Once upon a time a father and his son took a walk on the beach. As they went along the father would stoop down, pick something up, and throw it into the ocean. Finally the son asked, “What are you doing?”The father replied, “Throwing starfish in the ocean.”
“Well, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?”
“The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
“Don’t you realize,” said the son, “that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The father listened, then bent down, picked another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.” (story adapted from other versions I’ve heard, original source unknown).
As Christians God calls us to make a difference in the world. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we are shown how to love God, love neighbor, and love self.
Over sixty years ago Episcopal Migration Ministries, on behalf of the Episcopal Church, began an active ministry with Refugees, responding to the cries of a broken world. In 1951 the United Nations established an official World Refugee Day, June 20th, which we celebrate this Wednesday.
In the past year this congregation has helped a couple from Ethiopia and a family of fifteen from Liberia. In the past three weeks we have helped a family of seven from Rwanda, two families from Burundi, four families from the Congo, and two more families from someplace (I know not where exactly).
We have filled and emptied our supply of dishes and utensils, three times. Obviously the need is great. But so is, I think, our compassion. We are doing a great job of rising to the occasion and meeting this need. We are making a difference, one family at a time.
Which leads me to our gospel reading this morning. In it we hear of Jesus arriving at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. He came for dinner and had just taken his place at the table when a woman arrived. She stands behind Jesus, then kneels at his feet. She baths them with her tears and a fragrant ointment, then she dries the tears with her hair.
Simon is appalled at this. As a Pharisee he belongs to elite social class, the educated class, the class that follows the letter of the law.
And this woman, this sinner, should not be touching Jesus. And he, if he were really a prophet, would know who she is, and Jesus would not allow her to touch him.
So. What is going on?
This is a story about what lives in the heart of people as symbolized by Simon. Simon lives with a great deal of doubt about who Jesus is. These doubts manifest in his thoughts. Jesus sees into the heart of people and addresses the concern right where it exists.
Simon really doesn’t understand the depth of God’s love and forgiveness.
But the woman understands. She has been very down, rock bottom down. She knows that God has forgiven her. We don’t know why. We don’t know what she did to be known as a sinner. It doesn’t matter.
The point is, we all sin. And we all are forgiven.
The woman models for us our response to God gracious love, which is: caring for the body of Christ. And this means caring for one another. We are the body of Christ.
Our ministry with refugees is an opportunity for us to move from having hearts like Simon to having hearts like this woman.
When we live as Simon, we live as people who do not recognize the global influences that cause pain, suffering, war, genocide, and the other forces that create refugees. In ways we cannot fully understand we contribute to these causes. The oil that produces gasoline for our cars, the world economic market and jobs, the distribution of food and wealth, all underlie some of the problems causing wars and refugees. Not to mention our human tendency toward greed and possessiveness.
But when we take on the heart of this woman we acknowledge that we sin in ways we cannot fully see or understand. That is the point of our general confession which we pray every Sunday morning, and of the absolution. This confession reminds us that we sin in ways known and unknown. And that we are forgiven.
But being forgiven doesn’t mean we go on doing the same ole same ole. No. Being forgiven means we work for change. We aim to do better and be better.
Our ministry with refugees is one powerful way to go about this. This ministry is a true work of generosity and gratitude.
Quite likely we personally will never face circumstances as dire as the refugees. What we face instead is the potential for indifference or apathy.
The needs in this world are so great, the demands so high, we might become like the son in my story, why bother? Or like Simon and not understand.
But we have a choice.
We can become like the woman wiping away the tears of the world. And,like the father, we can make a difference, one life at a time.