It’s a source of ongoing resentment in our family, especially with Micaela, Josh, and Hannah, that we missed most of the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics because NBC happens to be the one tv station that doesn’t come in at my mother-in-law’s house up in New Hampshire. This summer, however, we established a wi-fi connection and managed to live stream as many of the Olympic events as we wanted to see, thereby avoiding a long threatened, full scale, family vacation mutiny.
Like many of you, we watched the incredible athletic accomplishments of Simone Biles and the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team. We watched Usain Bolt cement his legacy as the greatest sprinter in track and field history. We watched Michael Phelps and the best of American swimming, coupled with Ryan Lochte and the worst of American swimming. All things considered, the recent summer games in Rio de Janiero were as entertaining as any I can remember in my lifetime.
There was one story, however, that didn’t receive nearly the coverage of the stories I’ve just mentioned. And it’s the story of one Olympic athlete who did not win a medal. She’s hardly a household name here in the United States. And she likely would not have competed at the Rio Olympics had it not been for the first ever, ten member “refugee” team, whose entrance into the stadium during the opening ceremony provided a powerful and emotional testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
In a world where most Olympic athletes follow a fairly prescribed and traditional path to reach the pinnacle of their sporting event, the story of Yusra Mardini stands in stark contrast.
For those of you who have never heard her name, eighteen year old Yusra Mardini grew up in Syria. Starting at three years old, she swam for much of her life in the city of Damascus. But as the world knows all too well, the country of Syria has become more and more unstable, particularly in recent years. In fact, the violence currently taking place in Aleppo and in other parts of Syria have created what many label the greatest humanitarian crisis the world faces in the year 2016.
As she grew older, Yusra’s training schedule would be interrupted by warring Syrian forces. Two of her swimming teammates were killed. And one day a bomb lacerated the roof over the pool where she swam. Until the day when Yusra’s parents realized it was no longer safe for the family to remain in Syria. So a little over a year ago, Yusra and her younger sister flew with two cousins from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon, to Istanbul in Turkey where they joined with other Syrian refugees and connected with a group of smugglers.
Yusra’s group of refugees was first bused to Izmir, Turkey and then taken to a wooded area near the seaside where they waited with two or three hundred other refugees for a boat that would take them across the Aegean Sea to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Four days later, having avoided capture by the Turkish authorities, Yusra and her sister packed themselves into a small dinghy with eighteen other people…a dinghy meant to accommodate no more than six. On their first attempt, the dinghy was stopped by border agents and sent back to Izmir. On their second attempt, the group made it past the the initial border patrol. But what happened next was far worse.
Twenty minutes into the second trip, the motor on the dinghy broke and the dinghy began to take on water. Now there were twenty people on board a sinking boat, including a six year old little boy, and only four of the twenty knew how to swim…Yusra, her sister, and two other men. At around seven o’clock in the evening, with no other option available, the four who could swim jumped overboard into water that was cold and dangerously choppy. And they began to swim through the steadily descending darkness.
Over the course of the ensuing hours, the refugees cried out from the water for help, first from Turkish patrol boats and then from Greek patrol boats. But time and again, the refugees heard the same message. Turn back to the shore where you started.
Realizing they were on their own, Yusra and her sister swam with one arm and kicked with two legs while they held onto the boat and pulled it through the water. Eventually the two men tired to the point they could no longer swim. Leaving Yusra and her sister as the only hope of survival for eighteen people.
Three and a half hours later, Yusra and her sister were exhausted. But against incredible odds they reached the shores of Lesbos in Greece. With all eighteen of their fellow refugees safely in tow…
And yet even then, Yusra’s harrowing journey was not over. From Lesbos, Yusra and her sister traveled north through the Balkans. Through Macedonia and Serbia and Hungary and Austria, avoiding capture at every point along the way, before finally arriving in Germany. Where Yusra finally began to build a new life. Where she started training with a coach at a swimming club in Berlin. And where she started to work towards her goal of competing in the Olympics…
Fast forward to Rio this summer and Yusra did win her initial heat in the 100 meter butterfly. From there she advanced to the event finals where she finished in seventh place. And when the games were over she left Rio with high hopes of swimming again at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo…
When it comes to the Olympics, it’s not just the champions who move us. It’s the athletes who compete under the radar and beyond the limelight. The ones who may not ever set records or stand on platforms and hear national anthems. But the ones whose grit and heart and incredible courage move us in extraordinary ways…
So it was this summer that Yusra Mardini allowed me to catch a glimpse of the world God designed for all God’s people. The world God intends where all are welcome. Where every person is cared for and respected. Where each person is given the freedom to excel and to use the gifts God has given to them. A world where color doesn’t matter, where national boundary and identity has no bearing, where religion creates no barriers. A world where all are one.
It’s the same world the Apostle Paul described in this morning’s Scripture lesson when he wrote to his friends in the Galatian church. “In Christ there is no male or female. There is no slave or free. There is no Jew or Gentile. We are all one.”
The world God envisioned from the beginning of time. The world Paul imagined in the early days of the Christian church. The world coming together once every four years to celebrate human diversity in the form of athletic achievement. It’s a world vision often overshadowed by the violence and oppression and war and prejudice that divides human beings and sets us against each other on a daily basis.
Nevertheless, God presses on through human history. Breaking down walls. Leading refugee people out of war and bondage across rough seas and deserts to freedom. Giving God’s children strength and fortitude to face challenges in spite of insurmountable odds. Lifting our eyes toward the One who endured shame and humiliation all the way to his death on the cross in an effort to unite people in beloved human community…
Come with me then to the table on this World Communion Sunday morning. Find the seat around the table that Jesus Christ has reserved just for you. Look around and make note of the seat that Jesus Christ reserved for Yusra Mardini and other refugees around our world. Imagine for a moment how long and how wide the communion table needs to be to accommodate God’s people in South Windsor and in Syria and everywhere in between.
Finally, when you are done looking around the communion table this morning, commit to do one more thing. Save the seat right next to you. There are millions of brothers and sisters in our world like Yusra Mardini searching, yearning, struggling for a place to call home. And it is your God given task and my God given task to make sure that seat is open…in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.