DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
17 August 2014 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost
A few years ago I was at a continuing education course on Christian Sabbath keeping. A nun was there; she was a Benedictine sister from Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. I loved her presence in our class because something about her smile and the peace that radiated on her face reminded me of my long-deceased maternal grandmother. In addition to being a sister, the nun was a yoga instructor. Now that was something I never would have expected out of a nun. But she was trained at the monastery to lead daily meditative yoga for the sisters and any of their retreat guests. She was sitting in on the course about Sabbath keeping; but what really could she have had to learn about Sabbath? Benedictines are famous for embodying the daily rhythm of Sabbath. In honor of God, their lives are set around the kind of balance between work and play, study and service, rest and devotion which Sabbath keeping is all about. As it turned out, the sister was there to offer the gift of meditative yoga and free back massages to the stressed out pastors and church leaders who were present for the class. She was there to provide an avenue to practice Sabbath, instead of just read and talk about it all week.
Though I’d never been to a yoga class at that point in my life, I decided I’d give it a try. Especially if it meant a free back massage to follow. It was awesome. She had lugged her back massage chair all the way from the monastery. She started by asking if she could say a silent prayer for me before she dug into the knots of my shoulders. Most her time was spent on the right one, right up there in that spot where I know I’m not the only one carrying all the stress. Finally she moved up my neck until I felt her gently massaging my temples and scalp. I was in a deep state of relaxation when she suddenly took the heel of her hand and started thumping the top of my head. In a jolt, I was fully alert as she took about four or five firm whaps on a place on my head I wasn’t really aware existed. So much for trusting those with that sweet, peaceful smile. As she worked on my scalp, she explained that thinking too hard constricts certain muscles around our brains. The energy flows better when our scalps are loose. Our minds literally can be opened up this way in order to improve relaxation and concentration. With a twinkle in her eye that made me wonder if there was any truth to what she was saying, she claimed she found Presbyterian scalps needed the most loosening – especially if they were pastors. She might just have been playing me; but it’s something you might want to test out once your installed pastor search gets underway.
The nun’s brain massage comes to mind from the story we hear in Matthew’s gospel today. Here a Canaanite mother persistently massages Jesus’ temples until whap, whap, whap. His scalp is finally loosened because, in her words, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Mt. 15:27). Proof that Jesus must have been an unknowing cat person. So don’t forget to take your CAT starting next Sunday! . . . It might be well to be warned that many find this text to be very disturbing. Especially in a week like this one when race relations have turned riotous over a mysterious police shooting of a young man in Ferguson, Missouri. Israel and Palestine brutally have been tearing each other apart – though it seems negotiated ceasefires are becoming more frequent. And again to Iraqi where ISIS (or the extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) reportedly has been beheading those who won’t conform to their “fanatical interpretation of Sunni Islam” (www.cnn.com/2014/08/08/world/iraq-options/). This really is the last week we need to hear a story from our sacred text that portrays Jesus following right along with the racial prejudices of his day by, at best, simply ignoring the heart-felt pleas of a Canaanite women begging for healing for her daughter, and at worst has Jesus implying she is a worthless, outsider dog who doesn’t deserve the children’s food (Mt. 15:23, 26).
I don’t like this story. And I’m not too sure it’s made any better by the interpretations that say it was Jesus kind of tongue-in-cheek, trying to show his disciples what he had been telling them, though they just weren’t getting it. The lectionary makes optional the ten verses prior to Jesus intentionally heading into Gentile territory where the foreign woman hunts him down. According to the gospel of Matthew, right before this occurs; Jesus is calling out the behavior of some Pharisees and scribes who have come to him from Jerusalem to challenge him for not following the traditions of their people. I’m an avid hand-washer from spending years around church preschools where little kids pass along every virus known to humankind. I kinda feel for the group coming from Jerusalem who are upset that the disciples haven’t been washing their hands before they eat. For me it’s about good sanitary health. For them it’s about keeping to the ways of their people. And it appears as if Jesus’ and his followers are not. Jesus goes on with the crude joke that what goes into the mouth just ends up in the toilet. Perhaps they’d do better to focus on what comes out of the mouth, because such words are a true reflection of our heart (Mt. 15:17-18).
No sooner does that brilliant zing come out of Jesus’ mouth than: SILENCE! Nothing. A desperate mother seeks him out for the sake of her tormented daughter and he says nothing. I guess that’s better than his disciples who once again tell Jesus to send away the one before them who is in need. The next words out of Jesus’ mouth divide. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24) – even if some of them are fuming mad at him now for what he earlier said about their blind ways. Over the past twenty years, I’ve read entire books about what a hero this woman is because she’s not about to back down to this Jesus who just won’t give her the time of day. This is the one who immediately reached out his hand to save Peter when his trust started to waver on the waves of Galilee. But now: in the face of a Canaanite woman – a mother no less, who’s not just asking for herself (as Peter was) but for the sake of her child. According to the story in the gospel of Matthew, she falls to her feet before Jesus, begging: “Lord, help me” (Mt. 15:25). Words come out of his mouth, which he just said reveal the content of one’s heart. It’s not pretty. Perhaps like me, you don’t like it. . . . We get that she’s not an Israelite. Even worse, she’s a woman transgressing the gender rules of their society. And her daughter’s tormented by some sort of mental illness they in their day attributed to a demon. For all these reasons we can love the hutzpah of this Middle Eastern momma. Still, Jesus hauntingly insists. He replies: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mt. 15:26). In other words: “You dear woman, do not belong to the ones I’m here to feed. In fact, you’re lower than low; less than human, a wretched dog begging under the table.” You know they weren’t really as fond of such animals as some of us are crazy over our little pups. These are very hurtful words falling from Jesus’ lips. Words echoing the stereotypical racial slurs of his day. Words that draw the circle shut, not wider and wider and wider as the witness to God’s people had been up to that point.
It’s been explained that this story shows the very human side of Jesus. But I’m not too fond of that interpretation either. Because he’s not just either-or: some moments radiantly divine. Other times mired in the same muck of our souls. He’s both – all the time. A beautiful mix of human and God. It doesn’t sit well that his humanness was showing up so much so that he needed a whole bunch of whaps on the head to open up his mind. It’s disturbing to think this is any reflection of God. I want a Jesus who is beyond our best, don’t you? A Jesus who doesn’t have to be coaxed into having compassion on someone whose human flesh is different from his own.
In a meditation taken from A New Way of Seeing, A New Way of Being: Jesus and Paul, Richard Rohr writes: “It is an openness to the other – as other – that frees us . . . It is always an encounter with otherness that changes me. If I am not open to the beyond-me, I’m in trouble. Without the other, we are all trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews. When there is the encounter with the other, when there is mutuality, when there is presence, when there is giving and receiving, and both are changed in that encounter; that is the moment when you can begin to move toward transformation . . . – to ‘change forms.’ When you allow other people or events to change you, you look back at life with new and different eyes. That is the only real meaning of human growth.” Rohr goes on by writing: “One could say that the central theme of the biblical revelation is to call people to encounters with otherness: the alien, the sinner, the Samaritan, the Gentile, the hidden and denied self, angels unaware. And all of these are perhaps in preparation and training for hopeful meetings with the Absolute Other (e.g. God). We need practice in moving outside of our comfort zones. It is never a natural or easy response” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: “Intimate with Otherness;” from Center for Action & Contemplation; 14 August 2014).
Perhaps the only redeeming aspect of this gospel text is that it shows us that encounter with one another is not easy. As this meeting with the Canaanite mother implies, even Jesus himself had to be transformed – to change forms from one willing only to feed his own kind, to one recognizing great faith somewhere he didn’t really expect. No matter how much we might not like it, if indeed this story accurately portrays how Jesus was, then we can see that his world view ends up deepened. He might have started out at indifferent silence, and even moved to some nasty name-calling; but he didn’t stop there. He never bailed on the encounter – in fact, according to the story he intentionally went out of his own district – moving beyond his comfort zone, no matter how difficult the trip. He stayed with the other until something in his own heart was freed. At last he could see, saying: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!” (Mt. 15:28). Maybe in this way, we can learn a lesson from our Lord. Let his initial actions hold up a mirror to our own souls to see what we find in us that needs transformation.
May this be our prayer in our own lives, even as it be in the lives of those in Missouri, and Israel and Palestine, and Iraq.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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