Pentecost 15, Proper 18, September 4, 2015

Boundaries.


God is always pushing us to expand our boundaries in the interests of justice and oh, how we resist his efforts. Even Jesus, if we are to interpret our Gospel lesson correctly, needed a nudge once in a while.

As our passage begins Jesus is continuing his travels into the region around Tyre, north of Galilee. He’s probably tired he has fed the 5000, walked on water, and challenged the purity laws all while teaching the well-meaning but clueless followers dogging his heels. He has sought refuge in a house trying to remain unnoticed by the local populace. Lo and behold a gentile woman tracks him down, something no self-respecting, God-fearing, Jewish woman would have done. She has heard about him, heard about the miracles that he has performed and has come to him because she has a little daughter who has an unclean spirit. There are not many to whom she can go for help, Jesus is her last hope. Now in that region the Syrophoenecians were the ones with the land and the money. In fact the Jewish peasants in the area have been oppressed by their landlords – the crops that they raise go to feed those with money and not those who actually till the land – the typical tenant farmer story.

Boundaries.

Here is this woman humbling herself, probably coming to these less wealthy tenant farmers with whom she has no regular contact, humbling herself to ask for help. They were probably very surprised to see her when she came to the house, maybe resentful, maybe a little frightened by what she might be doing there. But the woman is very humble when she sees Jesus she bows down at his feet. She begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Jesus’ response is not what we expect of “gentle Jesus meek and mild”, no, Jesus is unyielding and downright insulting. He refuses to help her saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Not only is Jesus refusing to help he has just called the Syrophoenecian woman a dog.

We all have our days.

Perhaps Jesus was just tired of the constant requests for help. For those of you who have raised children you might recognize it as the exhausted mommy syndrome where your toddler has followed you around all day long and you are trying to sneak just one moment of peace in the bathroom, but not, not even there can you be alone… Or perhaps Jesus is thinking about the harsh realities of the socio-economic system and expressing his resentment of her exploitation of his fellow Jews. On a theological level he is saying indirectly, that he has been sent to the children of Israel, God’s chosen people that he came to them, was born one of them, in order to bring salvation and that it was not yet time to share that news with the gentiles. Some commentators have even suggested that he is being ironic, putting his own disciples to the test but that seems unlikely given that Mark doesn’t make any mention of their reactions either positive or negative in this sequence. Whatever the reason, Jesus has said no.

So why would Mark have included this interchange in the gospel since it is not entirely flattering to our Lord and Savior? It’s because of what happens next. The woman is not to be gainsaid. She doesn’t bat an eye before responding, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Her response is respectful but assertive. While dogs were considered unclean creatures in ancient Israel they were everywhere, scavenging, picking up the neglected crumbs that fell from the table. Jesus himself would be one of those crumbs when he is rejected by most of the Jews so in a way her response foreshadows what will happen after Jesus’ death – that the Good News will spread among the gentiles. It is with this thought in mind that Mark has included the scene. Jesus does not become angry at the woman’s response, you can almost imagine a quirk of the lips, even a slight smile of approval when he says “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

Boundaries.

Jesus hasn’t changed his mind about the focus of his ministry but he is acknowledging that it is destined to spread beyond the boundaries of his immediate concern. It is no wonder then that Jesus next miracle is the healing of the deaf man with the speech impediment. Jesus too had had a transformation so that he was able to hear differently and his message was heard perhaps more clearly by this outsider than by his disciples.

Justice was done and it is justice that is also at the heart of our other readings. In Proverbs we get a few snippets of wisdom that tells us that it is better to be known for being good than for having great riches; that the Lord looks after the rich and the poor equally; that injustice will bring its own punishment and that those who have are to be blessed for sharing with the poor who are not to be abused. James pricks our consciences about the dangers of favoritism based on wealth. The good works we are called to do in the name of justice is what models our faith. Speaking compassionately is no substitute for providing those in need with food, or clothing. I am not sure that the message that we are to care for the poor can get much clearer than that. Yet that boundary issue is always there, and when we are not in the mood to deal with it we find all kinds of excuses for not taking our responsibility seriously.

Just last Monday I found myself pushed against my own ropes so today’s lessons are particularly timely for me.

Monday is my day off and I was puttering around inside the house when I notice a scruffy looking man with dreadlocks walking up the driveway. In just a few moments there was a knock at my front door. It was a man who has been on the property asking for handouts several times before, although not recently. On previous occasions the thrift shop has provided him with clothing and I think we have even given him a food card. He always has the same story - he has just been released from the hospital either because he has been mugged or has epilepsy. He wears a couple of hospital bracelets and waves some crumpled discharge papers around to verify his story.

Boundaries.

This day he was asking for bus fare. I asked him why he had come to the front door. He said “A lady told me to come here.” I have been pretty clear that people are not to be sent to the rectory so I had to wait for a moment for the red mist to clear from my eyes. I told him that I couldn’t help him and closed the door. Now I can justify my behavior on several grounds, I was officially off duty, he should never have been sent to the rectory, and it is never safe to distribute cash. The availability of cash is a magnet and word gets around very quickly, and I certainly didn’t want to give the impression that there was anything to be gained from coming to the front door of the rectory.

Boundaries.

So here was this scam artist and all he was asking for was bus fare and I said no. I didn’t even offer to get him a food card from the office because I was so peeved about having been disturbed at home. Self-righteous irritation is a dangerous thing. Unlike Jesus I remained deaf to the voice I could have heard. His request was fairly harmless and he was very polite.

God never told us that we were to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

Boundaries.

I chose to maintain mine but at what cost? “… faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Amen

Pentecost 14, Proper 17, August 30, 2015


Pentecost 12, Proper 15, August 16, 2015


Pentecost 11, Proper 14, August 9, 2015


Pentecost 10, Proper 13, August 2, 2015


Pentecost 9, Proper 12, July 26, 2015


Pentecost 4, Proper 7, Year B, June 21, 2015

Who doesn’t love the story of David and Goliath? It’s the story that gives us confidence in God’s care for the little guy, the hope that we will always prevail against overwhelming odds because God is on our side. 

 
The Israelites are at war with the Philistines. David, secretly anointed king by the prophet Samuel to be King Saul’s successor, shows up in the Israelites’ encampment bursting with the arrogant assurance of youth and the knowledge that he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord. All the Israelites are afraid of the Philistine giant Goliath who has challenged them to single combat. When no one else steps forward David offers to accept his challenge. King Saul tries to give him his armor and his sword - all of which are too big for David’s adolescent body. Instead he goes armed only with his slingshot, the weapon that he has used to defend his father’s flocks from lions and bears. Wham! The battle is over in a moment. The giant is slain with one stone, the young man has defied all odds and is on his way to greatness.
What’s not to like in this story? 

We also know that not all stories end so well. The Goliath of our time is racism. If only it were so easy to slay. It’s big, it’s ugly, and it seems to paralyze us. Nine people were murdered on Thursday while praying, people who were loved and respected across many spheres of society and they were murdered in cold blood in a place of worship after having offered hospitality to their murderer. So no, not all stories end so well. The weak do not always overcome, the vulnerable are not always protected and the innocent are not always preserved. But that does not mean we should lose hope. 

As we hear the story of David we will discover that triumph is not through force of arms and victory does not assure public acclaim. David will fall from grace even though he will neither give up his faith in God nor will God ever abandon him. Yet his kingdom will come to an end because of human frailty and sin. The people of Israel will be conquered and enslaved time and again until God decides to intervene. In so doing the world will be created anew and victory and triumph will be redefined as humility, obedience, and sacrifice by David’s heir and the Son of God whose kingdom will not end. 

 
Mark is hinting at this new world in our gospel lesson. Jesus has been teaching large crowds and explaining the parables to his disciples behind the scenes. He retreats with his disciples by taking a boat to the other side of the sea. He is tired and falls asleep in the boat. A fierce storm comes up and the disciples freak out. When they wake him up Jesus he tells the wind to quiet down and the sea to be still. They obey. Jesus is like God at the beginning of creation when God brings order out of the chaos of the waters. In subsequent passages Jesus will show his power over evil by driving demons into the sea, he will show his power over life and death by healing the sick and raising the dead. Mark portrays Jesus acting to bring about the kingdom of God to restore the earth. His disciples are not ready for this display of power. After the wind and the waters are tamed the disciples freak out again because they see that Jesus is more than just a teacher. And they will continue to freak out as Jesus teaches them the way of discipleship; that it would provide no easy life, that it would lead to hardship and rejection; that they would need to lose life in order to find life. Finally Jesus will model for them what he means. He would undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed, and he would rise again. That is the hope to which we must cling. The hope that Jesus understood the brokenness of this world, that he loved us anyway and that he loved us enough to give his life that we might know the possibilities of the kingdom of God and eternal life. 

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clement Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson died as true disciples and as martyrs, martyrs to the injustice of racism that continues to eat at our soul as a country. Their deaths are a stark reminder that the world Jesus came to bring into being has not come to fulfillment; that we have much to do before he comes again.
And it won’t be easy. That’s what Paul is saying in his plaintive and combative letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were not Paul’s favorite congregation. He found them to be hedonistic, quarrelsome, and idolatrous, not unlike our society today. He is trying to encourage them to work with him and not to throw away the gift of grace that they received when they first came to God in Christ. Paul emphasizes his commitment by enumerating his sacrifices on their behalf as well as his gifts. He just doesn’t stop trying to reach them. He begs them to open their hearts to him as he has opened his heart to them. And that is the point. He can’t beat them into submission, he can’t hurl a stone into the middle of their foreheads, all he can do is love them. Just as Christ loved his disciples, just as God loves us today.
In chapter 5 Paul he goes on to say “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ be reconciled to God, ..so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 

Reconciliation in the name of Christ. To be reconciled means to be in relationship with. At the start of reconciliation there is a need for repentance, for an acknowledgment of our sins. In this case the sin of racism. This is our call my friends and today that call has to be answered in order to stop this ongoing violence. Racism keeps us from fulfilling our baptismal covenant, from respecting the dignity of every human being. David’s earthly kingdom must give way to Jesus’ kingdom of God and so we must learn to put aside that which keeps us from love of God and of neighbor. The answer does not lie in violence but in love.
As Episcopalians we are partial to the saying “lex orandi, lex credendi” which means what we pray, how we pray, the words we hear, the words we say, what we do and how we use our bodies in worship shapes what we believe. So I beg you, as Paul begged the Corinthians, pay attention to the many ways that racism shows up. Open your hearts when someone says that they have experienced racism. Don’t indulge in jokes or name calling, don’t listen to jokes or name calling but challenge those who perpetuate attitudes that lead inevitably to tragedy. What you do or don’t do affects what you believe. 

Above all pray. Pray for those who were murdered, pray for their friends and families. Pray for the murderer and for those like him that their hearts may be changed, and pray for his family as they come to grips with what has happened, pray for our country. And remember: even in the midst of tragedy, God is with us. Even in the midst of violence, God is with us. Even in the midst of despair, God is with us.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move the hearts of the people of this land that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.




Advent is here! – December 2014