Sunday, October 28, 2012

Opening the path to healing

Text: Mark 10 46-52 (blind Bartimaeus)

Who gets access to healing? That is one of the themes of today's Gospel reading. In it, we hear again of the healing power of God in Christ. But like many such stories, it also has a shadow side. It is another instance where the disciples try to prevent a sick person from gaining access to Jesus.

When Bartimaeus shouted, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!," many sternly ordered him to be quiet. But when he persisted with his cry for mercy, Jesus heard him, stood still, and asked that Bartimaeus be brought to him. Jesus then assured him that his faith had made him well . . .

In our Bible study discussions on this passage this week in Coronach and Rockglen the topics of medicare and refugees came up. Last week, Saskatoon MP Kelly Block was the object of protests and media scrutiny about a mailing to her constituents that focused on those two issues. Her mailing trumpeted the end of what she and the Conservative government term unfair benefits for refugee claimants. It read. "until this year, new arrivals to Canada have received dental and vision care paid for by your tax dollars. They have had free prescriptions. Not anymore."

Some of those in her riding who received this mailing objected to it -- as much for its tone as for the merits of the issue. The mailing did not express regret that healthcare benefits had been withdrawn from what is arguably the most vulnerable sector of Canadian society -- refugees seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries. On the contrary, Block's mailing seemed to express pride in this decision since the sentence "Not anymore" was printed in bold and underlined.

Is there a connection between the disciples trying to prevent blind Bartimaeus from gaining access to Jesus and the federal government's recent decision to deny dental, vision and drug benefits to refugee claimants? Some might disagree, but for me the connection leapt off the page.

What follows is a possible analogy between the government's refugee decision and our Gospel reading. Those of us in Canada who have dental, vision and drug benefits would be like the disciples: people with privileged access to healing. Those who do not have such benefits -- and this group would now include refugees to Canada who, unlike landed immigrants, come to Canada without jobs and the health benefits that often come with a good job -- would be like Blind Bartimaeus. Finally, the federal government would play the role of the disciples in trying to prevent sick people from getting access to healthcare.

Canada has had universal healthcare for several generations. But medicare does not yet cover dental and vision care or prescription drugs. So perhaps the government has made the right decision in this case.

Perhaps the government should let refugees suffer from dental complications or uncorrected vision. Perhaps it should let them get sick because they can't afford prescription drugs. After all, the Conservative government has added $125 billion to the federal government's debt since the Great Recession started in 2008 and it is eager to find cost savings.

Then there is the issue of fairness. Some Canadian citizens do not have extra healthcare benefits. Personally, I am glad that my position with the church provides me with such benefits. But others of us here today may not have coverage. Seniors sometimes lose benefits upon retirement; and self-employed people like farmers have to buy insurance if they want coverage for drugs, or dental and vision care.

On the other hand, many healthcare professionals argue that denying benefits to refugees will not save money. Refugees who get sick from lack of medications end up in emergency rooms. Refugees who can't afford drugs to cure diseases like tuberculosis might spread disease in the community. Refugees who struggle with their sight while waiting for their cases to be decided, may have a harder time adjusting to life in Canada or finding work.

Personally, I support free health benefits for refugee claimants. Refugees have fled persecution or terror. Not all refugees quickly get work permits. They are often destitute and under great stress. But even if I were persuaded that the government should no longer provide benefits to this small and poverty-stricken group, I would not boast about that decision.

I agree with protestors that MP Kelly Block's mailer seemed designed to sow resentment and division among Canadians.

But why is it so easy for people like Kelly Block to divide us into an "in" group and an "out" group? The disciples illustrate this trap very well for us, do they not? They were early followers of Jesus' call to repent and proclaim the kingdom of God. In our story today, their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem has come to its end. In the very next verses in Mark's Gospel, Jesus and his followers enter Jerusalem in triumph.

During their long journey, Jesus has consistently preached that God's realm is for everyone; and that those who are last shall be first and those who are first shall be last. Jesus offers a special welcome to foreigners, the poor, and the sick. So why, even at this last hour, do his disciples still not get it? Why do they try to prevent a marginal and sick person like Bartimaeus from seeing Jesus?

Perhaps Jesus must continually repeat his message of inclusion, healing for all, and an end to special privileges because our tendency to exclude so-called "outsiders" and cling to our privileges is so great. This was so back in Jesus' time. It continues to be so in Canada today . . .

The largest outcry around refugees in Canada in the past few years involved a boat filled with Tamil refugees from the southeast Asia Island country of Sri Lanka. 500 Tamil refugees landed in British Columbia in August 2010. I remember this incident well since I have a personal connection with a Tamil refugee.

Four years ago, I took a pastoral care course at Emmanuel College in Toronto, and the class was very diverse. Two of us were training to become ministers in the United Church of Canada. One woman was studying to become a priest in the Anglican Church. One man was an immigrant priest serving a Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church in Toronto. One was an immigrant priest serving a Greek Orthodox congregation north of Toronto. One student was a lesbian from the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto; another, a Presbyterian woman from Korea; another, a baptist woman born in Canada. And finally, one student was a Roman Catholic priest from Sri Lanka, Father John Baskaran.

Father John had come to Toronto from Sri Lanka a few months earlier as a refugee. Like many Catholics in Sri Lanka, he was an ethnic Tamil, and the period during which our class met was a terrible one for Tamils. The winter and spring of 2009 saw the end of a 26-year long civil war in Sri Lanka in which the government, dominated by ethnic Sinhalese people in the south and who are almost all Buddhist, finally crushed the attempt of Tamil people in the north of the Island, who are almost all Hindu or Catholic, to establish an separate Tamil state.

We all loved Father John because of his joyous disposition and his kindness. And we were heartbroken as he told us of the parish that he had left behind and of the dreadful history of Sri Lanka that had led to the civil war between Sinhalese and Tamil people.

After he fled to Canada in the summer of 2008, the 400 people in his parish had been forced to flee their village into the jungle. Scores of them were killed in the final battles of the failed independence war. A second priest in his former parish, whom the Catholic Church had also tried to sponsor as a refugee to Canada along with Father John, was among those killed.

Father John told us that the seeds of the conflict had been planted by the British Empire during its long rule over Sri Lanka. In the 1500s when Portugal conquered the island today called Sri Lanka, it was divided among three different kingdoms: two that were Sinhalese and one that was Tamil. The Portuguese kept the three kingdoms intact as administrative units. 100 years later, the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and made the Island into a Dutch colony, but they too kept the three kingdoms separate from one another.

Then in 1802, Britain won control of the Island from the Dutch. In their wisdom and for administrative efficiency, the British decided to dissolve the three kingdoms and rule the island as one colony, which they called Ceylon. As was the British policy everywhere, they used divide and rule tactics to control the indigenous people of Ceylon. The British gave key civil service posts and other privileges to people from the Tamil minority in the North, who then ran the colony, populated mostly by Sinhalese people, for the British. For the next 150 years, until Ceylon's independence from Britain in 1948, resentment towards Tamils and their privileges built up among the majority Sinhalese population.

Following independence, this ethnic resentment led to discrimination and human rights abuses against Tamils by the Sinhalese-dominated government. Over time these abuses sparked an independence movement among the Tamils in the north, and then to the 26-year civil war, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed.

The situation for Tamils has been difficult for most of the period following independence from Britain; and one of the worst times for Tamils came after the defeat of the Tamil independence movement in 2009. Because of what Father John had told us, I was sure when the boat filled with 500 Tamils reached British Columbia in 2010, that they would all easily get refugee status in Canada.

But instead of welcoming these 500 Tamil refugees with open arms, the government tried to spread fear that Canada was being flooded by refugees. Instead of decrying the history of violence and discrimination in Sri Lanka, with its roots in British rule there, the government tried to whip up panic that the refugees might include people who had fought in the failed war of independence for the Tamils, and who might therefore be considered terrorists.

Not only does such rhetoric ignore the fact that Canada's prosperity, like that of most rich countries, depends on large and growing immigration from poorer countries; it also helps sow distrust between those of us who already live in Canada -- virtually all of us descendants of immigrants and refugees -- and those who come seeking hospitality in times of desperate need.

Of course, the best solution to the world's refugee crises -- whether in Syria and Burma today, or Sri Lanka and Afghanistan a few years ago -- is for all countries to treat their citizens with respect and civil rights; and for all people to have adequate food, water, education and healthcare. But as long as ethnic conflicts in countries like Sri Lanka and Syria erupt into civil war, there will be refugees seeking safety.

When such refugees make it to Canada -- whether by church sponsorship, by airplane, or on a boat run by commercial smugglers -- I would hope that Canada would welcome them. As I read it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls on us both to offer hospitality to refugees and also to work for a world in which people are no longer forced to flee their homes because of persecution.

The good news contained in today's Gospel reading is that God in Christ offers healing to marginal people despite the best efforts of people like the disciples -- or like the federal government and MP Kelly Block -- to prevent them from getting it.

God in Christ offers sight to the blind and healing to the sick regardless of nationality and social status, and regardless of the cost of such healing for Jesus. Jesus is willing to bear any burden for us sinners, even death on a cross.

He also calls us to follow him on this journey of self-sacrifice and love. He calls us to include all, heal all, love all. He calls us to end divisions. He calls on all of us -- blind and sighted, citizen and refugee, sinner and saint -- to enter Jerusalem with him, to take up our own cross, to die to our old small lives, and to rise to new life in Christ.

And with God's help, we can all follow Jesus on this path to healing and new life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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