There are weeks when the challenge of preaching lies in the abundance of important things to say; weeks when it is important to remember that no one can say everything every time – at least not in the amount of time traditionally allotted to a sermon here in this church. As a result, I am setting aside the rather hard content of the conversation Jesus has with the Syro-phoenician woman – but I’ve got lots of thoughts on the matter if you want to take me for a coffee sometime!
But we still begin with the woman – this remarkable, brazen woman who, like many of the unnamed women we encounter in the Gospels, is willing to risk everything in order to receive the gifts of healing that Jesus is able to bestow. But she is a woman and, what’s more, she is a gentile woman. She has no business being there, standing in front of Jesus, talking to him – making requests of him. But she sets aside her pride and her traditions. She has every reason to expect to be turned away by Jesus and his disciples and then to be censured by her own community as well. But her daughter needs her to do something and this is the only thing she has left to do – she is desperate. And she will do anything if it might save her daughter.
Children in need can inspire that kind of desperation; that kind of risk-taking.
Because they inspire that kind of love.
When I became a parent, I realized something – something that I shouldn’t have needed to be a parent to realize and something that perhaps many of you have already realized. Everyone is someone’s child. Everyone we see is (or, in a right world, would be) as precious to someone as my son is to me; everyone is that loveable. I wanted to treat people well not for their sakes but for their parents’ – respecting and caring for their children as I hope people will respect and care for mine. Because children don’t stop being children just because they’re adults – even though it’s harder to remember that that’s what they are.
Which is one of the gifts of infant baptisms. Infant baptism reminds us that God loves us like these parents love their child – even more perfectly, in fact! In baptism, God receives the one being baptized into the Body of Christ, freeing them from sin and claiming them as Christ’s own. When the person so claimed is an infant, it reminds us that this gift is completely unconditional – after all, the worst they can do is surely in the future and it already can’t exclude them from the household of God. Infant baptism reminds us that God’s love is the air we breathe and the bedrock of our lives.
And infant baptism reminds us that we are to love one another and all of our neighbours in the way, Xavier, brought before us today, is loved – enthusiastically, unconditionally, without even really needing to know them yet – but just because they are miracles of God’s creation and given into the collective care of the human family.
What a joy to be invited into such a love.
And what a sorrow when we fail.
I’m sure all of you have, if not seen, at least heard about the terrible photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the small boy, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when the boat carrying his family capsized. Aylan’s mother and brother also died. As did 8 other refugees.
And although the news is suddenly full of the story of his death, it’s not actually news. We’ve known for months that people are dying in desperate attempts to escape violence in Syria, in Iraq, in Palestine, in Somalia. The numbers are staggering. But the numbers were not sufficient to claim the focus of the world like the singular death of little Aylan.
In one sense, this points to a great weakness of human nature. Given the chance to ignore something hard, we will take it. Given the chance, we will allow other human beings to simply become numbers, statistics. And no one need care about a number.
But turn a number into a person – even better, into a child person – and suddenly we care. We care because looking at a person turns on our hearts – and a child person turns on our protective instincts. We can’t help but imagine the grief of that boy’s father. Our wonder at the risk taken drives home the desperation they must have felt; the danger they must have been in to make the risk worthwhile. What would drive someone to put their child in such danger, we wonder? And with that question, our imaginations are opened just a little and we begin to fathom the horror that must be taking place.
That photo of Aylan is gut-wrenching; it’s heart-breaking; it defies rational comprehension. Because it reveals the evil that is loose in our world. And it reveals the way we are complicit in it – in our choosing comfort over truth and complacency over action. In our failure to love God’s children with the love that God gives us – and not only the sweet, small boys and girls but their desperate mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles as well.
The Syro-phoenician woman was willing to do whatever she had to in order to get help for her daughter. And Jesus was, ultimately, able to look past the differences that divided them -that made her and her daughter not his responsibility – in order to see and respond to her need and set her daughter free.
That little girl is the first Gentile to be included in Jesus’ healing ministry. Based on the geography provided in the second story included in today’s Gospel, the deaf man is the second. It seems that casting out the demon released more than just the girl – it released Jesus into the Gentile world, expanding the Good News to include everyone.
And although it is too late for us to save Aylan, perhaps his photo can serve to release us to Christly action. Perhaps it can open our eyes so that we can, through the distance and the abstraction and the difference, truly see all of God’s suffering children and, by faith, move from sorrow to action.
There are letters to be written to politicians. There is an election campaign to keep on focus. There is a group working on Cathedral sponsorship of a refugee family – they would love more help. There are good organizations, here in Montreal and working around the world that need your money. “Faith, without works, is dead.”
Because, in a few moments we will, along with Xavier’s parents and godparents, promise, with God’s help, to love our neighbour as ourselves and to respect the dignity of every human being. Those must not be empty promises, made in a moment of ease and joy. They must not be conditional promises, abandoned when they get too hard. Those promises are an expression of our desire to participate in God’s own love – for the syro-phoenician girl, for Xavier, for Aylan, for each of us, and for the countless individuals whose names we don’t know, who need us to participate in that love.
What a blessing, to be invited into such a love.