Getting behind Jesus: A Homily for Proper 17A, August 30, 2020

I was struck yesterday morning while sitting on my porch with just a touch of Fall in the air, that in normal years, this would have been the first weekend of college football. Nothing is quite the same, is it.

Some other impressions from the week:

The horrific shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, shot seven times in the back, paralyzed, lying in his hospital bed, handcuffed.

The 17-year old boy strutting down the street after gunning down protestors, unchallenged by police.

A politician’s speech, quoting the letter to the Hebrews and the Apostle Paul, replacing references to Jesus Christ with Old Glory, the American flag.

The sordid end of a prominent Evangelical’s university presidency.

And finally, on Friday, an article in the New York Times about alumni from Harvard Divinity School, my alma mater, who are marketing themselves as Divinity or Spiritual consultants in the corporate world. Perhaps you can imagine the outrage on social media.

What, if anything do these images have in common? Perhaps nothing at all, but perhaps they are evidence of the extent to which we as Americans, as Christians have lost our way.

It’s appropriate, I think that just now in our lectionary cycle we are at that pivotal point in the story of Jesus. Last week, the great confession of Peter in the shadow of empire and of Hellenistic religion: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

And just after that, Jesus begins to lay out just what it means that he is the anointed one, the Christ, the Son of God. To be the Messiah means that he will go to Jerusalem, be arrested, executed for the crimes of insurrection and revolution, and on the third day, be raised from the dead.

And Peter’s response? “This must never happen to you!”

This is one of those key moments in the gospels, crucial to understanding Jesus but crucial also to understanding the gospel writers portray him, his mission, and the disciples’ response to him.

Matthew is following Mark’s chronology closely here. There are a series of three exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, three times that Jesus makes a prediction that he is going to Jerusalem, that he will be crucified, and raised from the dead. Each of those three predictions is followed by an incident, like this one with Peter, that makes clear the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, that their ideas about him, and what will happen in Jerusalem are radically different. In response to their objections, Jesus then explains to them what it really means to follow him: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Two observations. First, when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him, he’s telling him to follow him, disciples are to follow behind their teachers. Yes, it’s a rebuke but it’s also a reminder to Peter where he belongs. To draw on imagery in the gospel itself, while earlier, after Peter’s great confession, Jesus had called him the rock on which he would build the church, now Peter has become a stumbling block.

Second, when we hear language of taking up one’s cross, or bearing a cross, it’s likely we think about burdens of one sort or another, personal struggles with which we have to deal. In the Roman world, “taking up one’s cross” meant only one thing. You were on your way to your place of execution.

In many ways our own reaction to Jesus’ words are much like Peter’s. We don’t want them to mean what they say literally, that following Jesus, becoming his disciples, means suffering and pain. We come to Jesus to find healing, to take away our suffering. And we think that on the cross, Jesus made everything Ok. But it’s not that simple. The gospels make clear that Jesus went to Jerusalem to confront the religious and imperial establishment, to initiate God’s reign, to transform the world. It’s also clear that he knew what would happen—that in Jerusalem, he would be arrested and executed, that he would die, as so many others did before and after him, crushed by the weight of imperial oppression. But he also knew that wouldn’t be the end.

His predictions of his coming crucifixion didn’t end with his death, for his death opened up the way to new life, his resurrection and the coming of God’s reign of justice and peace.

As we consider getting behind and following Jesus, we may wonder about the road ahead, we may wonder about the world around us. We see the deaths, again and again, of African Americans to police violence and to white supremacy, we see the suffering caused by COVID and the half-hearted response to it. We see the ravages of hurricanes and wildfires, intensified by climate change caused by our own greed. We see the drumbeat of hatred all around us, and a Christianity that either cozies up to power or seems ineffective to offer an alternative. We may want to escape into a spiritualism that denies any connection between our faith and the injustices and evils of this world.

But the journey on which Jesus is traveling is not a journey into escapism, fear or despair. It is a journey into the heart of the world as it is, with all of its struggles, suffering, and injustice. The journey ends, not at the foot of the cross but at the emptyw tomb, where we experience the joy of resurrection, and the possibility of a world made new by the transforming power of God’s justice and love.

















Great is your faith: A homily for Proper 15A, 2020

I’ve sensed a shift in myself over the last few weeks. As the pandemic continues with no signs that we will be able to return to any semblancy of what we used to regard as normal life any time soon, I’ve moved out of crisis mode and begun to think about what our programming, worship, and other activities might look like in the coming months and year. I met with our music staff last week to begin talking about expanding our music offerings in the fall and to look ahead toward Advent and Christmas as we think about how we might observe and celebrate the seasons without in-person worship.

We’re working on other things as well. I’ve had conversations about Christian formation, both children and adult. We’re wondering what an annual meeting might look like; colleagues in the diocese are hosting discussions about stewardship and Christian Formation as well. It’s been over five months since we’ve gathered at Grace for in-person worship and I’m doubtful that we are half-way through this ordeal.

It’s so disheartening, isn’t it? Not just church, of course, but all of life has been upended. There will be no Badger football this fall, no concerts. What school will be like is still very much in the air, not to mention classes at the university. We long for some semblance of life as it was, to gather with friends or to go to restaurants and movies, and even as we try do those things now. For many of us things are even worse than that, with unemployment and uncertainty around housing and food security.

It’s enough for us to want to cry out like the woman in today’s gospel story, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And like the desperate woman who had exhausted all options in her desire to help her daughter, Jesus’ silence in response doesn’t cut it.

This is may be of the most troubling stories in all of the gospels. Jesus is supposed to be merciful and compassionate, he’s supposed to respond with love and care when someone asks him for help. But that’s not what he does here. It’s not just that Jesus treats her with what appears to be enormous disrespect. It’s that she forces him to change his mind, to do something he seems not to want to do.

This story reminds of something quite important. Jesus is not quite everything we want him to be. We’ve got this warm, fuzzy notion about Jesus and this story breaks that notion apart. We want him to behave according to our standards and expectations, to fit into the box we’ve made for him, but unfortunately, the gospels tell a different story. As much as we want to domesticate Jesus and make his message one that confirms our preconceived notions of faith and of God, the gospels tell a different story. And this story may be the one that is most challenging of all.

One of the things I like about this story is that it shows a woman, an outsider, someone who has no religious power or even religious significance in the Jewish world of first century Palestine, challenging Jesus. More than that, as an outsider, as someone of reviled status, she forces herself into the story. She forces her way through Jesus’ disciples. She forces him to pay attention. She makes him stop in his tracks and notice her. When he ignores her and dismisses her, she doesn’t walk away. She flat out disagrees with him, takes issue with him, engages in wordplay, and beats him at his own game.

There is a great deal one could say about this story. It raises a lot of questions—about Jesus, about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel, about the extent of Jesus’ ministry, about his self-understanding. And if you’re interested in some of those questions, I encourage you to go to my blog and look up my sermons from previous years on this text.

But today, I want to focus on one moment—the woman’s reaction when Jesus doesn’t respond to her and when his responses to her don’t satisfy her. She doesn’t settle for his silence or his attempt to silence her. She persists. She kneels down and prays, “Lord, help me.” And when he seems to dismiss her with the saying, “It is not right to the children’s food to dogs,” her response is to say that “even dogs eat the scraps from their masters’ tables.”

We are in difficult times. I don’t need to tell you that. I’m not even going to recite the litany of everything that’s going on right now. As Christians, we are people of prayer. We ask God’s help for our loved ones and for ourselves, for our nation and for all of those who are suffering. But often our prayers are little more than words that cross our lips, pious statements that we make or read because well, that’s what we do after the creed and before the confession of sin.

But right now, many of us may find ourselves praying because there seems to be little else we can do. We’ve exhausted all of our options, we ourselves are exhausted. We may even cry out, or want to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”

If we have said those or similar words, we may have been at the very end and not really expecting a response from God. We are greeted with silence, and unlike Elijah in last week’s reading from I Kings, we don’t even hear a still, small voice.

Silence, or as in the woman’s case, a rebuke—perhaps when our prayer isn’t answered, the rebuke we hear is from the voice inside of us that says we deserve all this that we’re getting. The Canaanite woman didn’t accept the silence; she didn’t accept the rebuke, she persisted.

And because she persisted, Jesus recognized her faith and healed her daughter. Maybe, just maybe, those unsettling, disappointing conversations with God we call prayer can bring us to new discoveries and deeper faith. Maybe, when we wrestle with God, when we challenge Jesus, it’s not that we change God’s mind, but that a new, deeper relationship with God opens up to us. Whether or not our suffering ends, by returning to God again and again in prayer and petition, we hear God say to us, “Great is your faith.”












But she persisted: A Sermon for Proper 15, Year A, 2017

I taught religious studies for fifteen years and over that time, although I’m not particularly proud of it, I drove any number of students to tears. Now, many of those I don’t know about—the grades they received were disappointing; the work I assigned too arduous. But there were a half a dozen times that students began to cry during class. Usually, it was because I was doing one of those things I thought faculty in the Humanities ought to do—force students to examine their beliefs and assumptions, to think about why they thought the way they did, to challenge them to examine themselves and their most deeply held values.

One of the first times it happened was when we were discussing the gospel reading we heard today. I offered what I thought was a very straightforward, non-controversial, even obvious interpretation of the text. Jesus and his disciples are walking around in foreign, Gentile territory. A woman comes up to them and asks Jesus to heal her daughter. First, Jesus simply ignores her. His disciples, his security team try to get rid of her, and Jesus adds a putdown: “You’re not my problem.” But she persisted, using language evocative of the language Peter used when he was drowning in last week’s Gospel, “Lord, help me.”

Now, Jesus is really annoyed. He basically calls her a dog, saying that it’s not appropriate for him to share with her what he has. But still she has a retort, and gets the better of him—“Yes, but even dogs get the scraps from the master’s table.”

It’s not a comforting story and I get why the student was disturbed by it. It was probably my summary of his behavior as “Jesus was a jerk” that set her off. Jesus is not portrayed in the best of lights, and in the end a woman, a Gentile woman at that, gets the better of him in a contest of wits. For nearly two millennia, Christians have tried to put a positive spin on this story—Jesus was testing her; his statement at the end, that she had great faith, lets us disregard the difficult elements in the story. But I want to challenge that today. The rather straightforward reading is, I think, the one that opens to us new ways of thinking about Jesus, about the good news of God’s reign, and about our own assumptions and blind spots.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m with Jesus in this encounter. I understand where he’s coming from. It’s hard for me to walk around Capitol Square without being confronted by someone who wants me to help them. Ask our volunteer receptionists. They can tell you how many phone calls we get, or how many people walk into the reception area seeking assistance. And their stories are heartbreaking. They need a bus pass, or money for gas, or to pay their rent, or to buy a prescription. Often, like Jesus, I cut them off before they’re able to tell me their story. If I helped out everyone who asked, I would run out of funds by the end of the week and that would be it for well, who knows how long… And however awful their situation might be, however much they might need help, it’s likely that next week, someone with an even more heartbreaking story would come to me, asking for help.

So I’m with Jesus here. I’ve only got so much time, so much energy, and limited funds, and the need is so great. It’s easier to ignore them to turn them away, to dis them, than to listen and respond. But the thing is, sometimes people are persistent. They won’t be put off; they won’t take no for an answer, and when I tell them to come back next week, they do. Sometimes, they tell me their whole story, and in response I do what I can to help them.

There’s a larger lesson, here, however. It’s not just that Jesus finally responds to the woman’s request; there’s also the whole context to take into account. Jesus and his disciples have travelled outside their comfort zone. So far in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has spent most of his time in his home region of Galilee, visiting the towns and villages along the Sea of Galilee. He’s made at least two trips across the Sea of Galilee. We saw one of those trips in last Sunday’s gospel reading. Now he’s gone in the other direction toward the Mediterranean coast. He’s outside of traditional Jewish territory, beyond Herod’s kingdom, into the Roman Province of Syria. It’s Gentile territory, and while it’s likely there were Jewish communities to which they’re headed, it’s a mixed population.

Another thing to point out. Matthew identifies this woman as Canaanite. It’s a rather odd, even anachronistic designation, because it hearkens back centuries to the period of the Judges and the monarchy, even earlier to the conquest. For then, the native population was labeled Canaanite. It’s not a term used for the non-Jewish population in the Roman period. In his telling of the story, Mark labels her Syro-Phoenician. It’s almost as if Matthew wants to emphasize her otherness—her non-Jewishness, the extent to which an encounter with her would be offensive to an observant Jew.

It’s this woman, by gender voiceless and powerless, by ethnicity and religion, totally other, to be avoided, it is this woman who comes to Jesus in search of help for her daughter, and Jesus first ignores her, then refers to her as a dog. I won’t use it, but you know what epithet in contemporary English would fit this situation.

But she persisted. Her need is so great, the love of her child so powerful, that she brushes off Jesus’ lack of concern and his verbal cruelty and offers a retort. “So you think I’m a dog, Jesus. Well, even dogs are given the scraps from the master’s table.”

And with that response, she wins the argument, beating Jesus at his own game. Now, he is shocked out of his complacency, his eyes that were clouded by prejudice, his heart, cold because she wasn’t one of those he understood to be his mission area, opened to her need. Jesus is transformed by her words and her need and he heals her daughter.

There may be no more appropriate gospel for the time in which we live than this little story. We are living in perilous, troubled times. The fabric of our nation seems to be tearing apart. After Charlottesville and the renewed challenge to Confederate monuments across the country, the growing threat of white supremacy and protests against it, we have become aware of the deep pain felt by People of Color in this nation, especially African-Americans. We have been awakened to their fear, the fear of the LGBT community, the fears of all those who value diversity, a multi-racial, religiously pluralistic society.

Many of us want to say in response to those challenges—This is not America, this is not who we are. Many of us want to say, when Christianity is implicated in racism and white supremacy, those people aren’t really Christian, they don’t understand the gospel; they don’t follow Jesus; the Episcopal Church is different.

Not so fast. Are we walking with Jesus on those roads in the region of Tyre and Sidon? Are we the disciples who want to protect Jesus from a truth-telling foreign woman who is making a scene? Are we like Jesus, who sees that truth-telling woman as an annoyance, a distraction from what’s really important?

Can we see her for who she is, a truth-teller, a prophet, a woman who challenges us to see her in a new way? Can we open our hearts to the possibility of transformation; to see in ourselves the racism, misogyny, and privilege that she is calling out? Can we see the possibilities that an ever-expanding notion of the love of Christ might mean in our world and community today? Can our hearts be opened by the cries for justice and mercy that surround us?