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The Best Posture of this Country

A sermon preached September 6, 2015

The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
Falls Church, Virginia

In case you’re confused by the service leaflet, where it says Kelly is supposed to be preaching today, well, she was, and she was planning to. But yesterday she came down with the stomach flu, and of course we encouraged her to stay home until she’s 100%.  

(And to think I came this close to getting out of having to preach on a couple of very tough passages…)

(Kelly’s sermon, by the way, was written well ahead of time and is, as we have already come to expect, excellent. And inspiring – I was inspired reading it.* Hard copies are available, and will be made available on line.)  

What you’re going to get from me today is a little different than a normal sermon.

Today I want to tell you a story – a bit of my own family history -- and then read you a poem. And then show you how I think that story and the poem relate to today’s lessons and to current events.

The story is the story of my grandfather and my mother. 

My grandfather and my mother were Bulgarian, and my grandfather served in Bulgaria’s diplomatic services in Austria. When it came to the point in World War II when the Bulgarians were lining up with the Soviets against Germany, the SS approached my grandfather and gave him a choice:

Declare yourself as a supporter of Germany, and keep your apartment, keep your freedom. Your children will be allowed to continue to attend school, and within limits, you will have diplomatic immunity.

My grandfather asked, “and if I were not able to support Germany under its present course of action?”

“Then you will be considered an enemy of Germany, and therefore of Hitler, and an enemy of the Third Reich. You will lose your apartment and your job with all its salary and benefits. You will be arrested, along with your family.”

He said that he could not support Hitler. He was then told he and each member of the family had 24 hours to pack what you can carry in your arms. My grandmother spent those 24 hours calling friends in order to divide up and hide their china, silver, and photographs. They reported to a hotel, and the next day they were arrested and taken to a train station, and the next day they found themselves in Northern Germany. As the allies advanced, they were moved around Germany. Finally, in Bavaria, they stopped the train cars and converted them into prison cars. From January to May of 1945, they ate, once a day, boiled potatoes, and that was it.

On May 7th, 1945, one of the German guards came to them, out of uniform, in civilian clothes, and said they were leaving due to a temporary setback, but they’d be back and no one was to leave the train cars or go into the village.

For two days they all sat and waited. Then they heard a rumbling noise…a noise they weren’t familiar with.

The young men went out up the road to see what the noise was, and came back saying it was American tanks – the American tanks of Patton’s Third Army.

They were liberated.
(I want to make here a parenthetical comment. This is at least part of the reason I have never been a pacifist. And this is as good a time as any to say that the first official event I want to have at the Rectory, now that we’ve moved in to it, is a Veterans’ Day dinner, this Veterans Day, November 11th – I want to honor and thank the men and women of our current armed forces who are members of this church, because I literally owe my life, my existence, to the United States military.)  
They were given K-rations, my mom told me, but for several days, no one ate any of them…they saved them, hid them.

Then the Red Cross came, and my mother’s family was relocated away from the front line, and sent to refugee resettlement.

In March of 1948, my mother came to the United States on a visitor’s visa; she was 26 years-old. 

In 1949, my uncle (her brother) and my grandfather and grandmother immigrated here under the Displaced Persons Act, passed by the United States Congress.  

My grandfather spoke six languages:  Bulgarian, French, English, German, Turkish, and Greek.  When he was in Bulgaria, before the war, before his diplomatic service, he was a professor of political science and history...

...but when he first arrived here, his first job was at the General Motors Plant in Flint, Michigan, sweeping floors.

He said that those were the happiest years of his life, because he and his family were free:

When his workday was over, he could read what he wanted.

Say what he wanted.

Go where he wanted.


A poem:

Most people are familiar with a couple lines of the poem that is written on a tablet within the pedestal on the Statute of Liberty in New York: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The poem is called “The New Colossus” by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. Here’s the whole poem:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
with conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch,
whose flame is the imprisoned lightening,
and her name
Mother of Exiles. 

From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

What is the sentiment of the Statute of Liberty? 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp.”

Keep, well-established nations of the world, your well-respected, well-established people. 

Keep ‘em. We don’t want ‘em!

We don’t want your well-rested, creative, well-educated immigrants.

No – the statute of liberty, the statute of freedomthe statute of independence cries out,

“Give me your tired, your exhausted.

Give me your poor…give me those who’ve never heard, and don’t care, about the stock market because the only fluctuation they care about is the fluctuation of their empty stomachs.

Keep, ancient land, all your nicely-dressed people who might come over in Business Class.

     Give me those huddled masses in the back of the U-Haul.

     Give me the wretched refuse that is packed onto rafts. 

Send them to me: the homeless, the tempest-tossed, the frightened. Here

Send them here, to America

That sentiment – that philosophy – of preferring the poor, the lost, the least, has deep roots not only in the human heart, but in the public policy of this country,

And that sentiment in our hearts and in our public policy finds of course its roots in the Bible. Take, for example, the lessons assigned for today:

“If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes come into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘have a seat here, please,’ while to the poor you say, ‘stand there,’ or ‘sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

In today’s Gospel, someone approaches Jesus and begs him to heal her child. In Jesus’ day and age, this person has everything going against her:
  • She’s a woman in 1st Century Middle East culture that treated women as little more than property;
  • She’s a Gentile – of Syrophoenician (Syrian) origin -- in a world where Jews and Gentiles had strong ethnic and religious reasons to distrust and dislike each other, and they distanced themselves as much as possible from each other.
  • She has a demon-possessed daughter.
According to the rules of society at the time in that place, it was shocking and even rude for the two of them to be engaged in conversation.

So when she comes to Jesus and asks that her daughter be healed, Jesus tells her that he has come primarily to serve the people of Israel.

His own people come first. His own nation comes first.

And (therefore) he tells her, it isn’t right to give what is rightfully theirs to others.

Except he says this in a way that is shocking and even insulting: he says “let the children be fed first; it’s not right, it’s not fair, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

When she turns this insult around and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” Jesus says to her, [ah…woman…!...“for saying that, you may go”—and pronounces her daughter healed.

In case we didn’t get the point in the first part of this passage, the next thing that happens is that a deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus.

Remember that being deaf in that day and time carried with it all kinds of beliefs that we would now call superstitions or prejudices: namely, they believed that physical impairments were the consequences of sin, or proof that you or one of your ancestors did something wrong to deserve it.

So the blind and deaf or deformed back then were also at the bottom of the social scale, little to no status.

So Jesus takes him aside, puts his fingers in his ears, spits and touches his tongue, looks up to heaven and says “Ephphatha” which means, “Be Opened.”

Be opened.

When Jesus restores a blind or deaf or maimed person to physical health, he’s also opening a door that has been closed: the door to society, the door to hope.

*When Jesus heals a woman of Syro-Phoenician origin -- someone from Syria –
     Someone from Syria yearning for her daughter to breathe free
     he opens categories of ethnicity and race and class; 
     he opens minds, he opens the border between people, 
and between humanity and God.   

In Deuteronomy [15:7-11], we are reminded that the poor will never cease out of the land…there will always be poor people, always be refugees, always be needy…THEREFORE I command you, God says, you shall open wide your hand to the needy, you shall open wide your hand to the poor.

Politicians and political races cease to be silly, cease to be entertaining, when they slide into demagoguery, which is both anti-American and anti-Judeo-Christian.   

Throughout American history, this country has been offered different choices about the posture we will take to refugees, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  

Throughout Christian history, churches have been offered different choices about the posture we will take to the poor -- which is always a choice between mercy and judgment.  

The best posture of this country is the posture that is rooted in the best of our faith:

Ephphatha: be opened.

Be open.



  1. I believe I'll continue re-reading this for a long time. Thank you John, beautifully said.


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