Rev. Megan Huston
August 17, 2014
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just 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.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
- Matthew 15:21-28
I have this friend who lost his wife to cancer. It all happened in the most unfair way. She was in her early thirties and they had two young children. He was heartbroken and lost. But he said to me one day, “I guess if I’m mad at God that at least means that I still believe in him.” I agreed and assured him that he was right where he needed to be in his journey of grief and faith.
Anne Lammott, one of my favorite authors, writes about calling her friend Tom, a Jesuit priest, after the Newtown massacre, and asking him, “Is there any meaning in this horrific event?” Tom replied, “Not yet.”
I love Anne Lammott’s writing because of her ability to speak the truth. Nothing is more toxic than our rose colored glasses. Nothing is more offensive than our Christian-y condolences when bad things happen, like, “Oh God just needed another angel in heaven.” Or “It must have happened for a reason.” When we try to make meaning too quickly, when we make everything into a metaphor, we start building these lies that we may mean well, but don’t represent the truth. We convince ourselves that everything is ok until one day its not and then it all crumbles beneath us.
Which is why I found myself incredibly frustrated as I prepared to preach this week. The scripture for today is stunning, shocking, its ugly. As I scrolled through my usual list of commentaries, my favorite read, “Mean Jesus,” which sounds kind of like “bad dog.” At least that one was honest. Most of the rest were full of explanations to justify this terrible tale. Commentators claim that Jesus probably didn’t really mean it, because we don’t know the tone of voice he used or his body language. Some say that he was just testing her faith, but that doesn’t seem too kind either. Others offer that Jesus probably never said those words anyways so just don’t even bother with this one.
But I couldn’t accept any of them. In this book, that I hold sacred, that I believe holds the power to change the world to be a kingdom of peace and justice, the Christ who I worship said these words, and I am deeply offended by them.
I just kept reading the words where, Jesus, who is the ultimate defender of the oppressed, and advocate of the weak, calls this outsider, a dog. It hits way too close to home, I keep thinking of all the times women have been called a female dog in order keep us in our place. I know Jesus didn’t say that, but still… How could Jesus have said such a thing? It goes against everything I believe about who God is.
I found no solace in this story, but instead found it in another one in which an unlikely character demands a blessing. The story of Jacob, who steals his brothers’ birthright, who cons and cheats and deceives and manipulates virtually every member of his family. This character accustomed to running from his problems, makes an unlikely move, and stands up to his mysterious nighttime attacker, and engages in of all things, a wrestling match. He says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And so I hear the woman’s words echoing as she breaks through the crowd, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me.” I envision the stories of moms picking up cars off their children in sheer acts of desperation that demonstrates the strength they never knew they possessed.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the definition of a Jew, is one who struggles, wrestles with God and with humanity and prevails. Jacob says to the angel, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And that, says Sacks, is how I feel about suffering. When something bad happens, I will not let go of that bad thing until I have discovered the blessing that lies within it.
I wish I could tell you that my wrestling match with this scripture is over. But it is not. I do not know why or how this scripture is here and to be honest, right now I don’t think I want to know. I want to be mad at it. But I wonder if maybe that is the whole point. That its shock value has caused me to wake up early wondering about it. That I have been racking my brain to try and understand this complex character in Jesus. That I have to face my own boundaries & explanations that I have created around God. Maybe the anger I feel is really the same anger I felt when we drove to a large bridge in Guatamala City where our host explained that someone commits suicide monthly, often mothers with their babies because things are that bad.
I think that all of us are probably a little on edge this week. There is a lot of bad news right now. Ebola continues to spread throughout Africa, an unarmed black young man was shot by a police officer in St Louis causing violent protests in the city, Robin Williams who we trusted with our laughter, let us down this week. We are all haunted to know that a person who seems that full of life could be carrying that much pain.
I mention these things not because I want to make you any more sad. I am telling you because it is the truth and sometimes the truth stinks. And it is right there in the middle of the messiest parts of our lives, our homes, even our churches, that God shows up slowly, oddly, and often in ways we can’t quite understand.
Maybe there are some things, like our neighbor’s suffering that should cause us to stay awake at night. And maybe we do no justice to God or to our faith by accepting easy or comforting answers. Maybe our faith is not supposed to simply comfort us, but also is supposed to challenge us, maybe even disturb us, causing us to live in a constant conversation with God rather than accepting some divine and distant monologue. God does not cause these bad things to happen. But having a relationship with God transforms the way we understand the bad things and I think it causes us to deny easy answers and seek truthful, authentic blessing, even amidst tragedy.
I love that these two stories about blessing have two endings that are quite different. The woman is commended for her faith and her daughter is instantly healed. But Jacob, he receives his blessing and walks away with a limp.
For some reason, I think our church is full of people who were brave enough to wrestle with issues of faith, but may have come away limping. When we refuse pious submission and boldly ask the questions and point out the truths that no one wants to hear, we rarely walk away unscathed. We still receive our blessing somewhere along the way, but we too may walk away limping.
But this is the Good News despite all our questions and uncertainties. We learn in our scriptures today that there is no one way to be a person of faith. That we worship a God encourages us to speak up.
Through these stories we are challenged to widen our knowledge of who God is. It feels scary when our notion of God is questioned, but scarier is a group of people so certain of the nature of God that they remove all mystery and start creating a God in their own image.
Through these characters we are invited to widen our understanding of who is blessed, and maybe more importantly who isn’t. The woman is Matthew has the wrong skin color, wrong accent, wrong zip code, wrong gender, wrong education, wrong job, wrong food choices, wrong everything that Jesus doesn't care about ... and right about the only thing that matters ... her heart. Blessings are always undeserved. The scripture from Matthew is called the Story of the Persistant Woman. But do not be fooled, while blessings often require our persistence, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s blessings nor do we earn God’s punishment. Blessings are an act of grace beyond our wildest imaginations.
And maybe the most important lesson of all, is that we are called to wrestle with God and demand blessings in our lives.
Many of us were brought up to have a sort of pious view of faith. That to be a good Christian meant that we would bow down, week after week and accept the way things are, seeking a blessing within them. But Jacob and the Syro Phoenecian woman teach us the exact opposite. We are not just allowed, but encouraged to wrestle with God. To ask the hard questions. And to demand our blessings to come out of terrible situations.
But maybe the most profound image in all of it, is the one of Jacob walking away with a limp. He did not come out unscathed. I love what Rabbi Sacks says about demanding a blessing because he is not saying to simply endure your suffering and he is not telling you to instantly make meaning, but he is saying to tell the truth and face the truth about what is happening in your life and in the world around you. Maybe the blessing is us. We are the ones like that persistant woman that must demand blessings on the people around us who are suffering.
So be bold. Wrestle with God. Speak the truth and be present to suffering in your own life and in the world around you. Don’t try to explain it away or justify it. Be the blessing that someone else may not have the courage to demand. Question your boundaries of the Holy Spirit. Demand your blessing no matter what the cost.