Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to A Sermon; The Sermon

Matt 15: 21-28
Amazing and Uncomfortable Faith
'Woman great is your faith'

What does the word 'faith' mean?
Does 'having faith' mean that we proscribe to a set of beliefs? Accept certain ideas about God?
We affirm that God exists in trinity even though that is a hard concept to understand and explain.

Does 'having faith' mean that we belong to the Church or a church? We are a part of 'the faith because we regularly attend worship at a Christian church, and take part in the practices of that church, Baptism, communion or in some churches the larger list of sacraments?
Does 'having faith' mean that we believe in something? I mean just a generic sense of belief that things will be ok?

Last week Jesus seemed to chastise Peter's 'little faith' although I really thing he was chastising with a smile. This week, Jesus points out the 'Great faith' of the Canaanite women (and by the way, this is the only instance in all of the gospels of Jesus calling anyone's faith 'Great', so we are witnessing something very special, very unique.)

I think 'faith' has become a bit of a cheap word to be honest with you.
Just about everybody would say they have faith. A vast percentage of American's say they believe in or have faith in God. But by that they often just mean that they like to believe that someone out there is a nice warm soft cuddly old man with a beard who smiles a lot and gives us a couple bucks when we mow the lawn. We really don't have to pay too much attention to God and God generally just sits back and lets us do as we wish in life, occasionally giving us a pat on the back.
'You've got to have faith' I've heard one person say to another, before they get on an airplane. Have faith in what, the plane? The pilot? So faith is trusting in the laws of physics or in technology.
'You've got to have faith' I've heard one person say to another, who is going through a tough time, financially, or in their relationship or with their health. Its kind of a way of say , 'Oh, it will be all right.' When we really don't know if it will be all right.
Much like the dollar, the value of the word 'faith' has been sinking.

The Canaanite woman has 'Great' faith.
What makes it so great?

Well, she is a woman, publically approaching a man. Women just didn't do that in this time and place and culture. Faith has urged her flaunt what is considered respectable, proper, and polite in public to make a shocking scene.

She is a Canaanite woman. Canaanites were the enemies of Israel. When Moses and then Joshua, lead Israel into Canaan, God commanded Joshua to actually destroy Canaanites (in a particularly unsavoury Bible story) They were dangerous to the children of God and so Israel was to avoid them and even in some cases destroy them. This woman is braving thousands of years of history, ethnic tension, and even, genocide. She is crossing the boundaries of race and religion and extending a hand to the enemy in order to help her daughter.

If you are keeping score with me, notice how different this 'faith' is from the popular concept of faith. While the popular idea of faith does not risk anything and does not cost anything and is just a general 'everything will be ok,' in this story, the Canaanite woman is risking public shame and courageously breaking through age old walls of distrust, difference and violence. Faith doesn't erase questions and risks, at least in this case, faith drives the Canaanite woman into the teeth of danger and doubts.

Now, an interesting and unpleasant thing happened to me on the way to this sermon. Sitting in my office making initial notes and thoughts and struggling with what I could possibly do with this story, I got a phone call. It wasn't so much that it was a phone call any different from the rest. A woman calls, doesn't have rent, just moved to RI with her husband to find work, but he got terribly ill and she lost her job caring for him and now they are about to loose their apartment (they have two kids too by the way) and she needs help. Well, she only needed $200.00 and I figured we could swing that through the deacons fund. Then I asked her address. It wasn't a Burrillville address, or Harrisville or Pascoag... She lived in another part of the state.
Well, I'm sorry I say, we have to limit our assistance to people in our community. We try to be generous, but we do have limited funds and we can only serve people in our community. Why don't you call; and I listed some Baptist Churches in her area.
What was troubling me about this story suddenly became very real.

You see we have this idea in our heads about Jesus; he is not troubled by women who make public displays, he has stopped to listen to and heal many. He is not troubled by foreigners, he has healed them or their children or their servants too. We have this idea in our heads about Jesus who looks at the crowd with compassion, his guts torn out by their pain, which he alieves as only he can. And that is what we expect...

But in this story, he completely ignores the Canaanite woman. Perhaps he even rolls his eyes and tries to pretend his attention is elsewhere.
She persists.
He does turn to her and speak to her, but he says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
I'd like to help you see, but I can't because I'm only here for Burrillville residents. Did you hear it?
She persists again, getting on her knees.
It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.
Did you hear that. Jesus just called her a dog. This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to.
And I didn't know what to do with this story.

The next day I sit, still struggling with what on earth to say about this Jesus who would ignore and then belittle someone who needed help when the phone rang again.
It was the woman.
Help me, she said.
I rolled my eyes, I don't have time, I've got to get this sermon done and do some visits.
Help me, she said.
I can't you are from burrilville. You aren't one of my children, Ask someone else.
I did. They don't return my calls, they only help church members.
they accuse me of being a drug addict or a scam artist.
Did you hear it?
How do I say No?
How do I say Yes?

In the end I never did figure out why it is that Jesus ignores the woman, says he doesn't have time or resources for her, and then, calls her names... I still don't know why that is in here.
I do know that
I don't have time for this
I don't have the resources, the money, the energy for this
I don't have to help you because I don't think you deserve it...
I do know now that whether or not we like to hear Jesus say these things, and I don't think we do,
we often (I often) utter these excuses.

For those of you keeping score; we have a snapshot of what faith isn't. I don't know why we get that snapshot of what faith isn't by looking at Jesus. It almost sounds blasphemous to say, but there it is.
What is that saying, Life is what happens when you are trying to do something else.
Perhaps that is true of faith. For me, a chance to practice faith and faithfulness came while I was trying to do what is central to a pastors faith in God and to his congregation, write a sermon.
Being in a hurry or focused on other things, is an obstacle to faith.
Viewing challenges and situations with doubts as to our resources, is a faith block.
Judging the worthiness of others walls in our faith.
When we don't pay attention, don't have enough time or resource, don't think others are worth it...
we aren't walking into the teeth of doubts and fears and risks , where faith is meant to be.

I went into our gospel lesson assuming that the most uncomfortable part of it was Jesus reaction to the canaanite woman. I came out of this story particularly uncomfortable with what I had learned about faith. While the world and many popular preachers present faith as a peaceful presence and a blessed assurance that all will be well, demanding little from me but a positive and hopeful attitude... this story instead tells me, this Canaanite woman tells me, that faith is that which afflicts me to move from comfort and apathy or passivity, into the jaws of peoples needs, God's call and the tension that comes when we realize that the answers are not always easy, that God has called us to move, to act, to change. Faith doesn't mean that it will all be quickly well, it may get worse before it gets better, it may not get any easier for me... but it will be the will of God and it will bring glory to the Kingdom.
Faith makes us queasy. The Canaanite woman must have felt that awful sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she approached Jesus, was ignored by him, chastized by him. But the queasy feeling didn't stop her. Jesus must have felt queasy when he heard her voice; queasy because he was weary, queasy because there was so much left to do and he didn't need this interruption, queasy because the Canaanites had never wanted God before, but now, this canaanite, never praying to God before, now, that life was particularly tough, now she wanted God. Great Faith will make your queasy...

William Willimon tells a story that he saw on the television immediately after the attacks of 9-11. A mother and father were being interviewed as they had tragically lost their daughter. The interviewer closed by wishing that the mother and father could find solace in worship. To which the mother replied, 'we are christians. Jesus taught that we would forgive those who wrong us. I'm not ready to forgive yet, so I might need some space from Jesus for a while.' That is a great faith, that understands that following Christ's commands is not always an easy or comfortable prospect.

But I ended up amazed.
Amazed at this woman. Amazed at the utter determination that she exhibited. The conviction she had that God could and would transform the reality of her daughter possession to a new, healthy, happy and free reality. Amazed that she could see the impossible and demand the impossible.
I ended up amazed that this woman could accomplish so much when her faith didn't promise easy answers, quick solutions and refused to demand much of her. Instead her faith, her great faith, pushed her into a difficult and even painful situation, Her great faith shoved her to do that which the disciples found distasteful, inconvenient and even Jesus seemed to find annoying. Her great faith lifted her to new heights of love and sacrifice for her daughter and frankly shamed Jesus himself into action.
I stand amazed that this story tells us the faith does not shelter us from the storms of life.
faith, great faith will urge us into those storms, as Jesus did Peter in last weeks reading.
But that same great faith will show us, as it showed the Canaanite woman, just how strong, how resilient, how powerful and loving and tenacious we can be when we trust God in the worst of times...

Walter Wangerin Jr. tells a parable from his childhood. “When I was a boy, I told people that my father was stronger than anyone else in the world …. In those days a cherry tree grew in our back yard. This was my hiding place. Ten feet above the ground a stout limb made a horizontal fork, a cradle on which I could lie face down, reading, thinking, being alone. Nobody bothered me here. Even my parents didn’t know where I went to hide. Sometimes Daddy would come out and call, Wally? Wally? but he didn’t see me in the leaves. I felt very tricky,” Wangerin recalls.“Then came the thunderstorm … It was usual for me to dream in my tree and therefore not to notice changes in the weather. So if the sky grew dark or gave any warning, I didn’t see it.”But one day a wind tore through the Wangerin backyard and hit the tree with such force that it tore the book Walt was reading from his hands and threw him from his limb. “I locked my arms around the forking branches and hung on. My head hung down between them. I tried to wind my legs around the limb, but the whole tree was wallowing in the wind.”“Daddy!” As the wind blew he felt that his arms were going to slip from the branches.“Daddeeeee!”Then he saw his face at the back door, peering out. “Daddy saw me, and right away he came out into the wind and weather, and I felt so relieved because I just took it for granted that he would climb up the tree to get me. But that wasn’t his plan at all. He came to a spot right below me and lifted his arms and shouted, ‘Jump!’“‘What?’“‘Jump. I’ll catch you.’“‘I screamed, ‘No!’” But as the wind continued to blow, he changed his mind. He let go. “In a fast eternal moment I despaired and I plummeted. ‘This, I thought, is what it is like to die?’”“But my father’s arms caught me.“Oh, my daddy — he had strong arms indeed. Very strong arms. But it wasn’t until I actually experienced the strength that I also believed in it.”
That brothers and sisters is an amazing, uncomfortable and great faith
God Bless You All.

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