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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Proper 15A; Isaiah 56:1-8; Rom. 11: 13-15, 29-32; Matt. 15:21-28
St. Paul’s Smithfield, 8/20/2017; Jim Melnyk, “Pushy Faith”

Some of you may recall hearing me tell a story about two monks who come across one another in the wilderness.  The first monk, glaring at the other for some unknown reason, takes his staff and draws a line in the dirt between the two of them.  The second monk looks for a few minutes at the line on the ground, and then at his fellow monk.  Finally, taking his own staff, he draws a circle in the dirt around both of them.  After a few moments of deafening silence, the first monks face is transformed.  Knowing himself to be accepted and welcomed where he had expected animosity and rejection, he drops his staff to the ground, and embraced his brother.

We human beings are quite accomplished at drawing lines in the sand – and not quite as accomplished at drawing circles.

The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel is a story about centuries-old lines and about the drawing of circles – and the radical surprise that finds Jesus as the one drawing the lines in the sand, while the Canaanite woman turns out to be the one who teaches Jesus not just to draw circles – but about the need for him to make his circles even wider!  Not only that, we see the same lesson being taught by Paul in his letter to the Church in Rome as well.

Simply put, Jesus is ready to turn his back on the Canaanite woman for two reasons.  First, Canaanites were centuries-old enemies of Israel.  The woman is a descendent of those whom Joshua was supposed to drive out of the land so long ago.  Second, Jesus seems to understand his call, for the most part at this time, as one that is only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  This reality only makes sense if we’re willing to accept that Jesus has to grow into mission – that just like us, he doesn’t always see all the details of the pathway he will one day take.

The Canaanite woman and her daughter are distractions that seem to be getting in the way of his time set apart to teach his disciples.  The two are no more than dogs according to Jesus – and don’t let anyone fool you.  Jesus didn’t call them puppies – it wasn’t meant as a cute term of endearment.  Jesus called them dogs – a common insult in his day.

Jesus draws a line in the sand between himself and the Canaanite woman, and she, perhaps unknowingly arguing with the deep wisdom of gospel truth, draws a circle which includes them both.  She reminds Jesus that there is no room for prejudice and discrimination in the kingdom of God.  I can almost hear her reminding Jesus of Isaiah’s words: “Maintain justice, Jesus, and do what is right!  Heal my daughter!” And Jesus, having been schooled by a Gentile woman, must have roared with laughter at his own expense.

Paul has been running into some of the same experiences of prejudice as the Canaanite woman.  He’s been dealing with the Gentile followers of Jesus living in Rome, some of whom seem to think that Judaism has been superseded by this new religion.  Paul argues with pride that he is an Israelite and member of the tribe of Benjamin.  He emphatically proclaims that God does not reject the heirs of Abraham (Romans 11:2).  There is no place for prejudice and discrimination in Paul’s faith communities either.

In other words, in today’s lessons we have a Canaanite woman who argues that the people who conquered her ancestors have not supplanted her right to God’s love and mercy, just as Paul argues that those who follow Christ have not supplanted the Jews – have not supplanted the very people of which he, Paul, and Jesus, are a part.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “Over and over, God’s call to us means pushing old boundaries, embracing outsiders, giving up the notion that there is not enough…to go around.  We may resist,” she writes; “we may even lose our tempers, but the call of God is insistent, as insistent as the Canaanite woman who would not leave Jesus alone.  The call of God keeps after us, calling us by name, until finally we step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves and discover a whole new world on the other side” (Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven, quoted in Synthesis). 

In essence, we are called to embrace a “pushy faith.”  And when we look closely enough, we find that we have a God who is just as pushy as the Canaanite woman – perhaps that’s where she gets it from – a part of the divine image alive and active in her.  But the truth is, we’re not comfortable with pushy people, or with a pushy God, when either one calls us to account for our brokenness – challenging us to be transformed, or calls us to stand up on behalf of others who are hurting – challenging society to be transformed.
What we will find, if we’re open enough and brave enough to seek, is that Holy Scripture is filled with strong women, and strong men, who stand firm when told to mind their place, and who step up when God gives them a push – or even just a nudge.  Holy Scripture is filled with those who are willing to get in other people’s spaces, and even in their faces, to help bring about the kingdom – or kin-dom of God in this world.  The Canaanite woman in today’s gospel lesson is one of them.  Bold and desperate, out of love for her daughter, she refuses to let the disciples or Jesus off the hook, and her daughter is healed. 

A few of us talked about today’s gospel during Theology on Draft the other night.  The next morning Curtis Brookshire sent me a link to a story he heard on NPR.  A 65 year-old African American woman named Francine Anderson tells a story about a night 60 years ago along a road in rural Virginia.  Her father made the mistake of running out of gas in a sparsely populated area – at night – with his wife and children in the car.  He pushed his car along the road until he came to a single gas station with a sign that read, “Whites Only.” 

Her father went to the door with his hat in hand, trying to look as small and unassuming as possible, only to be rudely turned away by the owner.  “I don’t deal with your kind,” he growled before slamming the door.

Back in the car the father was faced with questions from his children.  “Why can’t we go?”  “Why won’t he give us any gas?”  And at five years of age it suddenly occurs to Francine, “This is a dangerous world. We’re in real trouble.” 

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26).
Thankfully, Francine tells us, the owner’s son comes out a few minutes later, apologizing for his father’s actions, and gives Francine’s family the gas they need without taking any money.  Francine gets mixed responses to the story, she tells us. 

When white people hear her tell the story, they focus on the kindness and generosity of the man’s son.  On the other hand, she says, “When I talk to blacks about that story they’re more focused on the fact that it wasn’t illegal for [the owner] to deny them gas.”  The son’s kindness should not have been necessary, had attitudes and laws been gospel-oriented.

“It’s not fair to take the children’s food….”  But at least the son gives us a glimpse into the hope God holds for our world – that as the kingdom of heaven on earth, we might do more than just find our way around attitudes, rules and laws that restrict and oppress. 
The dream of God is that as people of faith, filled with the Spirit of God, we might create a world where such laws, and the attitudes behind those laws, might become a part of our history we would be embarrassed to memorialize and hold dear. 

In the end, “The Divine compassion for all who suffer” means more to Jesus than time alone with his disciples, or ancient racial and ethnic animosity.  A gentile woman is not only received by Jesus, but her daughter is healed.  And whereas Peter was chided in last week’s lesson for having little faith, this woman – this enemy of Israel – is celebrated for her great faith. 

In the end, God calls us – in the end God pushes us – to step over the lines we so expertly draw in the sand, and discover the kingdom of heaven waiting for us on the other side.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A God Who Calls – A People Who Respond

Proper 14A; Matthew 14:22-33; St. Paul’s Smithfield, NC 8/13/2017
Jim Melnyk: “A God Who Calls – A People Who Respond”

It’s quite easy to miss what I believe to be the central theme of today’s gospel lesson if one is not careful.  It’s easy to get so caught up in the physics of it all – in the whole walking on water thing – on whether or not it could ever really happen – that we miss the point.  It’s so easy to get caught up in poor, old, miserable, Peter and his failure to stay above the waves that we miss what else God may be trying to tell us in today’s story.

Peter is, perhaps, the all too human face of the struggle to see the kingdom of heaven around us, as well as an all too recognizable example of how most humans live out their discipleship in Christ.  Peter epitomizes the tension in which we human beings live – the tension between the “already here” and the “not yet, but still arriving” kingdom of heaven.  Peter lives out, in living color, our ability to move from faithful follower of Christ to lost and hopeless souls floundering in the waves – and everywhere in between.

When we come across icons or other Christian art depicting today’s gospel lesson they almost always show us Peter sinking beneath the waves – with Peter reaching out in distress toward Jesus, and Jesus reaching out to hold poor Peter up.  We forget completely the first word from Jesus, “Come!”  We don’t give much thought to the part of the story which reads, “So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water to Jesus.”  I can’t recall ever hearing about, or seeing anyone else accomplish that incredible feat.

First of all, let’s forget the debate about the physics.  The story isn’t about Peter walking on water – either successfully or not. Today’s gospel passage is an enacted parable – words and actions tied together to tell us a deeper truth than what’s going on in the scene set before us.  Today’s gospel passage is a story about a God who calls – and about being a people who respond to that call.  It’s a story about a God whose call is genuine, and dependent solely upon God’s choosing to call.  It’s a story about a people who respond to that call out of faith – no matter how great or how tiny that faith may be.  It’s a story about a call that depends not so much on the faith of the one hearing, but upon the trustworthiness of the One who calls.

Perhaps one reason we focus so much on Peter’s doubt is because it’s more familiar to us.  It’s hard to focus on God’s call because let’s face it, not too many of us feel comfortable believing that God is calling us to anything – let alone a life of faith that walks on water.

Nico ter Linden, a pastor in the Dutch Reform Church, is the author of In the Lord’s Boarding House.  In it he writes about call. “’Father and Mother Stolk,” he begins, ‘by what name do you wish your child to be called, now and in the life eternal?’

‘Anna Elizabeth,’ her parents respond during the baptismal service.  Ter Linden continues his story, I always find that a wonderful moment, but of course you never know if anyone else experiences it that way.

‘Why do people get names?’ I ask the children in church, who always crowd as far forward as they can at baptisms.  ‘Well,’ says one little girl, ‘then they can call you.’

I ask who ‘they’ are.  ‘Your mom and dad,’ says one child.  ‘Your friend,’ says another.  ‘God, says [another little girl.]’

You always have to be careful with answers like that, says ter Linden.  They can come straight from the heart, but also from a kind of God-talk triggered…by opportunism.  Once I had a child in church who always cried out ‘The Holy Ghost!’ before I [even] had a chance to ask to ask anything.
‘God,” says the girl.  I see that she means it, and the kid next to her thinks it’s a good answer, but another child doesn’t.  A God who calls?  That one child can hardly imagine that.”

Ter Linden goes on to say that adults often have the same trouble with a God who calls.  He writes about people who come up to him and ask, “Chaplain, do you have a call?”  It took a while for ter Linden to realize that his questioners were really asking about themselves.  It’s as if they are asking, “Do you have experience with a God who calls?  If so, please tell us about that, because we’ve never heard God calling.  How does that work?” (Nico ter Linden, In the Lord’s Boarding House: Stories of Caring for Others)

Peter and the other disciples, on the other hand, are lucky.  They hear the call of God mediated through the lips of their friend and teacher, Jesus, who they are coming to know as the Son of God.  Even so, it is seldom easy for any of them to whole-heartedly respond to that call and follow Jesus without any doubt or concern.  God’s call never comes falling out of heaven just like that – fully formed and absolute in our understanding – and the disciples are challenged with the need to understand and trust Jesus.

Ter Linden writes that God’s call “is always mediated, transmitted, through a people, a book, an event.  [In most, perhaps in all of our experiences,] there is no voice from above; there’s a voice from within, the experience of a burning desire for a particular task, and the power to perform it.”

Peter feels that kind of call deep within himself.  It’s what enables him to follow Jesus from the very beginning.  It’s what allows him to step out of the boat – both physically and figuratively – and walk to and with Jesus.  And because we can see throughout the gospel narrative that Peter, like so many of us, struggles with his call, in the end it’s his sense of call is actually what enables him to cry out to Jesus when his faith begins to falter.  Peter hears Jesus and he follows – even when he struggles with his faith – which is often.

The truth is that God does call – God does call each of us every day. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s grandmother used to say, “If you’re breathing, God is calling you.”  And when God calls, we may be filled with a burning desire to follow – but God never – let me emphasize this – God never calls us to become torch or club wielding mobs, hurling racial, ethnic, and religious epithets against fellow human beings.  Neither are Christians called to express hate and violence in response to such actions.  The gospel message we are called to share is about loving God with all our being – it’s about loving our neighbor – black or white, rich or poor, Christian, Jew or Muslim, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican – the gospel message – God’s call to us – is about loving our neighbor, and treating one another with dignity and respect – it’s about treating one another as people created in the image and likeness of our God – it’s a gospel of peace.

However, God’s call doesn’t circumvent our humanity – God’s call doesn’t short-circuit our brains or our emotions, or take away our freedom to respond or not respond.  And in our busyness or in our anxiety, we may miss hearing the call, or find ourselves turning away.  We, like Peter, are only human – and because of that we may never be one hundred percent sure of something as intangible as the call of God.  We wrestle with our doubts, and then we feel guilty when we’re not sure.

Peter’s struggle to trust Jesus – and our struggle to trust Jesus – doesn’t negate the reality of Jesus saying to Peter – of Jesus saying to us, “Come!”  When Peter sees the waves and grows afraid Jesus does not withdraw and let Peter sink below the surface like a rock. 
Jesus emphasizes the faithfulness of his call by reaching out to Peter once Peter goes as far as he can with his limited faith.  And Jesus will keep us from ultimately sinking beneath the waves as well.

In the end, the story is about a God who chooses to call us, and about how we respond to that call – no matter how little or how great our sense of faith may be. 
God calls each of us as God’s own children to the gospel of God’s love and grace – to a gospel that honors the dignity of every human being.

Like Peter, at times we doubt.  There’s no denying that – nor should there be any shame in admitting it.  We may at times even wonder if God is real.  Peter never seemed to be one hundred percent sure of that, either. But even in our doubt, God calls us.  Jesus stands by with arms outstretched and says to each of us, “Come!”  “What?” we reply.  “Me?  Me, walk on water?”  “No,” says Jesus, “that was Peter’s deal.  Just come, walk with me.  Hear my call and follow me the best you can.  That will be enough.”