Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jesus eventually listened to himself – what if we did, too?

From Sunday, August 17 - continued fighting in Gaza, uproar in Missouri over the violent shooting death of an unarmed African-American youngster, and continued nastiness at the border between Mexico and the U.S. with the few tens of thousands of children who are hoping to reunited with families and, sadly, being abused - with some of those who are shouting and protesting and calling them names being self-avowed Christians. So in this story in which Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a dog, and she calls him on the carpet about it, we find some relation to today. And we find a Jesus who is also in process of learning, expanding his theology to be more generous and inclusive. At the end, I ask the question, "Who are the dogs of today?" Who do you think the dogs of today are?

“Jesus eventually listened to himself – what if we did, too?”
Sermon, Year A, Proper 15, August 17, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew15:21-28 

One wonders – I wonder, anyway – Does Jesus ever listen to himself when he speaks? Does he pay attention to what he’s saying, or does it just come out?

I’m reminded of the show Family Guy, which some of you know. It’s a very funny, hilarious, animated show in which the main character, Peter Griffin is, well, stupid. He doesn’t track information at all well, and spouts nonsense all the time. Crazy political stuff, social stuff, stuff about religion. Whatever the topic, he speaks in nonsense in all the time. In one episode, after Peter has offered a particularly silly and nonsensical screed, one of his friends asks him, “Do you ever listen to yourself?” And Peter responds, “Eh, I tune in and out.”

I wonder, does Jesus listen to himself here?

He calls this woman a dog. That’s after ignoring her. At first he doesn’t respond to her or even acknowledge her presence. Then, when he does finally choose to notice, he calls her a dog and he shows no concern for her daughter.

This is not the touchy-feely cuddly kind of Jesus that makes us feel comfortable. The kind of Jesus that we may have been taught about in Sunday school or in other churches in which he always kind and compassionate, he’s never reactive, always calm and in control of the situation and in control of himself. And he’s just, gosh, so swell and super nice all the time. That’s not always the Jesus that’s in the Gospels. Jesus is not always just a touchy-feely nice guy that never changes his mind, or never needs to learn anything, because he’s perfect. That’s not always who Jesus is. Sometimes he’s kind of rude, cranky, human. This is a very human Jesus, I think, that we get in the passage here. A very human Jesus who is very much a product of his culture and who carries with him some of those unquestioned uncritically accepted biases that the culture puts on its citizens.

Jesus is being mean here. But culturally, what he’s doing, might be kind of typical. Others might not look at him as being particularly mean.

But I wonder, Does he listen to himself?

His reaction here is particularly surprising because of what has just happened before this, which we did not read. But in the passage right before this, Jesus is having a disagreement with the Pharisees and the the Scribes. They have questioned him because he hasn’t washed his hands properly before eating, and may be eating unclean food and eating with the wrong people that makes him unclean. Jesus responds to them, “It is not what goes in the mouth that makes one unclean; it’s what comes out.”

It’s what you say. The words that you use that can make you unclean. Not the food that goes in, but what you say.

So Jesus has just said that. And then he goes to Tyre and Sidon, another area of Israel, and he tells this foreign woman that she’s nothing but a dog.

It’s what comes out, Jesus.

As though he had not listened to his previous self here at all. This woman is also called a Canaanite which brings back some memories of the Canaanite people who had originally lived in that area. Lived, in fact, in the entire region of the Promised Land that the Hebrew people had taken. Think of Moses and the Exodus, leading the people through the wilderness for 40 years, then coming into the Promised Land that God had given them. Well, there were already people there. The Canaanites were already there. So the Hebrews come in and displace the Canaanites – such displacement mostly being done by killing them – but they didn’t get rid of all the Canaanites. Then they took the land and it became Israel. Then in the 6th century as Babylon was attacking to conquer Israel, it was the Jewish/Hebrew people in the Tyre and Sidon area who were basically traitors and in collusion with the Babylonians to conquer Israel. They were basically traitors to their country and helped Babylon take it over. So calling this woman a Canaanite here is a remembrance of the people who were displaced as the Hebrews took the Promised Land, and a reminder of the betrayal So the rest of Judaism had some bad blood toward these people, even in Jesus’ time.

And that’s a battle that continues today. The fighting between Israel and Palestine is a remnant of this Jewish people versus Canaanite people battle that has been going for 3000-3500 years, arguing over whose land it really is, who God really gave that land to. It continues.

But for Jesus, the woman in this story was basically a bad person because of her ancestry and because of where she lives. And so of course Jesus calls her a dog. Once he finally decides to acknowledge her existence and admit that she’s there. Of course he calls her a dog: her ancestors 500-600 years ago helped betray Israel. Obviously she must carry the guilt for that because we don’t forgive people for what their ancestors did, they carry that guilt with them. Right? Isn’t that how we do things? The disciples totally understand that as well. They insist that she goes away. They are products of their culture, just as much as Jesus was. They insist that she go away. “She’s nothing, Jesus, she’s just a foreign woman. She’s not like us. She’s not one of us. And if she’s not one of us, not like us, then we owe her nothing. So pay her no mind.”

But, by God, she’s a mother with a sick child. She knows who Jesus is. She calls him Lord and Son of David. She is a mother of a sick child and she’s not afraid to tell Jesus that he’s wrong. She embarrasses him. She shames him, even. Uses his language against him. Says, basically, “You think I’m a dog? You think I’m a dog? Fine. I’ll play that role. If that is the role I have to play in order to heal my daughter, I will play that role. Whatever it takes to make my daughter better. I’ll do whatever you want. If you want me to be the dog, I’ll be the dog. But I want you to remember one thing: even dogs get to eat crumbs. Are you telling me that you are so lofty, and I am so lowly, that you can’t even give me a crumb? Even the cruelest master feeds his dogs.”

Now, she wasn’t there when Jesus was talking about how it is not what goes in the mouth but what comes out. She wasn’t there. She didn’t hear him say that. She doesn’t know that he said it. But by her response, she makes him listen to himself. She makes him hear his own words. She forces him to live by his own words. That’s a powerful moment.

He’s transformed by her faith. He learns. He changes his mind about her, and about who she is. And probably about all her people. Changes his mind in the direction of love and compassion.

Who are the dogs today? Those we might not want to give even a crumb? Who are the dogs today? Who are the dogs in your life? The children at the border with Mexico? Gays, lesbians, transgendered people? Immigrants? Palestinians? Africans suffering from Ebola? Or the Africans suffering from hunger or war? The people who live on the streets? Unarmed young African-American men? The Michael Browns of the world? People on death row? People who are asking for nothing more than a little bit of dignity by having access to health care and food for their family, who are very much like this woman who wants nothing more than health for her daughter? Who are the dogs for today?

Jesus is forced to listen to himself. This woman forced him to listen to himself and he did and he changed his mind and he changed his mind in the direction of love. This radical, reckless, costly love. Jesus listened to himself and changed his mind toward love.

What would happen if we listened to Jesus as well?


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections on suicide after Robin Williams' death/suicide and depression

Intro: I wrote this originally for the local newspaper, back in July of 2013. Today, August 12 of 2014, I am thinking of suicide (and mental illness) again because of Robin Williams' death two days ago, which appears to be suicide driven by deep depression. Since I am thinking of this again, I thought I would share this article with you. It is not so much about depression, but about how to respond to the tragedy that is suicide, and I poke a hole in that terrible platitude "God never gives you more than you can handle."

Probably more of us than not have been touched by suicide, either by our own attempt or that of someone we know. Suicide is increasing, particularly by returning soldiers (especially those facing difficulty accepting or finding mental health care) and gay teenagers literally bullied to death by classmates and some religious communities. And yet, suicide remains a largely taboo subject. Remember how we used to refer to cancer in hushed whispers as “the c-word”, hid developmentally disabled children in the attic, or called the gay couple “roommates”? As though if we don’t speak it, it doesn’t exist. But silence only gives it more power. Just as cancer research received public support only once we were willing to reduce the shame by saying the word, and people with disabilities and our LGBT brothers and sisters started achieving social (and churchly) acceptance only when we started speaking openly, perhaps speaking about suicide can better help prevent and overcome its pain.

You may have heard an adage that as unhelpful as it is old: “God never gives you more than you
can handle.” Unhelpful because, firstly, God does not inflict us with suffering. What God gives is
goodness and blessings. Not life-numbing pain.

Secondly, the fact of suicide also very obviously shows that some people DO have (but are not "given”) more than they can handle. Suicide comes from a place of deep suffering (depression, PTSD from war or sexual abuse, bullying, etc.) that is often kept hidden from others, and which most of us will never experience nor comprehend.

But lack of comprehension does not mean we cannot empathize with the suffering of the committer, and the suffering of their loved ones left with a lifetime of anger, shame, and wondering, Why? or, Did I fail somehow?

The answers to those two questions, by the way, are: We cannot possibly ever know, and No.

Especially we people of faith ought express compassion to eliminate the stigma and shame. Suicide is not an unforgivable sin. Those left behind need not feel shame. They certainly ought not be shamed. Who wants to hear from a cleric that a spouse or child who commits suicide is in hell? Some traditions even refuse to do funerals (or have them in their sanctuary) for people who have committed suicide. Where’s the compassion in that? I can imagine gods of our own invention being that evil, but the God of the Bible is loving and consoling that I imagine greets the sufferer with open arms and releases their pain. Shame is a too-prevalent evil in this world, but only because we are so easily allured by its narrative of self-righteousness. Is there a balm in Gilead? With God, always.

I have known people who committed suicide, and their deaths diminished me and those they left behind. But the shame put on survivors, or survivors put on themselves, is just as crippling.

Maybe worse.

And they have few outlets for their pain and anger.

Suicide has long been considered just a theological problem: call it a sin and leave it at that. But
that is as unhelpful as the above adage. Easy answers are rarely faithful. Suicide is mostly a
psychological issue, but is economic and political. We need affordable shame-free access to
mental health care. We need more vigilance in ensuring all our children are safe from bullies.
Our religious institutions need to be less bullying from their pulpits and more willing to greet
The Other with love. There is much we must, and which we can, do. But only if we talk about it.