Hey Megan, why isn’t last week’s sermon up on the website yet?
Oooooh, funny story.
See, last week, I made it back to Ithaca around 11:30pm on Saturday night. I had been in Kansas City, finishing up wedding planning (pies ordered, BBQ selected, all set!) and I wrote my sermon on the plane. I was so proud of myself, you see. And that was my downfall.
I forgot to reconnect my computer to the interwebz, so my sermon didn’t upload itself to the Magic GlowCloud. So when I arrived at church Sunday morning, all bright-eyed and full of caffeine, I discovered that Magic GlowCloud on my work computer held no sermon of any kind. There was no sermon to print.
“No matter,” I thought to myself. “I shall reconstruct it from memory!” And so, did I scribble the main points on a piece of paper, and scamper off to the sanctuary for the 8am service.
But then, dear reader, did disaster again strike. For during the readings of 8am, did I then discover that I had written a sermon for the next week’s readings. And not these. I had a full sermon on James 2 and the Syrophonecian woman, and not James 1 or whatever Proverbs was on about.
This could be a problem. People tend to notice when you start harping on about a story they haven’t heard.
So I readjusted again, and basically said some things about faith and praying and the creeds and I’m not entirely sure what else, but it seemed to work. It ended up being a mix of half of my written sermon, and half of Things in My Head. It is possible that at one point I compared Paul to Chidi in The Good Place. (Because he is, and like Chidi, and moral philosophy professors in general, Paul is also generally uncomfortable to hang around.)
That’s a long explanation of why last week’s sermon never ended up on the blog; which is to say, it never quite existed at all. THIS WEEK’s sermon, now–that both exists, and is here! For your reading pleasure.
Here’s what I said:
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
September 9, 2018
Ordinary Time, Proper 18
About a day’s walk away from Nazareth—less, actually, if you don’t follow the modern highways—is Mount Carmel, near today’s Haifa. It’s lovely, relatively green, and picturesque. It is also the site where, according to tradition, Elijah got into trouble with the court prophets of Queen Jezebel, and proposed a test. Both he and they would pray to their respective gods to send down fire from the sky to consume an offering, and whoever succeeded—well, that was the true god of Israel.
Elijah is a bit of a smartaleck, so he taunts the prophets of Ba’al as they pray. He asks if their god has maybe fallen asleep. Is he tired? Maybe he’s too tired to send down the fire? Does he need a nap? Should they be praying louder? Finally, the Ba’al priests give up, after quite a lot of ceremony.
Elijah steps up, douses his offering with water several times, and calmly proceeds to summon fire from the sky in the name of God to flambé not only the sacrifice…but also all the priests of Ba’al, and those Ba’al worshippers who were standing around, watching. It’s a gruesome moment, one of the major events of the prophet Elijah’s life. And one of the major events in the religious history of Israel—a history that had really ambivalent feelings about its relationships to people who weren’t Jewish.
On the one hand, you have stories like this graphic one about Elijah—getting rid of the evil foreign queen’s evil foreign priests, with fire and lots of drama. On the other, you also have stories like Abraham being friendly with the foreign residents of Hebron, and asking for a place to bury his wife, when she dies. Or the story of Ruth the faithful Moabite, who becomes King David’s grandmother.
Essentially, at the time of Jesus, the Jewish culture had a lot of different, and strong, ideas about how you were supposed to deal with people who were unlike you, religiously. And Jesus, having grown up in Nazareth, in a Jewish town, in a Jewish family, as a Jewish person, would have heard and received all of those ideas. Would have been raised in that culture and context. Would have been raised an easy day’s walk away from the place where tradition says the greatest prophet in Israel’s history defeated the unclean ones for God!
So when you hear this week’s troubling gospel—and it is troubling—keep all that in the back of your mind. Keep that landscape in your mind.
Because in this moment of whatever, when confronted by this Syro-phonecian woman when she asked for help for her daughter, Jesus unthinkingly falls back into this pattern handed to him by his culture and his country.
Jesus has ventured outside of Israelite territory, we are told to get a break from the ceaseless crowds, and then that doesn’t work, and a woman of Syro-phonecian origin accosts him and asks for his help. And he says something pretty mean to her. It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.
Ok. Now. I should say that there are scholars who try to soften or explain what Jesus does. There are scholars who say that comparing someone to a dog back then wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because the word used is the diminutive form, so he’s really comparing her to a puppy. Which is sort of cute, I guess.
There are scholars who argue that what he was doing was using the woman as an object lesson: that he was trying to illustrate all that stuff about nothing on the outside defiling us, but only stuff from the inside he had just said for the disciples, and prompt a reaction out of them—so they would correct him. It was all a plan, you see!
Honestly I don’t care for those explanations; because I don’t find Jesus to be someone who would verbally abuse a woman in crisis, just to prove a point to someone else. She does not appear to be in on the lesson. And what kind of person mocks and slanders someone else, in order to teach? We know from other sources that to be called a dog was just as much of a slur back then as it is now—it had similar (though not identical) ethnic overtones.
And we can spend a lot of time twisting the text around to make Jesus’ words less troubling, but the truth is, I think Jesus just didn’t think. And I think he echoed his uncles, his grandparents, his parents, when they were tired, and griping around the table late at night. I think he just spoke out of what he learned as a kid, from his culture, from the people around him—he gave voice to that free-floating something, and there it was.
But two things happen—One, the woman gets sassy. She will not take this. This is NOT what she came for, gosh darn it. “Yes my lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Mic drop. She will MAKE Jesus deal with her humanity, dammit. She is not content to go quietly away—she argues back.
And remarkably, Jesus changes. His brain kicks back in. He thinks, and plugs into all that good stuff he was just saying, and he decides to heal her daughter.
Now, maybe he was just demonstrating something for the disciples. Maybe she was in on it and the two of them had worked it out beforehand. But this is the one time in the gospels that Jesus appears to reverse course, and so it’s notable.
The humanity of this woman breaks through the knee-jerk rhetoric. Having to see her as an individual, and not a category, not a stereotype, not a cutout for a larger problem—that changed the conversation. It is in that moment when the woman speaks for herself, pushes back against the weird aphorism that Jesus dismisses her with, that he changes his mind.
It is easy to be dismissive of others when we keep them as others. When we keep them firmly categorized in our minds in the boxes we create for them: “Different” “Other” “Bad” “Entirely unlike Me, Who Is A Good Person”. Sorting people, things, and experiences into one-dimensional categories is a safety mechanism, right? It’s how we move through the world without our brains exploding, Malcom Gladwell tells us. And that’s fine, insofar as it goes.
But people aren’t actually one dimensional. People are images of God, unique and individual, and beautiful in diversity. And the foundation of our faith is to love God, and love our neighbor—which is in fact difficult to do without knowing our neighbor, recognizing our neighbor as unique, and human and beloved. God requires not that we sort people easily, but that we know one another. That we meet one another as unique human beings—with our variety of experiences, histories, stories, and wisdom.
The risk in that, of course, is that we also have to be willing to be humans ourselves. We have to be willing to be honest about our own frailties and failings. Which can be pretty darn uncomfortable! I imagine Jesus didn’t feel great when he realized what he had said to the woman. But if he was going to meet her in her full humanity, that required him to acknowledge that he had been raised in a culture that had been cruel to her.
Dr. Catherine Meeks, a professor in Atlanta, says that in the end, the only way to truly overcome prejudice is love. When we love ourselves with compassion for every part of our humanity, we will be able to love each other in another’s full humanity. It is only through this sort of humble love for self and one another that the barriers between us crumble.
It is this sort of love that Christ gives to us, that he models for us, the sort of love that reaches out, that cherishes each beloved child of God, and assures us that there are shall be no outcasts in God’s kingdom.