Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Giving Tree

Many of you, I'm sure, are familiar with the classic children's book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  The book is about a little boy who grows up playing around a tree, and as the boy gets older he needs money so the tree lets him sell its apples.  The boy needs a house, so the tree gives its wood.  And every time the tree gives, the tree is happy, even though giving costs the tree its own life. 
 
It's a painfully beautiful story.  So when our son borrowed it from the library, I read it to him with Gilbert's words in my mind, "I must not allow myself to become unmanned."  I did not want to cry.  But, of course, I did.  And the result was having to explain why I'm crying to my little boy, which thankfully was handled by Karin. 
 
I put Peter to bed after that, but our last hug and the little expressions of affection that routinely go with that time of the day, were very different.  It felt more like he was taking care of me than the other way around, which was unnerving.
 
The next day, there was a moment when I was reclining on the couch, and Peter and Maggie were standing beside my recumbent self.  Their sweet little faces were looking down at mine, and my mind suddenly flashed forward.  The same people many years hence (God willing) and I am in a hospital bed, and they are coming to say goodbye.  We will all be older.  They will likely have children, careers, houses, friends I can't even imagine.  And it will be time for me to pass into the nearer embrace of God.
 
I will have given them my apples and wood, and I will be happy. 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Proper 21B. 27 September 2009.

          I was out at the County Fair a couple weeks ago.  Maybe some of you went, too.  We enjoyed looking at the livestock and the exhibits.  We passed by a kiosk that was for a Baptist Church.  It might even have been Woodstock Baptist Church, I don't really remember.  But I do remember seeing this clay water dispenser with a sign on it quoting the part of our lesson today that talks about giving a cup of water to people because they bear the name of Christ.  It was a whimsical thing to do—and it got me thinking about the literal ways I have treated this text.

 

          Years ago my parents added a room to our home in Bridgewater, and the man who did all the carpentry…well, to say he was devout would be an understatement.  Whenever he missed a nail or hurt himself or anything went wrong he would exclaim, "Praise Jesus."  Now, it didn't take much to understand that he was substituting "Praise Jesus" for a whole string of cuss words.  There were times I'm sure his lips were saying Praise Jesus but his heart was probably saying something else.

 

          But I liked the man very much.  I was, myself, at that age, a very evangelical believer and I liked that he was a conspicuous Christian.  I remember making him a glass of ice water, because I had read my Bible, and there it was in God's Word, "Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward."  So I got my reward.  I probably got two or three!

 

          The difficulty, however, with taking the Bible so literally is that you miss the overall message.  This lesson is filled with exaggeration, or really I should say, hyperbole.  There is so much of our Bible that is hyperbole—and there's nothing at all wrong with that.  We use hyperbole a lot.  In fact, you could say we use it all the time—except that saying that would be hyperbole!

 

          John comes to Jesus and tells him that someone has been casting out demons in his name.  John says that they tried to stop him, but Jesus responds "Do not stop him."  He says no one will be able to do the ministry of Jesus and then speak ill of him.  You can't play for both sides, so let him minister. 

 

          And then Jesus goes on to talk about ministry, using hyperbole.  Whoever gives you a cup of water will never lose the reward.  This is not confined to giving a Dixie cup at the County Fair.  Let your mind go. Whoever sharpens your pencils, whoever opens the door, whoever keeps an eye on your kids, whoever does anything to support you, do you get it? 

 

          And then here come the warnings.  (Lord, have mercy, this is the section I like the least.)  "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea."  Now, if you take those words literally, you are safe.  But let your mind play with it: 

 

          If someone is just starting out in the Christian faith and you fill their head with all sorts of little shoulds and shouldn'ts, and oughts, and musts, then it would be better for you, in the eyes of God, if you were go down to the Shenandoah River and drown yourself.  Literally?  Well…no not really literally.  But you get the message.

 

          Here we go with the really interesting part.  "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell."  (Pause.)

 

          It's an interesting phrase, "cause you to stumble," in the Greek, it's scandalize.  Do you catch the meaning there?  --something that causes disrepute, or it horrifies someone who finds out.  What should you do?  Tear it off, or cut it off. 

 

          Jesus speaks of three body parts.  The hand is symbolic of theft, fraud, and forgery.  The right hand specifically is a symbol of property transactions—the hand you would shake hands with on a deal.  The foot is symbolic of robbery, or being a fugitive—trying to escape capture.  And the eye—well, that one should be obvious.  The eye is symbolic of adultery, or any sexual misconduct.

 

 

          If you can't help but steal the little packets of sugar at Sal's Bistro, cut off your hand—translation, "stop going there altogether"—for it would be better to go hungry than to have someone think that stealing is okay for a Christian to do. 

 

          Hell has an interesting place in the lesson.  The word Jesus uses is Gehanna which is a place mentioned in 2 Kings (23:10), also known as the Valley of Hinnom.  It's a desolate place southwest of Jerusalem.  It was a place that was used, long long ago, for sacrificing children.  By Jesus' time it was a wasteland, a place for trash—it had become known as a byword for a place of eternal punishment.[1] 

 

          I don't know if we have a similar kind of place in our culture.  Nowadays hell is no so much a place as it is a feeling of irrelevance.  Yesterday's paper, empty bottles, dried up glue sticks.  What's that?  It's useless; throw it away. 

 

          Do you remember that man who came to the house to fix the chimney? 

          No. 

          Nice man. 

          No, I don't remember. 

          You don't remember?  He was such a nice man.  Tall, handsome, told stories about his daughters.  

          No, I don't remember him. 

 

          That's Gehanna, or hell, as far as I'm concerned.  Not being remembered.  No birthday card.  Everyone at the office gets the funny email, but not you.  Outcast.  Phyllis just closed on her house, everyone's getting together Sunday afternoon to see the new place—you didn't get invited.  (Pause.)

 

          Tell me something…when you read all this hyperbole, do you ever ask yourself why Jesus is talking this way?  He's clearly making a point, but the language is so strong.  He could just say, "If you are chronically tempted to do something, find away of avoiding the behavior."  You know…it's a message as old as parenting.  "Don't do that.  Do this." 

 

          In fact, some folks will read over this lesson and their eyes will glaze over completely.  What's all this about cutting off feet and eyes and hands?  They'll think he's being literal, like the Dixie cup at the Fair.

 

          I will admit to you that I stared at this lesson quite a lot before I really thought about preaching it.  There was so much exaggeration.  And certainly one of the basic messages is that "the surpassing value of entering the kingdom of God makes every other good expendable."[2]  There's nothing inherently wrong with hands, feet and eyes.  God created them; it's our use of them that makes them a scandal.

 

          But I think the greater message here—and really the reason for all this hyperbole—is that avoiding sin is not just about "us." 

 

          We like to think that our sins are private matters between us and God, and they are, for the most part.  But it's kind of like eating, or drinking.  You eat and drink healthy things, and your body is healthier.  Like the old computer saying "Garbage in garbage out." 

 

          You start fussing with your spouse, and it will affect other relationships—you might not even know how—but the brokenness manifests itself in other places.  I have known wives and husbands who are deeply, deeply in love with each other, but they can't have a meaningful conversation that really goes into every corner of their lives.  Why?  I don't know.  But the pain of that brokenness might lead to more than just a little drink in the evening, but a couple drinks.  Or maybe a pill or two, just to ease the pain.

 

          You think you can compartmentalize it.  You think it's not going to spill over into other relationships, but it does, and not always in ways that you can understand.  It comes out as being short-tempered with those you love.  It might just be a low simmer on the back burner of your life—that lady you see at the Post Office who always kind of looks at you a little longer, or that man across the street.  You wonder what life would have been like, if only…  And all these fantasies start to dart around in your head. 

 

          It's just between you and God, right?  No.  It's not.  Because it affects you, it affects others.  Lust can turn into regret, which can turn into resentment, which can turn into stupid arguments, which can turn into real arguments, which can turn into divorce, which can turn into the children growing up insecure about themselves.

          And it all started when she smiled at just…the right…moment.  And you started thinking about it…and wouldn't let it go.  Because you thought it was just between you and God. 

 

          If it scandalizes you, it scandalizes others.  If it causes you to sin, it will cause others to sin.  And it would better for you to enter into the kingdom of God, blind, deaf, mute, lame, no teeth, maimed…than become someone who led others to believe that it was okay to run around, or curse the cashier at Wal-Mart, or whatever…  If you cause one of these little ones to fall, because you have tripped yourself, then it would be better for you to take a long walk off a short pier. 

 

          And you see that what's behind all of this hyperbole, and all of these warnings is really a deep concern for those who are looking to us to figure out what Christianity is all about.  It's something that I, frankly, worry about for Peter and Maggie.  Our children see us praying at the dinner table. 

 

          Peter has his own prayer now—he made it up.  He says, "Gracious God, thank you for this food."  (And then he mumbles some other words I don't really understand, but he always ends by saying:) "And love Jesus, Amen."  It's a great prayer.  I'm a little biased, of course.  But Peter sees us praying and he wants to pray.  Peter sees me reading through my sermon on Saturday afternoon, and he goes over and picks up a piece of paper and starts mumbling to himself.  "Peter, what are you doing."  And he will tell you, "I'm practicing my sermon."

 

          Monkey see, monkey do—but what happens when he starts looking around at his brothers and sisters in the pews?  He's going to look at you.  He's going to wonder if you have prayer time, too.  He'll put two and two together and realize that priests are a little more devout than your average Christian, so he's going to be looking to you to figure out what's normal.  Is it normal to give generously to Church?  Is it normal to come to the Lenten study?  Is it normal to help the church on clean-up days, and pancake suppers, and come to Holy Week services, and serve on the vestry and help out those in need?  Is that normal?  My little boy and girl are going to be looking to you to answer those questions. 

 

          But when Jesus was walking the earth, his concern was for these disciples and the people in the crowd who wanted to follow him.  Some of them were ready to sign on the dotted line, some of them wanted more information, and some of them were just there because they were friends of others.  And Jesus says, "They're watching you.  They're watching you.  Are you going to be different?  Are you going to be examples of Godly living and faith, or are you just going to be like everyone else?" 

 

          I'm telling you; this can be a hard message to swallow:  that you and I are examples. 

 

          But I want to give you some good news here.  The good news is that it doesn't take a whole lot of intelligence or good looks or money or anything else to be a good example. 

 

 

 

          All it takes is the understanding that what you say and do matters to other people in ways that you can never see.  I will never forget.  It was twenty-five years ago.  My grandfather on my mother's side died.  My grandfather was influential in ways that I cannot begin to calculate.  I could spend hours in the pulpit talking about him.  He taught Sunday school for years in the Scalp Level Church of the Brethren, which he helped to build.  He was one of those men who had a deep spirituality, but not the education to really talk about it. 

 

          When he died, I remember walking with my family to take our seats in the pew for the memorial service.  And I saw a man standing in the pews amidst a sea of faces from church—a man I admired and respected, and loved—and still love to this day.  He didn't say anything to me; he didn't try to reach down and console.  He was just there to say to me and to my family, I care about you. 

 

          Do you understand what I'm saying here?  If he had not been there, I would never have felt that surge in my veins that I'm not alone, that my family is not alone.  And I learned then and there that the tiniest expressions of support reverberate in people's lives, because I'll tell you the truth: I don't remember a single thing from that memorial service, except that that man was there. 

 

          And the decision to come to support us or to stay home was just between him and God, right?  Just between him and God..?  I'm sorry.  I don't think it was.



[1] Preceding paragraphs, Cf. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and the HarperCollins Study Bible, footnotes.

[2] Williamson, Lamar.  Interpretation: Mark. 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lovable Rogues

I have long been fascinated with eccentric people, especially those who are not reckless, or rude. Perhaps the term "lovable rogue" is more fitting. My life is punctuated by their influence. I dare not list my personal ones because it wouldn't be fair to them (or their memory) since you probably wouldn't know them. On my little list, two are monks. One is alive, and the other is also alive, but in eternity. I hope he prays for me. I think of him all the time.

These folks have a way of seeing life that is unique, but they let you share their reverie. You delight in them as they delight in some great vision, or thing, or in simply being who they are.

Not many of us delight in simply being who we are. Those who do often project an egotism that is off-putting, or at best intriguing; but there are some beautiful and rare characters who seem so perfectly at home in their own skin, so attuned to their own thoughts and feelings and deeply held convictions that they are completely--and I mean this in every sense of the word--natural.

My lovable rogues are deeply committed Christians--in fact, most of them are ordained. Perhaps that is my preference as an ordained person. And perhaps these folks serve as examples of "people I'd like to become." Yet whenever I succumb to the seductive notion that I might aspire to one day "be like him," I remember that to do so would be to never fully become who I am.

The lovable rogue is lovable for being unique. He or she is delighted simply to be who they are.

I aspire to be more comfortable in who I am. I suspect that many people who know me think that I am already there, but it is a process of maturity that, alas, is a process, and I am far from being as delighted as I would like. I comfort myself with the notion that achieving that level of comfortability might lead to stagnation, egotism, self-centered, or self-entitled behavior. It might take the fire out of my belly for becoming a better husband, father, priest, and Christian.

But, God grant that I may become a lovable rogue one day. And if, eventually, a young man wishes to be more like me, may God interrupt those silly thoughts and grant him the grace to find himself and love himself.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Proper 20B. 20 September 2009.

          I was reading through the lessons for today a couple weeks ago—and all too often I do that like a man looking at a box of cantaloupe.  This one's too soft, this one's too hard…  But sometimes I look at the lessons and it's as if one of them chooses me.  I felt that way about the lesson from James.  And I went to work on it and realized that I was working on the text for last Sunday—the Sunday Bishop Jones was preaching. 

 

          But I really liked this text and I really wanted to preach on it, so I've decided to go ahead and do so.  This, then, is our text for today:  James 3:1-12

ot many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh."

          It's an interesting lesson, isn't it?  I love the way James invites the reader to imagine our use of speech as such a powerful force.  The tongue is like a bit in a horse's mouth—move the bit, move the horse.  Or like a rudder on a ship—move the rudder, move the ship. 

 

          Or, says James, think of a large forest ablaze from a small fire.  A word whispered at the Ben Franklin about Mrs. Soandso, and within a couple hours phones begin to ring up and down Shenandoah County.  Listen to the other metaphors—"the tongue stains the whole community, it sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire by evil." 

 

          "…every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-- a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

 

           You know this, and I know this.  And it's not just rumors and gossip and all that stuff.  You look back over the sermons of yesteryear…preachers getting up in the pulpit to slay the dragons of gambling, and drinking, and gossip.  Maybe not in the Episcopal Church so much…

 

          But let's face it.  Rumors and gossip are such obvious prey.  The tongue does much more damage in subtlety and inference.  I was visiting the church of a friend during my vacation.  We sat in the back.  Peter played in the pew, and Maggie crawled around.  It was a good service.  The sermon was good.  We had the final blessing and hymn, and once we turned to leave a woman leaned over to greet us.  She was nice.  She said, "Did you enjoy the service?"

 

          We explained that of course we enjoyed it, the priest was a friend from seminary, Karin went to that church when she was younger.  And the woman started asking questions about the service.  "Didn't you think it went a little long?"  "Didn't you think the temperature was a bit high?"  "Don't you think it would be better if we blah, blah, blah…"

 

          Well, I didn't think too much about her questions.  I thought everything was fine.  I didn't pick up on the fact that she was complaining because I don't think of complaining as being appropriate in church.  We're here to worship God, after all.  But on reflection I noticed that she had adopted a very sneaky way of criticizing.  She wouldn't say, "I think the service was too long," she said, "Don't you think the service was too long?"  Sneaky.  I never picked up on it. 

 

          If I can extend James' metaphor a little bit, I might say that she was playing with matches.  Let's see if I can set a fire over here…get a few people agreeing that the service is too long, maybe someone will say something to the priest and then I get what I want and I don't have to be the one to say anything directly.  Sneaky!

 

          But even that's kind of obvious stuff.  Do you know that it can get much much simpler, and even more subtle?  You can just get yourself in an attitude where nothing's right.  It's like you didn't get the gas cap screwed in just right and the little light on the dash board came on, and now everything's a little off.  You get in a little snit; nothing's right.

 

          And what comes out of your mouth?  No, you're not outright cussing, but everything about you is.  "Coffee's too hot.  My hair won't lay right.  Karin, have you seen my book?  No, not that book, the other one.  Nyeh, nyeh, nyeh…pick, pick, pick."  And if you've got any sense of self-awareness you're thinking, "Why am I so crabby?  Stop it.  Listen Mister…you've got nothing to complain about.  Why can't you just be happy?"

 

          Or you get to feeling like you deserve to be upset, but you just can't remember why.  Or you do remember why…and then that becomes a good enough reason for a little while longer.  And this anger starts to move around and sneak out with these little comments here and there.  "I wish you wouldn't do that.  I don't like the taste of this.  Why can't you settle down and leave me alone?"    

 

          And then we have a few things to pray about, and God seems like the furthest thing from our minds.  We can barely remember what it felt like to be in an attitude of prayer.  (Pause.)  James writes that with the tongue "we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh."

 

          We get in that awful spot where we are "crucified between the great blue sky of our intention and the dusty, dry earth of our performance."[1]  We want to be nice.  We want to be charitable.  We want to be generous and noble of mind; but we can't—at least not always. 

 

          And it's this tongue…this awful unbridled tongue…we sing hymns with it.  In our most pious moments we pray, we give thanks to God and to one another.  You know, when our parents raised us they taught us to say "please and thank you."  You didn't just get that from a heart rich and fertile with love—you started by having your parents tell you, "Can you say thank you to Mr. Smith for giving you that piece of candy?"  And in time the thank you came out because you were genuinely grateful—but it didn't start out that way—it started because you'd been taught to do it.

 

           Manners do not naturally come to a child.  And we grow up and we move on, and the manners we were taught are adapted to meet the social needs of the situation, but being pleasant is not really a natural state—it's has to be taught.  And it has to be relearned.  Life wears out our manners and we have to go back and relearn to share and to say thank you and please.  And we have to learn what's appropriate to say and not say. 

 

          Karin and I are in that phase of child-rearing where we are learning—I should say I am learning—that every little thing I say is building Peter's and Maggie's sense of the world.  If I go around negative, he'll go around negative.  If I hug, he'll hug.

 

          But I'm starting to relearn that this is not at all unique to parenthood.  You walk up to the sales lady at Lowes and get huffy about not finding something and she might be nice to you there, but she might go get huffy around her children or her husband.  You didn't realize your tongue started a fire, but it did.  And her husband goes to work and yells at someone, and that man gets angry and there it goes…like wildfire.

 

          It shouldn't be like that, says James.  You shouldn't be able to use the same tongue to praise God and then moments later cut someone down to size.  It shouldn't be like that. 

  

          Do you ever look inside yourself?  I got myself worked up recently about some silly thing, and I was going about my business, cleaning something up or whatever and all these angry thoughts and words were just running around my head.  So I decided to take a break from them for a minute.  I decided that there had to be some other place inside me that had nicer furniture and a better view.  And sure enough I opened the door and found myself in this amazing kitchen.

 

          It was a kitchen overlooking the sea, and it had fresh cut flowers—buckets of fresh cut flowers.  Roses.  And outside there were—all along the path to the beach—flowers of every shape and kind.  Just beautiful.  And in this kitchen there was so much food.  Beans, rice, produce of every variety.  Oranges, apples, blueberries and raspberries, bananas.  And meats, and spices and herbs, and everything you could ever want to make dinner, or lunch, or breakfast. 

 

          And God turned to me and said, "All this is inside you, Alexander."  And I asked God, "Is it all for me?"  And God said, "No.  All this is so you can feed the other people in your life.  What have you been serving them so far?"

 

          And that's when I realized—here I've been walking around feeding people these little snacks, that are really nothing more than leftovers from my own meals.  I have enough to prepare a five course meal to everyone I know—God has given you and me stacks and stacks—a bottomless supply of love and good things—and yet we're more likely to hand out tiny little snacks and sips of water. 

 

          What would it look like if we all went into our kitchens when we saw each other?  What would our conversations be like if we fed everyone we met with the abundance of affection and generosity that God has placed inside us?  Imagine how different we would be with each other. 

 

          In this world, in this country, at this time of struggle and crisis…think what a welcome change we could bring to people's lives, simply by deciding that we will bless and not curse.  Think about that.  Because it's a choice.



[1] Craddock expression

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Proper 18B. 6 September 2009.

 

 

"Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go-- the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone." Mark 7:24-29

 

 

        It has become known among my brother and sister clergy that I work ahead.  I am often glad I do, because there are times when I see a text coming up in the lectionary and I feel unequal to it.  This isn't always the case.  I have been ordained long enough to have preached on most of the stories in the Gospels.  Many of them readily lend themselves to preaching.  Many of them require a little spade work, but there are a few that are genuinely difficult to preach.  The story of the Syrophoenician woman (or, in Matthew, the Canaanite woman) is one of them.

 

          Chapter seven of Mark's Gospel is the only chapter that describes Jesus traveling among the Gentiles. He is visiting Tyre and Sidon.  These are beach towns in the north in the area of Assyria and Phoenicia.  So when we read "Syrophoenician woman" and "Gentile" we are just reading of someone from the area Jesus was visiting.  Her background would be meaningless, except that it sets the stage for their conversation.

 

          I'm going to tell the story again, and then give you the flat-footed explanation of the story.  The woman has a daughter who has an unclean spirit, so she has gone to see Jesus.  This is an audacious thing to do.  She doesn't know Jesus.  Mark tells us that Jesus "did not want anyone to know he was there," so the woman is intruding on Jesus' quiet time.  And in addition to that, the woman is not a Jew, and typically Jews did not interact with people from other backgrounds.  

 

          The woman begs Jesus to exorcise her daughter; and Jesus responds with an insult.  He says, "I'm here to feed the children.  It's is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  This is a metaphor.  The Jews are the children, the non-Jews are dogs.  In fact, Gentiles were commonly referred to as dogs.  The woman comes back to him, "Okay, I'm a dog...I get the message.  But if I'm a dog treat me like a dog, even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table."  Hearing this, Jesus responds, "Go, your daughter will be made well."  And the demon left the daughter.

 

          Now.  The flat-footed, plain interpretation is this.  The woman had a lot of moxie; she was a character; she had spunk, and Jesus sees how audacious she is, and how persistent, and because Jesus is also a pretty audacious type of person, he gave the woman what she wanted. 

 

          Most of the commentaries like to have the text read with this interpretation.  They like to make it sound like Jesus was even trying to be funny about it.  They'll say that surely Jesus was verbally jousting with the woman--he was maybe even smiling a little bit when he said the thing about dogs, you know...it wasn't really an insult.

 

          And this is why I'm having difficulty, because I don't really agree with the commentaries.  And I've been turning this story over in my mind and I've been trying to go where they go, but I just can't. At least, not this time.  So I'm going to share my problem with you.

 

          When Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," he is calling this woman a dog.  By implication, he is calling all the Syrophoenician, or other-than-Jewish people, dogs.  And I am very uncomfortable with that, because no matter how you try to put a positive spin on it, it's still an insult. 

 

          It would hurt if anyone said it.  I literally cannot imagine one of us bumping into a man or woman who needed help and saying to them, "Are you an Episcopalian?  No, well, I'm sorry, but I don't help stray dogs." It's just so impolite.  Actually it goes so far beyond impolite that it staggers the mind. 

 

          It is one thing to fear a stranger, maybe even have a little revulsion to them.  I remember when I was working for the Salvation Army, years ago, and people would come in from who knows how many days of homelessness.  A lot of them were just sort of local drunks who were kicked out by their wives or girlfriends.  But sometimes someone would come in the door who had not bathed in weeks, and who had just been dropped off by a trucker. 

 

          I remember one fellow who showed up—long wiry white beard, salt and pepper hair that was matted and curled from days of sweat.  He was probably in his fifties, but who could tell?  He looked like the kind of man who just moves around from place to place.  No home, no family to call.  And you could tell why, he never gave straight answers. 

 

          "Where did you come from?" 

          "Just up the street."

          "No.  What town?"

          "Well, I've been all over."

          "Yes, but where is home?" 

          "Well, now, that's kind of hard to say."

          And the conversation went on like this. 

 

          Everyone had to sign a statement that they would abide by the rules of the shelter, and if they didn't sign or if they didn't honor the agreement, they were evicted.  One of the rules was that all shelter clients had to take a shower every day, and if they had just walked in the door, they had to take a shower as soon as their paperwork was finished.  I remember this man was about as dirty as you could imagine.  I was busy with something or other, and one of the men came out from the men's dorm and said, "You can't let that man stay here."  "Why not?"  "He took off his shoes and..."  "Yes?"  "Well, it smells like his feet are rotting."

 

           Sure enough, the man had either the worst case of frostbite ever, or he had some sort of condition, but his feet were clearly not able to just go into the shower.  I think we had to send him to the hospital.  It wasn't easy to get him to go, but he couldn't go on untreated.  I don't know what happened to him; but I'm telling you that's pretty low.  Because of the smell, because of the grit and attitude, no one wanted to be around this man.  And you couldn't blame someone for feeling an instant revulsion.  It's hard to look at someone in that state and feel the compassion of God.

 

          We can sit here in church and think, "Oh, I don't know...I'm sure I wouldn't feel repulsed."  But see, you get in that situation and its a different thing.  Jesus said, "You should wash each other's feet."  I don't think we could have done that, literally speaking; and figuratively speaking, we didn't even come close.

 

          "It is not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  I can't imagine Jesus saying it.  I can imagine the Pharisees saying it.  I can imagine someone in the crowd...  I can imagine St. Peter saying it.  I can't imagine Jesus saying it.  And the thing is, you can't even point to something other than the woman's ethnicity.  Mark does not record that she was unattractive or dirty or rude.  She comes begging.  Mark writes that she fell at Jesus' feet.  (Pause.)

 

          Well, I suppose we might cut Jesus a little slack here.  Mark writes that Jesus wanted some alone time.  At the beginning of this section he writes, "He did not want anyone to know he was there."  Jesus needs some time away from the crowds and the ministry.
 

          We all need to get away from time to time.  We might even be a little annoyed with the woman.  "Leave him alone; he needs some rest."

 

          You know that's a theme throughout the section we read today.  It starts off with Mark writing that he did not want anyone to know he was there.  And then you come down a little bit and Jesus meets a deaf man with a speech impediment, but Jesus doesn't just heal him right there.  Mark writes, "He took him aside in private, away from the crowd." 

         

          Did you catch that?  It's repetition just to make sure you get the message, "He took him aside...in private...away from the crowd."  Jesus doesn't want to draw a crowd.  And then at the end of the lesson, Mark writes, "Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it."  Some scholars suggest that it was reverse psychology--that Jesus told people not to tell anyone because he knew they couldn't keep the secret, but I don't buy that.  I think Mark is clear throughout that Jesus really did want some privacy in this section of his ministry. 

 

          But it makes you wonder why?  Why is he willing to be so public among his own people and so private around the Gentiles?

 

          I don't know for sure, but I have an idea.  I wonder if Jesus felt that the Father had called him to go to Tyre and Sidon, and the Decapolis, but that he himself was unsure about it. 

 

          We like to think that Jesus knew everything.  I remember a parishioner in my last parish, whenever I suggested that Jesus might not have known everything he used to get really upset with me.  "Of course, he knew," he used to say.  But I'm not so sure. 

 

          We believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  We don't know what he knew and what he did not know—and I wonder if these stories are meant to show us that the humanity of Jesus stumbled over the fact that God wished to be in relationship with the Gentiles.  He meets this woman.  She comes to him just like any Jewish woman might.  She begs for help.  Jesus responds as any Jewish man in his culture would.  But what if the story shows that this woman's moxie, spunk, whatever, awakened him to the fact that "even dogs get to eat the crumbs"? 

 

          And I wonder if the story is told in such a way that we are struck by how ugly it is to turn our backs.  You hear Jesus insult this woman, and you can't help but feel he shouldn't have said that.  Maybe that's part of the lesson, too.  Maybe we'll only hear how ugly prejudice sounds if we think we're hearing it from Jesus' own lips.  (Pause.)

 

          I wonder if Mark wants us to feel the awkwardness of this text.  It was a brave thing for Jesus to minister outside his own people.  We sort of expect that now.  We don't remember how much the early church wrestled with whether or not people from Greece or Asia could become Christians. 

 

           For many of the first years of the Church, there were debates about whether or not a non-Jew could become a Christian without becoming a Jew first.  Did you know that? The thinking was: how can you accept Jesus as the Messiah, when your people weren't waiting for a Messiah?  And back and forth they went.  It was a hard fought issue.  And at the end of the day, well, it is obvious by us sitting here...

 

          You don't have to be a Jew first to be a Christian.  You can be from any background and be a follower of Jesus.  Christians are proof that God does not close the door on any group of people.  We are from all different backgrounds.  Even in the most homogeneous church, you will find people who might not ever actually "fit in" with each other, except that they all worship the risen Christ. 

 

          I have known churches where it seems everyone is related to each other or comes from the same "old country" in Europe or what have you.  But some went to college, some didn't.  Some got married, others didn't.  Some were divorced.  Some sliced the pie into six pieces, some sliced eight.  And you say, "Oh, that's not diversity." 

 

          I remember in seminary we used to go to different churches in the first year.  Every Sunday a different church, just to see what other parishes did.  We got together to talk about it, and one of my friends was asked about the church he visited.  They said, "Was there much diversity in that church?"  He said, "Oh yes...plenty of diversity.  There were white people from Maryland and white people from Washington and white people from Virginia."

 

          And we laugh about that a little and some people look at churches where it seems like everyone is cut from the same exact cloth, but you get down to the nitty gritty, and you'll always find that there are aspects of diversity of opinion, politics, beliefs about God and the nature of humanity. 

 

          People think black and white, Asian and Latino when they say "we should be more diverse," but every community is diverse.  The question is whether or not we can still love each other, and break bread with each other and be The Church.

 

          Do you think we can do that?

          I know we can do that.

 

           

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I feel calmly disoriented

which is a strange feeling, and not one that I am accustomed to.  I have returned from vacation feeling physically healthy and refreshed, but with a sense of unease.  I suppose "groanings to deep to be uttered" might apply.
 
I am once again researching the sacred texts, preparing sermons, praying familiar prayers, but something is new and different and somehow disoriented.  I am awash in meaningful things, but a little deaf to them--as if I can see the lips of the preacher speaking but cannot hear her voice.  There is a peace to the feeling, but also the feeling that I am missing something--something obvious and something that should not be missed.  This time, this space, this moment.
 
I wonder if it's fear.  Is it the steady advance of the anniversary of September 11th?  Is it the threat of Swine Flu?  I don't know. 
 
Will I wake up one morning to feel it gone?  Will there be some epiphany?  Some grand calamity?  Will life change altogether from the slightest thing: a chair pushed back, a candle lit, a car door closed, a book dropped?
 
Lord, your love is the branch of hope I cling to,
in the rising tide,
in the restless wind,
in the gathering storm,
you are my peace.  (B.J. Hoff)