Monday, August 25, 2014

Holy Encounters

Matthew 15: 21-28

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Holy Encounters

In Benjamin Hoff’s book The Tao of Pooh, 
Hoff tells a story about the Japanese Emperor Hirohito:

The emperor was a very, very busy man.
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
he lived with a very tightly controlled schedule
of meetings, speeches, audiences, 
and other important responsibilities.

One day,
one very busy day,
there was a gigantic foul up in the scheduling.

The emperor was driven to a large meeting hall
where he was to speak to a large group of important people.
Only when he entered the meeting hall,
it was completely empty.

The emperor walked into the middle of the large room;
he stood there in complete silence.
His attending staff
waited for his angry explosion
about how his time had been wasted.

But the emperor stood there,
in the middle of that enormous empty room
and then he bowed.
He bowed to the empty space.

Then, with a great big smile on his face,
he turned to one of his assistants and said,

“We must schedule more appointments like this. 

I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in a long time.”

I think this is what Jesus would say 
about his encounter with the Canaanite woman

I need more of these encounters.

More encounters with those who interrupt me,
question me.
More encounters with those who do not give up.
More encounters with those whose faith 
makes my own faith look very small.

Too often we want our life to be without conflict, easy, pretty, 
neatly scheduled and arranged.

But life is more often messy, filled with conflicts 
and challenges and change.
We often encounter words and actions,
shoved against us,
sometimes to intentionally hurt us, 
to put us in our place,
to flatten us to the ground,
like a kicked dog 
made to creep along on its belly searching for crumbs.

This is the story here.
It’s a shocking story
because we don’t expect this type of behavior from Jesus.

After all, he’s Jesus!
He’s Mister-love-one-another-no-exceptions-Jesus!

So then what about his encounter
with this Canaanite woman?

The woman appears with a very straightforward request--
Have daughter is tormented by a demon.

She is a mother at the end of her rope
and she will go anywhere and ask anyone 
if there is even a glimmer of hope 
that someone might heal her daughter.

The woman appears and she appears shouting--
she wants his attention.
Have mercy...

And what does Jesus do?
...he does not answer her at all.

He ignores her.
All he gives her is silence.
Jesus wants her to disappear, go away.
She is not even worth one word to him.

The disciples don’t like this woman either.
She is noisy, she is interruptive, she is a woman.
There is another issue, too:
This woman is from Canaan.
She is a Gentile, not a Jew--
and the Canaanites and the Jews had been in conflict
for generations
and generations
and generations.
Generations of hate and fear.

This loud and shouting and pleading woman
might as well be wearing a name tag 
that says in capital letters:
She knows exactly who she is 
and she does not care about age-old conflict.
She cares about her child.

The disciples are irritated by this woman
but they also probably feel like they need to protect Jesus.
They want to shuttle him to safety,
away from the potential of danger and harm
from one of “those” people.

When people of different ethnic groups or religious groups
or political groups 
or groups of different social and economic status
encounter one another,
it can often be explosive. Literally.

Things haven’t changed a lot
even almost twenty centuries later.

Jesus first tries to shame the Canaanite woman with his silence,
but she does not give up.

She comes even closer
and kneels before him and pleads,
Lord, help me.

Jesus is rude to this woman.
He is bold to say that she is not one his peeps.
He has been sent for the lost sheep of Israel--
Jews only, thank you!
And you, woman, you are no Jew.
You are no better than a dog.

But this mother does not miss a beat,
She says,
Then give me the crumbs!
Give me the crumbs you would throw to a dog--
because those crumbs may be enough to help my daughter.

Complete humility.
How seldom we see that.
How seldom we act that way ourselves.

And Jesus knows he is wrong.
Jesus realizes that his ministry is so much larger
so much more expansive and inclusive
than he ever imagined.

The overwhelming love this woman has for her daughter
is absolutely parallel to the overwhelming love God has for each of us,
God’s children.
Even Jesus needed to be reminded.

We need these difficult encounters to help us grow
This is what happens in this story
Jesus grows

His heart grows larger
His mercy grows wider.
His compassion grows deeper.
He is changed

Friends, if Jesus can change and grow
who are we to think that we can’t and won’t?
Who are we to believe that others cannot change and grow
and have their hearts transformed, too?

Change is what we are about. 
We so often fight change.
When we encounter someone who is asking us to change,
change the way we see the world, 
change the way we have always done things,
change the way we treat other people,
we go silent or snippy or rude or resistant.

Instead we should be grateful.
We should be throwing our arms wide open 
and saying, “Bring it on!”

The Emperor Hirohito could have been insulted that no one showed up to hear him speak
He could have been angry with his meeting scheduler
He could have been embarrassed.

Instead, he was grateful
Gratitude is one of the best positions for growth, for change.

This story teaches us that the change must first occur in us.
In our hearts, in our lives,
in the way we speak to and about our “enemies”
the way we treat those who disagree with us or frighten us
or move at a pace that does not match our own.

The Canaanite woman essentially appears before Jesus
and says, 
“Don’t shoot. Have mercy.”

And there is a pause. 
There are a few more words--one sided words--
of harsh encounter,
but then Jesus puts down his weapon.

Jesus puts down his weapon
because he sees before him not an enemy,
not a Canaanite,
not a threat, not a dog.

He sees before him a human being.
A mother who loves her child so much, 
she will do whatever it takes in hope of her daughter being made well.

Perhaps Jesus looks into the eyes of this Canaanite woman
and realizes,
Oh my. Oh my God! 
These eyes look just like the eyes
of my own mother. 

Jesus is changed.
Jesus is transformed.
His whole ministry takes a different turn from this point forward.

Encounters with those we have appointed--
or others have appointed--
as our enemies,
these encounters challenge us--
but they also can change us.

That change can be for destruction
or that change can be for good.

Jesus answers the Canaanite woman and he says:

"Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." 
And her daughter was healed instantly.

These are the miracles that happen
when we put down our weapons
and trust in the wideness of God’s mercy.

+   +   +
The story about Emperor Hirohitos is adapted from Karla M. Kincannon’s CREATIVITY AND DIVINE SURPRISE: FINDING THE PLACE OF YOUR RESURRECTION. Upper Room Books, 2005, page 87.

Sermon for Year A Proper 15
August 17, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

Crossing the Jabbok

I have a friend from Texas 
who has a phrase he uses
to describe someone 
who is quite full of themselves without much substance:
all hat, no cattle

That sounds a lot like Jacob in his early years.
All hat, no cattle.

At this point in the Genesis story,
Jacob does have cattle (literally) and 
wives and children and other possessions.
He has sent everything he has
across the Jabbok River.
An early peace offering to his brother Esau.

Jacob is afraid.
He is going to meet his brother Esau
and he doesn’t really know what to expect..

Some of us are happy
when we are about to be reunited with a member of our family.
But some of us are not so happy.
Some of us dread seeing members of our family.

Perhaps there was a quarrel, a disagreement.
Perhaps there were harsh words.
Perhaps it was even worse--
perhaps we did something--or they did something to us--
that was just plain wrong.

Jacob is afraid.
He knows that Esau has ever reason and every right
to take revenge for Jacob’s past actions.

Jacob has been scrapping and scraping with his twin brother Esau
since before they were born.

Esau was the first-born son;
the position of honor and respect and blessing
in that time period.

Jacob was born just minutes after Esau,
born with his tiny hand 
firmly clasped onto his brother’s tiny heel,
as if he had struggled in the womb 
to push ahead of Esau
and be born first.

But minutes were as good as years
and Esau entered the world first
and took the coveted title of first-born son.

Their mother Rebecca loved Jacob,
adored him,
but Jacob felt ignored by his father,
overshadowed by his older brother.
Jacob thought himself far more clever,
far more deserving of their father’s blessing than Esau,
But he knew the truth
First-born sons
receive the position, the power and the family wealth.
Second born sons receive nothing.
Jacob was not wiling to accept this.
He lies to his father,
cheats Esau out of his blessing,
and runs away.

Jacob was in many ways at war with himself.
Jacob has many faults
but he also has a gift:

Jacob is tenacious.
Just as he held on to his brother’s heel,
Jacob holds on to building a life for himself.
He works for 14 years so that he can marry Rachel.
He and Rachel wait another 5 years before they conceive a child.
Jacob has endured a 20 separation 
from his family and his homeland.
Jacob is not one to give up,

But to face his past,
to stop his running away,
to go home,
Jacob must also face his history,
his past. 

Jacob arrives at the Jabbok River.

Crossing rivers,
real or metaphorical,
often symbolizes overcoming something.
A river is a threshold to new life.

In Greek mythology
the river Styx represents the boundary between life and death.

When Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, 
he becomes the leader of the Roman Empire.
The Jabbok River for Jacob
is much more than a geographical boundary.
It is the spiritual divide between Jacob’s youth
and his adult self.

The Jabbok is the divide between all the wrong 
Jacob has done in his life,
and all the possibility Jacob’s future holds.

Possibility or disaster that is.
For Jacob does not know what awaits him
 on the other side of the Jabbok.

Jacob does not know what his brother Esau intends.
But he knows he can no longer keep running away.
Jacob knows it is time to face the fears that haunt him.

In Hebrew the word Jabbok means "to empty, to pour out." 
This is what happens to Jacob 
during that dark night wrestling match.
He empties himself of everything.

He empties himself of everything that he once was
and makes himself vulnerable to all that might be.
Jacob is no longer running away,
no longer the frightened child.
Jacob is transformed into one who embraces
his covenant with God.

This does not mean that everything gets easier when we become adults
or when we own our rocky pasts.
We know that is not true.
It certainly was not true for Jacob.

This dark night at the Jabbok leads Jacob across the threshold
to be both a great and faithful patriarch
but also a hobbling, wounded human being..

It is only through vulnerability 
that we can discover our true power.
Jacob will face many more ordeals and heartbreaks.
But he will never again lose his faith in God or himself.

Jacob has waited his whole life for a blessing
and on the banks of the Jabbok
he finally receives the blessing that matters.

Jacob’s perseverance, his tenacity,
his ability to hold on,
is a gift that God will use.

Jacob will be reconciled with his brother
because he no longer sees his brother as his competition.
He sees his brother for what he really is:
his brother.

In this reconciliation,
Jacob finally finds the peace he has been seeking his whole life,
the peace he needs
the peace his entire family needs.

Peace is impossible without reconciliation.
This is the lesson Jacob learns at the Jabbok that night.
Jacob needs to make peace with his brother Esau.
He needs to make peace with himself.
Jacob needs  to make peace with God.

The world is hungry for peace.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga 
in speaking of the situation in Gaza, 
recently said peace is impossible without reconciliation, 
and reconciliation requires recognizing each other as human beings. 

Reconciliation requires
recognizing each other as human beings

Reconciliation is where we begin.
We begin when we realize we are tired of being “all hat and no cattle.”
We begin when we recognize one another as human beings.

God keeps trying to teach this lesson.
We are all human beings,
We are all God’s beloved children.
In the heart of God, 
there are no first born sons--or daughters.
We are both Jacob and Esau.

God calls us 
to stop dividing the world 
into them and us;
to stop using the narrow microscopic vision 
one against the other,
Jacob versus Esau,
and to pick up a pair of binoculars
and see a fuller, more hopeful vision of the world.

God calls us
to stop taking advantage of the vulnerability of others 
and be willing to offer up our own vulnerability;
to face the darkness 
and trust that God longs to bless us--
all of us.

+   +   +

Sermon for Year A Proper 13
August 3, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Burlington, Vermont
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan

People of Impossibility

People of Impossibility

Today we hear a portion of the letter
Paul wrote to the Christian community in Rome.

Rome was the capital.
The political, military and economic capital of Paul’s first century world.
What happened in Rome,
rarely stayed in Rome.
What happened in Rome
rippled out to other areas
and this was not always good news,
especially to the early Christians.
The political backlash from Rome could be brutal,
sometimes even deadly.
Life was dangerous for first century Christians
and Paul certainly knew it.

Paul writes to his brothers and sisters in Rome
to offer hope and encouragement.

It is easy to think that we are nothing like the people of Rome,
people who lived in the first century.
But we are probably wrong.
We, too, live in dangerous times.
We too often are caught in the riptide of political backlash.
We, too, need encouragement and reassurance
and hope.

Paul’s theology tends to be quite heady,
But this passage from Romans is all heart.
(Well, once you get through the verses about predestination and such).

Paul is celebrating the generosity of God.

Paul tells us that God knows our limitations
and it doesn’t matter.
Even when we cannot pray,
God hears us.

Yes, even when we cannot pray
God hears us.

...the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Whatever happens in our lives,
God is there.
God is here.
God is present.
Paul proclaims,
that whatever our doubting, fearful minds teach us,
God is still with us and that matters.

If God is for us, who is against us?

This passage is no doubt familiar to some of us.
It is a passage that is often read at funerals.
It is a passage that many want read at their own burial service.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Hardship? Distress? Persecution?
No. Nothiing.
Nobody. No thing. No one.
Not even death.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
This is the good news that Paul is preaching.

What Paul preaches here can seem impossible.
Impossible to believe that God is always with us,
always loves us.

In pondering impossibility this week,
something kept popping up in my brain
and I kept pushing it aside;
because I knew if I used this image,
it was going to require a confession of sorts.
So here it is.

I am a bit embarrassed to admit this,
but I recently watched
the television show
American Ninja Warrior.

Actually, I better just tell the whole truth
and admit that I have watched it
more than once.
In fact,
please do not phone me between 9 and 10 pm on Monday evenings.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with American Ninja Warrior
(and yes, I concur, it is a stupid name,)
it is, in essence, a test of physical fitness.
People compete in an obstacle course.

This is not your average hopping through tires
and going under and over ropes sort of obstacle course.
This is an over-the-top obstacle course
that requires strength and agility that is beyond
my wildest imagination.

It is indeed a competition
but I felt the people, male and female,
are mostly competing against themselves.

What these amateur athletes do
seems impossible.
And yet they do it.
They make it through the course.

Recently a young woman,
Kacy Catanzaro, completed the course and qualified
for the next level of competition.
Some people said it was impossible for a woman to complete the course.
Kacy Catanzaro proved that strength and agility are not gender-specific.

Truthfully I don’t see how ANYONE--woman or man--
completes the course.
It requires a level of fitness and a level of confidence
that seems impossible.

I think I like this TV show
because it seems metaphorical for all the obstacles in our life paths;
and yet again and again,
we keep showing up to face a daunting course
and to face it with hope.

It is this hope in what appears impossible
that somehow morphed American Ninja Warrior 
and Paul’s letter to the Romans in my mind.

Paul repeatedly tells the Romans
that with God, with faith,
even things which seem impossible
are possible.
God’s love will get us through anything.

Also, the pacing of Paul’s writing in this passage
has a similar momentum to the Ninja warrior obstacle course.

Paul starts out slowly and quietly,
sort of walking on tiptoes.

He stealthily jumps here,
breaks into a run with his words
and then---
watch out!
Full steam ahead!
Paul is on fire to preach this Gospel message
of God’s inseparable love for us.

We need to hear this message.
It is not a message to toss aside or disregard

The world needs this message.
Most of the hurt that is done to other human beings
is done because we do not feel loved--
and this hurts so badly, so deeply
that we react by wanting to hurt someone else.

A harsh word.
An unkind remark.
A sharp email sent too hastily.

Our deepest need is to be loved.
Our deepest fear is that we are not.

Paul knows there are obstacles in our way.
Paul knows that life is not easy
and that God sometimes seems absent.

And yet Paul stands firmly, For I am convinced...

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

No one can separate us from the love of God--not even ourselves.
Many of us put up a mighty battle though.
A loving non-judgmental God? Really?
For some this just seems impossible.

But the truth is
impossible things happen every day.
Not just completing an obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior--
thought if we are honest
life can feel like an obstacle course.

Jumping over hurt feelings,
spinning around misunderstandings,
facing walls of discrimination,
encountering jumbo size obstacles
like wars and bombings, planes being shot down,
innocent people being caught in the cross-fire
of competing political agendas.

Yet Paul preaches mightily
that regardless of the many obstacles,
God’s love is at work in the world
even when we ourselves are an obstacle to that love.

This is the kingdom of heaven that Matthew writes about.
Love is the kingdom.
Love is the seed and the yeast and the hidden treasure
and the one pearl.

I remember riding up in a hospital elevator
with a woman whose husband was  dying,
dying much too young,
and as the doors began to open
she grabbed her children’s hands
and said in a firm voice,
Remember, children, 
we are resurrection people.

She was not making a credal statement of belief
to her children--
she was telling--teaching-- her children---
we are people who hope.
People who will find hope in the bleakest of times
in the most impossible of situations.

We are people who face the obstacles that every life places in our path
and we run
and grab the top of the wall
and with God’s help,
with God’s love,
we pull ourselves up over the edge.

We are God’s Ninja Warriors
and nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.


+   +   +

Sermon for Year A Proper 12
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
Burlington, VT
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan