Monday, August 18, 2014

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, 17 August 2014, Proper 15

(Matthew 15: 21-28)
The Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

In The Midst Of The Mess

It’s been a hard week, friends.
Gaza. Iraq. The Ukraine. Robin Williams.
Michael Brown. Ferguson, Missouri.

And those are just some of the big, public stories.

I’ve been back from vacation for a few days, and have heard a small portion of what all you have been undergoing recently. Medical situations…family struggles…emotional and financial challenges of various kinds. We look around and see a lot of mess, in our lives.

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy does a bit in one of the “Blue Collar Comedy Tours" about taking his wife hunting. She’s never been hunting before. As they walk out to the site, she worries that her new boots aren’t as cute as she thought they were at first…and she worries about her hair getting mashed down by her camo cap…and “Oh, there’s a bug on my cap, get it off, get it off…Well don’t KILL it, it’s just a little bug.Probably trying to get back to his bug family…”And why are there all these dead leaves and sticks and branches everywhere, doesn’t anyone ever clean up around this place? (They’re in the forest, remember.) What a mess this all is!

We would like to have no mess. In our lives, in the world we live in. We would love for there to always be a plan, and for things always to go according to that plan.

So how’s that working out for you?

Not so much in my house. Whether it’s the grocery list (I told you to put toilet paper on there!) or the cats fighting in the middle of the night when I just really need a good sleep (we call this “the attack of the thundering wildebeests”) or the news that a dear friend has been stricken with chronic hives and respiratory tract infections…I’ve got a lot of mess.

Jesus is in a lot of mess himself this morning, in the gospel lesson. John the Baptist has been murdered by order of King Herod, and now Herod has heard about Jesus as another potential threat. So he’s looking for Jesus, with malicious intent. Just before this episode we’ve heard read, Jesus has antagonized a group of religious leaders from Jerusalem, so they’re looking for a way to get him too.

Jesus has removed himself from Herod’s immediate area of influence, and is away to the northwest in the region of Tyre and Sidon.These are Gentile cities, on the Mediterranean coast. Jesus is well distant from the places of familiarity. He is on the run, far from home and out of his comfort zone. He’s in a mess of his own.

A woman comes to him, to ask him for help. First of all, a woman addressing a man who was not her son or husband in public in that culture was not customary. It wasn’t unheard of, but it was a bold thing to do. And this is not just any woman: this is a woman from a different culture, a different place, whose speech would have
sounded strange, whose accent might have been difficult to understand. In other words: Not One Of Us. That is absolutely clear.

But she’s in a mess of her own too. She asks for Jesus help—not for herself, but for her child. And she is anything but subtle or discreet in her asking! She is shouting, calling out to him. “LORD!" she says, Have mercy, help me! Note that language—“Lord!" she says. Three times. She will not be held back in her insistence that Jesus can help, will help, must help.

And the disciples are freaking out at this. “Jesus, tell her to cool it! Don’t you hear all the commotion she’s causing? Strangers are staring at us—it looks indecent. A rabbi talking with a foreign woman in public…what will people think?”

At first, Jesus does not reply at all—to the woman, or to his friends. When he does, something amazing happens. First, he says in effect “She is Not One Of Us.”

Thanks Jesus, we had figured that out already!That’s why you should get rid of her! She’s a stranger; she’s making a scene; it’s all weird and freaky out here in a strange place where we’re already uncomfortable and more than a little scared…

In the midst of this mess—her mess, the disciples' anxiety and uproar, Jesus' own situation, the woman speaks to Jesus directly “Lord (again, she calls him Lord), help me.”

The next words Jesus speaks have caused confusion for centuries. Because they cannot be squared with our notions of Jesus as always serious, always lecturing his followers on religious, doctrinal, or theological matters. In Western Christianity we have become “…victims of the Serious, even Grim Jesus, in which Serious and Sacred are assumed synonymous. And he must always be didactic or theological.(Marc Lindsay, friend of Matthew Gunter, via FB) I have heard preachers tie themselves into homiletical knots that Houdini himself couldn’t untie, over what Jesus says next. You ready for it?

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

If all we have is the words on the page, it sounds like a gross insult. Rude, dismissive, and utterly unlike anything we think Jesus would say.

But I think Jesus doing something very different at this moment. I hear Jesus speaking these words playfully, even with a bit of mischief. We talked about this during Lent, that showing compassion to a person has three elements: tenderness, fierceness, and mischievousness. Here’s the mischief—and Jesus has enlisted
this Canaanite woman as his co-conspirator in making mischief.

Hear the words again, in that playful tone. “It is not fair (almost a faux-whine) to take the children’s food and throw it to the DOGS.” The unworthy, undeserving, not even quite human. Definitely Not One Of Us.

And she throws a response back in just the same tone and attitude: “True, Lord…but even the DOGS get the leftovers the children don’t want.

And Jesus smiles—laughs, I think, and tells her, “Get out of here—I’ve got this handled.”And she goes; and he does.

She knows she’s not a DOG. And so does Jesus. It’s the disciples who need an object lesson in what’s really going on here. The disciples, the followers, the ones who Jesus has invited to be with him, but to whom he has said over and over “Oh you little-faiths! Don’t you get it yet?”

Even the Not One Of Us Ones understand better than you. The good news is for them too. Even the ones who have funny accents and strange ways of dressing and interacting. The kingdom of God—healing, wholeness, welcome, sustenance and love and joy—is for everyone.Whoever they are, just as they are, right now, where they are.
Even in the midst of mess.
Especially in the midst of mess.

We can’t wait for the mess to be tidied up for the Kingdom to show up. And we don’t have to. Again and again, from his birth in a barn surrounded by farm animals and the smell of cow plop, to his death on a cross surrounded by criminals and jeering crowds, Jesus shows us that it is precisely there, in the messes and anxieties and places of apparent disaster, where the Kingdom of God may be found. And yes, it too is messy and strange and puts us out of our usual places of comfort and ease.

Jesus, the revelation of God’s desire for all people, comes into the midst of our messes, for just that reason—to show that the Kingdom is for all of these, is already present somehow, even in ways we don’t recognize or understand. For Iraq and Gaza. For the Ukraine, and for Ferguson, Missouri. For Michael Brown, and Robin Williams.And for us, in our own places of mess.

Like the Canaanite woman, we are allowed to call out, to cry out for God’s healing and attention in the places and for the people who have most need of it. In fact, it is our work to do just that. To ask, and to enact. To call upon God’s mercy, and to
be agents of that mercy. Our hands, our feet, our gifts and skills deployed for God’s mission in the world.

So then.

How will you invite Jesus into your place of mess this week, this day, this moment? And how will you carry the Kingdom of God as a follower of Jesus, this day, this week, in the world outside these doors?