Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jesus Did What? A Sermon for Hard Times

Jesus Did What?
St. Thomas Episcopal, Richmond
Year A, Proper 15 August 17, 2014
(Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 ,  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32  •  Matthew 15:10-28)

This is not an easy week to get in the pulpit.  The news from Ferguson, Missouri is weighing on my mind.  The cultural tidal wave over the death of Robin Williams.  This week we are emotionally stretched, confronting the worst in our society.  Maybe the worst in ourselves.

I was sitting at the car dealer waiting for my State Inspection.  CNN was playing.  It was Friday morning, and the Ferguson police chief was about to announce the policeman’s name who shot Michael Brown.  A man who looked like me was getting upset by the coverage and was talking back about how anybody who reaches into a police car should expect to be shot.  “Did they report that?” he kept asking.  There were three of us in the waiting room, and he repeatedly directed his questions to me.  I looked at the only other person in the waiting room, who was African-American and my heart asked, “How are we any different from Jesus’ day and time?”  I silently kept writing this sermon, while I tried to chew on this situation in the waiting room, and in Ferguson. 

In the Gospel reading we see Jesus voice the cultural expectations of his day.  It can shock us.
So, what are we going to do with today’s Gospel reading?  There is no easy way to read it.  Jesus comes across as rude or uncaring.  Or Jesus is playing some game with the Canaanite woman.  Or something else.  We do not know.  We cannot know what was in Jesus’ heart, or maybe a better question to ask why the Gospel writer of Matthew included it.  

This is the gift of the lectionary, and maybe the curse, as well.  We are gifted with the task to wrestle with some Scripture that we would rather not touch.  But this is not true to the full picture of Jesus, nor to the forebears of our faith that wanted us to see this side of Jesus and his ministry.  And during this week of bad news, where can we see the Good News in this passage, and can we see it for our day?
We can easily be guilty of hearing this story with very different cultural ears.  If you are sitting next to someone of the opposite sex, raise your hand.  If you are near someone who is not your family, raise your hand.  You might be next to someone of another nationality or background.  If so, you are coming to this story from a very different world, from a very different time.

This woman was not letting go of her hope for her child.  She was needing something unavailable from anywhere, or anyone, else.  She would not back down or let go.  Like a bulldog with a locked jaw, she was holding on to what she wanted.

There was little interaction in this culture of women and men.  There was little interaction in this culture of different cultures or ethnic origins.  Clear lines of division were drawn.  When visiting Palestine in the 1995, I experienced this.  I was in a group of men and women from seminary, and we were invited to a Palestinian home.  We had dinner in the home, the men in the living room eating on the sofas and chairs, while the women were all crowded in the kitchen, standing.  It is a very different world still.
In Mark’s telling of this story, he identifies the woman as a Syrophoenician, instead of a Canaanite as in Matthew.  Whatever population, she was not Jewish.  And in her need of deliverance for her daughter, she crosses the cultural divisions and gender inequalities to beg of Jesus.

The disciples, were feeling the rub of these cultural breaches.  "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us," they said.  Not only was she a woman, a Canaanite, but she is loud to boot.

Now, I would argue that what Jesus is about to do is, in this context, unbelievably loving.  Unbelievably counter-cultural.

His response to the disciples, not to her, is a reminder of his mission: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  His mission is clear and focused, and this is not “in his job description.”  But she falls at his feet and begs, “Lord, help me.”

Now here we hear Jesus say something that seems so out of our pre-conceived notion of him.  "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  Jesus here is expressing a straight-forward cultural understanding of the culture and the time.  And ouch, it hurts us.  I am not justifying.  But that Jesus took the time to acknowledge her, and even more, that he took the time to interact with her would have been seen and heard as revolutionary to the people around him, and to those in the cultural milieu.  But boy, it is hard for us to hear today.  When we use the term of a female dog as a curse, it throws our cultural fuel onto the fire that is already lit.

To Jesus’ words, the woman retorts, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."  She reaches through the boundaries, barriers and hindrances to redirect the conversation to what she is about, her mission, to see that her daughter is healed.  She was not letting go.

So then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Now, we have to see and view this interaction, in a world impacted and changed by the Gospel, and still in need of transformation by the Gospel, we hear the words as harsh.  And we come to the natural question of “Why?”  But I want to invite you to think of this, and many other hard situations differently.

When I was in graduate school, one of the great lessons we repeatedly brought up in Group Dynamics and Reflective Practitioner training was to avoid asking the Why question.  If you ask someone the Why of a situation, they may be able to tell you, but most do what they will do without the reflective practice of wondering and acting upon reflection.  Many of us, too many of us, react rather than reflectively respond.  It seems that the confrontation with the woman urged him to go beyond the obvious and direct response of NO! to listen and respond to the woman and her pleading request.

I do not think that Jesus was testing her, to see if she had the “faith” to get healed.  In fact, he complements her faith, her faith in him as a healer, and her faith in him stepping beyond the cultural chasm between the two.  This was not a test of her faith.  The Why is not in play.  The Why-Would-He-Even-Listen-To-Her is the way many early hearers of this story would have asked.

Jesus, at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, gives a teaching on being clean, what makes one clean or unclean, and it also went against all of the common assumptions of his disciples.  

Dietary laws, out the window.  All the “Thou Shalt Not” partake laws are dismissed.  What goes in does not make one unclean, but rather what comes out of our heart.  The laws, from Jesus’ view, was not a test to see how “righteous” one could be, but rather, a protective barrier from things that could harm oneself or others.  The laws themselves had become harmful and a form of harming others in the struggle for the “Holier-than-thou” awards.
This woman was not less-than because of her birth, or what her cultural identity was, and Jesus when allowing himself to hear her, sees that her faith and her drive for a healing for her daughter is so beautiful he is wrenched from the normal approach to things and responds to her faith.

If only we could take the time to do this as well.  But instead we play games. Oh yes, these games of interaction still take place, sadly.  We judge, and rank, and rate, and categorize because it comforts us, or helps us prejudge so we do not have to think.  I think that a lot of that is happening in Ferguson, in the media, and maybe even here today as I bring this situation up.

When we ask the Why question, we are playing a game with our response.  When one of my children does something foolish, it is so easy to ask, “Why would you do that?”  #1- duh, they are a child.  #2- If I expect to hear anything other than, “I don’t know.” than I am the fool, not them.  Children by definition explore and learn about the world by asking what will happen if I do this?  BZZZZZ.  We all know the results.

But if I start with the Whats, I can begin to see the Whys.  This applies to my kids and even to our reading for the day.  What did Jesus say and do?  What did the woman in need of healing for her daughter say and do?  It can even apply to the awkwardness in our day and time.

  • When the man was going on from a perspective of white privilege at the car dealer, what was I thinking and feeling?  
  • What about this made me so uncomfortable?  
  • What could I have said to diffuse his anger or the uncomfortable situation in the waiting room?  
  • What made him think I would share his opinion and the other man would not?  
  • What could I have said to confront his perspective that would have spread light and not more heat?
My immediate response was to ask, “Why are you acting this way?”  In my head, I should say.  Ah, the Why question that puts us in the position of power to assume we are right, or know what’s best.  Asking the what question can shift the perspective and the response radically.
  • What is happening here?  
  • What triggered that action?  
  • What am I thinking and feeling right now?  
  • What can I do to spread light and not heat?  
  • What can I do to share and receive Grace?
What came out of Jesus, at first glance, his words about dogs, is harsh.  But look at what he did.  Look at how his actions spoke of what was in his heart.  What, not why.

What will we do with this horrible week?  What will we do with the choices Robin Williams made?  What will we do with the ongoing tragedies in Ferguson?  May God help us, and in doing so may we share Grace.  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock