September 5, 2021
Last weekend I learned about Zalmay Niazy.[i] His friends and neighbors in Iowa Falls just call him “Zee.” You might think that Iowa Falls is a strange place for a devout Muslim to end up, especially given that pork, which observant Muslims don’t eat, is big business in Iowa Falls. And there isn’t a mosque anywhere in sight. Iowa Falls is a long way from Zee’s native Afghanistan.
Zee came to the United States after serving as an interpreter for American and Allied forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan. It was dangerous work, and it made him a target of the Taliban. He’s got the scars to show for it. He’s taken a bullet to the arm, nearly lost his eye to shrapnel, and he almost lost his leg when the bus he was riding in was hit by a roadside bomb.
Zee never planned to live in Iowa Falls. In 2014 a U.S. contractor that had hired him flew him from Kabul to Washington, D.C. for business. Almost as soon as he landed, his parents found a warning from the Taliban nailed to their front door. It wasn’t the first, but this one said that if their son came home, he’d be dead – and the Taliban would kill his family too. Zee was forced to apply for political asylum to save both his family and himself.
When he arrived in Iowa Falls, he had nothing except the clothes he was wearing. People helped him out, starting with Mike Ingebritson and his wife. Mike is 6’10” tall, so he’s a bit imposing. But in Mike’s words: “Oh, you get a kid that’s, let’s say, 10,000 miles away from home, three-time wounded veteran, and he says, ‘Can you help me?’ You don’t turn him down; you do the right thing.” Mike loaned Zee some money to buy a house and helped him get it fixed up.
Zee’s friends and neighbors can’t say enough nice things about him. They talk about how he would do anything to help anyone in the community – and often has. He’s become a local handyman, started his own business. They love him so much that when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration was threatening to deport Zee, the town raised $40,000 to hire him an immigration lawyer, and they wrote letter after letter in support of Zee’s asylum case. The problem was based on something that had happened when Zee was nine years old and had been forced at gunpoint to give the Taliban some bread. That situation was viewed as aiding the enemy, engaging in terrorist activity. His attorney was recently told that Immigration Services is reconsidering his case. The government won’t say why, but I like to think it’s at least in part because his neighbors have stood by him and advocated on his behalf.
I’ve thought a lot about Zee’s story in conversation with our readings this morning. Zee moved across borders to save his family. He pursued an unknown path, unsure of the consequences, and thankfully he found himself surrounded by people who helped him out. The Syrophoenician woman we hear about this morning also moves across borders – borders of ethnicity and religion and gender. She crosses those borders to save her daughter. But she doesn’t find immediate support. She encounters something quite different.
We don’t know much about this woman. We know that Jesus has entered her Gentile community in the region of Tyre. It’s an ethnically and economically diverse place, with all of the suspicions, prejudices, and tensions that you might expect across different religious, economic, and cultural groups. We don’t know whether this woman is rich or poor, if she is a powerful member of the community or someone relatively unknown. We don’t know if she’s a widow or if there’s some other reason she enters the story without a husband.
We do know this: Jesus has entered a house in the area and wants to keep a low profile. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. Meanwhile, this woman goes waltzing right into that house as if she belongs there. She has decided that Jesus is the one who can help her daughter, who is possessed by a demon.
We also know this: Jesus is not nice to her. He’s kind of a jerk. We’ve talked about this story before, sometimes the version from the gospel of Matthew, and each time we end up scratching our heads. Why is Jesus so dismissive of her?
She asks that her daughter be healed. It’s a request that any of you would make if your kid were suffering. Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m so sorry your daughter is struggling.” He doesn’t ask how long this has been going on. He doesn’t seem to care at all. Jesus instead says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It sounds like he’s saying that the Jewish people get the best of what he has to offer, and the Gentiles are no better than dogs.
We don’t have time this morning for me to tell you all the ways that some scholars and preachers have tried to excuse what Jesus says here. But as I heard one seminary professor say this week, “You can’t save Jesus from this one.”[ii]
I continue to struggle with what Jesus says here, and this morning I’m focused on the reality that Jesus is human. He’s holy and divine and all of that. But he’s also human. I think we’re seeing him at his most human in this moment, dismissive of the Syrophoenician woman for some reason that we can’t name but instinctively know is wrong.
But the woman does not give up. She stands her ground. She persists. She talks back. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” You can almost hear her thinking: Aren’t you the guy who feeds people? Aren’t you the one who heals?
This woman is smart and determined. She’s one of only a couple of women in the gospel of Mark who get to say something out loud. This woman takes the insult from Jesus and does a bit of word play. OK, you might think I’m a dog, but don’t the dogs deserve something?
And it works. Jesus changes his mind. He heals the woman’s daughter. And he acknowledges this mother’s determination: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
We don’t know what Jesus might have pondered as he continued on his journey, but the next time we see him, he healing a man with a speech impediment, getting right up close to the man, putting his own fingers into the man’s ears. I like the think that his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman has shifted something in Jesus, has opened him to possibilities that he is only now considering.
It isn’t easy to hear how Jesus treats this woman, but I find his humanity to be an encouragement to my own. I think about all the times I’ve said or done something I regret. I think of how I have hurt other people, often without meaning to. I think of the times I’ve dismissed people. I watch Jesus change his response to this woman, and I think about what assumptions I need to shake loose. How might I be open to something shifting in me? How might I turn in a new direction?
The end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan means that there are now thousands of Afghan refugees, people forced to flee because their lives are now in danger. Many of them, like Zee, have provided invaluable assistance over the years to American troops. I have heard many veterans this week pleading with the United States to do everything we can to resettle these friends and allies. Our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service organization has called for the same, highlighting the urgency of the situation. LIRS has decades of experience resettling refugees. You can learn more about their work at lirs.org. The commitment of Lutherans to that work makes sense not only because of our call to help those in need, but also because the earliest Lutherans in this country were immigrants and refugees themselves.
There are already voices saying that we should not help these refugees. That we should turn them away, refuse to see their desperation. Those voices will only get louder. I pray that we will ignore those voices and instead heed the biblical mandate to care for those who must find a new home. I pray that we will live out the words we heard from the book of James: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…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?”
Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s that simple. And, as Jesus reminds us, it’s also that difficult.
May we be willing to help, willing to love, willing to change. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii] Thank you to Professor Karoline Lewis for adding this comment to the conversation on the Sermon Brainwave podcast episode for September 5, 2021.
August 15, 2021
Last week after worship we had an outdoor coffee hour to mark the midpoint of this unrelenting series of readings about Jesus as the Bread of Life. We made bread – or carbs, more broadly – the theme of the coffee hour, and we enjoyed all kinds of treats. I could try to describe for you the delicious beer bread that Christine made (only three ingredients, she says) or the wonderful cornbread that Stacey made. I could try to tell you about the muffins or the cake, how each thing tasted flavorful in our mouths. I could try, but it wouldn’t be very satisfying to you, would it? Without tasting it for yourselves, your understanding of the beer bread remains only hypothetical.
At this point in the sequence of Bread of Life gospels, Jesus shifts into some pretty visceral language: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” It sounds almost cannibalistic the way Jesus describes it, so we can understand the confusion of his friends and neighbors in this Jewish community. Of course they would ask “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” You and I would probably ask that too.
There are some good, heady theological answers to that quesiton I could give you. The Gospel of John, for example, unlike the other gospels, doesn’t include a specific place where Jesus institutes what we call Holy Communion. There is a final meal with his disciples in the Gospel of John, but there isn’t a moment in John where Jesus says “Do this in remembrance of me,” the language we’ve come to understand as the origins of the sacrament of Holy Communion. So there are many biblical scholars who see the Bread of Life discourse we’ve been hearing over several weeks, especially what we hear today, as John’s version of Jesus introducing Holy Communion. And it makes sense, right? Especially when Jesus says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…the one who eats this bread will live forever.” These words of Jesus, strange though they are, reflect our Lutheran understanding that in Holy Communion, Jesus is truly present here with us, and that in this sacrament we are promised forgiveness and eternal life.
That is a rich and appropriate interpretation of what Jesus means here. But I also wonder if Jesus is inviting us to consider something more than Holy Communion alone. Consider how the way he talks about these things has shifted over this long and winding discourse. A few paragraphs back Jesus was saying this: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” There’s still that theme of eating, being nourished, but at that point he’s talking about people coming to him. Believing inhim.
But today his language is different, more “fleshy” if you will. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Eating the flesh of Jesus seems different than merely believing in him. To digest Jesus is more intense, more intimate, more personal.
Remember that the Gospel of John is the one that begins with the Word becoming flesh and living among us. Jesus as God with skin on. Con carne. With meat on his bones. To talk as Jesus does today suggests a personal encounter with Jesus, a relationship in which he enters into us and changes the way that we in turn enter into and engage with the world. Jesus does not want a hypothetical relationship with us from a distance. He wants an actual relationship with us, one that we experience in real and tangible ways.
While this long bread of life commentary from Jesus might make us think that he is the world’s most long-winded preacher, it helps to remember that most of what we see Jesus doing in John’s gospel is up close and personal – with tangible actions that accompany his words. He doesn’t just talk about healing. He touches the eyes of the man born blind with mud that Jesus has made with his own spit. And that man’s sight is restored. Jesus doesn’t just talk about feeding people. He takes those couple of fish and a few loaves of bread and he makes it into an all-you-can-eat, family-style meal on that hillside. He doesn’t just tell his disciples to love people. He gets down on his knees and washes their feet with the tenderest of care.
A Savior who heals and feeds and washes with his very own hands is also the One who gives his very body as a sacrifice. A love that is willing to die is not a theoretical love. It is real.
I read a poem this week that reminded me of how much we experience life in the particularities. The poet is Laura Foley, and the poem is called “The Once Invisible Garden.”[i] As I read it, listen for the details that you can most easily imagine. What would be the details that you would name in your own life?
How did I come to be
this particular version of me,
and not some other, this morning
of purple delphiniums blooming,
like royalty – destined
to meet these three dogs
asleep at my feet, and not others –
this soft summer morning,
sitting on her screened porch
become ours, our wind chime,
singing of wind and time,
feeding bees and filling me –
and more abundance to come:
basil, tomatoes, zucchini.
What luck or fate, instinct,
or grace brought me here? –
in shade, beneath hidden stars,
a soft, summer morning,
seeing with my whole being,
love made visible.
I love the details in this poem: the purple delphiniums, the dogs at her feet, the wind chime, the tomatoes. The speaker understands these concrete things in her life as part of what has shaped her, a received grace that she calls “love made visible.”
This is the kind of love to which Jesus calls us. Love made visible, tangible, real. Not theoretically taking care of each other, but actually taking care of each other.
Think of a sick kid in the middle of the night. The kid doesn’t want someone waving from far away and wishing him good luck. The kid needs the hand on the forehead, the ginger ale to settle his stomach, the blanket tucked in tightly around his legs. Love made visible.
Think about the people to whom we offer food each Wednesday afternoon here in Chatham, to whom we offer fresh produce – blueberries and lettuce and tomatoes – as well as milk and eggs and literal bread. The bread of life. Love made visible. And we receive in return the gift of continued relationship with them, the prayers and conversations that we share together from week to week. Prayers for a family member undergoing chemo, prayers for the people of Haiti, prayers for a daughter taking the LSAT and applying to law school. Love made visible.
The grace of God has brought each of us to this place with a love that in a few minutes we will hold in our hands before we eat it and drink it. We will sing “On Our Way Rejoicing,” carrying with us the promise that Jesus is our safety and our joy. We will give our financial resources to support the work of God in this specific time and place. We will pray for the needs in our lives and the needs in the world around us, naming for ourselves the specific people and places on our hearts. And we will wake up again tomorrow to find new ways to love and serve. However small they might seem, they can become another person’s experience of grace. We will do all of these things in the name of the One who has first shown us what that kind of love looks like up close.
Love made visible, thanks be to God. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] From the collection How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope, edited by James Crews, p. 43.
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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