SERMON FOR AUGUST 17, 2014
Proper 15, Year A
Nativity, Bloomfield Township
READINGS: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 15:1-6, 16-22, 45b
MAY THE WORDS OF OUR SACRED WRITINGS BE A LAMP UNTO OUR FEET, AND LEAD US ONTO PATHS OF JUSTICE, LOVE, AND MERCY. AMEN.
A true story. A mother received a phone call from her son’s high school guidance center letting her know the boy would not be graduating in two weeks because he was failing his English class. He was one credit short of graduating.
“What? How can he be failing Business English?” she asked.
“Oh, he’s not in Business English. He’s in Epic Literature.”
“There’s some mistake,” she objected. “When I signed off on his classes before they began last semester, I signed for him to take Business English.”
“Well, I don’t know what happened, but he was placed in Epic Literature, which he’s failing.”
“Madame, please tell the assistant principal, my son’s counselor, and the teacher of Epic Literature that I want to meet with them tomorrow,” said the mother with teeth clenched. “I will arrange for time off from my job.”
The next day the mother met with the three educators. Her approach was to be pleasant but take charge of the meeting. “Since there seems to have been some mistake, let’s put our heads together to see how we can resolve this issue,” she suggested. The three seemed relieved she wasn’t going to pin their ears back for making such a big mistake in scheduling.
No one could explain how a student who was on an automotive track ended up in a class for students on a college prep track. Her son had been no problem in class: no misbehavior, no disruptions; also, no participation in class nor in doing homework assignments.
“What would he have to do to pass this class?” she asked his teacher.
“Hmmm. At the very minimum he would have to write three essays: one comparative, one experiential, and one a research paper.”
“Okay,” said the mom. “But it will have to be in a subject he understands, not in Epic Literature. Will that be allowed?”
“Sure,” said the teacher. “If he can hand in those three papers and they meet my standards, he will pass.”
“Fine,” responded the mother. “His experiential paper will deal with racing a car at the Flat Rock Speedway. His comparison paper will compare repairing standard and automatic transmissions. His final paper will be researching the career future for automotive mechanics. Does everyone agree?”
All were in agreement.
When the mom arrived home and explained what had to be done, her son said, “I can do that!”
“Do you need some help?” she asked.
“Nope. I can handle this.”
And he did. His papers met his teacher’s standards so that he earned a “B” for the course. On Awards Night, her son received an award for having passed six Michigan state tests for auto mechanics. He had been introduced to those assembled as Dr. Tom Widner, Transmission Specialist.
I tell this story because so often a mom has to go to bat for a child, just like the woman in today’s gospel went to Jesus to help solve the girl’s mental health problem, which in those days was considered a problem of demon possession. What this mom did was far more important than what the lady in my story did. But first we have to understand the background in order to recognize how brave that mother was.
The woman was a Gentile, a Canaanite. Her ancestors’ land had been violently wrested from the Canaanites centuries before when Joshua led his men in battle to claim what the Jews called the Promised Land. Simply put, the Israelites had pushed out the Canaanites. Therefore, the Canaanites looked upon the Jews as enemies who had stolen their land. The Jews looked down on the Canaanites, considered them pagans and not even on God’s radar. The Jews’ favorite derogatory name for the Canaanites was dogs. Racial stereotypes and bigotry informed all encounters between Israelites and Canaanites. Stories of animosity and violence were told by both sides about the other.
So differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender separate the woman from Judean social norms. Furthermore, demon possession marginalizes her daughter. The woman’s behavior is unacceptable. Both cultures expected women to be reserved, especially in public. But here she is, breaking into the crowd, unaccompanied by a male relative, shouting at Jesus to listen to her, to pay attention to her. She’s not worried about breaking social norms. She’s only interested in getting help for her daughter.
And if she has to do it by going to this Jewish teacher she’s been hearing about, so be it. Nothing is going to stop her, not even when Jesus tells this woman that his mission is only to Israel, the lost sheep. His mission is not for the Canaanite dogs. This comment dehumanizes and degrades the woman and her daughter. Yet she doesn’t stop. She challenges Jesus that even the dogs get fed the crumbs from the table.
This woman believes she and her daughter are people who also should benefit from the Israelite’s God of mercy and love. She is determined to break the boundaries that have been set up. It is this breaking through the cultic barriers that demonstrates this woman’s faith, this woman’s love for her child where she will stop at nothing to help that child. She’s a mother lion protecting and helping her cub. Hear her roar!
Why would the writers of Mark and of Matthew show Jesus in such a dark light, in such an embarrassing story? This is a prickly narrative where, uncharacteristically for gospel stories, Jesus is not the hero. The woman is.
It is a fact of history that from about the mid-first century of the Common Era on, there were two main religious divisions among Semitic Palestinians. There were the synagogue/rabbinical Judaism and the Jesus Judaism, often called The Way. Synagogue Judaism was most concerned about the preservation of its long tradition. Jesus Judaism was influenced by the letters of Paul to spread the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and to invite the non-Jews, or Gentiles as they were called, into the Way of Jesus.
However, Jesus Judaism was not always open to including non-Jews among their ranks. Both Mark and Matthew are writing to Jewish communities, probably addressing unresolved conflict between the Jewish and the Gentile factions of Jesus Judaism.
Now, there also is something else going on in this story. Jesus is portrayed not as being God-like but as being very human. Unfortunately, over the centuries so much emphasis has been put on the divinity of Jesus that his humanness has been swept under the carpet. Yet in this story, Jesus’ consciousness is shown awakening to the inclusivity of God’s love and concern. Yes, the human Jesus had to learn this as well as the community or church that later was established in his name. God does not discriminate. God does not have favorites. God loves and wants good for all humans, no matter how nasty and vile their attitude or behavior may be. It has been very hard for Jesus’ church to grasp this. Exclusivity has been the norm over the centuries perhaps due to the foundational exclusivity first practiced by the Israelites to keep their religion “pure.”
Yesterday, I attended a funeral for the wife of a retired priest. Since I am the chaplain to retired clergy and their families, I represented the bishop by my presence because the bishop is on vacation.
The church is a beautiful gothic structure dating back to 1858. Walking into the nave about fifteen minutes before the service, I felt like I had walked back in time. It is similar to many of the churches I visited in Europe. The service was from the 1928 BCP with the 1940 Hymnal. The Scriptures and Psalms were from the King James Bible. There were bells, incense, and a heavy dose of guilt in the words of the service and the words of the hymns. A theology of ATONEMENT was declared in capital letters. I found myself spending too much time juggling the bulletin, the prayer book, and the hymnal. Furthermore, this congregation does not believe in ordaining women. And there I sat toward the back of the nave dressed in full clericals as Bishop Gibbs’ representative. No wonder no one smiled or welcomed me when I first walked into the Narthex!
I wasn’t sure the priest would give me the host because I stood at the altar rail, and he hesitated a few seconds. The Minister of the cup also hesitated. I wondered if I would have to explain my knees won’t bend to kneel. Does one forfeit communion if one can’t kneel?
After the service, I went to sign the guest register since there was no register for the funeral. An usher blocked me from it. We stared at each other. I finally had to say, “Excuse me, but I’d like to have access to the book.” He finally moved a few feet. As I finished, a woman standing behind me said, “I’m glad you insisted on writing in the register. I want to write my name as well.”
So how does all this tie in with us at Nativity? I think we try very hard to be inclusive. But we always have to be on our guard. We have to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff as we observe our traditions. Which should we keep? Which are no longer useful or functional? What rituals are life-giving? What rituals are better buried?
For almost a year we have used a small table as our altar. The congregation has gathered around the table and joined in the prayers that once were exclusively said by the priest. We consecrate both wine and grape juice to honor those people who are allergic to wine.
Starting today, we will try gathering around the big altar. We can help one another when steps are a barrier. Or people can sit in the front pews. The Euchristic ministers and I will bring the bread and wine down to the main floor for everyone to receive. Maybe we’ll have less congestion. Maybe not. We will see. Nothing is set in concrete… with the exception, perhaps, of pew anchors.
We are sharing the building with another faith community. Their worship is very different from ours as is their music and other rituals. Yet we worship the same Creator God. We proclaim the same Jesus as Savior. And we proclaim the same Holy Spirit as Sanctifier.
Today’s gospel takes place in territory that the Jewish tradition considered a “toxic waste area” inhabited by people viewed as unclean and dangerous. Jesus has to experience an “aha” moment about the wideness of God’s mercy and love. On behalf of her anonymous Gentile daughter, an anonymous Gentile woman, a Canaanite, has to refuse to allow “tradition” to continue as an external barrier that blocks access to the grace and mercy and love of God.
In this gospel story, Matthew reminds us that, in Jesus, God’s love and mercy is for all nations.
The Rev. Diane E. Morgan
Resources used for this sermon:
Boll, John J., O.P. “First Impressions.” Used with permission. Retrieved from the Internet, August 8, 2014.
Charles, Gary W. “Pastoral Perspective.” Feasting on the Word. Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.
Cook, Harry. “Proper 15-A-August 17, 2014.” Copyright. Used with permission. Retrieved from the Internet, August 7, 2014.
Hollingsworth, Dock. “Homiletical Perspective.” Feasting on the Word. Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.
Lee, Jae Won. “Exegetical Perspective.” Feasting on the Word. Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.
Russell-Jones, Iwan. “Theological Perspective.” Feasting on the Word. Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011.