Rev. Diane K. Hooge
There are certain texts in our three year lectionary reading cycle that cause me to wonder if those who put the lectionary together ever tried preaching them. This morning’s text is one of those. It’s disconcerting.
The Canaanite mother of today’s text, another unnamed woman of scripture, had at least two strikes against her: she’s a woman, and she’s Syrophonecian, an ethnic and racial group that Jesus had been taught by his culture to despise. While Jesus is initially silent, the disciples are united in their desire for him to shut her up and send her away. I can picture the disciples making eye rolling contact with each other as she shouts her demands of Jesus.
This woman, who the disciples just want to disappear, takes a stand. She then listens to Jesus tell her that he has only come to care for the “lost sheep of Israel.” She then, out of desperation, falls on her knees before him where she hears the words, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She hears the word dog directed at her. Not easy stuff to hear, is it?? I’m reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers, “”Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
What we observe in this text is a woman who did not buy into the cultural norms of her day. She stood firm and claimed respect for herself by taking a deep breath, remaining centered, and then risked speaking her truth by pointing out to Jesus that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. Her incredible passionate love for her daughter demanded that she take a risk and break the rules of her social position. Any one of us can probably remember a time, when as a parent we took an advocacy role for our child and our voices got a little louder, if not a whole lot louder. I get why she was shouting…she was desperate—this teacher Jesus was her last hope, and she knew it.
The woman appears to have shifted from her earlier approach of shouting to kneeling before Jesus, which has a prayer quality about her position. I believe that the same spirit that was working within her to take a stand for herself and her daughter was the same spirit that was working in Jesus? It was an “aha moment” as Jesus sees her and hears the truth and then breaks out of the biased culture of his day. I suspect that there was a long pause, while each of them looked at one another and the truth registered. Jesus acknowledges her by acknowledging her faith–and her request is granted. In his humanity, Jesus models making a transition, a crossing, to discovering the other. He has shifted from the racial bias of seeing this woman with all her gender and racial bondage with new eyes. She has become visible—and being seen, she has claimed her place at God’s table.
As I read through reference material on this text, it was hard not to fling some of the readings across the room. Such statements as, Jesus was playfully talking about puppies not dogs…or certainly she had nothing to teach Jesus—it was just a playful exchange. Really!
Shortly before I left Minnesota, I was in a meeting at the Macalester Plymouth United Church of Christ in St. Paul, with a group of church program leaders from various open and affirming churches of many denominations. On our final day, the morning devotions were centered on this text. The leader of the group had us divide into three groups. We could choose to be the mother, Jesus or the disciples. I chose to be in the mother group. In each of our groups we talked about our feelings and our role in the story. In my group one woman began the conversation by saying, “My son has a demon.” She explained that he is a cocaine addict and she is well aware of having lost friends who are sick and tired of hearing about her son. As she put it, “they are fed up with him.” She confessed how she struggles with not wanting to collude. She expressed how frustrated she was in her longing for healing for him. She clearly understood the passion of the woman of our text who sought healing for her daughter.
We then stayed in our groups and spoke across the room to the other groups about what we were feeling and thinking. Part of my role playing was to express my anger at the Jesus group and to realize that change does not happen without risking stepping up and speaking one’s truth. However, I also remember thinking that my anger at Jesus probably wouldn’t play well in the pulpit.
Discovering the other is demanding work. I remember one of the members of the church I served in MN, who was born and raised in Mississippi where it was unsafe to come out of the closet. He would often express his frustration to me about our liberal church. His gripe was “we never hear how people changed and came to a new understanding.” As a gay man who had been through enormous pain and a great deal of therapy to embrace who he authentically is, he wanted the background story about people and how they came to embracing the other. WHEN, like Jesus, did they have an “aha moment”. One of his great gifts was modeling stories of changed behavior for the congregation through his anti-racism classes and through the incredible books that he wrote and published.
This is one of those authentic background stories. Jesus, in his humanness, models the ability to continue to grow more deeply into his capacity to love and care for his neighbors. Like all of us, he carried the cultural norms of his childhood that were ingrained in him.
This Gospel lesson is an invitation to us to do the same. Through Jesus, I know that inclusive love is a lifetime process. We’re called over and over again to expand our vision to include those who don’t fit into the norms…our norms. The great healing power of the Spirit is its capacity to change us and to expand our ability to open ourselves to the other. It’s the interior work that we do in accepting the various parts of ourselves that often determines how we will embrace another.
I’m a fan of comedy shows. Having watched The Last Comic Standing pretty regularly this summer, I tuned in Thursday night to discover who would be chosen as the winner. However I rarely laugh out loud unless, I’m watching Dana Carvey or Robin Williams. When I would get the information that Robin Williams was going to be on Letterman, I would wait up, patiently make my way through the opening monologue, the top ten list, and then enjoy Robin Williams as he would come out and in his classic style, take over not only the interview but the stage.
So learning of his death this past week was painful…it was even more painful to hear that it was suicide. It has been shocking and painful for so many of his fans. And then later in the week came the news of his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s along with the label of depression. We have been reminded of just how powerful depression can be. And, we know how complex the grieving is for families of loved ones who have chosen suicide.
For many years I have been a part of the Courage and Renewal work that was founded by Parker Palmer the very gifted writer, speaker, and retreat leader. Parker is a Quaker who has spent time living in community. I remember when I read his book, Hidden wholeness, how surprised I was at his openness about his clinical bouts of depression. And, in the retreats that he has lead, I’ve been touched by his revealing the kind of darkness that has come with three bouts of depression during his life. And, at the same time, I’ve so appreciated his incredible sense of humor.
Krista Tippett, the outstanding presenter and interviewer on Speaking of Faith did a superb series titled “The Soul of Depression”. She began by giving the statistics: 1 in 10 Americans will experience depression, and 1 in 4 women will experience clinical depression. In speaking with her guests, she shared about her own bout with depression in her thirties. And Parker Palmer was one of the folks she interviewed on the subject. Parker talked about his bafflement over why some make it through to the other side, while others choose to take their life. He made it clear that he thought about taking his life every day of his depression because of the overwhelming exhaustion that came with each day. He shared how he was living in a Quaker community in a leadership role when he first experienced depression, and how he felt ashamed. He acknowledged the losses of soul, God and faith. However, he talks about how as he slogged through the darkness he experienced what felt like a primitive piece of animal like life at the core of his being that he felt was part of his life force. He found it to be wild and extremely shy.
This piece of his journey through the darkness has profoundly influenced how he listens to himself and others as a retreat leader. He has great reverence for that deep inner part of the soul. Because of that experience he is extremely vigilant in keeping the retreat circles safe and he demands it of those he mentors. Depression has also shifted his theology from a God up there, to a compassionate God of flesh, an incarnate God. As Parker puts it, I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death.”
This text invites us to deal with our own broken places and to compassionately advocate for them, and it invites us to offer that same compassion for others who need our advocacy. In this season of transition, it is important to grow deeper in our community relationships. I’ve spoken with the Parish Life Committee and to others about how we need more glue events to help us know each other and to bind us together more fully. As I have heard many of you talk about your church camp experience I know that it has been a setting that has offered the chance for deeper connections with others. Camp offers a time when we get to know each other in a social way—a less structured way. This is a season when we need to risk reaching out to one another and more fully discover the other.
Today we offered our prayers for Lucy Edwards as we send her off on another trip to Honduras where she will see firsthand the outcast mothers who advocate for their children to not have to live with the demons of dire poverty, drug lords, criminal politicians in the #1 homicide country in the world. The risk of following the way of Jesus is learning to risk opening our eyes to see that which we could easily keep hidden from our lives. Like Jesus, the transforming power of God opens us to new ways of seeing and new ways of living, and new ways of being advocates.
One of the great gifts of the community of faith, is the ability to stand with one another. Welcoming is important, but even more important is how we create space for integration. How do we not only welcome new people, but also welcome the gifts that are built into their beings. With new voices and new eyes in a community come new ideas and new ways of doing ministry. We long to make a difference in our lives, and we long to be heard and seen and valued. We long for healing for those broken places within us. Compassion for another comes out of naming and claiming our own brokenness for it opens our eyes to discovering more fully the other who seek our support, friendship, listening ear. This work, which includes the risk taking that comes with vulnerability has the potential of creating a place of belonging that is a sacred gift. May we have the courage to claim that gift. Amen.