Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Demanding Inclusion: Did a Canaanite Woman Know More About the Gospel Than Jesus?

This past week, local celebrity and UVA alumna, Tina Fey, made a special appearance on SNL and invented the word“sheetcaking.” In the face of the all that’s going on in the world, comfort eating as escape was her solution.  The bit was quite funny.

Blogger, activist, and Presbyterian pastor, Carroll Howard-Merritt, pushed back on the sketch. Don’t sheetcake in avoidance but hit the pavement as witness- engage.

I say have cake and be an activist, too. Take cake to the pavement?

In this week’s gospel story, Matthew locates Jesus at the center of confrontation and controversy related to a deep-seeded racial and ethnic divide.  Yet, unlike any other texts that I can think of, Jesus appears particularly vulnerable and initially on the wrong side of welcome and embrace. 

While we may be tempted to sheetcake away this uncomfortable story, the Spirit’s work through the lectionary dares us to engage it.

The story begins with Jesus in a home along the Mediterranean coast, the region of Tyre and Sidon. In what appears to be an intended sabbatical at the shore, Jesus could not escape notice and was immediately greeted by an unexpected Canaanite woman and her possessed daughter. This woman comes from a region known for violence, aggression, and oppression- including historical violence against the Jewish people; quite possibly violence against their own people. She is from enemy territory- a foreigner. Mark is even more explicit, identifying her as a Syrophoenician woman, i.e. from Syria.  Does she not know of the present and historical racial-tensions as she approaches Jesus?

Unconcerned about her heritage, history, or the reputation of her country, or maybe seeking refuge from it, this woman pleas on behalf of her possessed daughter, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” She expects a miracle and so evokes not only the Hebrew name of the Messiah, but also one of the central Hebrew characteristics of God- eleison or mercy. In Hebrew, the word is chesed, i.e. loving kindness or undying and steadfast love. My kids’ Bible turned the word into a lyric, “God’s never-stopping, never-giving-up, always-and-forever love.”  Chesed is central to understanding the good and just activity of God.   

Chesed is what happens when God’s Spirit leads a congregation to City Hall to advocate for the legal sanctuary of a sister or brother. Chesed is what happens when a Presbytery advocates for the disruption of the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects children of color or with disabilities. Chesed is what happens when clergy, to include Presbyterian ministers, peacefully march arm-in-arm in opposition to the white supremacist militia in Charlottesville. Chesed is what happens when a Canaanite woman travels across land and water in search of this Messiah to heal her daughter terrorized by demons induced by violent raids she witnessed in her youth.  Chesed is what this woman is asking for from Jesus, who surely will heal her little girl, right?  

If you have read even mere fragments of Matthew up to this point, you probably would expect Jesus to do just that. I did.

Yet Jesus’ response is somewhat uncouth. First, he remains silent. Then, when his disciples express their annoyance and request for her to be sent away, he responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As if the gospel was closed to ethnic outsiders and others.

That did not sit well with this Mama on a Mission.  Her daughter is possessed and neither her home nation nor this religious community is offering her refuge or a chance at life for her little girl. The life of her daughter appears to matter to no one. Jesus was the end of the line and when she was not satisfied with the response of this miracle worker, this mama bear goes toe to toe with the Difference Maker and demands inclusion and deliverance with fist raised high. Her life matters. Her daughter’s life matters. Some may even say she gets a bit aggressive in rhetoric. Who could blame her? We dare not blame her. After all, in the face of the demons of enmity, division, and hatred in church or state, to demand inclusion of the other is to be about the work of the gospel; this is the very heart of chesed.

Hear the words of The Belhar Confession, written in the midst of South African Apartheid:

“We believe that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.”

The woman from Canaan foreshadows these words as she resists even the limits posed by Christ and pushes back, maybe quite literally, “Lord, help me!” She does know her history. The Hebrew God is always on the side of the other, the estranged, the poor and the oppressed. Yahweh is their help and refuge.  

Again, Jesus surprises the reader, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Whether as a sign of his humanity vulnerable to the cultural rhetoric of the day or as a means to set the stage for something more dramatic to occur, the disciples were sure to nod in agreement when Jesus drops an early slur and refers to her as a “dog.” It is, after all, what their faith community had taught them about who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who does not, who gets God’s blessing and who does not. They had not been raised to believe anything different.

Church, beware of your silence in the face of injustice and racism. To be silent is to be complicit to a narrative that runs counter to the gospel. Silence ensures generations of elitism masked as righteous faith will continue to exploit the likes of a Canaanite woman and her child. In this sense, along with Jesus and the disciples, we are being confronted by this outsider.

With the tension of Matthew’s narrative at its thickest, this woman will be slowed neither by the distasteful reference nor complicit disciples. Instead, she subverts it. “Yes, Lord,” the woman from Canaan proclaims with her raspy and worn voice strained by her persistence, "yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

It is in that precise moment that the story turns. Jesus is moved, some would say “changed,” by the persistence of this outsider. Dare we learn from the empathy of Christ this day, as he then speaks the words she had traveled so far to hear, for chesed to come. And this time, he addresses her with dignity, “'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Mt. 15:28)

Church, demands for justice and equality of the oppressed matter and are capable of moving even the Messiah. As we locate ourselves in places where we can hear the stories of those longing for justice, are they capable of moving us just the same? 

After this encounter, Jesus ascends a mountain along the Sea of Galilee and extends chesed among the great crowds of "the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute” and feeds four thousand hillside with seven baskets of leftovers. That is, there is enough of God’s chesed for the whole world, to include Canaanite women and their children.  Matthew even ends his Gospel, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” 

Today’s lectionary story affirms loud and clear, even demands our eyes to be opened to the good news that in the kingdom of God there is no place for exclusion based on race, class, ethnicity, or any other mark of “difference."  The faith of the Canaanite woman, faith that pushes even Jesus to respond with renewed empathy and grace, once and for all exorcizes any doubt that in the ministry of the Messiah and family of God, all belong.  Ideologies of racial and ethnic supremacy must be cast out as the demons they are.

The question posed for us, where do you find yourself in this story?

Are you there as the little girl, longing for an advocate to lift you from what is keeping you from experiencing life to the full? Has the rhetoric of the day, from the streets to political leaders, maybe even faith communities, left you wounded and wondering if you matter at all? May you hear loud and clear: God’s love is especially for you. God’s chesed embraces you.

Are you alongside the Canaanite woman holding the vulnerable child demanding that the chesed of God show up and liberate those who have been wounded by violence and terror, bigotry, poverty, the list goes on? Are you the one crying out, “Lord, help me! Lord, help them!” God’s chesed is moving through you in your persistence.

Are you there among the disciples, unsure if you have what it takes to speak up in the face of injustice, afraid of what it may cost you? May God’s chesed transform your silence into an ally-ship for those questing for belonging and equality.  

Are you there with Jesus alongside this Canaanite woman holding her child?  Are you willing to be changed by the stories of your most vulnerable neighbors, the concerns of those who have been demanding that their lives matter after generations of oppression, reduced opportunity, and entrapment in a system completely bent against them? Are you willing to host conversations that elevate the voices and stories of those far-too-long silenced? If so, church, God’s chesed is at work in you.

Over 300 years as the Presbytery of Philadelphia, we have been a mosaic of all the above. Originally marked as dissenters and outsiders, we have been at the forefront of demands for justice and equality in the Greater Philadelphia region. We have ordained emancipated slaves to plant churches and conducted stops on the Underground Railroad. Our pastors have beenmartyred for advocating for African American’s right to vote and others imprisoned on major roads as they demand fairness and sanctuary for the immigrant. We have ruling elders who have led marches down Broad Street in support of Civil Rights and whole congregations have rented homes for refugees as they flee the very region mentioned in today’s gospel story. We even spent an entire year on courageous conversations related to race, bias, andprivilege.

We also have a long way to go. We have not always welcomed the stranger, turning aside the Canaanites in our own land. Our church leadership does not always reflect the diversity of God’s people, because sameness can just be easier. We sometimes place tradition, budgets, privilege, and our love for ecclesiastical systems ahead of God’s concern for justice, fairness, and equality. We have occasionally been silent when faced with real matters of racism, bigotry, hatred, and discrimination, local and global, out of fear, angst, or an unwillingness to break with the status quo. Even worse, sometimes we have hid behind our statements, thinking that our words are enough. May we hear the witness of the Canaanite woman demanding from us something better, far more gracious and inclusive.

Church, today’s gospel story is one we must deeply wrestle with in such a time as this. We cannot sheetcake it away. It confronts us as those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, who was moved and changed by the persistence of one marginalized by both state and religious community. It dares us to look inward and confess our own complicity even as we are moved by the empathy of Christ to live into the chesed of the gospel outward, linking arms with all those who have been longing for more than a scrap of God’s justice to fall from the table.

As we stumble along the way, may we hear the Good News of the Gospel- the same chesed demanded of Jesus and ultimately offered to that little girl, remains boundless. God’s never-stopping, never-giving up, always-and-forever love comes to each and every one of us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s more than a crumb of good news.

May we never refuse this gospel from another.  Actually, may we demand it for each and every one of God’s children whom we are called to love and serve from Charlottesville to Philadelphia, Pottstown to India, this nation and to those all around the world. Amen.

Monday, August 14, 2017

On Charlottesville and the Call of the Church: Standing in the Tempests of Racism and White Supremacy

One thing I have learned lately, the Lectionary has a way of serving as a channel for the Spirit to speak into the issues of the day- and weekend. This was true with yesterday’s familiar Gospel story- Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-33. 

As I reflected late last night, with the events of Charlottesville on my heart and mind, I landed on this simple charge: upon the waters of chaos is where Jesus calls his disciples to walk. These are the same waters the Spirit hovered over in the beginning and called forth light.

Yet, when the strong winds of this world bellow upon us, like Peter, we are tempted to become become fickle and afraid. When our sure-footedness feels like a thing of the past and safety and security are as questionable as the waters beneath us, we wonder why we ever left the boat in the first place.

This is what Jesus saves Peter from- questioning that upon these waters is exactly where he and all disciples are called to wander in faith, hope, love, and an unwavering commitment to justice. Upon these waters is where he- and the whole world- will find deliverance.

In these days, with squalls of racism and violence and the tempests of white supremacy trumpeted with renewed energy under the banner of God and country, I am giving thanks for those who dare to step out of the boat in faith and to stand. I am giving thanks for those who refuse to sink in the chaotic waters even as they embrace the hand of Christ and walk upon such seas- exposing the evils and injustices that seek to unsettle the spirit and slow the progress of a nation through fragile acts of terror. I am grateful for preachers and prophets, teachers, bloggers, sisters and brothers across faith traditions, and advocates of all kinds who have refused to disengage, remain silent, or white-knuckle their own security and public image and instead have taken to the front lines of holy solidarity and cruciform love.

I pray each of us would have the courage to do the same. Only there, as we walk upon these turbulent waters armed with God's grace and compassion, can we find salvation. This is where the Spirt hovers and brings forth light.

This has always been so.

Some quick links to stories of those walking upon the waters of chaos in these days, please let me know of others I should add:

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Church as the Humus of Heaven: Jesus' Parable of the Sower and Some Wendell Berry, Too

(A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

There is a well-known Wendell Berry poem that has hung in my office for nearly 10 years. The title of the poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. 

A portion of it reads: 

Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequioas. 
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant, 
that you will not live to harvest. 
Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years

Practice resurrection. 

I am far from a farmer and have a very faint green thumb- my greatest claim to a harvest being the six peppers I grew on our front porch and used in my southwest omelet a few years ago.  Eggs compliments of Wegmans. Seeds from Target. Yet there is something intriguing about not only the agrarian imagery of this poem, but also the very title. Farming framed as a revolt, a sustainable movement of subversion.  The farmer is marked as one gone mad, celebrated for raising unconventional questions, investing in the next generation, putting faith in a slow yet emerging process, and prioritizing sowing in such a way that the fullness of the harvest will out live even the farmer. 

Wendell Berry is an environmental activist, novelist, and prophetic poet who continues to live in simplicity with his wife in rural Kentucky.  His writings have captured the imaginations and underscored movements of change for generations. And Wendell Berry is known for his agrarian imagery. 

He’s in good company. 

While since the industrial revolution we have preferred machines, devices, and factories, the bulk of human history, and even most of the world still today, identified with fields, farms, and living off the land. Jesus was not exempt. It doesn’t take long to see that, in many ways, Jesus was a first-century rendition of Wendell Berry whose pithy statements were laced with references to grain and the harvest, reaping and sowing, wheat and chaff, mustard seeds and invasive plants. These were far from tame motifs, they were culturally relevant nuances of God’s kingdom intended to grow a movement of change called discipleship. 

Jesus’ use of the agrarian world and all its organic metaphors underscore God’s dreams for the world that come by way of a slow yet urgent process with a harvest not only for this generation, but also the generation to come. This mode of divine activity called the gospel is beautiful and frustrating, intentional and local, nourishing yet demanding, even requiring the ability to adapt and evolve in light of changes in conditions.  At it’s core, Jesus’ leaning on this imagery reminds us that the gospel, God’s Way in the World, requires our on-going participation and ability to dig our hands deep into the soil of this world God so loves. 

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in today’s parable, the first of many Jesus would tell to frame his budding movement called in Matthew’s Gospel, the kingdom of heaven. In fact, today’s Gospel story is so central to Jesus’ teachings that it is the only one he actually unpacks and explains for his disciples.

This makes it so much easier for the visiting preacher.

Matthew locates Jesus as seated seaside where he addresses the massive crowds outside of the home. “Listen!” Jesus shouts to those on the beach. "This message is for you, every last one of you.”

Much like the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus announced blessings to those most ignored and dismissed, Jesus again casts wide the net of God’s welcome.  "There was this sower of seeds who had gone mad, scattering seeds here, there, and everywhere- liberally tossing possibilities for new life everywhere this sower went.”

I was reading this parable with fellow leaders of the Presbytery the other day when one of the pastors raised a shared point of frustration, one possibly whispered down the lane by those on the shore that day two millennia ago. 

“This seems to be a pretty irresponsible farming practice,” she said. "A wise sower would have surveyed the land and known that this particular seed falling on a path, in the rocks, or among thorns wouldn’t work. They would have limited their planting to the good soil from the get go.”

That would work with conventional planting, sure. But if we know anything about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven he announced, it is less linked to convention and more reflective of madness. As Paul would say in 1 Corinthians, “the gospel is foolishness to those who believe.” 

Matthew’s inference is clear: Jesus is the Mad Sower of Seeds of this great liberation front called the kingdom of heaven. This Sower shows no judgment or partiality, in many ways his grace is frivolous, overly generous, and borderline insane.  

Which is good news, for the seeds of the gospel have been liberally scattered throughout the generations and to virtually every corner of the earth. The seeds have even been scattered so freely and without hesitation that they have been planted in each of us here today.  The Psalmist says it this way, “Your wagon tracks overflow with richness…”(Psalm 65:11).

The question for us, is what kind of soil will we be? 

Will we dare enable the seeds of God’s Word of love and generosity, welcome and hospitality, justice and commitment to those frequently labeled as other to burry deep within the soil of our individual lives, take root in our communities of faith, and sprout a harvest of hope and possibility in the neighborhoods we call home?

Will we dare look beyond the walls of our buildings to see that this Sower of Seeds is scattering fertile possibilities within the hearts and minds of our neighbors and in the communities our churches were first planted within?

Will we become like that two-inches of humus beneath the tree that is able to nourish a rooted discipleship able to withstand all that seeks to slow the growth of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

These were the questions posed to those on that first-century beach. These are the critical questions posed to us today. 

In many ways and at various parts of my life, I have found myself more able to identify with the first three categories of dirt that Jesus describes than the final harvest. There have been times when I have failed to understand the kingdom and even allowed the birds of doubt, despair, apathy, and fear to swoop in and snatch the seeds of gospel possibility off my pilgrim path. Other times I have been the one whose faith is fickle, like seed falling on rocky ground or among thorns, unwilling to sink my roots deep into expressions of discipleship because it felt too risky, irresponsible, or may cost me my reputation, privilege, job, or financial security. Maybe you find yourself today as though you are merely feeding the birds, among rocky ground, or being choked by thorns of this world.

Hear the good news of the gospel this morning- Jesus continues to scatter the seeds for the harvest among you and your neighbors still. The invitation remains to be that fertile soil whereby a rooted discipleship can sprout, when the Word of God grows within you and flowers expressions of justice and love alongside neighbors near and far.

While Matthew’s gospel certainly speaks to Jesus’ personal invitation to individual discipleship, this parable is also a corporate, communal call. The parable of the sower is a charge to the gathered people of God, namely the church, to scatter as a subversive movement of frivolous love and generosity, a liberation front in the face of all that seeks to snatch, choke, and wither the world God so loves. The parable is a nudge to be the humus of heaven on earth able to reap a rooted discipleship in Jesus- the Mad Sower of God's love, justice, and grace.

As our Presbytery has leaned into our 300th Anniversary we have spent significant time reflecting on our beginnings, when God’s Spirit first scattered seeds in the hearts and minds of the faithful who came to this nation and founded what is the American Presbyterian Church. In each generation, the faithful were challenged to ask unconventional questions, leverage new incarnations of the gospel initially marked as madness, and pray for God’s Spirit to sprout unique expressions of God’s love and justice alongside the numerous congregations in the communities they were called to serve. In many ways, what began three hundred years ago was like the two inches of humus underneath the tree that created the necessary nutrients for the witness of the Presbytery to sustain growth and faithful witness over many generations and in light of the relevant issues of each passing age.

Whether in the midst of the civil rights movement or the AIDS epidemic, slavery or pervasive poverty, racism or immigration, suburban sprawl or the rise of the millennial generation, rapid change in technology and social media or increased violence, churches in this Presbytery for 300 years have been dared to ask, will we as individuals and communities of faith be fertile ground for new possibilities or will we allow the lure of power, privilege, and the institution choke our witness? Will we allow the joy we first found in being called to follow Jesus frame relevant and prophetic work in the world or will we bail the moment discipleship costs us something? Will we understand Christ’s call to rooted discipleship in the midst of our current socio-political context when many are looking for assurance that chaos is not the final victor and the concerns of the elite are not all that matter or will we allow the seeds of God's grace to be snatched up by the birds of doubt, despair, or worse- irrelevance?

Over the course of three hundred years, the faithful of this Presbytery have demonstrated that we indeed are fertile soil with the seeds of our witness rooted in God’s grace made known to us in Jesus Christ. Yes, we have much to confess and more than enough reasons to lament our being complicit throughout history. We also must acknowledge the fertility of our faith that has extended across generations. Churches have been planted by emancipated slaves ordained to ministry; congregations have been launched in immigrant communities and alongside people experiencing chronic homelessness; hospitals, schools, nutrition programs, and Christian camps have been birthed and mentoring ministries developed in at-risk communities; once vibrant churches have discerned a call to close and reshape their structure so to best engage their changing community with the gospel.  One church even opened up their fellowship hall and vacant Sunday school rooms to artists previously incarcerated and now looking to turn their lives around as they impact the next generation through the creation of elaborate murals that envelop the walls of public elementary schools. 

The Sower of Seeds has been at work scattering seeds of resurrection possibility in this presbytery and in many ways we have been fertile soil for rooted discipleship. I say all this not as an ad for our Presbytery, but because such fertility of the faithful sprouted this congregation in sixty years ago.  This is your storied history, too.

My prayer is that we would continue to allow the seeds of God’s word to take root in our individual and corporate discipleship so that God’s Spirit reaps a harvest among us thirty, sixty, and hundred fold. Along the way, I pray we also remember we are neither Sower nor seeds, rather the soil God’s Word is being rooted within as we live into the hope we call the Gospel.  I pray we view our neighbors near and far through the same lens, for God is scattering seeds of goodness and possibility within them, just as well.

I end by recalling the final line of Wendell Berry’s poem. Two simple words: Practice Resurrection. I had never thought about it before, but resurrection is even an agrarian image, new life out of what was once dead. We are only able to practice such resurrection because Jesus, the frivolous Sower of Seeds, has already been raised.  That’s madness. That’ gospel. That’s the root of our discipleship from one generation to the next. Let it sink deep within you as the humus of heaven on earth.  Amen.