Sunday, August 17, 2014

drawing circles

Proper 15, Year A, August 17, 2014
St. Thomas, Whitemarsh

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Good morning/evening! My name is Lara Stroud, and as you might have guessed, I am Fr. Daniel’s shorter half. I am blessed and excited to worship with and become a part of the St. Thomas community. I had a blast going tubing with the newcomers a few weeks ago (despite the sunburn), I’ve started playing pick-up soccer once again (which helped me realize how out of shape I am!), and I absolutely love living in Chestnut Hill. But enough about me. 

The Gospel of Matthew was written approximately 40 or 50 years—that’s more than 2 generations—after the death of Jesus. Because almost half of the Gospel covers Jesus’ teachings, Matthew’s Gospel was used by the first Christians to help teach people new to the faith about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has spent a good chunk of time teaching the disciples and crowds while on top of a mountain (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). He has performed exorcisms and healed many sick people (4:23-24). He has even calmed a storm and walked on water (8:23-27; 14:22-27). Crowds continue to follow him wherever he goes, their anguish and persistence portrayed in vivid, almost violent imagery: On several occasions Jesus climbs into a boat so that the crowd does not suffocate him (13:2; 14:13, 22). The crowd is constantly bringing their sick to him and some people are so desperate that they even reach out to grab at the fringe of his cloak to capture some of his healing power (14:35-36).

Jesus can’t get a break. Every time he tries to go somewhere to pray and rest, the crowd follows closely behind, even when he travels by boat. Finally, Jesus decides to take his disciples on a retreat far enough away where people won’t have heard of him. I imagine that as he gets closer and closer to the ocean and farther and farther away from the crowd, he begins to breathe easier: finally, some peace and quiet at the beach! But it doesn’t take long for the newfound sense of tranquility to be shattered. News of his arrival spreads quickly and a desperate woman, an outsider--a Gentile—meets him on the road, shouting and begging Jesus to heal her daughter. 

This is the last straw. 

What follows is not Jesus’ finest moment. His first action is to ignore the woman completely. When this doesn’t work and his disciples urge him to send her away, his response to the woman comes off as rude, even unfeeling. He makes it clear that the woman and her people are not his priority, and when she kneels before him saying, “Lord, help me,” Jesus calls her a dog (15:24-26). This is not the Jesus we learned about in Sunday School! Have the old prejudices between Jews and Gentiles been so ingrained into him that he cannot see beyond them? Or is he simply tired and frustrated that his work is never-ending? I’m not sure, but it appears we are witnessing a very human moment for Jesus.  

The Canaanite woman lets his slur slide right off her shoulders and counters, “Look, I may not share your customs or be part of God’s chosen people, but I am still a person, created by God, and should be treated as such.” 

Woah. That takes some guts. But she has a point, and Jesus recognizes the truth in her response: there is no limit to God’s love. God is not going to run out of love; there is enough love to go around. Also, God’s love has no borders; it spreads beyond the chosen people to include all of the children of God. In response to the woman’s courageous words, Jesus heals her daughter. 

The fact that a Gentile woman demonstrates courage and faith is atypical for Matthew's Gospel. This particular Gospel is very inwardly focused; when Jesus sends out his disciples, he commands them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5-6). Yet, in the same Gospel it is Gentiles who are praised for demonstrating great faith. In response to a Roman centurion’s discourse and request for the healing of his servant, Jesus says, “…in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (8:10). A Roman centurion—a leader of the troops occupying and oppressing Israel—is lauded for his faith. And in today’s reading, we have a woman from Canaan, Israel’s ancient enemy, whose faithful words lead Jesus to rethink his mission on earth.  

Once he is rested, Jesus returns to Galilee and gets right back to healing people. Each time Jesus heals someone, the result is not merely physical; the person is reintegrated with their community. The blind can see, the lame can walk, the deaf can hear, and the mute can talk. No longer do they have to live on the fringes, relying on the generosity of others; they become accepted members of society! The community is once again made whole. This is what Communion is all about.

At one point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ mother and brothers come and try to talk to their radical son/brother, perhaps to warn and/or protect him (12:46-50). But he tells the people around him that our relationship to God is more important than our relationship to our family. Our first identity as human beings is as children of God, and everything after that is not as important: family, class, gender, race, orientation, age, ability. 

In today’s highly charged climate, with the ebola outbreak in West Africa and violence in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine, and even in our own country in St. Louis, it’s easy to get sucked into an “us vs. them” mentality. Some will try to convince us that we have to pick sides, that our differences matter more than being made in the image of God. We are moved to tears by the death of Robin Williams, and rightly so, but do we also mourn the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and John Crawford in Ohio? We get angry about the killing of Palestinian children in Gaza and Christians in Iraq, and rightly so, but what about the innocent lives lost in Syria and South Sudan, what about the kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls, what about the thousands of children crossing the border into our country?  

This “us vs. them” mentality fractures our common life together. We draw circles around ourselves to shut out the people we disagree with, placing them on the margins. Each group sees the other as dogs, as unworthy of attention. But in the kingdom of God, none of these distinctions are made; God brings all of us in by drawing a larger circle around the circles we make. We draw circles of exclusion, but God draws ever-widening circles of inclusion.  

Edwin Markham describes this best in his poem called “Outwitted.”
“He drew a circle that shut me out— 
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”

Jesus is changed by his experience with the Canaanite woman. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, when the resurrected Jesus once again gives his disciples a commission, this time he tells them to “Go…and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The Good News is for everyone to hear. 

For those familiar with Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer, the story of the Canaanite woman might call to mind the Prayer of Humble Access. The prayer’s words remind us that, “[w]e are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs underneath thy Table” (BCP 337). None of us are worthy of God’s love. We come to the altar recognizing that all of us are desperately in need of God’s grace. The Good News that Jesus brings us is that God’s arms of love are big enough to hold all of us within God’s saving embrace.

image found here

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