I found myself crying one evening this week while watching the world news: shocked by the noise and images of children screaming in terror while being plucked from the sea, as refugees and asylum seekers tried to cross the Mediterranean and their boat sank. At least 4 children died in this crossing.
So far this year, over 150,000 people have tried to make the crossing to Europe via Italy, Greece and Spain. The numbers drowned, returned and killed are uncounted. The overwhelming flood of people is unrelenting and however governments and citizens say ‘you cannot enter’, the dangers of the trip are still seen as better choice than remaining. They come from countries beset with poverty, war and violence, terrible discrimination, climate change, and oppressive governments.
These stories meant I read the gospel this week with children’s eyes and I listened to Jesus speaking. It is not good enough to pull up our drawbridges and demand to remain isolated from the world, when our actions and laws contribute to the dreadful choices God’s children are having to make. Its unfair to make sailors, soldiers, police and ordinary citizens complicit in choices which enable a bureaucratic, powerful denial of a better life and the consequent deaths, acceptable.
In Matthew’s gospel I found a description of God’s care for the least and the lost which is profoundly moving and it brought me to my knees.
Let me go back a few verses. Jesus’ disciples had been bickering over who would be the most important in his kingdom (18:1-5). We’re told Jesus ‘called a child, whom he put among them’, and pointed to a child’s vulnerability and openness. He reminded them, this is what God desires from us; anything else is a waste of time and irrelevant in God’s kingdom. As Jesus always does in such times, he goes on to ask the disciples, you and I, a different question:
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that wen astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. (Matt. 18:12-13)
Crowdfunded volunteers scour the Mediterranean in borrowed seacraft, responding to the refugee boats signaling distress, signals which are deliberately ignored by nations’ coastguards who turn off their radios in defiance of the law of the sea in the hope it’ll be someone else’s problem.
Such a response ignores Jesus, who has left 99 citizens who are safe, and it is Jesus I see behind the boat’s wheel, now looking for the one who is lost. Jesus reminded all his listeners: ‘So, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost’. (Matt. 18:14)
Many of those leaving their countries do so because of poverty, hunger and loss of livelihoods. Before we blame them for coming in vast numbers and making us take such action, we know enormous areas of their lands are in drought with stock dying and people starving, forced off the land. Wells are drying up, the deserts are spreading. The heat of the land is becoming unlivable; wildfires are killing wildlife, plant life and people in those places. In this beautiful, vast ancient land which has supported its First Nations peoples for tens of thousands of years, people are now struggling with drought, wildfires, floods and loss of wildlife. Too many people are still homeless and struggling in this country, in our diocese, as a consequence. We have not learned how to be good stewards and we have not listened to or loved our neighbours as ourselves. Our livelihoods are drying up, in tourism, farming, and in the sea.
As we think about the challenges I have briefly outlined, I know as many people as there are in this congregation, there will be different opinions, disagreements and solutions. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I’m asking the questions and as I listen to Jesus, and ask God to show me God’s Way, I wonder how we would decide what is God’s Way in these circumstances.
Do we think Jesus would sit still, in places filled with greedy, demanding, selfish stewardship in our desire to be safe and untroubled in our own lives? The story of the rich young man comes to mind. (Matt.19:16-22) Given God’s cosmic creation encompasses the whole universe, I believe God is also concerned about those living beyond our borders and wanting to work with those locked out, working for justice for our neighbours and with those interested in environmental reconciliation and finding God’s way through.
Matthew’s Jesus offers us a process for sorting out conflict. (Matt. 18:15-20). It says if we disagree, you and I can work it out between us. I can say sorry quickly if I have hurt or offended, or been careless and unloving. If I don’t listen, more people can come and talk to me to try and help me see how I have misunderstood or misbehaved. Finally, you can call me out publicly if I don’t pay attention, don’t change; and as a church, our responsibility is to still see me as the one who has gone astray and after whom, Jesus as shepherd has also gone in search, to heal and restore as we forgive, forgive and forgive again. But I too have a responsibility to change, to repent and start the healing process.
So, I wonder about those who don’t have power, when such a process is expected and imposed on them. It’s hard to confront someone who has hurt you and still trust they will listen to you and not seek to do further harm. Refugees, smaller, less powerful neighbours, despised groups in our communities who either don’t have a voice, or it’s a voice which can be safely ignored, regularly have this experience.
Isn’t Jesus on the margins with them? So, if Jesus was in the Mediterranean beside a child who is drowning, what might be our response? If Jesus is weeping with the woman whose child is dying of starvation or who is bereft and homeless because of floods and fire, because of climate change, where the land is convulsing and dying too, what might we do and say with our governments and with one another. Apart from saving the individuals and Jesus, what will be our next step? With whom will we be standing, to seek justice and a better outcome for all of God’s creation? And will we speak to those with power? Or do we see ourselves as being the ones with power and if so, what are we doing with our power, in response to God’s call? If God is asking us to pay attention to the way we are abusing God’s creation in all its glorious life-giving diversity, are we listening?
Jesus’ final point is remarkable: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matt. 18:20). Let us acknowledge God’s presence among us now, and pay attention to what we are asking for and how we will respond to God’s answer.
The Lord be with you.