Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

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    Aug 16, 2020

    The 11th Sunday after Pentecost

    Preacher: The Rev. Sarah Carver

    Series: Year A 2020-2021

    Category: Pentecost

    Detail:

    The Jesus we encounter in today’s gospel may seem unfamiliar to us. Instead of the warm, welcoming-to-all Jesus we have been taught to love, who we know to love each and every one of us unconditionally, there is this Jesus before us in Matthew today who is a kind of stranger. He is cold, and his first response to the Canaanite woman who has thrown all decorum and pride out the window; a woman who shouts after him and who, on behalf of her tormented daughter, breaks all the rules of conduct between men and women, Jew and Canaanite in order to save her child, his first response is to ignore her. It is only until his disciples begin speaking up that he responds to her. But when he does, he tells her that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. In her plea, she kneels before him and begs for mercy and Jesus responds by essentially calling her and her people, dogs—unworthy of God’s salvation. Needless to say, it is an uncomfortable passage for Christians to read.

                Now, Jesus’ actions are not coming out of nowhere. He is traveling along the boundary of Jewish and Gentile lands—this woman is not an Israelite—she is a Canaanite, a people who have been traditional enemies of Israel. There is an ancient animosity at play here, and under normal circumstances, due to gender and tribe, this woman and Jesus would never interact, let alone speak to one another. Yet these are not normal circumstances nor are Jesus and this woman normal people. She needs mercy, and he is the only one who can grant it to her. And so there is a struggle. Jesus is pushing this woman away and deflecting her pleas; she hears his reasoning for not helping her and she responds with her own argument as to why she deserves his attention, and his mercy. He will not be moved and she will not be deterred.

                There is a place for struggle in a life of faith—in fact, over and over in scripture we see human beings struggling with God. Abraham pleaded with God to not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, arguing that if there were only ten righteous people there, would God stay God’s hand. And God agreed. When God called Moses to free God’s people from Egypt, Moses argued with God that he was not worthy or skilled enough, yet finally Moses went. Jonah ran away from God when God called him to go to Nineveh, and complained to God that God was too merciful. The prophet Elijah had a moment of despair and exhaustion and asks God to take his life. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane pleads to God to take away the burden of his impending execution. Adam and Eve hid from God after their disobedience. Since humans have been human, we have struggled with God, and God, with us. It is ok to struggle. We are not less faithful when we struggle. In fact, I think it is necessary for us at some point in our lives of faith to struggle, to wonder or doubt, to be disappointed or angry. It is ok for us to be afraid, or uncomfortable. You see, struggle is necessary for transformation. In those moments of difficulty and discomfort, lies the possibility of something truly new to emerge.

                No one is much of a fan of struggling and for human beings our default setting is to be in that place that is comfortable even if it’s dysfunctional. For Jesus in our gospel today, it was easier to ignore the desperate mother than engage in the social taboo of talking to her. I know I certainly have been that person to avert my eyes and skirt around a person’s obvious need because I have been uncomfortable. But allowing ourselves to occupy that space of discomfort, of vulnerability and uncertainty is necessary for us to change, and grow. And it is necessary if we are going to follow Jesus.

    Over the last year, I have been listening to the voices of African American civil rights leaders, theologians, and teachers to try and understand what the world looks like outside of my bubble of whiteness. These men and women in telling their stories have made me aware of my blindness and ignorance to the issue of racism, and of my complicity in it. At times, I felt ashamed, and other times I felt defensive as I read their words. Every time, I was in a place of discomfort. As a participant in this year’s Peace Pilgrimage with Dr. Linda Brown, I felt horror, and sadness when Dr. Brown would read to us excerpts from the writings of those who experienced slavery and somehow lived to tell about it. We learned where the spirituals came from and what they meant, how men and women sang about freedom either through being freed from slavery, or more likely, through death. We read the words of those sorrowful songs sung by those who were taken from their mothers as babies, never to see them again. At one point in the pilgrimage, each of us was given a piece of paper with the name of an individual who had been lynched in North Carolina. Our job was to simply hold that name and remember that person. In this quiet way, we witnessed to the evil and injustice that person had endured. It was the heaviest slip of paper I have ever held….

               Yet when we put ourselves in these uncomfortable spaces of facing racism, or injustice or any pain for that matter, our own or others, we do not struggle or grieve for the sake of wallowing in despair; we are there because in that struggle is the very real possibility of healing through making amends, sharing stories, holding one another, holding ourselves, naming the wrong and then claiming the redemption, the mercy, the hope and the love that God in Christ is always always always extending to us. Jesus calls us beyond dysfunctional okayness, and pulls us through the tomb into new life with him and one another. And we need to be willing to struggle to do that.

    What’s a little unusual about the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman today, is that instead of Jesus calling her into something new, she calls Jesus into a new understanding of the work of God’s kingdom. Commentators will note that there is a kind of shift that happens in Matthew who moves from this singular focus on Israel’s salvation to a salvation that is extended to all. While they argue that today’s story may not be THE turning point in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew’s gospel ends with the understanding that God’s saving work is intended for all of God’s people be they Jew or Gentile. This truth is reflected in the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote: Thus says the Lord:

     

    Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

     

    Here is a vision of a world where all have been gathered into the house of the Lord. This unstoppable Canaanite woman put herself in a most uncomfortable place, and dared struggle with Jesus. In doing so claimed her share of mercy, and called Jesus back into this vision of God’s, in fact, she calls us all back to this vision.

    With so much changing in the world, with so much need there, and with so much struggle happening in our nation, and all nations may we have her same fierceness and stand in those places of discomfort and challenge, may we be willing to struggle in order to, as the late prophet John Lewis encouraged us in his last essay, “help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and a world society at peace with itself.”