Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Update and Gone For a Bit...

Thanks to all of you (you know who you are) who sent good vibes and prayers and suggestions my way before the debate last month--they were felt and appreciated!

We're struggling here in River City. Finances at the church are very tight--this is a factory town, and our main product is cars and car parts, and they aren't selling well these days. The trickle-down effect here is that people get laid off, or they fear getting laid off, and so they spend less. They don't buy clothes as much, they stay in the old house instead of buying a new one, they order pizza in instead of going out to dinner, they rent a movie instead of going to a concert...you know how it goes. They also, unfortunately, tithe less. Things need to pick up very soon.

Strong Heart is back to work! Too soon, in my humble-and-not-medical opinion, but then I'm not the one in charge of when she goes back (nor is she, unfortunately).

We're checking out another health issue for me--lump on the other side, probably a cysy but uncertain. I felt a bit stupid and hypochondriac for even bringing it up, but the doc reassured me. Between my family history and plain prudence, it needs to be checked out. No word on the date for that yet.

I'm still missing Mr. M. From time to time, something will remind me of him--a photo of a corgi at I Can Has Cheezburger (my new favourite time-wasting site, BTW), or the biscuit bar at Mega-Pet when Strong Heart and I stop by for fish supplies; or his crate, still in the corner of my living room. It was time to let him go, but I still miss him...

Next week is vacation time! Well, clergy-vacation...I think a lot of people wouldn't see it as vacation, but Strong Heart and I do. We're off on a retreat for a few days, to my fav retreat place EVAH...GilChrist Retreat Center.

Wow, two links in one post--better quit here before I hurt something! I hope to check in to the Friday Five and the Preacher Party (even though I'm not preaching this Sunday), but if I don't, y'all have a good week!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dogs and Crumbs

(Sermon draft for August 17, 2008)
Isaiah 56:1-8 (New Revised Standard)

Thus says God. Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Holy One say, “God will surely separate me from God’s people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says God: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to God, to minister to the Holy One, to love the name of God, and to be God’s servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those

already gathered.

Matthew 15:21-28 (New Revised Standard)

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Teacher, Descendent of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Teacher, help me.” Jesus answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Teacher, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

****

Will you pray with me? Holy One, bless this time, hallow the words spoken and heard, open our hearts and spirits to what you want us to hear. May I be a channel of your truth, your peace, your love. In all your names, amen.

This is an interesting pairing of readings. The Isaiah passage is one of my favourites in the Bible—poetic and hopeful, so welcoming and inclusive. The Matthew passage, on the other hand, is very painful and difficult to hear.

Jesus, the Jesus I worship and love, here is insulting, rude, and even brutal to this woman who is looking for healing for her ill daughter. He calls her a “Canaanite woman,” but there was no Canaan at the time Jesus lived on earth. The Canaanites were the ones the Hebrews kicked out, conquered, after they left Egypt. He’s insulting her, reminding her that her people are conquered, even as the Jews were conquered by the Romans. And then he gets even more offensive, when he compares her to a dog—an animal that was unclean to the Jews of the day. In other words, he’s calling her dirty, unfit to speak to a religious teacher, outcast, lowest of the low. She is frightened for her daughter, and goes to the only source of healing she has available to her—Jesus. And he turns up his nose at her.

That’s hard…very hard to hear.

But she’s brave—she doesn’t let him get away with that bigotry. At some level, she knows she deserves to be heard, and reminds Jesus that while he may view her as an outcast—a dog—she is still one of God’s children, made in God’s image, part of the household of God, and that God cares for her, too—even if it’s just to give her crumbs.

Crumbs.
Big City Church
collects food for the Youth Center in River City which offers meals, safe space and shelter to GLBT youth. With the worsening economy, many of the kids are losing their jobs, having to move out of their apartments because they can’t pay the rent, facing a choice of paying their rent or buying groceries—needing help of all kinds. So BCC collects food every week. As the office administrator, I bag it all up and meet the folks from YC who come to pick it up. The last few weeks I’ve noticed something that bothered me at first. The baskets were full of cans of fruit and vegetables, boxes of cereal, jars of pasta sauce and bottles of juice. There were bags of rice, boxes of granola bars—even some bags of chips! But I also saw that someone had apparently cleaned out their cupboard of food they didn’t eat anymore, they had purchased by mistake, or had been given to them and they didn’t want it. There were bags of holiday-shaped pasta—red and green Christmas trees and stars and candy canes—of fancy salsa dips and salad dressings, cans of artichoke hearts and lima beans.

My first thought was sarcastic, I’m sorry to say. “How generous—giving away stuff you don’t want anyway!” And then I thought again. Those folks were giving food, after all; it might not be the kids’ favourite, or mine; it might not be terribly practical for a food program; but it was good food and edible. The cooks at YC are ingenious, as the executive director told me when she picked up the latest batch of food. They can use just about anything, one way or another, even a single can of artichoke hearts and some lima beans.

Those cans of lima beans and artichoke hearts may be crumbs—but they are food for the hungry.

The woman who insisted on healing for her daughter didn’t get crumbs, though, did she? Jesus gave her exactly what she had asked for—healing for her daughter. Not crumbs, but a full meal.

Later in Jesus' life, when he’s at the Temple in Jerusalem, he becomes angered by the profiteering he sees there, and overturns the tables, and says that God’s temple should be a house of prayer—and everyone who heard him would have known the rest of the verse—A house of prayer for all nations. He took the woman’s words fully to heart, and made them part of his mission.

Jesus learned. Jesus learned! Some people might think that’s a bit blasphemous or wrong—that Jesus was perfect, that he had nothing to learn. But I believe that Jesus was human—human and divine—but while on earth, human. And therefore he could learn, and change and grow.

Who do we think of as dogs? Who do we begrudgingly pray for, knowing we “ought” to, when we really feel that those persons don’t deserve our prayers or our time? Is it the Fred Phelps of the world, who blames the ills of Canada on the fact that same-gender love is recognised and accepted here? Parenthetically—Phelps says that God is allowing lawlessness in Canada and such events as the horrific murder of Tim McLean on the Greyhound bus because Canada legalised same-gender marriage. Is it the homeless person we see in same bus shelter day after day whom we think could surely find someplace to live if she only looked hard enough? Is it the man with depression—surely he can just snap out of it? Or perhaps it’s the radical feminist, unwilling to compromise her principles; or the Muslim—of whatever sect—whom we feel is simply wrong. Is it the co-worker who always has something negative to say? Who do we see as dogs?

If Jesus opened his eyes, widened his vision, can’t we too? Can’t we get to know them, listen to their story, hear them out? We may not like them as individuals, we may disagree with their politics or religious views, but if we know them as people, if we can talk with them, then we can learn to see them, too, as children of God, worthy of our acceptance and help. And we can also understand that we can learn from them. I do not accept anything Fred Phelps says; I do not believe in a God who hates anyone, much less a God who hates me. I cannot accept any of his statements or beliefs. And yet I am impressed by the strength with which he clings to his convictions, wrong as I think they are, and I have to wonder—faced with the derision and laughter and resistance he faces, would I be able to continue as strongly as he does? As someone once said, in another context, “I may not agree with what you say; but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Over and over, I have found that people I thought I didn’t like, or people I feared, turned out to be people I could like, or accept, or even be friends with. When I accepted the invitation to speak at Conservative Church a couple weeks ago, I was, I’ll admit, a bit scared. I assumed that the congregation would not be very welcoming, that the pastor was setting me up just to knock me down and make the congregation feel all right about their beliefs on same-gender love. I was afraid of the person I was opposing in the debate—he’s a journalist, experienced with words and media, how could I hope to appear as informed and glib?

The reality was far different. The pastor was very welcoming, wanting to be educated, wanting to understand. He told his congregation several times that he was not going to tell them what to think—they should listen to me and to my opponent in the debate, and then make up their own minds. They were the ones who had to answer to God for how they resolved their beliefs, he said—so they had to use their own God-given reason, understanding, and compassion. I had expected cold politeness; and instead received a warm welcome. The congregation was wonderful; attentive, respectful, responsive. And my opponent turned out to be a relatively young man whose skill lies in writing, who, I think, is still struggling with his identity.

They were not dogs. Nor was I. We did not share crumbs, but a meal of conversation and honest exchange. We got to know each other, to really see each other.

Can we do that? You and I, every day? Can we open our eyes to those around us, and offer them a willingness to understand, to share, to get to know them?

That’s what Jesus learned that day—that are no limits to God’s love and bounty and grace; all of us are part of God’s household and welcome there. No one should be getting only crumbs, but everyone deserves a share in the rich meal of God’s plenty.

Next time we are faced with someone we think is outside that circle of God’s love, can we open up and allow ourselves to learn from them? Can we come to see those “others” whom we fear or distrust as a part of God’s people, not as outcast dogs? That’s our task—difficult as it sometimes is—to see God in every person, to learn from them, to hear their story and try to understand them.

Be warned, though—just because you are willing to be open and learn from them doesn’t mean they will be willing to be open in return. You may only get hostility, mistrust and dishonesty in return. But I guarantee you that if you don’t reach out, you won’t gain any understanding, and they won’t either. All you can do is make the attempt—try to learn from them—and if they are not willing to teach, at least you know you attempted.

Next time we are faced with someone we don’t like or trust or understand—can we agree to talk to them? Try to understand their beliefs, try to find out why and how they think and feel and act the way they do. What barriers have they faced? What do they believe? What is lacking in their lives—or what is there too much of in their lives?

Once we learn something about them as individuals, whether we come to like them or not, we can see them as truly God’s people, as we are. And then indeed, in the words of the Psalmist, how pleasant it is when families live together in harmony! I might add, especially when the family of God lives together in harmony.

In all God’s names, amen.