When we get it wrong (because we do)

by susan on August 21, 2017

This message was shared on Sunday, August 20th as part of a series in preparation for our community’s celebration of baptism. We have explored how baptism symbolizes our “second birth” & our participation in Jesus’ death & resurrection. This week, we considered baptism as going public with becoming a life-long learner of the Way.

10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:10-28, NRSV

Jesus’ disciples still were not getting it.

Even though they had made some radical decisions, even though they had left behind some things & even though they were physically following Jesus from place to place, they still were not getting it.

How do we know that they’re not getting it?

Because they still don’t understand why Jesus is coming into conflict with the fundamentalist religious leaders of his day. They are still concerned that Jesus is offending the Pharisees. They are still oblivious to just how radical a shift Jesus’ way really was from the dominant cultural & religious narrative of his time.

Like many times before, Jesus is engaging in conversation with his disciples (or students). This particular conversation is in response to Jesus declaring that it is not what a person puts into his or her body that pollutes his or her life, it’s what comes from us that pollutes. Clean hands do not mean a clean heart.

This was a complete contradiction to what was being embraced by the religious fundamentalists of Jesus’ day. They were focused on staying sterile & on staying separate from anything or anyone that might keep them from being clean & pure & right.

Of course the Pharisees are offended by Jesus &
they were going to keep getting offended by him.

The disciples, though, could not understand this. They still were not getting it.

And, Jesus is not amused. He’s especially not thrilled with Peter. Not even Peter, the one who prided himself on knowing it all, was mastering the Master’s way.

After arguing his point, Jesus we are told, leaves for another place. I can’t help but wonder if he leaves because he’s tired. I can’t help but wonder if he leaves because he’s disappointed, burnt out & feeling like he’s getting nowhere.

Whatever his reason, he leaves for a different place & it’s there that he encounters a woman & not just any woman. As if being a woman did not already brand her as unworthy, she is a Canaanite woman which made her the despised enemy of Jesus. Jews & Canaanites had a long history of hate.

And, even though this might start off like a lot of the other Jesus stories (Jesus meets stranger or outcast and despite all odds, he heals him or her), it takes an unexpected turn.

Take a minute to pause at this point in the conversation. Can you feel the tension in this moment?

Here is Jesus tired & disappointed, trying to get away yet still surrounded by his followers. Here he is surrounded by expectations & a cultural tradition of staying separate & even mistreating enemies.

Can you sense the power of this moment? Can you identify with moments when you had to decide whether to step more fully into the kingdom of God or to step back into the dominant narrative of division or disregard or disrespect?

(During our gathering, we paused to share what have those moments have been like for us.)

Jesus is not his normal compassionate self.

We can tell from the moment he meets this woman that he’s just not feelin’ it. He doesn’t want to be bothered. And who can blame him? Not only are Jesus & this woman from two different worlds & two different races, she’s acting Canaanite. She’s not one of those well-polished Canaanite women, the kind who talk really well & blend in so easily you almost think she’s Jewish.

No. She’s beside herself. She is desperate & she’s showing it. She comes out yelling at Jesus.

I imagine her screaming loud enough to draw a crowd as she begs:

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;
my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

It seems obvious that this woman is in dire need of Jesus’ help (or she would not be crossing gender and racial boundaries to seek his help). But, it must not have been that obvious because Matthew tells us that when she came to Jesus begging for help, he did not answer her at all.

The Message translation says he ignored her.

I want us to take that in for a minute. Jesus did not answer this woman in her desperate time of need & his equally annoyed disciples egged him on. In fact, he even goes so far as to say that he is only here to help Israelites. His kind of people were the only ones worth saving.

Man, he is really having a bad day.

There have been several interpretations to try to save Jesus’ reputation: One is that Jesus is tearing her down to build her back up. Another is that Jesus is just using this woman to test the disciples.

Honestly, does using a desperate woman as an object lesson or kicking her while she’s down really paint Jesus in a better light?!

There’s another possibility though.

Jesus, we believe, was fully Divine & also fully human. To be human is to be conditioned by the culture of the day. To be human is to hear day after day a narrative, a story. It’s to hear enemies declared, to hear it’s us vs. them, there’s good vs. bad. It’s to hear talk of “those people” and “help us not to become like them”.

To be human is become so deeply entangled into that dominant story & that pervading rhythm of life that we buy into it, we live by it & we even stake our lives on it.

Is is possible that as a human being, in this moment, Jesus struggled to see & to choose the right path?

Is it possible that even though Jesus had been called & baptized & confirmed by the Spirit, he too was capable of learning some things along the way?

It took this woman three times of pleading for help on behalf of her daughter before Jesus finally looks into her eyes. He even calls her a dog before he sees her as a human being, really hears her cry & heals her daughter.

We can’t underscore what a pivotal moment this is in Jesus’ journey. We can’t underscore what a pivotal moment this is in scripture. I’m not sure what changed Jesus’ mind, but all I know is he moved from apathy to embrace. He moved from disregarding her to responding to her demands. He moved from inaction & into acting on her behalf.

And we still don’t get it. We, too, get it wrong.

Right now there is a movement going on around our country to tear down monuments that honor & celebrate the Confederacy. These statues honor those declared war heroes & there is no way to also not see them as celebrations of our past failures to condemn slavery. There is no way to not see them as symbols of White supremacy. There are passionate arguments to take them down & to let them stay.

If we decide to take them down & I hope we do, let’s also put something in their place.

Let’s put up a sign that reads:  We were wrong.

And let’s add some questions to that confession. Questions like:

How are we getting wrong right now? Who are we failing to love? Who are we mistreating? What other habits & harmful ways of life do we need to overturn?

Let’s take down monuments that celebrate the way we’ve gotten it wrong before & replace them with spaces to consider & confess the ways we are getting wrong in the present.

As learners of the way of Jesus, maybe Jesus is actually our object lesson here, reminding us that we too need to be ready to change our hearts & minds. We, too, will need to be ready to be awoken from our biases & our flawed ways of seeing. Awoken from our apathy & our complacency. Awoken from our greed & our narcissism. Awoken from our ingratitude & our pride… because we all get it wrong sometimes.

Pivotal moments like these come along in decisive ways in history & they also come along everyday. Everyday, we are confronted with opportunities to stick to the script that has been handed to us or to choose the way of Jesus:

moments when we can choose to confront injustice or look the other way,
moments when we can choose to forgive hold a grudge,
moments when we can respond out of fear or anxiety or out of love,
moments when we can work toward reconciliation or moments where we can choose to stay stuck in our own heads or stuck to our screens where the real work of reconstruction rarely happens.

Whether he meant to or not, Jesus models what he was trying so desperately to teach his disciples – that this life of faith is not about a set of rituals, it’s not about a script we stick to or staying separate from what we have decided is sinful. It’s about entering a new way & a new rhythm of life & that takes practice.

Baptism is the beginning. It’s in the midst of the craziness & the mundaneness of life that we live out our faith. It’s in the classroom and the board room, in our homes & our friendships, in traffic & in the grocery store. It’s when we are faced with decisions, enemies, struggles & stresses that we practice the way of Jesus.

We get to begin & thanks be to God, we get to begin again.

What is waking you up right now? How have you gotten it wrong & what are you learning? How are you & I being invited to step more fully into the way of Jesus as individuals & as a community & as a country & yes, even as global citizens?

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