Jesus acting far too human

Today’s Gospel is a tough one.  Jesus spends time with his disciples, telling them more about how God’s law has been misunderstood and misconstrued.  He explains to them that if what they do is not rooted in love, but rather in evil or any violation of God’s commandments, it defiles.  He’s telling them that so much of what they have learned and have come to understand as good and righteous, is, in fact, bad and sinful. He then goes on to Tyre and Sidon, where he encounters the Caananite woman.  This is where it gets really hard.

The Caananite woman is desperate for help.  She approaches Jesus crying out for him to cure her daughter.  I can only imagine what it must have taken for this woman, by birth considered by the Jews to be impure, to approach this Jewish rabbi for help.  My heart breaks when Jesus does not even acknowledge her.  It breaks a bit more when he tells her he was not sent to help her people.  It crumbles when he calls her a dog.  I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking there is no way, no way possible, that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, would or could treat anyone this way.  Surely there must be some other explanation.  Maybe Jesus is using this encounter with the Canaanite woman to teach his disciples a lesson?  But would that be any better?  Perhaps this story isn’t even real.  Surely it can’t be true that Jesus acted this way.

And yet it is.  Jesus’ humanity is on full display in this encounter with the Canaanite woman.  He seems to have completely forgotten the lesson he’d just taught the disciples.  His behavior with the woman suggests he doesn’t remember saying, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart”, which means, essentially, if it is not about God’s love, it defiles.  In other words, what is life-giving and pure is what is spoken with a heart full of love, mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.  Clearly, this was not Jesus’ best day.

In this story, Jesus is acting in a way that makes so many of us uncomfortable because it is far too imperfect to be consistent with our idea of who Jesus is.  We are seeing Jesus the man and product of his culture.  We are seeing the Incarnate One born to live and die among us acting far too like us than we want to believe is possible.  We are seeing in Jesus, the one who came to save us from ourselves and all the ways we step away from the ongoing invitation to grow more and more into the likeness of God, one of the most terrible ways we turn away from God’s likeness.

When I read this story now, in 2020 with the ongoing protests for racial justice and the reverberations of the #Me,Too movement, I am hear both the voices of those who cry for justice and the push back from those who want to hang onto  the culture and ways of being that are comfortable and familiar to them, even at the expense of the dignity – the very humanity- of others. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If Jesus could act this callously, this meanly, what chance do I have? What chance does society have to further the dream of God in which all people are recognized, honored, and celebrated for being created in the image of God?

In the persistent cries of the unnamed woman, one of only two people in Matthew’s Gospel to be characterized as having “great” faith (the other being the centurion in Chapter 8), I hear echoes of our Black and Brown siblings crying to be seen as fully human and deserving of all the same privilege, power, and opportunity we with White skin enjoy.  In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of every woman who objects to being sexually objectified or demeaned by labels such as “nasty woman” or held to a different standard of behavior than her male counterparts.  In her cries, I hear echoes of the First Nations peoples as they struggle to survive as outcasts in the land they occupied before any White man “discovered” it.  In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of our LGBTQ siblings who want nothing more than to be recognized and embraced as beloved children of God created in that same divine image.

In Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman’s persistence, I see hope.  I see the hope for us to listen to the pleas of our siblings to challenge the status quo, to dismantle the cultures and structures that are used to demean, degrade, demoralize, or in any other way say to any person or any peoples that they are somehow less than because we see some difference in them.  Certainly we can listen to the pleas of our siblings with hearts full of the love of God and for God and take action to transform this world, even if that means going against the grain and challenging both the culture and the ways we hang onto it? If the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Incarnate God can be changed by the cries of one woman, certainly those of us who follow him can do the same, especially when confronted by the cries of millions? 

Questioning through the fear

This is my sermon for August 9, 2020 the 10th Sunday after the Pentecost in Year A. The lectionary is found here.

Several years ago, at the Barbara C. Harris Camp, I met an adorable nine-year-old boy named Manny. Manny is one of those old souls in a child’s body.  He’s also someone who looks life straight in the eye and then jumps right in.  I got to know Manny pretty well by the middle of the week.  I was the chaplain for his age group so sat in on a Bible study and spent time with his group on a couple of activities.  He was happy to be at camp, with a confidence most of his peers didn’t show most of the time.   I imagine Manny would be the one to challenge Jesus as Peter does in today’s Gospel “Ok, big guy.  You say I can do this, huh?  How about you tell me how to start and then I’m game.  I’ll give it a try.” 

That Wednesday evening, I got to know Manny even better.  Another chaplain and I were asked to take him to the local ER because he’d fallen while playing a game and injured his elbow.  We were a bit taken aback when we first saw him in the health lodge because it was obvious he was in pain, just as it was obvious his elbow was pretty badly injured.  But Manny didn’t talk about the pain, although he talked pretty much the whole way to the hospital.  Manny talked about his family and this, his second week at camp.  He told us about school and that he loves to read.  He told us he was having a hard time staying awake because he usually goes to bed at 7:00 and it was already almost 8:00. He told us in delightful detail what had happened, how he hurt his arm.  And he asked lots of questions, lots and lots of questions.

It is in those questions that I think about Manny in connection with today’s Gospel.  In his questions Manny voiced the fears he had about what was going on.  He worried that his parents would be angry with him for getting hurt.  He asked if he would have to get a new arm.  He was afraid that he would have to be awake and feel whatever it was the doctor would do to fix his arm.  He was terrified he would have to leave camp, after successfully begging his parents to allow him to come again for a second week.  He worried about what fun he was missing out on because he was on the way to the hospital.  Would his friends think about him?  Would they worry so much they didn’t have fun?  Question after question after question.  Fear after fear after fear.   All of them distracting him from what was so clear to my friend and me in the car and then to the staff at the hospital:  Manny had to have been in tremendous pain yet he barely seemed to notice. 

His fears were bigger in some ways than the physical reality of what was happening .  When asked, he had a hard time telling the nurses and doctors about his pain and how he was feeling physically.  Although visibly exhausted, he couldn’t lie down until his questions were answered fully and completely.  Needing to ask the questions over and over as if to make sure the answers did not change.  Once satisfied he promptly fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.  His fears were allayed, and he could do what he needed to do, what his body needed him to do. 

In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Peter and the disciples are clearly afraid.  It is night after an intense day of working with Jesus.  No doubt they are aware of how some consider their ministry with Jesus foolhardy.  They might even be aware of what Jesus has recently learned: the John the Baptist has been killed, beheaded, by some who are threatened by Jesus’ radical thinking and willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of his followers and maintain the status quo.    They might even wonder – somewhere deep within, or maybe more visibly – whether what they have witnessed with Jesus: the feeding of the 5000, turning water into wine, some healings – is real or if they been fooled.

Imagine what it would have been like to be there in a small wooden boat, completely subject to the power of the wind and the rain and the waves, in the kind of complete darkness we don’t know so well these days.  The stars – essentially the only source of light in a night sky -obliterated by the storm clouds.  No way to see the villages on the shore on either side of the lake.  Left alone by the teacher you have been following as you have been caught up in the wonder and the promise of his message.  In that small boat, on the turbulent water under a pitch-dark stormy sky, your fears keep you from recognizing Jesus as he walks toward you.  You think he is a ghost and are not even sure what to believe when he tells you it is okay, he is real.

As you sit in that boat are you grateful to Peter for having the gumption to challenge Jesus, to make Jesus prove he is who he says he is?  Or are you saying a silent, or perhaps not-so-silent, prayer that Peter just sit down and be quiet?  Are you envious that Peter has the courage to ask the question that is on your mind when he gets to walk on water?  What do you think and feel when his doubts take over and he starts to sink?  Can you feel his gratitude when Jesus reaches out a hand to save him or do you say to yourself, “I would have believed better, longer, stronger, and would have been able to walk all the way to Jesus”?

As you listen to this Gospel does this message of fear and faith and trust resonate with you?  Can you think of one example from your own life of when your fears got in the way of something just as real?  Perhaps your fear of what the doctor might say keeps you from making an appointment to check out some discomfort or pain.  Maybe you don’t risk talking to your spouse or your partner or your friend about something in your relationship that is upsetting you because you worry it will spiral out of control.  Maybe you commit less than 100% to your church or your prayer life because a full commitment would mean making some changes in how you live your life and that is too much to contemplate. 

Do you hesitate to talk openly and honestly to God, with God, because there is a part of you that knows you may not hear what you want to hear?  Or do you take the leap of faith, kind of like Peter, and put your whole self – including the parts that have trouble recognizing Jesus right there in the middle of your less than perfect self – into asking the questions and then trusting that God will get you when you fall?

My young friend Manny, scared though he was, did not stop asking the questions, voicing his fears, until he was satisfied with the answers.  And when the doctors woke him up to tell him it was time to fix his dislocated elbow and asked him how he felt, Manny didn’t miss a beat when he told them his arm hurt “really, really, REALLY bad” and he wanted them to fix it.  And when it was fixed and we were on our way back to the camp, he talked and talked some more about how good it felt to “get fixed up” and how he knew he was going to have to wait until later in the morning to find out if he got to stay at camp or if he’d have to go home early.  He said, “I know my friends at camp prayed for me [we’d told him they included him in their bedtime prayers] and that was nice.  And you two are priests, right?” Then the simplest, most profound, and faithful statement: “Right before I fell asleep I said, ‘God, I know you got this’ and I figured I’d be all right.”  Amen.