Sunday, September 25, 2016
Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
His name is Omran. A little over a month ago, his home in Aleppo was destroyed by bombs dropped either by Syrian or Russian aircraft. (“Pulling kids from war’s rubble,” The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, September 5, 2016, page 33)
Five-year-old Omran was among other ash-covered children who were removed from the rubble in the Qaterji neighborhood of Aleppo where the bombing occurred. Among the other children was his ten-year-old brother Ali.
Ali died four days later from his injuries. But Omran survived along with his father and mother as well as his sister and another brother.
A photograph of Omran, covered in dust and blood, quickly became the iconic symbol of a civil war that has devastated Syria. If all of what I’ve said so far sounds familiar to some of you, it is because I shared Omran’s story with you last Sunday from this pulpit.
We recalled the lament of the prophet Jeremiah over Judah as he grieves for the people. Whatever the cause for their suffering, Jeremiah provided us with an account of the anguish of God and his own anguish that comes “from (the) people’s failings and plight.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 74)
We hear in Jeremiah’s lament the lament of Omran, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” (Jeremiah 8:18) We also hear in Jeremiah’s lament, Omran’s lament: “For the hurt of my poor people, I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (Jeremiah 8:21)
There is no joy - only grief, only hurt. We share in their grief and their hurt.
Yet even while we grieve with Omran, we also rejoice with the psalmist who writes: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30: 5b) We weep with Omran, but in the morning we rejoice with a six-year-old boy named Alex.
Alex lives in Scarsdale, New York. After seeing the photograph of Omran, Alex wrote a letter to President Obama.
The handwritten letter was dated August 21, 2016. The President read Alex’s words aloud in a speech he gave at the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants earlier this week. On Wednesday, the White House posted a video of Alex reading the letter himself.
Dear President Obama,
Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons.
We will give him a family and he will be our brother.
Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him.
In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.
Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it.
I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.
Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!
So far, the video has been viewed over 21 million times.
“These are the words of a six-year-old boy,” the President said, “ a young child who has not learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they come from, how they look, or how they pray.” How is it that a six-year-old could see across a great chasm while the rest of the world seems hell-bent on building walls along rivers and coastlines and across mountains and deserts? The answer for me is this: Alex sees Omran.
Alex sees Omran, but we do not see him. Instead, we see in him a threat to our security and economic well-being. We see in him a threat to our way of life. So we have become cynical, suspicious and fearful.
The parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” that comes to us from The Gospel According to Luke may well be a parable for our time. Helen Montgomery DeBevoise, a Presbyterian pastor, is straightforward in her assessment the parable: “This parable is not difficult to understand,” she writes, “but perhaps difficult to hear, because its meaning is clear: riches cannot save you” or me. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 116)
The parable describes the world of the rich and the world of the poor; the world of the comforted and the world of the afflicted. The socioeconomic divide is clearly delineated between the “haves” and the “have nots,” a divide we know all too well not only in the U.S. but in countries around the world. More often than not we find ourselves plunging into the abyss of war time and time again out of our own selfish interests.
The great tragedy in the parable is the rich man does not even notice Lazarus. It seems that the dogs are the only ones who notice him. They come and lick his wounds.
Upon his death, Lazarus is carried away by angels to be with Abraham. Upon his death, the rich man finds himself in Hades – in hell.
The rich man is reminded of how he received good things in his lifetime, while Lazarus was poor. But now in their deaths, the tables have been reversed.
Unlike the rich man who does not notice Lazarus, Alex notices Omran. He sees Omran and in seeing him, Alex declares: “He will be our brother.”
Her name is Phan Thi Kim Phúc. On June 8, 1972 nine-year-old Kim heard a soldier scream: “We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will be dead!”
A moment went by and Kim saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke of napalm bombs curling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had sought refuge for three days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village. She heard the roar of a South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grow louder and as she looked up she saw canisters tumbling end over end towards the ground. Upon impact, orange flames burst out in all directions.
The threads of her cotton clothes disintegrated on contact and fire consumed her left arm. She did not notice foreign journalists and photographers who were in front of them.
A Vietnamese photographer took Kim’s photograph and immediately drove her to a small hospital. He was told that they were not going to be able to help her. He left and later developed his film. A copy of the image shocked the world when it was published. Like Omran’s photograph, Kim’s photograph had become an iconic symbol of pain and suffering but of another war. Not long after the photograph was published, a correspondent learned that Kim had somehow survived the attack.
Thirty percent of her body was covered with third-degree burns. The facility in Saigon where she was transferred was equipped to deal with her severe burns. She began to heal. In the years that followed she would continue struggle with her physical recovery and with what had happened to her. Eventually she married and settled in Canada.
In 1994 she became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador to help victims of war, especially children. Three years later, in 1997, she established the Kim Phúc Foundation in the United States for the purpose of providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.
At the conclusion of his remarks about Alex to world leaders at the United Nations, President Obama said, “We should all be more like Alex. Imagine what the world would look like if we were.”
I would add that we should all be more like Kim, who like Omran, was a victim of war. Imagine what the world would look like if we were more like her.
Perhaps one day Omran will meet Alex. Perhaps one day he will meet Kim. Perhaps, like her, he will be able to offer words of courage and hope to other children who are victims of war. There is no doubt in my mind that they will see across the great chasm of time and distance, of war and violence, of wealth and poverty, of fear and greed and know that they are and always will be family to one another.