Thursday, May 24, 2018

Spirit Face; Rocket Pants

One of things I struggle with most in life is the time I spent trying to live as an Evangelical.  I'm still working to integrate that part of my life into the larger whole of my personal history.  Even worse than discomfort I feel about this history, however, is the discomfort I feel when remembering how unkind I was toward the Evangelical church when I was working to extricate myself it.

I remember very clearly one Sunday morning, sitting in worship, and the preacher that morning was telling a story about his five year old daughter.  They had been out for a drive, she was strapped into her car seat in the back seat of the car.  It was early spring and as this little girl looked from the bright blue sky to the melting snow in the ditch she exclaimed, "The sun has power!"

After telling this story to the congregation, the pastor asked with passion, "Do you know this means!?"  From my seat four rows from the stage I shouted out, "That your daughter is developmentally normal for a five year old!?"

Whether he didn't hear me or chose to ignore my remark, I'll never know.  Instead, he went on to share about his daughter had spoken this deep, theological truth, that the "Son" has power, referring to Jesus.  While it's true that the person doing theology in the recalled exchange was this man, not his five year old daughter, it is equally true that my pointing this out mid-sermon was unkind and rude.

I was really angry with the Evangelical church at that time.  This does not excuse or justify my behavior in anyway.  I behaved awfully.  A lot.  For a really long time.  There was a lot of fringe in the Evangelical context in which I tried to make myself fit - and the fringe just didn't work for me.

I finished my last post by stating that all the fringe doesn't matter.

This still holds true for me, but it warrants a bit more exploration.  The material nature of the fringe doesn't matter so much, but the fringe itself serves a very important purpose.

One of my friends is a motorcycle rider, which provides me an entertaining mental image as I know this man pretty exclusively in a professional context - dress pants, button down shirt, sports jacket more often than not.  Really shiny leather shoes.  A 6'4" dutchman with a shock of white hair and blue eyes.  The idea of him riding a motorcycle just isn't something I would have imagined when I first met him.

One day, he came into the office talking about getting decked out in biking leather from head to toe and mentioned the fringe on his bike gear.  I honestly cannot imagine this man wearing that much leather, let alone fringed leather.  Until he explained the value of fringe - with much more significant than hailing the glories of terrible '80s fashion trends.

"It makes the rider more visible to other motorists," he said.  The fringe draws the eye and the attention of what are otherwise too many distracted-by-boredom-on-the-highway drivers.

This got me thinking about all the fringe we attach to our faith traditions and experiences.  The fringe is profoundly unimportant in its form.  The material nature of the fringe does not matter.  What the fringe does - catch the attention of those of distracted-by-boredom-on-the-highway-of-life as we go about our daily routines on auto-pilot - is pretty spectacular.  It catches our attention, sometimes only for a moment, and directs our attention to something more.

When my friend the philosopher died several weeks ago, I was visited by a deep and profound sadness.  I miss him and I miss our conversations.  I miss the moments of clarity that pointed me to something more in our dialogue.  I remember the last time I saw him, this philosopher friend of mine.  I said my good-bye, gave him a hug, a kiss on the temple, and then I stepped back and looked at him. He looked at me.  I wanted him to know that I saw him, that I saw him, and that I love and value who he is and everything our friendship is.  After several moments, he gave me a wink - he knew.  Nothing more was said.  I left and he died 9 days later.

A memorial service was held for my philosopher friend three weeks after he died.  There was a strange confluence of events in the course of the service; rather a lot of fringe, if you will.

The pastor of our church was asked to lead the service.  I was asked to offer the pastoral prayer and lead the Lord's Prayer.  There was no discussion of themes or topics, though in preparing the pastoral prayer, I did read the reflections that would be shared by family and friends.  The pastor opened the service with a eulogy, weaving Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day" through a review of the philosopher's life.  And then beautiful scriptures were read and stories were told.  We came to the end of the service, the pastoral prayer and Lord's prayer before the benediction and postlude.  I read Mary Oliver's "Messenger" as the prayer.  An interesting confluence.  Some fringe.

On the inside cover of the service bulletin, the philosopher's family had included a prayer offered by his three year old granddaughter and a picture of the philosopher created by his four year old grandson.  The picture included the grandson's description of the philosopher - "His face is blue like the sky because he has a Spirit Face now; and his pants are orange like a rocket to help him get to heaven."

Spirit Face; Rocket Pants.

Fringe.

It caught my attention.  It directed my attention to the Truth of things beyond, something more.

I still struggle at times with immediate discomfort in the context of Evangelicalism.  The form of their fringe is discomfiting.

And....  Their fringe does not point to something more, for me.  And it does for others.  What the fringe does is so much more important than what it looks like.  Because sometimes it looks like the drawing by a four year old who describes Spirit Face and Rocket Pants - a deeper Truth.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

I Don't Have a Title for This One

I want to tell you about the beautiful awfulness of loving another person.  It is awe-full.

Twice in the last week I have gone to trusted people and said to them, "I'm on the brink of something new and it's big and it feels a little scary and I need someone I trust to ask me questions as I feel my way through this thing, because I don't know what I'm doing or where I'm going, but I have this sense that I'm going to begin learning things that the universe knows about me and it's all going to be okay but it's also all unknown and I'm not sure what to do with that."

In both instances the immediate response was, "Here, let me fix that for you."

If I'm being totally fair, I think the words that actually came out of my mouth were more along the lines of, "So, I'm having a crisis of faith as I realize that nothing really matters and this is the most incredible and joyous and freeing thing in the imagined universe, and I'm sitting with what it means to be faithful in the midst of that, because if whatever God is really is transcendent then the way we dress it up just doesn't matter."

And what I got in response was, "Here, let me fix that for you."

This last week has been sucky and painful.  I remember the first time I really experienced community.  It was in graduate school.  I finally felt like I fit someplace, like I had a place of belonging with other people.  And it was short-lived because, you know, a degree program has an expiration, uh, I mean graduation, date.

And then I was left in the middle of a place where I just didn't connect.  And it was disorienting and painful, but it was also a huge catalyst for me to shed all of the expectations of the communities in which I had grown up and do the really hard and necessary work of deciding who I am and who I want to be and how to live into that reality without much weight given to the judgment of those communities.

Ironically, perhaps, I came to judge those communities which had previously judged me.  I didn't think I was doing it - I thought I was like, "Hey, man, whatever works for you; but, I'm over here doing my thing because that does not work for me; but, like, live and let live."

And now I'm coming to realize that while the critique of those structures is super important, those structures are also super important.  They serve a purpose and that purpose is also super important.

So, here I am, having sorted out some of that stuff and being totally cool with being me and with being friends who are not me and with having little pockets of people here and there who I jive with on a number of topics, but somehow faith is never one of them and it's been sad and painful and I've plugged away anyhow, because even though I've had all of these questions and ideas about God and faith and all of that crazy jazz, I've still chosen to believe that faith has value.  So, I've stayed plugged in.

And I've felt really lonely there.  Like, I've wanted something that is both more and less than what is being presented.  I've wanted something that is both more complex and infinitely more simplistic than what is being offered.  I've wanted to the conversation about how in choosing to identify as Christian, despite the multiplicity of options out there, Jesus is both more and less than human, the Son of God, a (the) Christ figure.  I've wanted to talk about how it's all really the history of people making up stories to explain the deeper truths and how the church has maybe made a mistake in closing the canon some 1600 years ago.

But none of that was available to me, so I had those conversations with myself.  Oh, there were sparkling moments of hope that shimmered briefly before life intruded to snuff them out, but they were enough to give me hope.

And then life delivered me all smack-dab in the middle of a newness that felt ripe with potential.  I never dreamt that community would be a thing again and suddenly, unexpectedly, accidentally, I found myself in the middle of it.

I have this strange affinity for philosophers.  I make a regular habit of falling in love with them.  Started when I was five and haven't quit since then.  Shoot, even the literate I fall in love with is philosophical.  It asks the deeper questions.

The funny thing is, I knew I was finding community while also being totally ignorant to the fact that it was happening.  Like, I knew the philosopher was my people, but I didn't quite put together that community was happening until later - until it was too late, until it was over, until he died.

So, my philosopher friend died.  Which seems to always be the thing that starts these seismic shifts in my faith.

Now, more than ever, I recognize the value and necessity of community.  And I'm beginning to wonder if I've been wrong - maybe community doesn't have an expiration date.  Maybe death doesn't get the final word.  Maybe all of this temporal fringe stuff doesn't matter so much, because the Truth is so much more and eternal.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Doing Nothing Well

A dear friend of mine is dying.

I'm living life and planning a wedding and building a future; in the middle of all this building and planning and living, my friend is dying.

And I am heartbroken.

I have been creating space lately for meditation.  Only ten to fifteen minutes, three to four days a week.  I sit silently, focusing on my breath, scanning my body, noticing and welcoming any sensations and the feelings lurking within them.

I keep thinking about how meditation can be used in my work as a chaplain.  I keep thinking about writing about the practice of doing nothing well - how this is the foundation of all other practices and how it is the most difficult of all practices.

But what do I know about doing nothing well?  I only do nothing well for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, three or four days a week.  Oh sure, there is the one to two minutes sprinkled throughout my daily life; but, how much do I really know?

My friend is dying and I am heartbroken and I'm practicing how to do nothing well because it is the most important thing - so important that I want to share with my friends how important it is to learn to do nothing well.  I find that if I am not careful, I do not do nothing, but I instead do millions of things. Many of these things I do well, but many just happen because I show up with a body and make motions and I have a particular knack.  I cannot, however, say that I am always present in the doing of these things and that is a loss.

So, earlier this week, as I was planning our evening meals, I decided to make Chicken Tikka Masala on Thursday night.  And then Wednesday night came and I was at home for the night and we did not have enough fresh ginger and we did not have enough whole cumin seeds.  Thursday after visiting my friend who is dying - and with whom I managed to sit and do nothing very well for several minutes before we were joined by others and we sang hymns and we partook in Communion and we laughed and people shared their love for this friend of ours and I sat there and cried and cried and cried.  I kissed my friend goodbye, not knowing when or if I would see him again and I went to get a hair cut and buy spices and pick up that dreaded herb cilantro.

Late after dinner on Thursday night, I decided that if I was going to practice doing nothing well, I might as well practice how to do one thing well.  I carefully measured the cumin seeds and the coriander seeds.  I poured them into a small skillet and toasted them over a flame.  I set them aside to cool and measured the smoked paprika, the turmeric, the cayenne.  I touched and smelled and tasted each spice in turn.  When the cumin and coriander where sufficiently cooled, I put them in my spice grinder and gave them an extended run.  I added them to the bowl of other spices, touching, smelling, tasting.  I set everything aside for the night.

This morning, after breakfast, I continued.  I grated garlic and ginger, reveling in the feeling of the firm cloves shrinking between my finger and the box grater, delighting in the stringy remnant of ginger left behind.  I prepared the marinade, added the chicken, place everything in the refrigerator, and headed to work, where I let other people know how painful it is to watch a beloved friend die.  At work, I let others minister to me throughout the day.  And I cried.  A lot.

When I got home, I carried on - slicing onions, feeling them beneath my fingers as I separated the segments, the knife heavy in my hand.  I grated more garlic, noticing how the papery skin of subsequent cloves stuck to my garlic-coated fingers.  I carefully peeled and grated more ginger.  I began to sauté the onions and I paused each time to take a picture - overdone in the world of food-porn, I know, but it reminded me to look and see and feel and smell and touch and taste what is here now - to be fully present in the moment rather than cooking by rote.

I squeezed the lemon and delighted in the way the sticky juice and slick lemon oil coated my hands, as I cupped one hand beneath the other, gingerly moving to the sink to wash them without splattering the floor.

Tonight's dinner is sure to be delicious - I have used the recipe before.  The rice is cooking and the chicken is marinating.  Shortly, I will broil it to achieve a good char before chopping it, after which it will finish cooking in the sauce.

I hope I remember to sit and eat and be present at this meal.  I hope I remember to be present for each moment of my life.  I am not always good at this.  That is why I continue to practice how to do nothing well.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

I Ghosted My Family

I "ghosted" my family.

It started....  Well, it started what seems like forever ago.  A childhood of abuse, deprivation, invalidation, pain, and violence.  My escape into schoolwork and literature took me all the way through university and graduate school.

Sheer economic necessity plunked me straight back into my family of origin.  Growing up poor, having no credit and zero job prospects, limited savings, and no functional knowledge of how to start over without a safety net and no knowledge of how to create a safety network of community elsewhere, I spent 10 months unemployed and then several years working a job that paid slightly above minimum wage, but nowhere near a living wage.

After taxes, medical insurance, groceries, paying rent to my parents, a car payment, and gas to get back and forth to work, I was able to save approximately $15.00 every bi-weekly pay period.  After four years, I had saved close to $1500.00 and made an attempt to pursue my dream of becoming a chaplain, leaving my job with the promise of rehire and taking a three month unpaid internship, a thousand miles from home.  I left an internship after a month broken and - by the time my rehire was finished - completely broke.  I returned to my slightly above minimum wage job, desperately trying to save again, but completely resigned to a life of poverty in every form you imagine - financial, social, emotional, relational.

And then, I met my beloved.  Quite by accident.

He was the one who encouraged me to try one more time.  And it was with great surprise that I not only started another internship, I completed it and found I am really, really good at chaplaincy.

So good that by the time I was less than half-way through my internship, I was invited to join the residency program starting two weeks after my internship ended.  So good that by the time I was through the first trimester of my residency, I had been accepted to a second year residency.  I finished my second year residency and started work full-time in my chosen field making a living wage.

When I started my second year residency, I moved far from my family of origin.  Less than a one days drive, but far enough to make regular in-person contact impossible.  Just before Thanksgiving that year, ten weeks after I had moved to start the next chapter in my life, I started to imagine what my life could look like if I stopped subjecting myself to the continuous emotional abuse of my father.  I started to imagine closing that chapter of my life completely.

So, I decided to spend two weeks acting as though the decision had been made - practicing not having him in my life at all.  I unfollowed my father on Facebook.  I changed the privacy settings on my posts to prevent him from seeing them.  When I had occasion to have contact with my mother, I focused solely on my relationship with her.

It felt so good that after two weeks I decided to continuing carrying on.  The one hiccough that eventually came was when my mother began pressuring me to "stop slighting" my father.  I had, after all, sent mail to my mother and not even mentioned my father and that hurts his feelings and what hurts his feelings hurts her feelings and I was responsible for all of it because I'm the one who won't get with the program and follow the family rules.

Bear in mind that since I stopped initiating contact with my father some fifteen months ago, my father has not at any point initiated contact with me directly.  He has my phone number; he has not called.  Every piece of mail I have sent to my mother, which he has seen, has my return address on the envelope; he has not sent me mail.  We were still connected on Facebook; he has not messaged me.  I have had the same email address for the past twenty-one years; he has not emailed me.  I have never told my father that I do not want a relationship with him; I simply stopped opening myself to situations in which he had repeatedly demonstrated he would be emotionally abusive to me.

I was thinking about doing the same with my mother.  Having time and distance - space both physically and temporally - from my family, I began to re-examine the dynamics of my family of origin.  I could no longer see my mother as the tragic victim of an abusive husband, without agency or power.  It is not that I am without compassion for my mother; I simply see her role as more nuanced and complex than I had through childhood.  And so, I had come to the decision to stop initiating with my mother as well.

It turns out that when I made clear that I was not going to welcome my father into my home, and that I was not going to continue initiating contact with him, my mother's willingness to initiate contact with me dropped off as well.  I was tempted to accept my family's view of things - that I was the problem, the troublemaker, the bad kid.  That is, until my mother named, out loud, the unspoken rule our family had been operating under - that I had been rebelling against - for the whole of their existence.  "Sometimes we have to put up with bad behavior to keep the peace."

My family of origin is a collective of abusers and peace-keepers, not peacemakers.  I had thought perhaps I was the only one in the group to see clearly this dynamic, to call it out, to refuse to tolerate bad behavior to avoid upsetting the status quo.

It was painful and horrifying to realize that my mother knew this was the unspoken family rule and that she accepted it, that she followed it, that she taught her children to accept and follow it.  The family rule dictated that those without power (or with relatively less power) accept the abusive behavior of those with power (or relatively more power) in order to get along.  The abused were expected to sacrifice their agency and self-hood to appetites of the abuser(s).  Never were the abused called to account and required to give up their abusive behaviors in order to create peace.

It has been two and a half months and I still struggle to make sense of the fact that I wasn't the only person to realize this was the unspoken rule of our family, but I was, seemingly, the only person in my family to find it completely unacceptable.

The trippiest part was when I realized that I've been complicit in perpetuating this bullshit by viewing my mother as a victim with no agency or power.

And so, I unfollowed her on Facebook.  I changed the privacy settings on my posts to prevent her from seeing them.

I have struggled in the last two and half years with the knowledge that I would not have been even remotely successful in my career - let alone as wildly successful as I have been - were it not for the love and support of my beloved partner.  I would never have been able to take the risks and pursue the thing I loved without a safe place to come home to at the end of the day.

I struggled for a long time with the shame of knowing that I could have never have done this on my own.  Until I realized that all those people I know who were able to succeed sooner and with fewer failings were more often than not raised in homes where they received love and support from someone in their family; they were raised in homes where they were able to take risks, pursue the things they loved, and come home to some kind of safety at the end of the day.

It is awfully difficult to risk little thing, never mind the big ones, out in the world when every moment at home puts your life and self-hood at risk as well.

Six weeks ago, my beloved and I decided to get married.  We are planning a wedding.  We have a date, a church, a reception venue, a photographer.  I have a gown.  We have at least one member in our wedding party.

My family of origin knows nothing of it.  I haven't told a single one of them.

I am building a new family.  I have been for a very long time.  Much of that family will be the one with which I celebrate.  That family is one that refuses to keep the peace; they are too busy making peace.  That family refuses to accept abuses; they are too busy encouraging agency and autonomy.  That family is not one of deprivation, invalidation, and violence; they are too busy filling the world with love and compassion and acknowledgment.

I ghosted my family of origin.  I do not know if they'll even notice; I'm confident they all have the capacity to understand why.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Humility Required

It’s been a difficult week in the world.  At the time of my writing this sermon, the news had confirmed thirty-five deaths in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  One chemical plant outside of Houston, TX had experienced two fires and a 1½ mile radius around the plant had been evacuated.  Other chemical plants were facing similar concerns.  The flood waters were not expected to fully recede for at least another week and a half to two weeks.  In other towns around Houston, floodwaters are still rising.

And the United States aren’t alone this week.  In Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, flooding has killed nearly 1200 people.  Two weeks ago, three hundred were killed in flash flooding in Sierra Leone.  It can be difficult and scary to watch the news.  One can feel helpless in the face of such devastation, reaped by mother nature – exacerbated by poverty, substandard or non-existent building codes, deregulation of environmental standards.  It is difficult to know what to do in the face of unrelenting environmental disasters.

We all have different gifts, Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans.  In last week’s lectionary reading, Paul listed those specific gifts.  This week, we are given practical advice on how to use our unique giftings to positively impact the world.

When we see the plight of people around us (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), when we heard their cries (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), when we are moved with compassion and feel their suffering (as God did in our Old Testament passage today), we are called to action (as God acted in calling Moses in our Old Testament passage today).  If we are to take seriously the notion that we are made in the image of the divine, then surely we can see and hear what is going on in the world today, feel the sorrow of a broken and hurting world, and respond in a way that brings God’s love more readily into the world.

In our epistle reading for today, Paul lays out how to respond to a world that is hurting.  Our response hinges, it seems to me, on verse 16, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”  Paul’s central call in this passage to a posture of humility.  “See the truth in a situation and in yourself exactly as it is and you are.  Do not make the things, yourself included, larger or smaller than they are.”

One of the central issues we will wrestle with in the course of our life is what Carl Jung called our shadow side.  Our shadow side is the part of us that we cannot except – that which we seek to exile.  This can be lived out in forms either grandiose or shameful – assuming we either greater or lesser than the truth of our identity.  When we live lives disconnected from a posture of humility, we often find abrasive in others the things we cannot embrace in ourselves.  We reject in the other the very traits we cannot accept in ourselves.

“Live in harmony with others … so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  The Greek word translated as “peace” is more similar to the Old Testament word “Shalom” than our common understanding of peace – which we often simply think of as lacking in discord.  Peace means “living in the gift of wholeness,” having “integrity of being.”  Peace is about justice, completeness, the common welfare.  True peace acknowledges that when some part of our world is hurting, all of our world is impacted.  True peace seeks not the calmness of an individual, but restoration of the whole of creation. 

Paul calls us to love genuinely, with mutual affection; to rejoice in hope; to persevere in prayer.  It is an impossible task to love genuinely in other what we have exiled in ourselves.  When we begin to make peace with our shadow side, when we begin to accept in wholeness that we are capable of both goodness and evil, when we embrace the totality of our humanness, we are finally able to fully embrace others.  We can find ourselves capable of stepping back, looking at things exactly as they are, and we can respond with humility.

From the vantage point of humility, we can truly rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  From a place of humility, we can see the plight of people around us, hear their cries, be moved with compassion, and respond to their needs.  What that looks like will change from one situation to the next; from one disaster to the next.  But it will always include contributing to the needs of the saints, extending hospitality to strangers, feeding those who oppose us, and giving them clean water to drink.

And perhaps in today’s world, it will also include calls address climate change, supporting regulations that keep chemical plants away from residential areas, and investing in infrastructure.  And if you’re wondering who the saints are in the midst of these disasters, so that you might contribute to their needs, I invite you to consider the words of Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, who so graciously invited children from all over the United States into his neighborhood for generations:

I was spared from any great disaster when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels.

For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live.  But I felt secure in my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the 
helpers,” she’d tell me.  “There’s always someone trying to help.”  I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors, and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.

Look for the helpers.  Join them in their quest to live peaceably.  And may you give up who you think you should be and embrace all that you are – for Jesus’s sake and for the sake of God’s kingdom and just reign on earth.  Amen.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Was Jesus a White Supremacist?

Reflections on Matthew 15:10-28
Sunday, August 20, 2017

When my maternal grandmother died five years ago, my aunt made certain that I received the family bible.  It had been my great-great-grandfather’s initially and was printed in Boston, MA in the early 1890s.  It contains very little by way of genealogy.  On the inside of the back cover is the name and birthdate of my great-great-grandfather and the name, birth, and death dates of my great-grandmother.  Tucked between pages at various points are a few pressed flowers – once pink carnations, now a brittle brown-tinged chiffon.

Within the bible itself are a few interesting pages that betray its age:  a fill-in-the-blank style marriage record for nuptials which took place “in the year of our Lord, 18__”; a “Temperance” pledge with signatures lines for all members of the household who solemnly promise to abstain from the use of “intoxicating drinks as a beverage.”  With good humor, I pointed these things out to my partner, David.  It was with similar good humor that I began leafing through the pages, looking at the artwork in the bible – painting after painting after painting illustrating scenes from the text.  With a bit of wry humor, I remarked on just how white the Israelites were, back in the day.

Today, the truth of the whitewashing of our faith heritage is more cutting than humorous.  Today, the truth of how white American Christianity has become angers and aggrieves me.  Today, with mounting frustration and rage, I am disgusted by the ways those in power have co-opted the Gospel message for their own sick purposes, grabbing power and destroying lives in the process.  And without a careful reading of a text that is 2000 years removed from us in both language and culture, it’s not hard to see how these gross and grotesque distortions come about.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus makes one thing really abundantly clear:  nothing we take into our body has the power to defile our soul.  In an anatomy and physiology lesson, Jesus tells us that anything that we eat moves through our digestive system and is removed by the sewer system.  Rather, it is what comes out of our mouths that defiles us, Jesus says – for what comes out of our mouths proceeds from our hearts.  Defilement looks like this:  evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.[1]

The Canaanites were a people group living in the same geographic region as the Israelites in the time of Jesus.  From early in Jewish history, there was discord between the Israelites and the Canaanites.  The Canaanites were seen as culturally inferior, socially inferior, morally inferior, genetically inferior, spiritually inferior.  The Canaanites were listed in the book of Joshua as a people group the ancient Israelites were to exterminate.

In a world split into the “haves” and the “have nots,” in a world marked by the belief in scarcity rather than abundance, in a world where might made right, the Israelites decided that there wasn’t enough to go around, that they needed to lay claim to the goods (taking them forcibly if necessary), and that their ability to do so gave the right to do.  All of this was packaged up in the form of religious mandate and tied together with a bow of cultural and spiritual superiority. 

The not-at-all-subtle message of the oppressed turned oppressor became, “God is on our side.  We are trying to preserve what we have.  We want to preserve a future for our children and for our culture.”  And all the while, they seem to have forgotten both that a Canaanite is “one who comes from the land of Canaan” and that the Israelites, as a people group, were born in the land of Canaan.

And so, after telling his disciples that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person (rather that it is the evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander coming from the heart and spewing forth from the mouth which defile a person) Jesus and his disciples leave Jerusalem.  They head down from the literal, physical lofty heights of their mountain of metaphorical cultural and spiritual superiority.  They leave Israel behind and head north.  They walk into the land of Canaan and settle themselves in the region between the towns of Tyre and Sidon.

The ideology of settlers who created a grand new thing in Israel and the cultural investment in the notions of superiority and exceptionalism follow Jesus and his disciples back to the land of Canaan.  For in the land of Canaan Jesus and his disciples are met by a Canaanite woman.  This unnamed woman who has heard that Jesus entered her town calls to him:

“Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But Jesus did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.”[2]

Object lesson number 1 in our text today:  Jesus’s acclaim as a healer is growing in the regions around Jerusalem.  As he travels about, this woman pleads with him to heal her daughter.  And from the mouths of his disciples come their unjust pleas to send her away – despite the fact that they are the ones who have settled into her town for the day.  Settler mentality – we can go where we want, do what we want, say what we want, and there should be no consequences for our actions.

[Jesus] answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[3]

Object lesson number 2 in our text today:  Jesus, having seen the sickness in the hearts of his own disciples, amplified their voices.  Jesus chooses to capitalize on the theology of scarcity.  “Sorry,” he tells her.  “Sure, I’m God.  You know that.  You’ve called me ‘Lord.’  Sure, we are cousins, hailing from common ancestors.  But, there just isn’t enough to go around.  I’m here for the house of Israel, not other Canaanite peoples.”

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.”[4]

Object lesson number 3 in our text today:  The assumed cultural superiority of those in positions of power.  This is the root of the evil intentions that come from the heart.  All those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression are considered “less than,” “inferior,” “a threat to” those who directly benefit from systems of oppression.  “We are the ‘haves,’” Jesus tells this woman, “and it would be unfair to give our resources to the ‘have nots’ who are clearly inferior to us.”  We begin to slander those we see as competing for our resources – unclean, vile, dogs, worthy of ridicule, deserving ostracism.

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.[5]

I imagine Jesus sat there waiting for his disciples to figure this thing out.  I read this text and I can feel his mounting frustration as his disciples miss object lesson after object lesson, forgetting that what makes people unclean isn’t what or how they eat (one of the biggest markers of who was a Gentile and who was a Jew), but the stuff that comes out of their hearts.  This Canaanite woman demonstrated a heart of humility, pleading persistently for what she knew was right.

And his disciples, having given up their hope that Jesus would rebuke her and send her on her way, sat silently by and watched him challenge her right to exist and compare her to a dog.  They stop their open insistence that Jesus send her away.  And they continue to be silent about the injustice of the conversation unfolding before their eyes.  Not one of them is willing to use their voice to speak truth to power.

There is much in today’s Gospel lesson that is being echoed in our world today.  Just over a week ago, white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia with shouts of, “You will not replace us” and “White lives matter.”  A second march took place the next day, organized the by the same people, in Seattle, Washington.  These were followed by marches in New York City, Boston, Massachusetts, and Durham, North Carolina.

One protester from Virginia is quoted as saying, “As white nationalist[s] …. We … deserve a future for our children and our culture … we just want to preserve what we have.”  And another, “The goal is to ethnically cleanse White nations of non-Whites and establish an authoritarian government.”

These are not the sentiments of “fringe” members of our society.  These same people and their ideologies are supported by doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, lawyers, journalists, judges.  They come from all walks of life and they are maintaining the unjust system of oppression we call the United States of America.  And millions of well-intentioned people continue to sit silently by and watch it play out, saying nothing as the events taking place are far removed from their comfortable lives in other areas of the country.

How did we get here?  A Yale university social psychologist, Jennifer Richeson, says, “In some ways, it’s super simple.  People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them.  We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist.  The truth is that unless parents actively teach their kids not to be racists, they will be….  It comes from the environment, the air all around us….  Everything we’re exposed to gives us messages about who is good and bad….  The rhetoric for racism is still in place.  The environment for racism is still there.” [6]

The environment of racism is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the very fabric of the society in which we live.  It’s in the history of pastors and theologians who used biblical texts to justify slavery.  It’s in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan which claims to uphold Christian ideals.  It is in the representation of biblical figures such as Moses, the Hebrew people, Abraham, David, Solomon, Job, Sts. Peter, John, Matthew, Nathanael Bartholomew, and the women at the tomb as white.  It is in the fact that one version or another of Warner Sallman’s lily-white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus hangs in nearly every church in America – a nation that equates Christianity with whiteness and whiteness with superiority, rightness, and righteousness.

The only way to rid the world of the evils of racism is to dismantle the structures that support it.  And this means getting clear about how we benefit from its continued existence.  It means educating ourselves about how it functions in our society.  It means enhancing our awareness of how it exists in every segment of our society – it’s in the air we breathe; it’s in the water we drink. 

And when we start getting woke to these things, we have a choice.  Like Jesus’s disciples, we can sit idly by and let others engage in the hard work of dialogue; of confronting prejudice; of dismantling institutions and ideologies; of intentionally choosing to live integrated rather than segregated lives in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces.  Or, we can start to speak up and speak out.  We can start to do our own work to rid our hearts of the things that defile us:  evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander.

Jesus tells his disciples at another point, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do greater things than these.”[7]  It is well past time we, as a church and as a culture, do what Jesus did in his object lesson to his disciples – acknowledging the sin of racism and its effects.  It is well past time we, as a church and as a culture, stop thinking it is sufficient only to feed table scraps to those we deem beneath us.

It is well past time we welcome all peoples to the table as full human beings.  And if the table we have constructed is too small for everyone to fit, it is well past time we tear it down and build a new one.



[1] Matthew 15:17-19
[2] Matthew 15:22-23
[3] Matthew 15:24
[4] Matthew 15:26
[5] Matthew 15:27-18
[6] http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2017/08/why_are_people_still_racist_he.html
[7] John 14:13b