"Lose the Label" August 14, 2011; Pentecost 9 Year A
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected God’s people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected God’s people whom God foreknew, for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.
Matt 15: 21-28
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.” Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Rabbi, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Rabbi, 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? You who know each of us by name, open our hearts to speak and hear your word for our lives and for the lives of those around us. Bless us with wisdom, understanding and compassion as we seek to serve others and bring your realm to this earth. In your many names, amen.
Facebook is a many-faceted thing. I find it can be a great way to keep up, at least somewhat, with friends and family, to share photos, to spread information, to keep people up to date on the church—and it can also be a terrible temptation to procrastination! But it also can be lifter of spirits, an energizer, when a friend I don’t get to talk to much usually sends an expected message or posts just the quote I needed to hear.
Yesterday I was trying to finalize this sermon—I knew what I wanted to say, what I needed to say—and then my friend posted a video that reminded me of one of my favourite musicians of all time.
His name is Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, or Iz, as he is known—or was, because he died in 1997. I listened to some of his music, after that reminder, and as I listened, I realized how much his story has to say to us today.
Iz was born around the same time—within days—and in the same city, as President Obama—but their lives went in very different directions. Iz never went to college or university, and lived all his life in his beloved Hawai’ian islands. He was morbidly obese from a fairly young age—and by morbidly, I mean more than 700 pounds at one point, 340 k on a 6’2” body. His chosen instrument was the ukulele—a native instrument generally used only for comedic effect outside of the Islands. He was a native, his mother was from the most undeveloped, most native island.
There’s nothing there to say he was anything special—that someone so obscure, with seemingly so little going for him could make any mark on the world, leave anything positive behind him.
There are all kinds of labels we could put on Iz; Hawai’ian, native, obscure, ignorant, unattractive, unhealthy, a joke.
And yet. His recordings of Over the Rainbow, What a Wonderful World and others of his songs have been used in movies, commercials, and have been on the top of all sorts of charts. When his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean at Makua Beach, thousands were there, tossing leis and flowers from their outriggers, wading into the water to be closer to the canoe with his ashes, singing his songs, mourning his passing.
Iz’s music is timeless, haunting, moving. He sings about the simple things in life—love, hope, dreams. His life and example encouraged many young Hawai’ians who felt outcast or marginalised because of their native birth or because of Hawai’I’s isolation from the continental US. Iz’s music offered them a way to be proud of who they were, instead of ashamed, and the courage to work for a better life. One of his songs has become a political song; E Ala E.
For me personally, I love his music, and listen to it regularly. I don’t speak Hawai’ian, but the sounds of his voice and the music of the ukulele tell of peace and hope, breathe the beauty of the islands, and offer a vision of what could be.
So much for those labels.
We are used to having labels put on us, in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and allied community. Do we label other people? Of course we do.
Jesus labelled the Canaanite women who asked him to heal her daughter. She was female, an outsider, a Gentile; she was not “one of his kind.” Jesus says that God sent him only to the children of Israel…but she argues that. Even the ones who are seen as “less-than,” she says, get crumbs, a little something. No one is completely thrown out of God’s household—there’s a place for everyone.
And Jesus changes his thinking, opens his mind and his heart a bit more and heals her daughter.
Some commentators want us to think that Jesus didn’t really mean that he wouldn’t heal the child, that he was testing the disciples to see what they would say and how they would react; or that he was being ironic, and didn’t really mean it. I have a hard time with any of these readings. I think he did mean it, just like it reads. She was not someone he was prepared to help—she was not one of his “kind” and he wanted nothing to do with her problems.
Sometimes we forget that not only was Jesus wholly divine, he was also wholly human. Being completely human meant he made mistakes. Fewer than the rest of us, probably, but mistakes nonetheless. There is a tradition of so-called infancy gospels, written in the second and third century of our era, in which Jesus, as a boy, does things like push bullies out of windows and resurrect birds. He was a normal human child—hard as it may be for us to comprehend, as a baby he cried and needed his diaper changed. In fact, one of the reasons the infant Jesus is naked in so much Christian art to show that he was indeed a human being.
So…Jesus made an error of judgement; he labelled someone and excluded them from God’s blessing. What does he do when he realizes his mistake?
Does he make excuses—“I’m just doing what God sent me to do” or evade responsibility—“One of my disciples must have said that, I don’t agree with it, of course I’ll heal your daughter.” No. Does he try to say she must have misunderstood him, or that he meant something different? No.
He says, in effect, “I was wrong, and you are right. Of course I will heal your daughter.”
Paul, in the first reading, from Romans, is making the same point this mother makes. God does not draw circles around God’s mercy. All God’s children receive God’s good gifts. Whether a person is born Hebrew or Greek, gay or straight, rich or not-so-rich…a violinist or ukulele player, a lawyer or a farmer, from Rome or New York or Calgary or Honolulu…makes no difference. All are God’s children and bear no labels before God, except one—“I am a child of God.”
It’s difficult for our human minds to grasp, but the Canaanite woman, Pilate, Paul, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Stalin, Pierre Trudeau, Pol Pot, Mother Teresa, Iz, and you and I—we are all equally God’s beloved children.
It’s time we took those labels off ourselves and others.
Whatever the labels you see and you use—on others, on yourself—take them off. As a sign said at Pride—“Labels are for cans, not people.” When we label, we reduce people to being just what we label them—a stranger, instead of a mother seeking healing for her daughter. A crazy woman, instead of a person trying to follow God’s call to serve the poorest people. A huge man who plays a silly instrument, instead of a gifted musician with the ability to lead people beyond their own fears and despair.
My friends, remember this from today’s lessons from Paul and from Matthew’s gospel. Lose the label. You know those labels on mattresses that say “Do not remove under penalty of law?” They mean the store where you bought the mattress, not you. You can take it off. There are lots of labels we can remove when we look around us—old, young, ill, well, Christian, non-Christian, woman, man. Take off those labels and allow your sisters and brothers to reveal themselves as God made them to be, as they really are.
Lose the label.
In the name of the one who loves all of us, amen.