Sep 142015
 

 

When I was in 10th grade, I went on a one week trip to Haiti with our priest and our parish youth group. That trip was my first experience of really stepping out of my own culture into one that was radically different.  One significant difference between Haitian and American culture became apparent the first day we were there and went to the market in Port au Prince to do some shopping and I paid asking price for a pair of sunglasses.  I wondered why the merchant looked rather disappointed, he took my money.  I later learned that you are never expected to pay the asking price in Haiti.  Asking price is set unreasonably high with the expectation that you will haggle back and forth with the merchant to a reasonable price.  But being an American teen ager, I did not realize that. So I paid more than I had to and he missed out on the fun of haggling – for that is part of it for Haitians – it is a fun social interchange as well as an economic exchange.

A few days later we were up in the mountains to see a school our church was helping to expand.  Our church and others in our area were also raising money to pay the staff of the school.  When our bus arrived in the village, a group of the village children met us.  When we got off they swarmed us, and each was selling something.  The little boy who latched on to me had stones. They were shiny quarts of some kind.  He began by saying “Pour vous Mademoiselle… $1.”  I said, “No merci”.  So he went down to $.75.  And I said “No merci,” again. But he was not deterred.  He walked right alongside me for quite a way on the road, offering a better price to each of my “No mercies” It broke my heart to put him off, but we had been advised not to buy from the children, or they would never leave us alone.  I knew this little boy’s life was already much better because of the school project my church was funding, but saying no to his bright face as he sought to haggle with me was still hard.  He finally gave up when I said “No merci” to his price of $.05, and turned back toward his home.

Later that day when we returned to the bus, he was there, waiting for me.  But this time he simply smiled and handed me one of his shiny stones and said, “Pour vous, Mademoiselle”.  I said, “No, No.” and tried to give it back but he would not take it and said, “un petite cadeau pour vous – a gift for you.”  I was left speechless.  As our bus drove away he stood there smiling and waving, and I clutched his rock, with tears in my eyes. I had not expected to receive a gift, but then when you step out of your own comfort zone into a place of newness lots of things happen that you might not expect.

Our Gospel lesson this morning is case in point.  The gospel writer tells us “Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. I wonder what Jesus was expecting went there.  Tyre is a coastal region outside the boundaries of Israel, in Gentile territory. Jesus had to cross boarders – both physical, social and cultural to get there.  Perhaps Jesus was looking for a place to get away for a bit of a respite from the crowds, as we are told “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”  But his fame had spread, even past the boundaries of his own country, into this land and among its Gentile residents. He was known to be a healer and exorcist, and so people took notice wherever he went.

A woman of Syrophoenician origin approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter.  He does not rise willingly to this task. During our study of this passage at our Vestry meeting on Monday we noted that the region Jesus chose to travel too, Tyre, might well have matched his mood and state of being after all the healing and teaching he had been doing – Jesus was tired so he went to Tyre! OK I admit that pun is a bit tired itself!  But whether he was tired of something else was going on with him, when this woman approached him he is uncharacteristically reluctant, and more than a bit rude to her. He tells her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.  In other words he is saying that he is a Jewish healer and rabbi so he needs to preserve his power for that community, not wasting it in Gentile territory.

But the woman is not willing to take no for an answer.  She counters his words with her own – turning his metaphor on its head, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Her words seem to bring him up short, for suddenly Jesus changes his mind.  Suddenly his vision is enlarged – he has come away for some rest from engaging the pain of the world.  But he finds that in being forced to face that pain – even reluctantly- in the life of this woman and her daughter, he receives the gift of witnessing profound faith outside the Jewish nation.  Connection is made here.  Grace flows, even where Jesus did not expect it.

I love this story because it shows me that even while Jesus pushed others to change and grow, he sometimes had to be pushed to change and grow himself.   That is good news for us – Jesus gets what it is like for us when we think we are certain about how life is but then our travels or our encounters with others from another place push us to expand our vision.

This Gospel passage shows me that when we allow ourselves to be drawn outside our comfort zone and move beyond the places that are familiar to us, God may surprise us.  God may expand our vision of what faith is and of how grace works. God may open us to other ways of seeing and doing things, and may fill our hearts with love and faith expressed even across boarders and lines of difference.

It seems to me that this story is uncannily timed in our lectionary – for here we meet a Syrophoenician- that is a woman of Phonecia who was born in Syria.  We meet this woman in the gospel the same week in which we have been deluged with news stories and images of the thousands or people fleeing their homes in Syria, and neighboring countries to seek refuge in Europe.   These people trying to reach refuge in Europe – who are among the estimated 60 million displaced by hunger and violence around the globe – are not unlike those fleeing from El Salvador and other Central American countries – seeking save haven for their children as their entire sense of normalcy has been turned on its head.

Our first reaction in times like these maybe to think – just as Jesus did – that we must carefully guard and protect our finite resources to care for ourselves and our own people.  But if we can let the plight of these 60 million touch us, we will come to see that the human family is put in jeopardy when we cling exclusively to protectionist thinking.

At first Jesus did not want to look into the face of the Syrophoenician woman- who had dared to pursue him even when he had referred to her and her daughter as dogs.  But because of her persistent faith he was pushed to turn, to see her and to hear her.  And this Gospel story is passed to us so that we will do the same here in our own day.   We are called with Jesus to look into the face of the suffering in this world and to hear their pleas.

Last week, in the Daughters of Abraham Book Group – which brings Muslim, Jewish and Christian women together – one of my sisters said, “We have to come to understand that we are all refugees in this world, depending on the love and grace of God to provide for us each day often through the hands of others.”  I think that bears repeating (read again)

In an e-mail to me this week a member of our parish asked:

Has our national church come out with a statement of any kind about the Syrian refugee crisis?  I’ve been reading about some of the European countries’ responses, but not much about the US.  This may be a crazy idea, but could our church or Diocese sponsor some families here in MA?

In part my response was that we need to keep asking even the seemingly crazy questions to ourselves and each other so that faithful action can arise among us.  I would love it if our Global Outreach Committee would join with me to plan a forum to engage more of us in conversation on this!

Jesus, pushed to enlarge his vision then reached out the loving hand of God, to heal a daughter whose life was broken.  We are given chances each day to do the same.   Dare we believe that when we move out of our comfort zone and ask what we can do to relieve the suffering of others, God blesses us too?  God blesses us through the riches that those we welcome in God’s name bring with them. Sometimes it’s unexpected – un petit cadeau- like a small shiny stone.  Other times, it’s courageous and living faith shared even in the face of deep adversity.  We don’t want to miss out on sharing in these gifts.  Do we?

In thanksgiving for the Syrophoenician woman.  Amen+

 

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 Sermon for Sunday September 6 2015 The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 14-Sep-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday September 6 2015 The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sep 142015
 

 

Back in the late 1990’s Marco and I attended an international academic conference on Francophone culture, at which he presented a paper on French Colonialism.  It was a conference for French Educators and it was being held in Tunisia that year.  Marco had spent his high school years in Tunisia, graduating from the French Lycee there, so going with him to that conference was a nice chance for me to see a landscape that had helped form him into who he is.

We met quite a few Americans at that conference, so we were able to have conversations in English over meals and at break times between conference sessions.  I kept waiting for someone to ask me about my work, as it was obvious from my meager French, that I was not a French educator.  But no one asked.  After 3 ½ days, I finally found an opening in a mealtime conversation to make reference to my work as a priest – still no bites.  I have to admit, it frustrated me that no one there seemed to be the least bit interested in my world of work.

It was then that it dawned on me how Marco must often feel at the many functions we attend where church talk dominates.  It also became clear to me just how much of my sense of identity was wrapped up in my vocation as a priest.

I suspect this is true for many of us – what we do in life deeply influences our sense of who we are.  Whether we are employed, or unemployed, stay at home parents, or nearly full time volunteers in our retirement, the routine and rhythm of the way we spend our hours becomes central to the way we define who we are. Just look what happens when those defining activities change and shift – see what happens to our sense of ourselves.

I remember the year that we tried to convince my grandfather to give up his driver’s license. It was a difficult time.  My grandfather was tenacious in holding on to that license.  He was in his early 90’s, and he and my grandmother were already living in a Sr. residence, where everything was done for them – she no longer cooked or cleaned – he no longer gardened or maintained the house.  So, many of the activities that had defined them for years were now absent.  The car was their last link to life as they had once known it. With the car they could get out on drives to see the countryside and to visit old friends.

They lived in Canada where there is a mandatory yearly driving test once you reach the age of 80.  And my grandfather had been able to pass it each year for over 10 years.  But that year, he began to decline and his reaction times behind the wheel were not what they should have been, but the yearly test was still several months away. Before we could prevail upon him to hang up the keys, he had an accident in which he was at fault.  Luckily no one was killed or severely injured.  But his car was totaled.  It was then that he admitted he should no longer be behind the wheel.  How he mourned the loss of that piece of independence and identity, even though he knew it was the right decision.

It was just such a decision that Jesus longed to lead some of the Pharisees to.  As a rabbi Jesus knew and respected the Pharisees, who made it their life’s work to protect the identity of the Jewish People as Yahweh’s people.  The Pharisees did this through strict adherence to the holiness codes that over the years had been derived from the Law of Moses.  The problem was that some of the Pharisees had taken this to the extreme and the code had become voluminous and rigid, making difficult requirements on the faithful. It was this Pharisaical rigidity that brought Jesus into conflict with some of the Pharisees, and it is them that he is addressing in the Gospel we read this morning.

Here the rigidity that Jesus is bumping up against comes in the form of certain Pharisees and scribes questioning why Jesus’ followers do not strictly follow the purity codes around washing.  Jesus’ response to that sort of rigidity is an attempt to reveal how far wrong they had gone in the honorable task of preserving Israel’s sense of identity as God’s people.  His first tact is to quote from the Prophet Isaiah, whose words would have been very familiar and sacred to them.  He says:

Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Jesus is trying to stir up the conscience of those trapped in religious rigidity – to make them see that the traditions they seek to uphold are too expensive and complicated for the poor, uneducated common people to keep.  Instead of guarding the people’s sense of identity as God’s people, the holiness code  – taken to such a rigid and unbending extent is excluding those Jews who are without the means or education to navigate its complexities.

Jesus wants this to stop.  He wants God’s people to focus on the central heart of the law, which Jesus elsewhere summarizes with these words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

 

Jesus wanted people to hold onto that simple, yet challenging summary of the law, and let go of the rigidity of the holiness code that kept all but a few from being able to fulfill it.  But that was a bitter pill for these particular scribes and Pharisees to swallow, as it threw into question the value of their life’s work, which was central to their sense of identity.

Jesus goes on to say, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” Here Jesus is saying that it is what is in the human heart that is important.  It is what is in our heart, and the words and actions that spring from that core, that tell most about us.  So, even when the mechanisms and activities by which we define ourselves fall away, our heart speaks volumes about who we are.

Jesus called those scribes and Pharisees gathered there that day to let go of a rigid obsession with tradition, in order to let the love of God dwell deeply in their hearts.  He calls us to the same.  Sometimes he leads us to this by placing us in situations where the ways we define ourselves are not understood or found interesting or even noticed by others. Sometimes we are called in a more permanent way to let go of externals that have defined us as we move from one season of our life into another.

There is one thing all of us can be certain – we cannot freeze ourselves in time.  Change will come to our lives, and our bodies, to our church.  But the constant we can count on is God’s presence and grace with us through it all.  So perhaps the only vocation that will ever truly define us is the vocation of our connection to God in prayer.  Let all else go will be easier the more grounded we find ourselves in God’s love and presence through our individual daily prayers and our community worship here on Wednesdays and Sundays.

A Sufi poet, whose name I do not know, once wrote:

The prayer is an excellent act,

 but its spirit and meaning are more excellent than its form,

even as the human spirit is more excellent and more enduring than the form.

For the human form does not abide forever,

 but the sprit does. 

In the same way, the form of the prayer does not remain,

but its meaning and spirit do.

 

May our spirit intertwine more and more with the Holy Spirit, even as the form of our lives flow and change.  In Christ’s name. Amen+

 

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 Sermon for Sunday August 30 2015 The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 14-Sep-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday August 30 2015 The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sep 142015
 

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 Sermon for Sunday September 13 2015 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Mon, 14-Sep-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday September 13 2015 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost