Romans 12:9-21 (CEB)
"Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.”
This was one of Sunday’s lectionary readings. It struck me as we discussed it during Bible study, that like the Lord’s Prayer, it is an essential all encompassing teaching. What if we took these words to heart? What if all of us, what if our country followed these teachings? Where could we be? Look at our history. Look at our recent history. Look at world events. Look at conflicts across the globe and conflicts down your city block. “…to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.” What if? “Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions… If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.” Where would this have lead us, where can this lead us rather than revenge and hatred. In the world that we find ourselves we need to think, what if…?
I just started reading a new book about Jesus written by Father James Martin. In the introduction he talks about toady’s Gospel lesson. What he talks about is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. That is the paradox, which means two truths lying side by side. Father Martin talks about the fact that Jesus is these things at the same time and how so many people have problems with part or all of that. He said, “Jesus was a flesh and blood, real life, honest to God man, who experienced what humans do. He was born, lived and died, like any human being. He did all the things that humans do. He had a body like you and me. He ate, drank slept. He felt sadness and joy, laughing at things that struck him as funny and wept at times of loss. He got stomachaches, maybe sprained an ankle, sweated, sneezed and scratched. Everything proper to the human beings, except sin, Jesus experienced. His humanity is a stumbling block for many people. His occasional unattractive human emotions create problems for those that look only at his divinity.”
Today’s Gospel lesson is just one of those instances. It is unsettling and difficult to understand why Jesus spoke like this. The woman was Canaanite. This meant that she was a person native to Palestine. She was a gentile (not Jewish), whose ancestors (historically) were to be ethnically cleansed from the land by order of the God of Israel. She has come begging Jesus to heal her daughter who is “tormented by a demon”. Which one of us wouldn’t do anything in our power to heal a child of ours? Who wouldn’t trade places in a minute with their sick or dying child if it would alleviate their suffering? But Jesus did not answer her. Instead, his disciples who grew tired of her shouting and begging and they went to Jesus and ask Him not to heal, but instead for Jesus to send the mother away. Jesus’ reply to the woman is that, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the distraught mother, wanting relief for her child came and knelt before him, pleading, “Lord, help me.” Jesus again replies in a manner that takes most of us by surprise. He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And Jesus continues reducing her to the level of an animal.
How is it that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace responds in such a manner? If we return to the paradox of Jesus being both equally human and divine, I believe this is Jesus, the human Jesus, being outside of his comfort zone. He finds himself in the district of Tyre and Sidon, outside of the boundaries of Israel. The human Jesus is physically outside of his comfort zone of the land of Israel and emotionally outside of his comfort zone, being approached and pestered by a gentile woman. Perhaps he is tired. Perhaps he just wanted to be with his disciples for peace and quiet. Possibly even for prayer. How dare this gentile woman be so insistent?
The Canaanite woman, the gentile, calls Jesus out. She says in her defense of seeking help for her daughter, “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The human Jesus is shaken from his human apathy and his being outside of his comfort zone. And along with all the other things that Jesus did in his humanity, He too learns from being out of His comfort zone. The human Jesus melds with the divine Jesus and He replies, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Who among us has not been put off by a beggar’s request, a disturbance from our planned routine, and uncomfortable challenges to our political thoughts when they collide with our faith?
Shane Claiborne of the Simple Way tells a story about a homeless guy that came to worship on Sunday at a big fancy church downtown. He was wearing all of his street clothes he had his bags with him. The man kind of strolled into the church and walked up and sat in one of the front pews. Everybody kind of looked at him like he didn’t belong. The priest came up and said, “Sir, I don’t know if you’ve been here before. But this is the house of God. So I want you to do something. I want you to go out this week and ask God what you should wear when you come to church.” The homeless guy left, kind of awkwardly and a week passed. The next Sunday he came back to church. He was wearing the same thing, all of his street clothes, his bags with him. He popped down in the front pew, just like the week before. The priest came up and said, “Sir, did you do what I told you to do? Did you ask God what you should wear when you come to church?” The man said, “Yes, padre I did. God said that he didn’t know because had never been IN your church.” That reminds me of how good we are at excluding the people that Jesus attracted with his love.
When I was a chaplain at Jefferson Hospital a couple of years ago, I would come across several homeless people on my walk from the train to the to the hospital. Many times they would ask for money. Although, I almost never give money, I will generally offer to go buy something for people to eat. One day I was in a rush to catch the train home when a man in his early twenties asked for money. I was in a hurry and not only did I not give him any money, I’m ashamed to say, I did not acknowledge him. He said, “God bless you sir”. I literally stopped in my tracks and turned around. I asked him if I could buy him something to eat. He said, “That would be great”. I walked him over to the food cart and asked him what he wanted. I bought him food and drink. The young man, whose name was Jeff, thanked me. He told me that it was his birthday. He said that he had been begging for several hours and I was the first person who helped him. I had just left a long exhausting 14-hour shift of attending to the sick and the dying and was physically and emotionally drained. I am certainly not Jesus, but this young man was my Canaanite woman, calling me out and bringing me back to reality and to God.
Who is your Canaanite woman? Is it the “illegal alien” children travelling across the desert for a better life? Is it the Palestinian civilians in Gaza? Is it the religious minorities in Iraq and Syria? it the homeless street person who smells of urine who wants to sit next to you in church or at the table for a meal? Is it the young prostitute working the corner for reasons we can’t even comprehend? Is it the man with the addiction he doesn’t want, but can’t get rid of? Is it the young men like Michael Brown and the difficult conversation about race in America? What is it that God wants you to be uncomfortable about? Where does he want you to act?
Last week we talked about Peter’s cry, “Lord, save me!” and how that can empower us to feel free to echo that cry ourselves. This week we go from “Lord save me” to “Lord help me!” Please take that moment that allows the other’s cry of, “God bless you sir” to be heard. You may be the one who cries out, Lord save me, or you may be the one who hears the cry. Who is your Canaanite woman?
Normally, the focus on today’s Gospel is Peter. It is about Peter and his faith or his lack of faith. “Ye of little faith”… This reading is almost always exclusively centered on Peter. Today, although Peter is a major component, I ask you to look to Jesus as well. I ask you to look at the entire story as the Gospel lesson.
In last week’s Gospel lesson Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee to be alone. But the people followed him. Even though he was trying to have time alone, in quiet, he felt sorry for the sick and healed them all. Wanting also to feed them, Jesus took the five loaves of bread and the two fish and blessed them and fed over 5,000 people.
The Gospel continues this week as Jesus has his disciples get into the boat and start back across the Sea. Jesus remained behind to pray atop the mountain. So let’s set the stage, if you will. The Sea of Galilee is about 13 miles across and was known to have winds rise up suddenly causing rough seas. A typical boat there would have been used for fishing. It would have been about 25 feet long, had a sail and would have been shallow, making it very easy to toss around in strong winds and seas. It was early in the morning with some versions of this Gospel saying it was the fourth watch of the night, which in Roman time was just before dawn.
I want you to try picturing that, try placing yourselves there. Close your eyes for a moment… Imagine, it’s early morning; you’re in a small sailboat in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. The wind is blowing and the waves are crashing on your boat. Depending where you are on the Sea, you might not be able to see land. You are probably tired and you’re afraid of the boat tipping over and the real possibility exists of drowning. All of a sudden you see a figure walking toward the boat on the water. You cry out in fear, you scream, “It’s a ghost!” But it’s not – it is Jesus. You hear him say, “Be comforted, it’s me… don’t be scared…” But most of you are not comforted, you are scared. But your friend and disciple Peter asks Jesus to tell him to come to Jesus. Jesus simply says, “Come”. And Peter steps out of the boat and into the water. But Peter isn’t getting into the water as much as he’s getting on top of it.
It’s important to note that Jesus does not scold Peter when he asks, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus simply, calmly, reassuringly says one word. “Come”.
Peter has left you and the relative safety of the boat, which is often said to represent the Church. (That is why many churches, like St Mark’s, have ceilings that look like the bottom of a wooden boat). He has left your small group after asking Jesus to command him to come. Peter has taken a giant step out of his comfort zone, not being entirely certain that it IS Jesus. Peter has asked for confirmation, but takes the step without having it first.
I have found that for me personally, the times that I have learned the most, the times that I have been moved the most, the times that I have experienced God and the Holy Spirit the most, is when I have stepped out of my safety zone and stepped into/onto the unknown. It has been when I have trusted God to be there, even when I might not have been 100% certain that He was there.
Peter is focused on the subject on the water, Jesus … and he starts walking as Jesus walks, on the water. But although he was focusing on Jesus, he becomes distracted and begins to notice once again that he’s in the middle of rough seas and he begins to sink. Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus IMMEDIATELY reaches out and catches Peter. This time Jesus does admonish him, asking, “Why did you doubt?”
Years ago, when I was a firefighter we were taught to rappel. That is when you lower yourself on a rope from the top of a building or from a ladder truck to rescue you yourself or someone else. When I was taught how to rappel, I was in the harness standing with my feet on the side of and at the top of a four-story building. I am at a 90-degree angle standing on the side of the brick. The instructor told me to gently ease my grip on the rope with my hand. I said, “OK”. Nothing happened. The instructor told me again. I said, “OK” again. The instructor asked, “What are you doing?” I replied, “I don’t know. My brain is saying go ahead, but my hands aren’t listening.” Eventually, even though I was way out of any comfort zone, I trusted the instructor and God and started to lower myself down the side of the building. When you rappel, there is always someone who is responsible for your safety. He is called the belay man. He holds the rope on the ground. If something happens and you loose your grip, all he has to do is pull the rope taught and you will stop your descent. I was rappelling from the top of a ladder truck and I lost my grip and started to fall with the rope. I started to yell for help and before I really began, the belay man pulled the rope taught and stopped my fall. I felt the sense of relief, the release of fear when the belay man in effect reached out and caught me. He too, asked if I had doubted. It wasn’t so much an admonishment as his way of saying, “Dude, don’t worry, I’ve got you covered”. And this is how I see Jesus’ response to Peter as he starts to sink.
As a Franciscan you often hear me refer to our need to live in and see ourselves in relationship to community. I ask you now to reach out and hold the hand of the person near you. This is your community. Do not be afraid. Like Jesus, we need to simply, calmly, reassuringly say, “Come”. It is when we become distracted by our differences, our fears, and the worries of living “in the world” that we become distracted and fail to see Christ in others. That is when we begin to sink. That is when we need to hold out our hands to our community and to Jesus and pray, “Lord Save me”.
To be a true follower of Christ requires that we have the faith in Jesus that allows us to step out of the boat, step out of the four walls of our church, out of comfort zones and into the stormy seas. But we are to follow Jesus. We need to know that not only is OK to pray, “Lord save me”, but that we need to be ready to be Christ like and be ready to hold out our hand and say, “Come”. We all do this individually and in community as the people of St Mark’s. But I have been challenging myself and I invite you to think how we can be Jesus to each other and to our neighbors. How can we be more present, more ready and better able to extend our hand and say, “Come”? Can we extend this thinking to events across our country and across the world as well?
Don’t worry, do not be afraid. For when “the world” distracts us, when we fail to see Jesus in the eyes of the other, Jesus is the one who is there to catch us.
My prayer is that we may see Jesus in others and that may they see Jesus in us.