september 13, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
September 13, 2009
Psalm 19
Mark 7:24-30/ Matthew 15:21-28

This morning’s gospel story is a troubling one. It is also one of my very favorite stories from the four gospels. It is a story about faithfulness. About risk and courage. About discipleship. About Good News, both living it and sharing it.
You heard Sarah read Mark’s account of this story. I want to read it again. And, I will read Matthew’s version of the same story.

Mark 7:24-30—From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon was gone.

Matthew 15:21-28—Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed that very hour.

According to Mark, the woman is a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. According to Matthew, she is Canaanite. This might not mean much to us. But to the earliest audience of disciples, these identifications carried enormous significance. Each gospel writer chose to identify this woman as the lowest of the low. In Mark’s time, and to Mark’s audience, being a Gentile was bad, and being Syrophoenician was about as bad as it could get. By the time Matthew was writing his account of the life and teachings of Jesus, the social stigma has shifted to the Canaanites. In both stories, the woman is identified as the least of these. She belongs to the cultural and ethnic identity labeled as “dogs.” Sub human. Unclean. Undesirable. Untouchable. The very last people you want in your town. Or in the house next to you. Or in the pew next to you.

And Jesus buys into it. He sees this woman the way her enemies see her, not as God sees her. The woman comes to Jesus. Heal my daughter, she begs, and falls at Jesus’ feet. And Jesus’ initial response is, well, very uncharacteristic of Jesus. Not very Christ-like. For once, he is not moved with compassion. He does not reach out in love. He does not extend God’s healing grace. He calls her a dog. Tells her she is unworthy. Dismisses her. Like I said, this is a troubling story.

But. And. She fights back. Her faith is firm, and it gives her courage. This unnamed woman, the lowest of the low, shut out and powerless, she challenges Jesus. “Really?” she seems to say. That doesn’t fit with the rest of your teachings, Jesus. Something isn’t right here. You don’t seem to be practicing what you preach.

This is the first miracle in the story. We see Jesus change. We see Jesus learn something about the Good News. About discipleship. About faithfulness. His teachings come back to teach him, offered from the very last person we expect to be able to teach Jesus anything.

And Jesus, being Jesus, learns the lesson quickly. In just three sentences, he calls the woman a dog. She challenges him. He praises her faith and faithfulness, and heals her daughter.

The Syropheonician woman has heard the Good News, and believes. He faith is alive and vibrant. Strong enough and sure enough to risk challenging the one who IS the Good News. She is a disciple of Jesus who teaches Jesus about discipleship.
She knows the Good News, and offers it back to him as a gift. This woman’s faith, a gift. Her witness, a gift. This story, a gift. Jesus’ healing, a gift. Our faith, a gift. Our words, a gift. Our witness, a gift. Jesus our Christ, a gift. The Good News of God’s merciful, unbreakable, unlimited love, a gift. To be savored and shared. To be lived. To build up. To guide and ground our discipleship, our faith. Until we are no longer satisfied with calling ourselves Christians, but instead strive to fashion our lives after the example of Christ. Until we are no longer satisfied with witnessing to our faith by coming to church on Sunday mornings, but instead strive to live each day as disciples, building the reign of God. Until we are no longer satisfied with accepting distinctions and divisions that keep some people in and some people out, but instead strive to recognize and remember our status as God’s beloved children, beautiful and good, and to live out of this identity, and see God’s handiwork and worth declared in each and every person we meet…

This is a troubling story because it troubles the waters. It troubles the distinctions between teacher and student, worthy and worthless, faithful and faithless. This is one of my favorite gospel stories because it calls me, us, to return to the core of Christian discipleship, the central theme of Jesus’ teaching. Hear the Good News of God’s enduring, abundant, healing love. Believe this Good News. Carry it with you. Live this Good News. Challenge anyone or anything that stands contrary to this Good News. Share this Good News with everyone you meet, using your life as a witness. And then, know Jesus will say, “Great is your faith.” May it be so. Amen, and amen.

blessing of the animals service august 30, 2009

In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…In the beginning, when God was creating, before God created humans, God created living creatures. “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” And then, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind.” And it was so.

Before the first human, the living creatures set the stage. God knew, I believe, that we would need them. And that animals could teach humans something about living. Something about God. Something about, well, being human.

This is Buster. Some of you have already met him. Buster is 15 years old. His eyes are cloudy with cataracts. His ears don’t let much sound in anymore, if any sound at all. His hips ache, and I need to carry him up the stairs to bed each evening. He can’t do very much anymore, but he loves very, very well. Buster is here in Osage to keep me company. And he does this with skill and ease.

I remember one day, at least ten years ago, probably a few more. I was having a bad day. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, as the storybook title reads. I don’t even remember why. I just remember sitting on the bottom step of the house, crying, miserable, feeling alone. I didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want someone to try to cheer me up, didn’t believe that anyone could help me feel better, or that anyone even really cared. I remember that I tried praying. It helped. But God still felt awfully far away. I pulled my knees up to my chest, put my head down on my arms, and cried. Suddenly, a wet, cold nose pushed its way through my crossed arms. A rough wet tongue found my cheek. The smell of dog breath filled my face—distraction. At first I tried to push him away. But, Buster licked and licked. He wouldn’t stop until it was dog slobber rather than tears wetting my face. He wagged his tail and looked up at me and nosed my hand and offered presence. Comfort. Companionship. After not too long, I was laughing. How can you not after minutes of solid tongue on cheek?

It was simple. Elemental. Buster doing what Buster knows to do. Show up, especially when someone is sad, or in need. Stay there, through the tears, in the silence. Reach out. Connect.

Before the first human, the living creatures set the stage. God knew, I believe, that we would need them. That animals could teach humans something about living. Something about God, and God’s care. Something about, well, being human.
Content merely to be in the presence of those you love, and who show your love in return. Paring down to the basics—food, time outside, activity, walks, play. Never ceasing to be amazed at the wonders of surrounding creation, even when it’s the same tree you’ve seen every day of your life. In need of tender care, and willing to offer it.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” God blessed them, and saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. And God saw that it was good. Thanks be to God. Amen, and amen.