Sunday, August 17, 2008

Proper 15 Year A August 17 2008

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." Then he said, "Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."]

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.


It seems, at face value, a story that does not fit in with what we know of Jesus: a man of pure racial lineage with followers of the same race; a chance encounter with a woman of a mixed race; the man calling the woman a dog; the woman not taking offense, but speaking up for herself; the man relenting in spite of the followers wishes to dismiss the woman. The story seems much more in keeping with Nazi Germany, or the deep South of the 1950’s. But there is more going on here than there seems to be: this is not just a story of racism, but in actuality, a story of good management principles.

The first thing you have to realize is that this was not a chance encounter. One of the other translations of this passage says that “Jesus withdrew from Gennesaret”. Jesus frequently would withdraw from Judea at moments when things seemed to be heating up between himself and the Pharisees. He did not want things to come to a head too soon. So he would withdraw into another region to let things cool off a little before returning and continuing with his work. It was a high wire act of precise timing, a management of time and events precisely calculated to bring matters to a head at just the right time and the right place.

And so Jesus withdrew to Tyre and Sidon, the area that used to be known as Canaan. There is a long history of conflict between the Jewish people and the Canaanite people, but at the time of Jesus, very few of the original Canaanites actually lived in Canaan. They had long disappeared from the stage of history, to be replaced with people of many different races. In this woman’s case, the gospel of Mark is more specific in saying that she was a Greek born in Syrian Phoenicia. Matthew calls her a Canaanite, pretty much the way you or I are called Americans…we live here, though our ancestors may have come from many different places.

Yet the woman was still not a Jew, not one of the chosen people. As the disciples illustrated, those not of the Jewish race were not highly regarded by Jews. They had forgotten why they had been chosen: to be the people who would be the means of salvation for the entire world, the people amongst whom the Messiah would be born. The prophecies in the ancient texts we call the Old Testament had been twisted to point towards a purely Jewish salvation, an earthly kingdom.

So when the Canaanite woman started pestering Jesus, the disciples asked Jesus to send her away. They were typical men of their time, with the racism of their time engrained in their thoughts and actions. And, at first, Jesus seems to go right along with them. What is up with that?

The second thing to remember is that Jesus’ ministry was first and foremost to the Jews. Like any good manager, Jesus knew that you have to train the supervisors before the supervisors can train the employees. He very rarely even addressed people of other races and always emphasized that his mission was to the Jews, as he does here when he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The time was short, and his main mission was to save Israel, so that it in turn could save the world. So, on the surface, while Jesus’ initial aloofness to this woman might seem racist in origin, there is really more going on here.

Jesus was doing two things: one, he was testing the faith of the Canaanite woman. You’ll notice that Jesus often did this when he is confronted by people who want things from him. He wanted to see how persistent they are, how great their faith was. And the woman here is certainly very persistent, persistent even in the face of the insult of being called a dog. We need to know, though, that the word for dog here is not a word that means a mangy dog on the street. It is the word that is used for lap dogs, pets that are pretty much helpless without human aid. So Jesus, while insulting her, was not insulting her as badly as you might think. Yet still, it is an insult.

The woman’s faith is so great and her desire for her daughter’s healing is so great that she has one of the best comebacks you could ever hear: "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." How many of us have been insulted, only to realize hours later exactly what we SHOULD have said? She certainly was very quick witted. And her quick wit and persistence are rewarded. Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith” and grants her desire for healing for her daughter. But there is still more going on here.

The second thing Jesus is doing is laying the ground work for the redemption of the Gentiles by breaking down the racist attitudes of the disciples. This was no chance encounter. Jesus knew that the disciples were still stuck in the mire of their Jewish ethnocentrism. In this encounter as well as others, he slowly introduced to the disciples the notion of the Gentiles’ worthiness of redemption. This would be their mission in the future, the mission of the early church. Until the disciples learned to view Gentiles as worthy of salvation, Jesus’ broader mission to redeem the world could not take place. Racial barriers must be broken down. The woman, initially ignored by Jesus and urged by the disciples to be sent away, goes from “dog” to “woman” in the space of a few minutes. Jesus plainly regarded her as equally worthy of redemption and the disciples took note.

Truly, it is not a story of recent origin, but sadly a story as old as time itself. We are continually putting up barriers between ourselves and our fellow men. We invent more ways of dividing ourselves from other people than is ever necessary or desirable. It is encoded in our frail human nature, the nature flawed by original sin, the nature that Jesus came to redeem us from, saving us from ourselves.

In the end, the disciples are sent out into the world, to make disciples of all nations. As Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

In our own lives, we must live according to this promise, breaking down barriers, offering the word of God to all alike. We must fight against our tendency to reject those who do not dress as we do, talk as we do, look like we do, or come from the same place we do. It is truly one of the hardest tasks in our Christian “job description” but it is one that must be done if the church is to continue spreading the gospel of Jesus to every nation. Not one of us can hold ourselves to be better than our fellow men, for as Paul said in our second reading from his letter to the Romans, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Proper 13 Year A August 3, 2008

Matthew 14:13-21

Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.


My mom has a funny story about the first time she met my dad’s family as his fiancĂ©e. She was invited to dinner. The dinner they had was a pot roast which was a real treat because it was a rare occurrence. When the platter of meat was brought to the table, the younger kids all touched a piece of the meat. Doing this guaranteed that they would get the piece they wanted since no one wanted to eat a piece of meat that someone else had touched.

My mom thought that it was funny that kids would go to this extreme, but there was really another side to the story. To understand the what was really going on, you have to know that my dad is one of thirteen children and he was born in the middle of the great Depression. You also have to understand that my grandfather was an alcoholic and that my grandmother supported the family until the oldest kids (of which my father is one) were old enough to work.

So when my aunts and uncles touched the meat to make sure they got a piece, it wasn’t only to make sure that they got the piece they wanted. It was to make sure that they got a piece at all. They were all worried that they would not get any meat; that there would not be enough to go around.

In our gospel lesson today, we heard about a miracle called “The Feeding of the Five Thousand” or, as it is more often called in Sunday School lessons, “The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes”. It is much more than a story about feeding hungry people. Like most miracles that Jesus performed, it had a literal meaning: that of showing God’s power and grace in multiplying the amount of food to feed more than could possibly be fed with the meager amount available.

Some people will go so far as to argue that there was no miracle: that the willingness of one person to share out the little that he had shamed everyone else into bringing out the food they had brought with them and were hoarding so they wouldn’t have to share it with everyone else. I remember a bible story in a book somewhere with this scenario; probably someone’s attempt to teach children how to share. But teaching people how to share with each other was not the point of this miracle. Like most miracles that Jesus performed, it not only had the literal meaning we’ve already noted, it also had a figurative meaning. There was more to it than just feeding people miraculously. It was about having “enough.”

Most of us are worried about not having “enough” too. We worry about not having enough to eat, certainly, but we also worry about not having enough possessions, enough friends, and most of all, enough love.

How many of us can remember (if we were not the only child in our family) thinking that our parents loved one of our siblings more than they loved us? I know I can. I think every child with siblings believes at some point that their parents love one child more than another. Once we have children of our own, we realize that it doesn’t work that way. We love each of our children differently than each other, because they are all different people. “More” love or “less” love doesn’t come into the equation at all.

But children think that if their parents love one child “more” that means that they must have “less” love for their other child or children, as if a parent’s love could be quantified and have a set limit. By the time we’re adults and have children of our own, we should realize that that is not true at all. But do we really?

When it comes to God’s love, don’t we often act as if there was a limit for that love? How many times have I heard people express the thought that God couldn’t love someone who murdered thousands of people like Hitler did? I’ve even heard some folks express the idea that if God could love and forgive someone as awful as Jeffrey Daumer, they wouldn’t want any part of him. Surely there has to be a line drawn somewhere, somewhere where the love stops.

Because we can’t understand the infinite love that God has for all of humanity, we try to put our own limits on it. Sadly, not only do we try to set a limit for the amount of love God has for people whose sins we do not approve of, we also set limits on the love God has for we ourselves. How many of us have thought that if God really knew us, exactly as we are, that he simply couldn’t love us? We certainly have a hard time loving ourselves, so maybe God has the same trouble?

But the truth is, God’s love is limitless and unconditional. He has enough love for every single person who has ever lived and has love to spare, as is symbolized by the 12 baskets of loaves and fishes left after the feeding of the 5000. Nothing we can do can ever stop God from loving us…all of the barriers between God and ourselves are of our own making.

There is also another meaning to the miracle of the loaves and fishes. In the story, Jesus instructs the disciples to feed the people. He blesses and breaks the bread and the disciples distribute it to the hungry people. It symbolizes the role of the church in the world; by sharing out the love of Christ to those who are hungry to receive it, we feed them spiritually. We show them that God will be “enough” for them.

As we can see all around us, the world is hungry for what God has to offer. There is a quote popularly attributed to Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, but which is actually from an early church father, St. Ambrose. He said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”

Pascal himself said something similar: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

God is the only one that can fill the space inside each of us, the space we so often try to fill with possessions, food, drugs, alcohol, and the love of other people. None of these things can truly satisfy us as God can. And the miracle is we don’t have to worry about having “enough” to go around.