Monday, August 21, 2017

Sermon offered at St. Paul's Carondelet, Proper 15, Year A

Can you begin to imagine being despised so much that your own brothers would throw you into a pit with the thought of killing you? Or that you could be sold into slavery because of that fear, jealousy, hatred?

Joseph was obviously a very special person because throughout his ordeal, he kept his faith, his belief that all things would be well, eventually. Regardless of how dire the immediate moment appeared, there remained a faith that God was always with him. And he, of course, was right. Joseph’s dreams had shown him the bigger picture. Anger or retaliation against his brothers had no place in the end. His brothers were simply a vehicle to get him started on his journey. He had a job to do and those things he went through were simply a part of it.

Matthew’s gospel reading has the Pharisees and scribes criticizing the disciples because they did not wash their hands before they ate. This was not because they were concerned about germs; it was about the purity laws.

Purity symbolizes holiness. The Jews believed that God was holy and pure and people were not naturally so. The purpose for the laws was to give them a starting point, a way to learn how to be pure for God, a rule book, if you will. It was to guide them, to get them started on their journey towards God.

Jesus said that it is not what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean.
Jesus told the critics that they were hypocrites, honoring God with their lips but their hearts were far away. Their actions and their words did not match. Jesus was trying to tell them that they were too focused on human rules. Human rules/laws are often tools used for exclusion.

Jesus said what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. The words we use are important. These tell others what kind of a person we are – through and through. As people speak, they give hints into their inner most thoughts.

We know the big things that make us unclean – murder, violence, and all crimes against other humans. We know the rules. Break these rules and we can go to prison – some of us far easier than others. However, just because we don’t kill or maim others does not mean that our hearts are pure.

It is not what we eat or unwashed hands that makes us unclean. Our words…our actions defile us. Words of hate, actions of violence…these things make us unclean.

There has been an urgency in the gospel parables over the past few weeks. Jesus is on a mission, trying to help the Jews and the disciples understand that life as they know it is about to change dramatically.

His message is about Transformation. The way of life as they know it being turned upside down and all around. Sowing seeds of the kingdom so that it grows and flourishes. Hiding yeast in the midst of life so that there is disruption of all that is known.

Human rules trap us into thinking that change is not a good thing. And that causes fear. Fear causes us to hold on tight to those things we know. Love is sacrificed for the sake of remaining the same.

There is an urgency in our lives today as well. I believe that is what happened this past week in Charlottesville. The White Supremists do not understand that God’s love is big enough for all of us, that the Word is for all of us, regardless of how we worship, the color of our skin, our gender identity, our marriages. God’s love is bigger than our human imaginations.

Jesus is the change.

Jesus is the remedy to the ills that inflict humans. His death, resurrection and gift of the Spirit deals with the wickedness that taints humans. Purity laws are unnecessary.

Jesus as the remedy has to be applied to the dis-ease deep inside us so that we can understand the idea of being pure in God – through and through.

There is an ugly stain that runs throughout the history of humans. 
Babylonians, Greeks, Romans.
Native Americans. Slavery of Africans. 
Turkish massacre of Armenians. 
Nazis and Jews. Japanese Americans. 
South Africa and apartheid. 
Rwanda. Bosnia and Croatia.
Mexicans/South Americans, Muslims, the Sudan.

Ethnic Cleansing -- a term that is relatively new although the practice is old. The definition is this: an attempt by one ethnic group to get rid of members of an unwanted ethnic group by deportation, displacement or mass killing. What is going on now in the US is Ethnic Cleansing. Do not be fooled. The deportation of those considered unworthy of being in the US. Families being split apart. Children brought to the US as babies yet deported to Mexico as young adults. I know people who have generations of family born in the US but carry their passports with them to prove their citizenship out of fear of being stopped and deported. The new rule is deport first, ask question later.

The White Nationalists hatred of Jews, Blacks, LGBT people – mainly, anyone different than how they perceive themselves to be. They see no humanity in those who are different from themselves – mainly white males. All others are just that – “Other”. Less than. Not worthy. Unwanted. Unnecessary. Violence is one answer to the elimination of these.

Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, calls it the “stain of bigotry.”

Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund writes:
There are not two sides to Nazism. There are not two sides to White supremacism, bigotry, and racial and religious hatred and intolerance. Heather Heyer – a nonviolent protester against racial intolerance – is not as much at fault as the man who violently and deliberately hit and killed her with his car on a Charlottesville street.

The Jews considered Canaanites unclean. They did not observe the same rites. And here was this unclean woman chasing after Jesus, calling out to him, demanding that he do something for her. The disciples knew the rules. They wanted Jesus to tell her to go away.

But he didn’t. He stopped to listen. She came to him, begging him, calling him the Son of David, and saying, “my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 

Jesus knew his mission. To help the Jews understand that God was in the midst of fulfilling a promise. The Kingdom of Heaven was beginning and they needed to understand quickly that Jesus was that kingdom. It was important that the Jews hear this message first. So, Jesus tells the woman, “I am sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The people of Israel were supposed to be the ones sharing the message…after they understood it. But she continued, believing so strongly that she knelt in front of him and said, “Lord, help me.” Jesus told her that it would not be fair to take the food from the children and give it to the dogs. Nevertheless, she persisted. She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She understood so much more than the disciples or the people of Israel. She knew that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of David, the one that was promised was here. She already understood the Easter message and it had not even happened yet. This unclean woman knew. And Jesus recognized that. Great is your faith! He said. And her daughter was healed. He could have walked away. But he didn’t. Not only did he listen but he realized that she was right.

We get so caught up in rules – it is difficult for us to realize that the Kingdom of heaven has only two rules. Love God. Love one another.

Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, I was like this woman. I was at my wit’s end. I had nowhere to turn. In my office at work, I could not concentrate. I could not work. I could not even pray, at least not in the way I thought of prayer. In reality, my mind was desperately ranting at God, begging for help. My daughter was in trouble and I had no way of helping her. I did not even realize the extent of the problems that had hold of her. I knew only that she was in trouble. I picked up a little green Gideon’s Bible – I had no idea where it had come from but it was there. I randomly opened the little bible and it fell on this passage. Actually it could have been the Mark version, I don’t remember. Regardless, I realized as I read this random passage that I was being offered a vision into the future. A glimpse into the kingdom of heaven. I had no idea of what was to come or when it was coming but I knew that something had shifted just a little bit and I realized that there was change coming. And I also knew that it was good. Where there had been a hopelessness, a ray of hope had been illuminated.

I would like to tell of a miracle that happened that day and all manner of things were made well immediately but that, of course, reminds us that our time is not God’s time. It is a long journey from woundedness to healing and the scars run deep. But on that day, I saw something more than I had seen before. And I held on tightly to that vision. And the good news today is that my daughter is healing. And I am so proud of her.

I wonder if the Pharisees and disciples perceived a slight twist – a glimpse into the kingdom of heaven, a vision of things to come when Jesus talked about rules? or when the woman was talking? It was made more real in the Caananite woman’s life because she believed so strongly in that kingdom regardless of whether she had heard the message or not. She knew it in her heart and it came out in her words.

The theologian NT Wright writes:
“Being a Christian in the world today often focuses on the faith that badgers and harries God in prayer to do, now, already, what others are content to wait for in the future.” We cannot be content to wait.

We must continue to pray for a stop to the injustices of the world, the bigotry, the hatred because of “Otherness” - the color of skin or ethnicity or gender or religion, the wars, the violence. We pray that those who are afraid will be made well in their affliction. We pray that we will understand that Jesus came to change things, to disrupt our understanding of the here and now and to lead us into the kingdom of heaven. We pray that we will claim God’s promises today with a faith that will not be put off.

What little shift or twist do we feel in our lives that lead us to a new understanding that the Kingdom is here, now, today.  We have a role to play today in the midst of this unrest and dis-ease. The time for standing on the sidelines as spectators – if there was ever a time – is past. We are players in this kingdom of heaven. We are the hands and feet of Christ and there is a message to be delivered and love to share. We are being made new every day. We have all that we need to move forward.

I read a post on Facebook yesterday. It is actually a dismissal prayer; however, I think it fits as a beginning for this new day.

May God bless us with discomfort. Discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our heart.

May God bless us with anger. Anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears. Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

May God bless us with foolishness. Enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

As we gather at that table, ponder this: what new thing is God making for us and through us…and how will we respond?


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