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

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