refugees who were fleeing the U.S. bombing inside Afghanistan. I was based in Peshawar, where I had the opportunity to cover a political gathering one Friday afternoon after prayers concluded in the city's mosques. The ACT security officer insisted on sending the biggest Afghan on their staff with me, and when we told the taxi driver where I was going, he insisted on coming along also to protect me.
When we got to the rally, I climbed up onto the flatbed truck that served as a speakers platform, and started photographing the action. Men waved photos of Osama bin Laden as the crowd swelled to some 15,000 people chanting Allah is Great and Death to America. After about 20 minutes of work, I'd basically run out of film and it was time to go. But the flatbed truck had so filled up with people that there was no way I could make my way off the back of it to where my bodyguards awaited. From where I stood, the only way out was to climb down into the crowd. And so I did that, but halfway down became entangled in my cameras and camera bag, and ended up hanging there, half off the stage, unable to move up or down without dropping a camera. I felt like a fool. Finally some hands reached up from the crowd and took my cameras from me, and then helped me down. A space opened around me, people pausing for a moment in their chant of Death to America so they could hand me back my cameras and pat me on the back, all of them saying, "Hello my friend, how are you?" That's an English phrase that every Pakistani and Afghan male knows. I smiled back, thanking them in Arabic, and then started to make my way through the crowd toward safety. As I did so, the crowd opened in front of me, people pausing in their chant of Death to America in order to smile, pat me on the back, and say, "Hello my friend, how are you?"
We come here this morning to confess our faith in a God who loved the world so much, that God crossed the border into our human history in order to save us. If we are to cross geographic and cultural borders to encounter Jesus as he comes to us in those who hurt and are hungry, we need to let go of our artificial constructs of security and turn off the voices of hate that offer a constant backdrop of hysteria in our land. God calls us to overcome our fear, to send the Minutemen home, to live in peace and work for r a world where people have no excuse not to pat us on the back and say, "Hello, my friend. How are you?"
But you may be saying, "Hey. Wait a minute. I live in Santa Rosa. I'm ecohip, my doors and mind and heart are open, I eat fair trade chocolate and drink shade grown organic coffee and buy my produce from local farmers and write letters to my politicians about the genocide in Darfur. I give money to support Paul Jeffrey's work, I watch the Daily Show, have a pro-immigrant bumper sticker on my hybrid, my savings are in Working Assets, and I think Bill O'Reilly is the devil's spawn. I mean, I've crossed all the borders I need to, right?"
God is never satisfied with where we are, and neither should we be. Like Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman and St Francis, we are called to cross over the borders that separate us from each other, whether they be the people across the street or someone across the ocean. There are still borders that each of us needs to cross, but the good news is we don't have to go alone. God goes with us. And what we will find there is not just an opportunity to serve others, but also a chance to discover our own salvation.
What borders is God calling you to cross?