Two years ago, as I began my adventures as a Blogger, I promised (and intended) to write a series of three postings about death in a changing cultural context in which 1) fewer of us are actively engaged in the life of a faith community; 2) more death notices do not include any notice of a funeral, or any kind of ritualized recognition of the person’s death; and 3) when such occasions are identified, they are often identified as a “Celebration of Life.” At that time, I managed to write two out of three, which is not bad for someone who tends to think big but go small, or begins with great intentions but does not always follows through successfully.
Nevertheless, that third and final blog has often been on my mind, simmering on a back burner. Now, two years later, I am ready to put this puppy to rest and complete the trilogy of thought about such matters.
To put this blog into context, and to read the two original posts, go here:
What finally precipitated this blog was the opportunity to teach, at the local church I attend, a study titled Living Fully, Dying Well. It is published by Abingdon Press (2006) and has drawn a group of 25 mostly older adults into conversation about what it means to live fully and richly, and what needs to be done to prepare well for death. A recurring comment is that while they may be willing to talk about such matters and the necessary details, oftentimes their children or other loved ones are quite resistant.
Of course that is a hard conversation to have; I understand and appreciate reticence and the desire to avoid the topic. To think about the death of someone we love is extremely painful; we have to imagine a world in which they are absent and we no longer have the gift and blessing of sharing experiences, hopes, memories, joys, and challenges with them.
Our culture doesn’t make it easy, either. For a variety of reasons and in a multitude of ways, we enable such denial to take place. Sometimes we participate personally by being dismissive of our own death. As more people have instructed loved ones not have a funeral or any other kind of observance for them, I wonder if the one who has died doesn’t believe their life was that worthwhile, noteworthy, or significant. Does the decision not to mark a death suggest that the one who has died believes their life had no meaning or purpose, or that their life was so inconsequential that it is not worth noting and mourning? One of the great blessings of participation in a faith community is the affirmation that a life matters and has purpose and value; a person in such a community has heard that they have a place in the community and in the larger cosmic reality. But if we do not participate in that kind of sacred community and hear such a narrative, is it plausible to conclude that life and death are both inconsequential? Are we so small in a great world and universe that we perceive our life and death to be no more important and meaningful than that of a flea? What a disquieting and tragic contrast to the treasure of a faith community that, for example, trusts that God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139), or that even the death of a bird is noticed by God, so surely our life and death are even more precious and significant. So perhaps one reason we deny death is because we deny life. Our culture focuses on, and elevates the importance of the beautiful, the famous, the talented and skilled, the wealthy and exceptional, which can lead us to see our lives as diminished and unimportant if those attributes are not ours. Ordinary people with ordinary lives can be tempted to believe that being ordinary means we are unimportant and beneath notice or appreciation.
Or perhaps we deny death and minimize its importance because our life seems fatally flawed, and beyond redemption or repair. There is that hard reality that many of us are profoundly and deeply flawed (OK, all of us are, if we will be honest). There are those habits, attitudes, actions – past and present – that are our shadow side; our personal aspects that we regret or that leave a residue of shame, guilt, or sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to deny or excuse such aspects of ourselves when we are younger, but as a friend inelegantly but truthfully put it, “My life is covered in shit, and I don’t know how to get it off.” Again, if you live in a culture that is loathe to admit failure or error, to ask for forgiveness or make an apology, to hide shortcomings because they are signs of failure and weakness, some of us may conclude that there is little or nothing to celebrate. If that is the only way to mark a life and a death, it is better to err on the side of caution and not try to fake it, or have those who remember us only remember the good and go dark on the more complete picture of who we truly were in all our terrible beauty. Again, our culture is impoverished, as well as those who die in it, when we both live and die falsely, and when our lives and self-understanding are devoid of the promise and hope of the mysterious wonder of mercy and grace that comes from beyond ourselves, which a faith community can provide.
In her recent book Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott calls to mind, with a caveat, “the five Buddhist remembrances: I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me. I am the owner of my actions; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. Except, I might add as a nice Christian girl, through mercy” (Hallelujah Anyway, Riverhead Books, 2017, p. 70). Receiving mercy and grace, free and undeserved, and knowing how utterly essential they are to us, enable us to live and die in peace fully and honestly, embracing both whatever light we have been able to reflect while also, with Prospero in The Tempest, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” (Act V, Scene 1).
What is most disappointing to me is how the church itself contributes to the denial of death, even among its own. Euphemisms abound to shunt aside death’s reality; when speaking of the dead, in addition to such familiar phrases as “passed away” or “entered into rest” or “slipped away,” church folks and pastors conveniently skip over the reality of death and jump immediately into “claimed the promise of resurrection” or “entered into glory.” In my United Methodist tradition, the official title for a funeral or memorial service in The United Methodist Book of Worship is “A Service of Death and Resurrection;” but these days that name has often been supplanted by “A Celebration of Life.”
But a death has occurred. Scripture calls death the last enemy, and even when death comes as a mercy to the suffering, it still robs us of one we love and robs them of life. We may want to gloss over that truth, but it is true nevertheless, and faith is as much about speaking truth as it is anything. This is not something new in our contemporary context, but we have taken denial of death to a new level, and the church has become even more complicit.
My father died in 1987. On the morning of the funeral, my two sisters and I were at the funeral home when one turned to the other and said, “There must be something wrong with us; for the last two days people have been saying we look just like him (i.e., our father), but he’s dead and wearing a lot of make-up.” It was humorous, but it was also a recognition of a fundamental difference and reality: we were still living, and he was not; we were living and he was dead.
Nearly 45 years ago, Robert E. Neale laid at least some of the onus of death denial at the feet of the clergy when he wrote, “During a funeral the minister will be circumspect about death according to the standards of ‘good taste.’ Once when I was younger and a little more foolish than now, I spoke of death during a funeral, saying, ‘The man lying in this casket is dead.’ As you may guess, the statement caused no end of consternation. It…is striking that although the scripture read at funerals speaks clearly and boldly of death, it is not considered proper for the minister to do so in modern English. At the one time when death is most obvious to a Christian community, the Church flees into dogmas of eternal life. That little item in between life and eternity gets lost” (The Art of Dying, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 13).
As a seminary student, I remember a professor saying he could do a funeral for Adolph Hitler or any other person, because Christian funerals do not focus unduly on the goodness of a person but on the goodness, grace, and mercy of the God to whom all life ultimately belongs and who is able, even in the worst of us, to be at work for good. Our worship focus, as always and forever, should be not on us, but on the Triune God, and to acknowledge, confess, and speak truly of life, death, sin, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and even judgment, which ultimately does not belong to us, but to the all-wise One who knows us best and loves us most fully. Trusting in that God, we need neither deny nor fear death, and that is a treasured gift the faith community has to offer especially to this culture, still.
“God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:24
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” –1 John 4:7-8
There are many things I love about being a WOMP (Worn-Out Methodist Preacher), but the nerdiest thing I am delighted to do is to read theological texts of many descriptions, some of which have been on my shelves for decades. These days I am more than half-way through Raymond Brown’s two volume (!) The Death of the Messiah, two-thirds into Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in preparation for preaching on Trinity Sunday I’m plowing through Jurgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom. Which leads to how this particular blog was birthed.
Moltmann’s reflection on the mystery of the Trinity, published in 1979, is not some new, avant-garde, radical, contemporary rant. Indeed, what stopped me dead in my tracks was inspired by his reference to a 1300 year old statement of faith affirmed in the Council of Toledo in 675. Moltmann is pondering the interrelationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the tri-unity of God, when he writes:
“[I]f the Son proceeded from the Father alone, then this has to be conceived of both as a begetting and as a birth. And this means a radical transformation of the Father image; a father who both begets and bears his son is not merely a father in the male sense. He is a motherly father too. He is no longer defined in unisexual, patriarchal terms but – if we allow for the metaphor of language – bisexually or transexually. He has to be understood as the motherly Father of the only Son he has brought forth, and at the same time as the fatherly Mother of his only begotten Son….According to the Council of Toledo in 675, ‘it must be held that the Son was created, neither out of nothingness nor yet out of any substance, but that He was begotten or born out of the Father’s womb (de utero Patris), that is, out of his very essence.'” The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 164 f. (my italics)
Be still, my heart. Doesn’t that simply inspire with its thrilling, easy to follow verbiage?Yes, I am that nerd who thinks it’s awesome – difficult, dense, seemingly arcane and irrelevant to 21st century folks, not ready for prime time preaching, but an enriching blessing to me to be afforded the time to ponder. But what I saw did seem to have deep relevance for us, at least worthy of a thought experiment.
Scripture clearly affirms that the Triune God is encountered as spirit and as love. As Spirit, God is not exclusively male or female; indeed God is neither; whatever language we use for God is symbolic, metaphorical and poetic, not literalistic. And because God is love, the Triune God has to be essentially relational and in relationship, because at the very least love requires lover and beloved.
Clearly Moltmann is both struggling, and playing with language as he delves into the interplay and relationship of Father and Son within the Trinity, when he puts forth the metaphorical language of God’s bisexuality or transsexuality. At the very least, it seems to me that he is arguing that gender specific language is woefully inadequate to the Godhead, metaphors and images drawn from both traditionally male and female characteristics are appropriate (and necessary?), and that the mystery of God transcends all such images.
If that is so, then perhaps the following are true – or definitely worth pondering:
- Both males and females are made in the image of God as we reflect something, but not all, of who God is.
- We each bear within ourselves both maleness and femaleness, since attributes or characteristics of both are exhibited within the Godhead.
- While maleness and femaleness are important and valued dimensions of being human and individual identities, if characteristics, images, roles, and metaphors assigned to each are transcended within the mystery of God, they do not have to have undue significance for us as humans who, regardless of gender identity, are all made in the image of God.
- Transgender and/or queer persons are valued, vital reminders to us of the utter mystery and wonder of God, who is at the heart of the universe and is not limited to, or bounded by our understandings, categorizations or endeavors to manipulate, control, legislate and reduce reality to our narrow expectations and comprehension. The God we meet in scripture truly embodies a Reality that transcends gender and is queer (e.g., “My ways are not your ways; my thoughts not your thoughts;” “God’s wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world; God’s power is weakness”); crosses boundaries; will not be limited, nailed down, or confined to specific spaces (tombs or toilets?); and is encountered in the demeaned, mocked, ridiculed, condemned, outcast, marginalized, rejected and scorned. How odd it would be of God, to be seen particularly clearly these days in these, the least of our sisters and brothers (Matthew 25:31 ff.).
- Galatians 3:26-28 is even more radically revolutionary and relevant than Paul (or we) might have imagined: “[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
This WOMP was reading Moltmann at the same time as the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church was ruling on a case involving Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married and openly lesbian who was elected a bishop last year and currently serves the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences. This is the most recent significant action in the denomination’s long wrestle with sexuality, done in the context of the ongoing endeavor of the church’s Commission on a Way Forward discerning whether we can find a better way to live together with our diverse understandings of sexuality. Following the Judicial Council’s ruling, the WCA (Wesleyan Covenant Association, a newly formed unofficial United Methodist group that holds church prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality to be part of Christian orthodoxy) responded, “We…call upon those who feel they cannot, in good conscience, abide by the doctrines and discipline of our church, to seek an honorable exit from our denomination.”
I confess I didn’t know the Church belonged to the WCA – or to the General Conference of The UMC, for that matter; my understanding from scripture is that none of us owns the Church but all submit to the Lordship of Christ who is the Head of the Church, which is his body. Once again, I am thinking that we continue to make sexuality a false idol to which we give undue priority and turn our stance of homosexuality into a heresy by overstating and overemphasizing something, and thereby creating a false imbalance. If God is surprisingly queer and/or transgender, perhaps we ought to lighten up, calm down and carry on, and revel in the mystery of God who continues to surprise us, lead us down unexpected paths, and reveal Godself in ways we could never have imagined.
One of the most dangerous and prideful risks taken by a retired preacher (or any homiletician not preaching on a particular day) is to share publicly how they would engage with a biblical text if given the opportunity. But as a WOMP (Worn Out Methodist Preacher) I have a certain liberty (or diminished sense of self-control) and much more free time to let my mind go where it will without having to meet that deadline my colleagues still face – the relentless return of the Sabbath.
Case in point: this week’s Old Testament lesson (5th Sunday in Lent) is Ezekiel 37:1-14 (http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Ezekiel+37:1-14&vnum=yes&version=nrsv). It’s the story of the prophet Ezekiel being caught up in a divine dream/vision in which he sees a valley of dry bones and is questioned by God as to whether the bones can live again. After following God’s commands to prophesy to the bones and to the wind/breath/spirit, the prophet sees the bones rise up as a mighty host, restored to life, at which God explains this is a vision of the the dried up, dead and hopeless people of Israel whom God will restore, reassemble and revive.
Rightly so and well done this week, the preacher I heard engage with the text named personal experiences of being dead, dried up and hopeless: loss of job or health or marriage, lost hopes for children, etc., and encouraged us to hear the promise that God is able to bring new life even to our most hopeless circumstances. He also broadened the scope of the sermon to marvel at the ways a missionary in another country works among the poorest of the poor to bring hope, education and new life to children displaced by the government to live literally among garbage heaps. Can these bones live? Yes! It was a word from the Lord, for sure, and I was grateful to be in a place to hear it.
But I hungered for more and found myself thinking, “If I was preaching this week what would I want to speak to God’s people? What are the questions I would want to ask and what would God’s gospel be?
I am indeed a WOMP and the Christian denomination I love and that formed and shaped me as a follower of the Way is at risk of schism in a way we have not faced since the American Civil War. Questions about right and proper attitudes and actions around sexuality, especially homosexuality, have been part of our theological terrain my entire ministry. That is not surprising; it’s been the situation for many oldline denominations, most of which have changed their practices to be more inclusive of GLBTQ folks, including allowing for ordination and officiating at same sex weddings.
But such things are not sanctioned by The United Methodist Church and there are strong forces on all sides pushing and pulling to change or maintain the status quo. Currently a special commission of our denomination is meeting regularly to discern if we can find a way forward to maintain unity in the midst of diversity, in preparation for a special called meeting of our General Conference to determine what changes, if any, we should make in our polity and practice around human sexuality, or whether we will break the heart of Jesus and sunder his Body once more.
Last month I had a conversation with another WOMP who is convinced that division of the denomination is inevitable, or we face a season of church trials and punishment of progressives by traditionalists. My colleague is resigned to the death of the denomination as we know it, the consequence of a bridge too far for progressives and traditionalists; his deeply sad words echoed for me the despair and seeming hopelessness of Ezekiel’s vision scene; if I was preaching this week, I would address the existential threat we United Methodists face and ask the question, “Can these bones live again?” (Ironically, our Annual Conference has been asked to pray this week for the denomination as part of a systematic strategy of prayer as the commission seeks a way forward; where I worshiped we indeed did pray, but based on the way the prayer was framed I wondered if most of us gathered had any idea of how fraught our future is or what the issues are that evoked such a request).
If I was preaching this week, I would announce the hopeful news that even these bones of The United Methodist Church can indeed live as we confess the truth of our dry and barren faith, our lifeless worship and lack of zeal for the ways of God, our cheap grace and easy ways, our arid discipleship and lack of vibrant desire to seek and welcome all, our seeming lack of interest in being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, our clinging to the familiar tradition that cannot have a vision/dream that God can indeed do new things beyond our understanding or comfort, our contentment with the status quo, and our reticent resistance truly to seek God’s will and purpose for us, no matter the cost. We grumble about denominational decline, but seem to be more focused on membership and facile faith than costly discipleship or following a Lord who seemed to break barriers of division and prejudice with extravagant, graceful, holy glee.
Can these bones live again? Yes, if we understand that life is restored as we heed and respond to the grand Story and Vision of God experienced in scripture (which means we also have to read, know, take seriously and be shaped by the whole of scripture), which from beginning to end is a story of radical trust and adherence to God’s ways marked by compassion, mercy, speaking and living the truth in love, forgiveness, accountability, commitment to healing, humility, sacrificial long-suffering, extraordinary hospitality, generosity, and counter-cultural risk for the sake of God’s Empire – even when that puts us at odds with the ways of the world and whatever empire(s) also want our allegiance and final loyalty. Instead of trying to save an institution, dry bones come alive as fresh winds of the Spirit blow and take us where we are not in control or try to program and legislatively manipulate for our purposes, but pray, seek, listen, discern, and submit to God’s ways. The prophet and we are blessed as we trust that our hope ultimately is in God’s good purposes, plans, and power, and not ours. Instead of being actors, the bones live as we are acted upon because we know that on our own we can do nothing.
And as an American citizen who also is a Christ follower, 10 weeks into the new US administration, I would want to know if these bones of our civil society can live again. When political leaders claim (as has White House political strategist Steve Bannon) that they want to “deconstruct” the body politic, is that akin to scattering the bones of our life together? Are we at risk of having the life sucked out of the body politic by dissembling, division and ill-will, disregard for one another (especially the most weak and vulnerable), and bullying and battering of one another and our most cherished values and commitments as a nation? Are we at risk of losing what has truly made us great in exchange for a thin gruel of nativism, racism, Islamophobia, heterosexism, xenophobia and overly monetized values that cheapen our souls? Can these bones live again?
Again, I would announce the odd, counter-cultural, radical hopeful promise that they can live and that we as people of the Cross have a special role to play by relentlessly and humbly advocating for the disadvantaged and marginalized (including the so-called “deplorables” who also are precious and beloved), speaking the truth in love to and about one another, believing the best of each other, praying fervently for our leaders, welcoming the stranger, living by the Golden Rule (treating other the way we would want if we were in their shoes), listening to all, and working fervently to find a way to live together that more fully resembles the Commonwealth of Heaven, where all are cherished, respected and valued. The church and other faith communities have great potential to be the one remaining place where people of differing political priorities and perspectives can come together united in the common purpose of serving God (and for us followers of the Way, emulating Christ who is Lord of all), speaking respectfully and faithfully to one another, and seeking together to work on the shared agenda of doing God’s will and not being beholden ultimately to any political party.
Those are hard words, not easily spoken or readily received. But I wish I could have said them, or heard them this week.
I went to church today and once again, the Gospel and Jesus messed with my mind and heart. And of all places, it was at an Episcopal Church and the Word was brought by an old white guy. Who knew such miracles could happen!?
Each week Bruton Parish Episcopal Church offers a mid-week service of Holy Communion. It’s about as traditional as you can get: Bruton Parish is located on Duke of Gloucester Street in the heart of historic Colonial Williamsburg and dates back to 1715; the liturgy is from The Book of Common Prayer with its florid language; the meal is wine and those dry communion wafers that have no taste, stick to the roof of your mouth, and sometimes remind me more of styrofoam than the Savior.
Today’s Gospel lesson and the homily (fancy pants word for a sermon) focused on St. Matthew. In the Christian Church calendar, this is his feast day (the last time I went to Bruton Parish for this service, the focus was on St. Bartholomew’s feast day; I appreciate the Church’s odd sense of humor that a man flayed to death is the patron saint of leather workers – but that’s for another blog post perhaps).
The Gospel reading for today was Matthew 9:9-13. Here’s the text, just in case you haven’t memorized the Bible yet:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (New International Version)
The presiding priest made the familiar point that as a tax collector Matthew would have been seen as an outsider to avoid, the scum of the earth in the eyes of many, someone not to be welcomed at anyone’s dinner table and definitely not someone whose party you would attend.
But Jesus is not just anyone, thank God. He sees Matthew, apparently values him, perceives Matthew’s need and ability, and attends his party. And when the local clergy association has a conniption fit Jesus says he’s come specifically for people like Matthew, and then gives them a homework assignment: learn the meaning of mercy (maybe that’s where Pope Francis learned some of his holy heart lessons).
The point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel? There are no outsiders; all have value and are beloved; all count; all lives matter, including those we think don’t. To build his case, the priest referenced today the end of Matthew’s story when Jesus calls his followers to go into all the world (Matthew 28).
And then came the slam dunk that left me reeling: he retold Jesus’ story of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25), which says simply that our eternal salvation depends on how we treat those we think don’t count – the hungry or thirsty, the sick or imprisoned, the naked or the stranger All those outsiders on the margins matter to God and we more fully reflect the image of God when they become the focus of our care as well.
If there are no outsiders, if we are all in this together, if we are all embraced by God’s arms no matter who we are, then boundaries and borders disappear. That sounds good, right? Until it hit me upside the head. That includes the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger at our border seeking a home, healing, and hope. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Oh, my good Lord.
There Jesus goes again, messing with my mind and heart, calling me to see things differently with new eyes, with God’s eyes. And it’s Matthew’s fault this time (thanks to that old white preacher who just stood there talking while the universe shifted beneath my feet). You see, Matthew’s Gospel is the one that tells about the birth of Jesus the refugee whose family must flee for their lives; Matthew’s gives us that sweet picture of Jesus the undocumented family member who shows up at Egypt’s border without a passport fleeing danger and death; Jesus the immigrant who will live in Egypt not knowing the language or customs or practicing that community’s religion; Jesus the suspect outsider.
What if Jesus, Joseph and Mary had been denied entry? What if the Egyptians had built a fence to keep out strangers like them? What if the police showed up one day at their house in downtown Cairo (you can visit a church in that city that is built over the traditional site of their home there) and deported them back to that fearful place they fled?
What if Jesus is still standing at our border, at the fence, his life in danger still? The truth is, Matthew’s Jesus still is. That thought, that image from today is what haunts me.
No wonder the political and religious leaders of his day put Jesus on a cross. He didn’t get crucified because he was nice, but because he was a threat. And today my preconceived notions and perspectives were threatened. All I wanted to do was go to church and meet Jesus. That happened, but not on my terms. That’s why I am still in the process of conversion, still doing the hard homework of learning mercy in order to see with God’s eyes and to love with God’s heart and to let God set the agenda. I am yet a work in process of transformation.
Pope Francis has called on all Roman Catholic institutions to sponsor at least one refugee family. Maybe he’s assuming that if such hospitality is offered, Jesus will be there, too. What if all of us who claim to follow Jesus were to take up that holy calling, and Protestant and Eastern Orthodox congregations, campus ministries, colleges and universities, hospitals and retirement facilities also offered their open doors, open minds, open hearts? What kind of transformation and blessing would transpire, not only for the welcomed but for us standing at the door? I think part of the appeal of the Pope is that he seems to take Jesus seriously; he is the fragrance of Christ (to borrow a New Testament image) in a stuffy, stinky world. What might happen if the world saw Francis joined by legions of Jesus’ lovers, also open to seeing and serving this refugee Redeemer, the immigrant incarnating the Holy One, the stranger Savior?
When Jesus was crucified, it happened outside the city’s walls. Ultimately, even to the end, Jesus himself was the outsider, the outcast, and cast-off. And if I am going to find him today, I better go and stand there, too. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, thanks be to God.
Following the murders in Charleston, SC, of nine Christians engaged in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the bishops of that denomination called on people of faith across our land to focus the weekend of September 5-7 on Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism. As is often the case, the lectionary of readings for this Sunday provided a providentially apt set of readings relevant to this prayerful call by the bishops (which was echoed by Young Jin Cho, my own United Methodist bishop here in Virginia. Here is what the Spirit brought me to say as I sought to bear witness to God’s Word yesterday at Highland Springs UMC in Highland Springs, VA.
I have a confession to make – in 42 years of ministry I’ve never preached on this text. I avoided it because quite frankly, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Jesus. His table manners might’ve been socially acceptable in his day but they’re still rather crude and rude. If we like gentle Jesus meek and mild, always caring and kind, he’s not here. It’s troubling and unsettling and takes us where we’d rather not go.
In Mark’s story Jesus is traveling in the area of modern day Lebanon. He needs to recharge his batteries and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. But here comes this woman looking for help. Poor Jesus can’t get a break or a day off.
Mark describes her as Syro-Phoenician, a Gentile. The Greek says she’s a Hellenist; inMatthew’s gospel she’s even worse – a Canaanite. In other words she’s the worst kind of outsider. In the Bible Canaanites are always the bad guys; in Jewish history the Hellenists caused some of the worst persecutions Jews ever faced. And Jews weren’t really sure Gentiles were human, so Jesus’ harsh attitude toward this woman fit right in with his time and culture.
Add to that, she’s a woman. In Jesus’ day women and men who aren’t family just don’t deal with each other; women know their place and stay in it. But here she is, uninvited into the house looking for Jesus out to ask a favor.
Now she is respectful and humble; Mark says she falls atJesus’ feet to beg him to heal her little girl. Who could turn away and not feel pity for her? Apparently Jesus can.
And he does it in a rather crass and cruel way. In our reading Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t bother me or waste my time. I’ve got better things to dothan deal with people like you.” Ouch.
One more thing really stings and hurts here. We see dogs and puppies as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. We love them. That’s not how they’re seen in Jesus’ day. They’re wild scavengers; curs to be kicked aside and chased away. Dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Basically Jesus calls this woman and her daughter dogs, female dogs. At its worst Jesus may be guilty of using the B word on them. Truth be told, Jesus sounds like a sexist racist.
But there is good news here. I love that Jesus’ is so human. We Christians claim a great mystery: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Sometimes we want to smooth the raw edges in our picture of Jesus, but scripture says he was like us in every way, except without sin. He’s a creature of his own day and time; a first century Jew, part of a culture that sees women and non-Jews in a particular way. There’s no sin in that. The sin would be to stay that way when given a better, wiser way that’s more like God’s ways.
That’s what this woman does for Jesus. She opens his eyes wider to see more clearly. She’s the only person in the New Testament who gets the best of Jesus in an argument. I love that. Jesus rudely dismisses her; but she’s a Momma in need and won’t take “No” for an answer with her little girl’s life on the line. Jesus tells her, “It’ not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she comes right back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Take that, Jesus. Even Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, women and dogs have a place at God’s table of grace and mercy and healing and hope.
Just before this story, Jesus has a huge slap fight with Jewish religious leaders who are too focused on doing everything just so. Jesus rants at them, “You are so busy holding on to human traditions that you let go of God’s commandments.” And here’s this woman holding Jesus’ feet to the fire challenging him for doing the very same thing. Whoa.
Jesus is like us in every way except sin. The sin would be for Jesus to hold onto the human tradition of treating some better than others, as if there are 1st and 2nd class citizens. Thanks to this woman, Jesus’ very human eyes are opened to see that God’s ways are even greater and broader and wider than Jesus first thought. And Jesus changes his ways and his mind and his heart to match up to God. He is converted and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Typically Jesus connects healing with faith; here it’s the woman’s reasoning that produces the miracle. Her logic brings the change not only to her daughter, but to Jesus, too.
I love the way Mark tells his tale. In chapter 6 Jesus feeds 5000 Jews with bread and fish. In this chapter Jesus says the children’s bread shouldn’t be given to dogs but his mind is changed. That’s what conversion is. And in chapter 8 Jesus again provides bread to a crowd., but this time it’s Gentiles he feeds because he has compassion on them. Even Jesus can grow to see God’s ways in new ways; he’s blessed because of this woman God uses to make it happen.
That’s good news for us, too, because we’re Gentiles. We’re the outsiders Jesus might have missed without her opening his eyes and heart.
And there’s more good news. If the Son of God can grow in his understanding of God’s ways, so can we. If Jesus can be blessed through the honest wise words of another, so can we. We need each other; we need church folks to be open and honest with us to challenge and stretch us to live more fully for God. That’s what it means to be church, the Body of Christ together.
Some of us grew up in a time and place and that was deeply racist and sexist. There’s no sin in that. The sin is to stay there. Jesus doesn’t stay with his limited attitudeafter his encounter with this woman in need, and we don’t have to stay tied to old, small ways, either.
Our world still doesn’t fully reflect God’s broad bright ways; Jesus still groans as he heals. Racism and prejudice are alive among us, maybe in our own hearts. Some say we have to say “Black Lives Matter” because in many ways our culture says they really don’t matter.
After the racially hate-filled murders of nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops asked Christians across US to join today in confession, repentance, prayer and commitment to end racism. Our own Bishop Cho made that call to us as well.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can’t stay deaf and mute to this cancer still eating at our soul. Healing comes as we listen and learn from those who are different, with different life experiences. Blessing comes as we allow ourselves like the Lord Jesus to be challenged and changed by truth heard in unexpected places. In my own life I thank God for the honest hard words and the humble life of a guy named Ben Nelson, my pastor during my teen years. God used him to convert and change this narrow-minded racist boy toward the better way of Christ. It’s true – the gospel really is that powerful and wonderful.
This winter I talked with some Randolph-Macon College students of color about their life on that largely white campus. It wasn’t easy to hear what they said, but I’m glad they told me the truth. I told them not to stay silent, and one woman said that’s hard: white folks can feel guilty and she didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But I said I hoped she’d speak up anyway because that’s how healing and conversion and better days come.
Today we come to be fed today at this table where the Lord is again present. Let us confess and repent of whatever keeps us from walking God’s wide way of grace for all; ask for healing so we won’t be deaf to the stories of our brothers and sisters and silent no more in the face of racism or prejudice. Like the woman long ago let us fall on our knees and ask for mercy for us and our land and make a new commitment to the loving way of Jesus; then our table manners will be worthy of the One who calls and heals and welcomes us all, thanks be to God.