Pentecost 11A 2017
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.
It’s an old saying, a cliché of the highest order, but it’s true: Timing is everything. From great to small, many of the key moments in our lives and in the life of the world depend on timing; good or bad, serendipitous or malevolent.
A couple meeting at a party neither one wanted to attend.
A kid named Steven receives a super-8 movie camera.
A revolutionary ducks into a side street cafe as his target makes a wrong turn… down the same side street.
Two friends named Steve start a computer business in a garage.
A country embroiled in a life-or-death struggle with fascists finds an eccentric backbench MP with a speech impediment to lead them.
An out-of-work CIA operative and a Texas congressman with little to do find each other and carry off the largest undercover intelligence operation in the history of the world, freeing Afghanistan from communism… and paving the way for a little group of radicals called the Taliban.
A little pleasure yacht called Titanic keeps an appointment with an iceberg.
All of it… Timing.
So what sort of timing is it when, a week after one of the tensest moments in recent American history, that we have a Gospel reading in which Jesus calls a woman outside of the Jewish people both ethnically and religiously, a dog and seemingly hand waves her away.
Many serious-minded Christians like to ridicule the image of Jesus as hippy… Long haired, robed, with small woodland creatures and birds landing and scurrying about while he preaches peace and kindness; a religious Disney princess. We think we want tough, cage-fighter Jesus, Jesus throwing a punch at evil and knocking out the bad guys, telling tough truths and not afraid of upsetting the status quo… And yet, I think all of us, whether we prefer Disney princess, Jesus or UFC Jesus, we should all wrestle with the way Jesus approaches this Gentile woman.
We even try to soften his word: we translate the Greek to say “dog,” but it’s closer to “puppy” or “little dog;” the impression is one of distant paternalism… No one feeds their lap dogs instead of the children; the lap dog gets what’s left over. Jesus, fully human, fully divine, seems painfully human to us, mirroring some of our worse impulses.
These impulses, our false, man-made divisions based on the most immaterial and irrational basis of skin color, poisoned our country from the outset. Columnist Charles Krauthammer calls slavery and the racism it inspired and was inspired by, America’s original sin. It infects our history and our most renowned personages; a million soldiers slaughtered to eradicate it, only for a kind of slavery to be reimposed by a one-party state throughout the South, condemning African Americans and poor southern whites to a second-class citizenry and bathe the political rulers of the American South and their enablers in the North in the blood of lynchings, violence and disenfranchisement.
Not that America is unique in this regard; the litany of 20th and 21st century horrors revolve around the idea that someone’s place of birth, skin color, or ethnicity denies them a place at a table: the Boers of Cape Colony, the Jews of Europe, the Rape of Nanking, the blacks of apartheid South Africa, the Tutsi and Hutus of Rwanda; Idi Amin’s Uganda, Serbs, Bosnians and Croats of the Balkans. And lest you think that sort of thing happens only “over there…” Recall it took Maryville schools nearly a decade to desegregate after Brown Vs. Board of Education in 1954.
And yet in each and every one of these horrors, there is someone, or indeed, someones, who make a stand against horror, who find, even among the blood and fire and ash, a flash of brilliance, a ring of light around the eclipsed sun. Known to all of us, names like Schindler, Kolbe, and Wallenberg, Mandela, Tutu and Biko, Gandhi and Jinnah. Dr. King, Jonathon Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who, spending his senior year working in the deep south registering voters in 1965… Murdered in Hayneville, Alabama, leaping in front of a shotgun aimed at a 15-year-old girl.
Or there’s Chiune Sugihara, an Orthodox Christian from Japan, who served as the Imperial Japanese vice-consul in Kaunus, Lithuania in 1939. From August 18 to August 28, Sugihara wrote thousands of Japanese transit visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews. On Sept. 4, Sugihara left Lithuania. As he boarded the train, he signed and stamped blank transit visas, and threw them out of the window of the moving train, finally saying, “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.” It is calculated that Sugihara issued more than 6,000 transit visas; 40,000 Jews are alive today, descended from those who received those transit visas.
What makes them different from everyone else? What made Sugihara different from those who stood by while their neighbors and friends were shipped to the death mills of Treblinka and Auschwitz? What makes Dr. King and Jonathon Daniels different from the paternalistic cowards who favored the ends of the Civil Rights Movement, but not the means of non-violent resistance. What do we do with this Gospel? Where is the Good News in this reading?
Great Faith. The woman’s faith in Jesus opens the story from one of paternalistic hand waving to one that becomes truly Good News that challenges the evil we saw in Charlottesville: The Good News of Jesus Christ is that there is a Lord who elevates us all to his table: black, white, Jew, Native, immigrant. Jesus Christ is the Lord, the great equalizer who conquers death, that conquers hell and opens his love to all, regardless of class and color: Leave that “death is the great equalizer” to the worshippers, idolaters of death and hell: the Klan, the Nazis, the supremacists of any stripe.
But let’s not deceive ourselves… Very few of us will find us confronting the obvious evils of Nazism or white supremacists marching in our hometown… The evil we confront on a daily basis is more like a tepid bathwater; we’ve been immersed so long that we can hardly feel any difference. Our $600 iPhones, made by near-slave labor in a foreign country; made with metals that pollute men’s bodies and destroy our earth. Our tolerance of easy access to drugs, alcohol, and sex. Our lust for more and more nonsensical material wealth, enslaving ourselves to Chase Manhattan or Capitol One. Hypocritically assuring ourselves we are saving Appalachia, while we slice off our mountaintops and destroy the poor communities in the hollers and hills, injecting our arms with the opiate of Big Coal and our addiction to easy coal and fossil fuels. Assuring us of our children’s righteousness because their ACT is higher than that other kid’s. Reducing our local education to a competition between sports teams. Recall the words of the great hymn, “I once was blind, but now I see.” If our conversion to Christ means anything, says anything to the world, we have to be honest about what we see and our own participation in evil. It is easy to fight Nazis; no one likes them. No one wakes up in the morning and decides to have brunch with a white supremacist. But we wake up each and every morning a hypocrite… Or at least I do.
My iPhone? I once was blind, but now I know I see.
My own gluttony for good food and good drink? I once was blind but now I see.
My own student and consumer debt? I once was blind but now I see.
How do I not invite the neo-Nazi and the white supremacist to my table, when I have no business being at the Lord’s table, either. How do I presume to think myself better than them, more human than them when we must all equally be raised to the Lord’s table? I once was blind, but now I see.
If the Gospel raises us equally to Christ’s table, it also lowers us; our sin reduces us equally to lap dogs, begging for scraps from the Lord’s table. But it is the Lord himself who raises us and gives us an answer to the evil, personal and institutional that threatens our communities and ourselves:
When evil fools drive a plane into our skyscrapers: Great is our Faith.
When we simply cannot get by without that new gadget, made at the expense of workers that simply cannot be us because they do not look like us: Great is our faith.
When the fires of the crematories burn Israel: Great is our Faith.
When we demand more oil, more coal more destruction: Great is our Faith.
When we require marshals and police to allow a black child to go to school with a white child: Great is our Faith.
When the bombs and UAVs drop their payloads: Great is our faith.
Whenever we convince ourselves that the other, the excluded the marginalized is a dog, and we are not: Great is our Faith.
Whenever we convince ourselves that we are dogs, unworthy of the love of Christ: Great is our faith.