Rev. Cathy C. Hoop
August 17, 2014
A Meditation on Genesis 45: 1 – 15 and Matthew 15: 21 – 28
Some weeks the heart can’t seem to hold the news. It gushes over from all sides: continued failing ceasefires in Palestine – which may actually be holding now, thanks be to God; the ongoing toll of the Ebola virus; Michael Brown’s senseless death in Ferguson, Missouri, and the resulting clashes between citizens and police there. Closer to home, we have the shame of predatory pay day loans that hangs over our state. In the midst of this week’s troubles came the report of the death of a brilliant artist, Robin Williams.
James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actors’ Studio,” concludes each celebrity interview with this very personal question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say at the pearly gates?” When asked, Williams responded, “There is seating at the front. The concert begins at five. It’ll be Mozart, Elvis and one of your choosing.” Then he went on to say, “Or it would just be nice if heaven exists to know that there is laughter. That would be a great thing. Just to hear God goes, ‘two Jews walked into a bar…’” (http://wgntv.com/2014/08/12/watch-heres-what-robin-williams-wanted-to-hear-at-the-pearly-gates/) Amen, brother. Could it be heaven without laughter? I would hope that genuine laughter is the very foundation upon which heaven is built.
After I heard the news of Williams’ death, I was unsettled and anxious. I wanted to know that my young adult children, who have had their own encounters with depression and anxiety, were okay. I felt some relief in knowing that they do not live alone, even though that could not save Williams. This man, like so many others, died as the victim of a fierce disease that would not let him go: depression. A disease that knows no boundaries or limitations. He acknowledged that he had self-medicated with alcohol, as did my own father, as do so many who search for release. The immediate news reports made reference to how everyone knew about his substance abuse, but that his depression was a secret.
As a culture, our understanding of mental illness is still so shallow in comparison to the disorder’s depths, its many forms and it’s ever evolving treatments. Williams’ death has once again encouraged those who suffer to speak out, to name their anguish for what it is, to seek help. There is hope in that. Yet in light of how mysterious, how daunting mental illness is in this day and age, we can empathize with the Canaanite woman, and her desperate desire to find healing for her child. Multiply the fears and misunderstanding of mental illness we experience by the added layer of demon possession. That was the only explanation those in Biblical times could find for this disease that often leaves the body intact while attacking the mind and spirit.
Last Sunday, Leslie Sheppard made Jesus’ humanity truly tangible as he worked with the story of Peter’s attempt to walk on the water to his Messiah. (If you missed it, pick up a copy in the foyer or read it on our website or Facebook page.) He reminded us of Jesus’ loneliness, of his longing to be understood. What a perfect lead in for today’s story about Jesus having his mind and heart expanded. Did I just say that? What does that do to our theology to imagine that Jesus – God clothed in human form – can learn something? And learn it from a woman? And not just a woman but an outsider??
An outsider who knew little of laughter because each day she had a daughter who suffered. Mental illness. Possibly seizures. Maybe both. She had a daughter who suffered and no one could help. Until one day. One day a man showed up in her village. A man who could walk on water. A man who fed more than 5,000 –– from two little fish and five loaves of bread. A man who would leave this place and go on to feed 4,000 more at his next stop. In between these two stories of an abundance of bread, this woman will ask only for crumbs.
Crumbs. The leftover crumbs are delicious when they are the last bits of salty goodness at the bottom of a bag of chips or the final taste of pie crust on the tines of your fork. They satisfy when you have already been fed, but no one can subsist off of crumbs. Those of us who are animal lovers do better than that for our pets. We save our furry companions a bit of ice cream, a lick from a yogurt cup, a bite of a sandwich. We are grateful when they perform their house keeping duties of cleaning the floor around the kitchen table, but we wouldn’t even expect our dogs to survive on crumbs.
But that is all she asks for. She gets on her knees and pleads for crumbs. This Canaanite woman will do anything for the sake of her daughter. But this man Jesus has called her a dog. This compassionate man who has healed others with a word or a touch, has called this woman who has come to ask Jesus to heal her daughter, a dog. I’d like to think Jesus is rehearsing for one of those Snickers’ candy bar commercials. The tag line is “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Have you seen them? There’s one with four guys riding in a car, except that one in the back is accused of acting like a diva, and in fact has turned into Aretha Franklin. He becomes himself again after eating a Snickers, but by then the passenger in the front has become Lisa Minnelli. Jesus just doesn’t seem to be himself because this isn’t the way we know Jesus. Today’s story marks the point at which Jesus’ vision shifted in a major way.
I’d love to be able to live up to both Jesus and this unnamed woman, for they both make really amazing choices in the face of conflict. Look at this woman! Jesus kicks her when she is down (literally, for she is kneeling in front of him!), insults her in front of a whole group of people, and she doesn’t bite back. How many of us would have wanted to throw all kinds of names back at him? Spit on him? This man who has refused to heal a child? But she does not stoop to his cruelty. Nor does she back down. She follows his lead, works with his line of reasoning. “I agree,” she responds. “I wouldn’t give the bread that was baked for the children to the dogs on the floor. But children leave lots of crumbs behind. The dogs can eat those and everyone will be fed.”
Bravo! Let’s celebrate her strength of character and her quick wit! To be able to come up with perfect answer in the moment you need it rather than hours later when you are tossing and turning in bed! The perfect answer, for it does not return cruelty for cruelty, but does challenge Jesus to examine his very purpose.
And while we are at it, let’s celebrate Jesus, too. This man who is supposed to have all the answers, who is supposed to never be too tired to heal one more person, to respond to one more complaint. He doesn’t have to hang on to his response just to save face. He is willing to admit that he was wrong. In front of his disciples. Perhaps this mother is not the only one on her knees. Figuratively speaking, Jesus is down in the dust, too. In his humility he is blessed.
Mutual humility. Mutual blessing. The giving and exchanging of ideas, of respect, and of mercy. The woman receives what she has come for – her daughter’s healing. Jesus receives what he did not even know he needed – the expansion of his vision. Before this day, he had one understanding of his purpose: to bring good news to the Jewish people. From this day forward, he has a revised plan: to bring good news to all people. What a gift this woman gave to him and she didn’t even know it! She had petitioned for a very small cause, her daughter, but it broke open Jesus’ ministry in enormous ways.
We can’t close today without remembering Joseph’s story as well, a tale we have also been following these recent weeks. Today we heard the conclusion – the reconciliation between Joseph and his estranged family. As with our gospel story today, I would encourage you to pay attention to Joseph’s ultimate response. Though it takes him some time to get there, he eventually does not repay evil for evil. He forgives his brothers’ cruelty. He does not allow the wrong they have done to him to shut him down, but instead finds a way out and accomplishes great things! Again, there is humility here. Joseph, like Jesus, is willing to kneel in the dust and learn something, to admit his role in all that has happened.
The voices coming out of Ferguson, Missouri are crying for the same thing. They are asking this country to kneel down in the dust and recognize the ways we have excluded young black men. We have made them the outsiders, the dogs that are left to scavenge for crumbs. In what some proclaim to be a Christian nation we have turned our backs on the vulnerable, and we see the result.
But there is hope. We can be inspired by the Canaanite woman to love one another as she loved her child. A love that does not give up. A love that petitions endlessly but stands firm in offering love in the face of derision. That depth of love inspired Jesus to expand his heart, his vision. But to do that with utter abandon we have to know who we are!
This past week, Robin Williams’ career has been celebrated in numerous ways. Various websites invited readers to share their favorite Williams’ movie moment. For me it would be from “Hook,” in which he played a grown up Peter Pan, who must return to Neverland to find his own children. It wasn’t his most stellar role, but there is a moment in that movie that has stayed with me. Peter arrives in Neverland but the Lost Boys do not recognize him, nor do they trust him. He doesn’t even believe in himself. He doesn’t look or act like the Peter Pan they knew and loved, and they abandon him. Except for one small boy. He takes Peter’s face in his hands, and literally reshapes it. He moves his mouth up and down, presses on his cheeks. And then he finds Peter’s smile, holds it in place, and cries out, “There you are, Peter!” And one by one the other lost boys see him, too. And most of all, Peter himself remembers.
The Canaanite woman did the same for Jesus. She took his face into her hands and enabled him to see the wideness of God’s mercy which was there from the very beginning of time. In that place, it is safe to be humbled, to find the freedom to learn and grow. To know that we don’t always have the right answers, but that together we can find them. Friends, that is what we are called to do and be for one another. Let us not be ashamed to kneel in the dust together so that we will be able to invite everyone to the table, and feast together on the bread of life. To hold one anothers’ faces in our hands, and say, “There you are, Child of God!” Thanks be to God. Amen.