Sunday 6th September 2015, Trinity 14, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
“Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.”
I wonder if there could have been any reading from the Bible this week that more disturbingly counterpoints the news of recent days. The news and this reading tell stories with such similar melodies. People escaping from tyranny, feeling through the sea, ending up as refugees in no man’s land, and people washed up dead on the beach. Except, of course, these tunes are discordant when played together. For the bible, the dead on the seashore are a sign of God’s salvation. The refugees got through; their captors succumb. And the whole story is followed by a long song of celebration. And the refugees in the Bible – well forty years later, they invade another country and put its people to the sword. Even the Daily Mail hasn’t predicted our modern day refugees will act in the deplorable way the Israelites did in Canaan.
Which all leaves me feelings uncomfortable. Like everyone else, I feel uncomfortable seeing terrible pictures on television. I feel appalled at the complete inaction of European nations to help people no less deserving than anyone in our continent of a stable and safe life. This morning I said in a sermon elsewhere that it’s what make us uncomfortable that allows us to grow as human beings. But this evening, I find the reading stomach churning as I’m asked to believe that people dead on the seashore are God’s act of salvation. And I feel uncomfortable seeing fb and twitter plastered with #refugeeswelcome, whilst feeling completely unclear what that means I, Chris Palmer, should actually do. Though maybe a bit later in the pub we might talk about this.
Well in preparing this sermon, I got as far as this, and then I dried up. I wondered about telling a story that interwove the themes of these two narratives and gave a new perspective as God might see it – or at least as I’d like to think God might see it. Or I wondered about imagining a dead Egyptian soldier and a drowned refugee child meeting at the Pearly Gates and having a conversation. In fact I did actually imagine that for a while; but the conversation just dried up; there was no mutual understanding and they couldn’t find a resolution to their story. And I wondered about trying to be practical and list all sorts of things we might actually do to help in our day... and that sounded feeble and the stuff of a different occasion, not a sermon.
But that exactly shows the issue. This isn’t really the stuff of sermons, but nor is it the stuff of prayer, and it’s even quite hard to see how it can be the stuff of politics. Our imagination proves inadequate either to produce solutions, explanations, or rationales. But I do know that where the mind or the imagination - even our creativity - is inadequate, our empathy kicks in.
An American religious commentator this week said this (I paraphrase): ‘You’re shocked by the pictures of refugee children dead on an beach not because you’re Christian, but because you’re empathetic.’ He was trying to stop some other Christians claiming a monopoly on goodwill in this situation. Which is quite right, because the traditionally Christian nations certainly have nothing to be proud of. But he was also pointing out the power of empathy, that feeling that cries this is wrong, and something should be done – even if the something is hard to define.
I saw an article yesterday that talked about what should be done. It was bizarre in its message, as it included ‘end the war in Syria’ as one of its points. I was a bit unclear whether this was tongue in cheek or just sad. Because presumably, that had never occurred to someone before. But I think that points up an important truth in this situation: it’s better to feel empathy and so feel powerless, than to be so indifferent that answers don’t matter, or so certain that you’re convinced you have the answer. Indifference or certainty – and often both at the same time – seem to be the stock in trade of political leaders trying to maintain position. But I think that a rather helpless empathy brings us nearer to the heart of God.
I once read that there is an old rabbinic tradition that says that God mourned for the first born Egyptian children who died when the angel of death passed over their land. Well I like to think that God also mourned for the Egyptian soldiers who died in the sea. This idea offers a different counterpoint to the story of Exodus 14-15. It is an attempt to say that they were God’s beloved children too, and the story of the Egyptians dead in the sea is a victory only from one point of view, and not necessarily God’s.
I feel sure that the God of love I have sought badly to live in fellowship with for years also mourns at the loss of every refugee who dies escaping. But, remember that the Egyptians were the oppressors. So I also think he mourns at the loss of every soldier who dies fighting for some objectionable ideology, for every people trafficker who puts to sea in unsafe boats having taken money off others, and for every despot who ultimately becomes a victim because of the brutality they mete out on others.
That’s the hard thing in all this. Our empathy, even at its best, is driven by an insatiable need to distinguish the deserving and undeserving, the innocent and guilty, the righteous and unrighteous. We empathise with a picture of dead child because we know he was innocent, deserving, and righteous. But God’s empathy embraces the unrighteous too. That is the whole message of the cross, that Jesus died to justify the ungodly – to declare the guilty innocent – he died for his enemies – thereby making them no enemies at all.
Jesus dying on the cross also shows us the solidarity of God with those who drown trying to escape. They are victims of political forces beyond their control; he is a victim of political forces beyond his control. They die because the world cannot find space for them; he dies because the world could not find space to accommodate him. Jesus started his life as a refugee child and ended it the victim of political convenience and inaction. God’s perspective on the refugee crisis is not some looking down on the world from above; God is looking at the world as one drowning in the sea.
I hope and believe that in the coming week some more
co-ordination of a response to the refugee crisis will emerge. I understand there's a meeting organised for Thursday to think of a co-ordinated response in Merton to the crisis; someone in our congregation is collecting clothes for Calais refugees; and perhaps the government may finally be shamed
into action to help… and all this may show us how together we can make a difference. But in
our prayers, we should not forget that it’s not from the self-satisfied place
of doing good that we are truly closest to God, but in that sense of being at
sea, of feeling uncertain, and of feeling that this is all too much for us.