Year A, Proper 15 August 20, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Good morning everyone! It is good to be here. It is good to see you. It has been three and a half months. That’s a goodly amount of time. I’m back and I’m feeling very well. Very well.
My sabbatical was great. Thank you for that gift. (And thank you to the Lily Foundation for making it much easier to do). In a few weeks we’ll have a party, sort of a welcome back/kick off of the church year. You’ll see some slides of where we went, what we did. But briefly, it started with you all sent us off so beautifully to Eastern Oregon for a few weeks of vacation. It was fabulous… what a gorgeous state we get to live in. Then, after that wonderful and relaxing time for us to all be together as a family, we got back to Jasper and got to work. Part of that work was my writing. I got a good start on a novel I have been kicking around in my head for the past year. It is set on the streets of Eugene, in the world of homelessness, the climax coming in the Occupy camp. It is very far from being anything, but I got lot of work done on voice, on narrative structure and scope of the writing. It was a challenging process that I got a lot out of it and the writing will continue.
When I wasn’t writing, I was working for Windy on the ranch. And that was great, too. The girls and I built a picnic table and we now have two years of firewood down (splitting and stacking comes this fall), and we came to some important conclusions about how we prioritize our time and how we allocate other family resources. We have made some hard decisions and are moving ahead with some simplification of our lives.
And when I wasn’t doing that, I was enjoying my family. Enjoying summer in Oregon on hikes and in swimming holes. Enjoying going to some other churches. St Mary’s Catholic was the most culturally and racial diverse place I’ve been in since I’ve lived in Oregon, that was wonderful to see, and the Faith Center, they have fun. There was some positive energy there that I was not expecting. And I spent time praying, saying the office. Doing my Chi Kung. Making some real progress on some family of origin challenges I have faced (and have created). I read a lot. Some very good stuff and some trashy spy novels. And it was all capped by a really great trip back to Massachusetts to see our families. The best we’ve had. It is good to have headspace! It is good to have room for your spirit to just be where it will be and not be confined by schedules, deadlines, needing to produce, to be or to do anything. Thank you for letting me go!
And thank you for keeping it all running. Things here are just fine, better than fine, things are great. I came back to no bungalow and no hole in the parking lot! That is progress. So many people did so much work, so much effort. Thank you. And thank you for not stopping all of that because I am back! A lesson learned for me is that I was doing too much, holding on to too much control, doing too much of it myself, which is efficient, in ways, but not sustainable, and not good for me, and more importantly, not good for this community. Leaders arose, and the top priority I come back with is tending that leadership. You might know the old proverb, “It you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” There’s an organizational goal.
My list of thank yous is very long and as I learn more about what has gone on here, it will grow. I do want to really hold up Sandi, our senior warden and Patty, clerk of vestry and proto-chief of staff. They did a lot of heavy lifting this summer. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. Also the folks of the Hospitality Village committee, Tina, Stevie, Sandi, Maggie, Kevin and Alex. Running a Village is challenging, and they rose to the challenge. Gay, she held it together, all the day to day bits. And Mother Anne. She was great, wasn’t she? She is off for a couple of weeks, so don’t worry, she’ll be back, but I have just heard so many high praises. Thank you for being there for her. It is scary doing this for the first time and you all held her as she held you. That is just fabulous, church being church.
Another thing I did a lot of work on was on me in relation to you, in particular when it comes to us in relation to the world. How do we as a community address moral issues in our world and what is my role institutionally as rector of this parish and personally as your priest? Where am I in this, what am I supposed be doing as opposed to encouraging others to be doing or discerning what they are supposed to be doing? These are important questions, particularly in this moment in history because a Christian voice needs to be heard and Christian people need to be engaged, shining the healing light of Jesus Christ on a world that is increasingly obvious in its brokenness. I have pushed you all a lot over the past few years. Pushed you all to consider things that might be uncomfortable, to hear from perspectives that might be unfamiliar or out of the context of what you consider the purview of church. I have pushed us into territory that some have even found offensive: we’ll take up the question how we pray for President Trump at another time, because goodness gracious, that man needs prayers to change his ways more than just about anyone in this world right now.
Now I did not come back with the idea that I am going to stop pushing us into territory that is uncomfortable; nothing about the Jesus Christ and His Cross is comfortable. If you are not looking to learn and grow, deepen your understanding of Jesus and of Jesus’ call to you, His call to you directly and specifically to be and do the best that you can be and do, if you are not here for that, then I don’t know why you would come to church. We are here to learn and grown in Jesus Christ. To learn how we become more Christ-like. And, I have been learning that I need to go easier. The struggle between light and dark, good and evil is a long game, and one probably, now here is a spiritual revelation, one probably better faced with the brilliant light of God’s love than with the gloom of anger and cynicism that some of us, like me, can tend towards. As righteous as it may be, that’s maybe not the path to the Kingdom of God. And I promised myself that I am going to go easier, especially today, my first Sunday back, keep the sermon light, say hi, reflect on the scripture, “A house of prayer for all peoples.” But then we had the spectacle of hate and violence in Charlottesville followed by a week of equivocations by our President about white supremacy, neo-Nazis and memorials honoring the confederacy. God help us. Automatically my go-easier meter pegged at outrage, and I immediately had a litany of reasons why this should not be surprising and that our incredulousness is another sign of our white privilege, and that our nation has been on this trajectory since wealthy slave owners wrote the constitution, on and on in the way that I usually go. That is not the way.
Our scripture this week answers the rhetoric from the white nationalists quite directly. Theirs is an argument of purity. White purity. I saw some images of white supremacist graffiti and signage found on the U of O campus recently, and so many were images of the model white person, pure, unsullied with otherness. Awful. That is not God’s will. Nothing is pure in that way, nor should it be nor is purity a Christian virtue. God’s will is manifest in the creation, with overwhelming diversity not just in humanity, but in life itself, utterly interdependent in its variety.
And specifically, when it comes to human diversity and our purity, our scripture today is clear. Isaiah is crystalline in saying that foreigners, ‘the other’, that “…their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” That’s the motto of my home parish, the St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, with Mecca lines on the floor for the couple of hundred Muslims who have Friday prayers there each week. It is right on Boston Common where 15,000 – 20,000 showed up to protest the 100 or so white nationalists who rallied there. I hope the Cathedral’s light shined bright.
St. Paul says the same thing in his very Pauline way. He says that Israel, loyal Jews, they are not rejected by God, but receive God’s mercy like Christians do. His reasoning is that we are all disobedient, so we are all recipients of mercy God’s mercy. The military is known for being progressive about racial integration. I don’t know if that’s actually true, it is debatable in many ways, but Paul’s statement, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” reminds me of how we were taught about racial equality at Officer Candidates School. Our Sergeant Instructor told us, “Black, brown, white, orange, polka dot… it don’t matter, you’re all equally worthless.” I guess that is a positive lesson. At least everyone’s equal.
Then we hear Jesus in St. Matthew’s gospel. In the first part, He takes on conventional wisdom embodied in the Pharisees. They took offense when he proposed the radical notion that it was not what you ate that made you unclean, but what you did. That what you put in your mouth doesn’t defile you, but what comes out of it, the products of our hearts: evil intentions, murder, adultery and the rest of our shadow side, they are what defiles. Purity, acceptability by God is not determined by what you eat or how clean your hands are, but in the quality of your inner life and how you express it and act upon it in the world.
That is all obvious. It is a baseline value of liberal Christianity, acceptance, radical acceptance. And sometimes we do it to a fault. We are so accepting of the validity of other ideas and other ways of being that we sometimes don’t value our own ideas and own ways of being enough to have a firm foundation of faith. But if you are going to err, err on the side of excessive acceptance.
What really struck me in our scripture in this moment, this confusing moment of public tension and unrest around race, of reckoning with our history and the reality of the present, what struck me was the second part from Matthew, 15:21-28, the story of the Canaanite woman.
She comes asking Jesus to heal her daughter who suffers with a demon. “But he did not answer her at all.” Jesus? He ignores someone… The disciples urge Him to send her away because, “…she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus answered their request, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus? He’s not ignoring her, He’s full on rejecting her. “I did not come for her or her kind” is what is being said. But then Jesus, our humble Lord and Savior, teaches us. What happens? She asks Him directly for help, to which He responds “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning, what I have is not for you, you dogs (and being called a dog would be like being called a rat or pond scum, a really nasty thing to say). But the woman persists. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, and I’m still here, unworthy perhaps, but here, waiting for your grace.
And this is our lesson, our lesson for today and for this moment in time. Jesus learned. He learned and He changed His mind and changed His course based on what He learned. He learned that this woman, this Other, this foreigner like Isaiah held up, that she too had faith, that she too was worthy of His attention. And He changed His ways “And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Right now, we need to learn as Jesus learned. Jesus learned because He was open to learning. He changed how He was and what He did in the world based upon this encounter. He changed His mind, he allowed His mind to be changed by new truth that this woman in her faith revealed to Him. And dramatically, instantly, He changed His course and included her in the reach of His loving embrace.
Over my sabbatical I met some people, read some things, had some inner stillness that challenged some of my presuppositions, that called me to question some of my opinions, oh my precious opinions, and is, I hope, leading me to be and do things differently than I have in the past. Jesus offers each of us a way of grace to correct our course.
I have already had multiple inquiries about what are we supposed to be doing right now, how are we supposed to react as a community, what are we supposed to do as individuals, largely white, middle class Christian individuals in South Eugene seeking to make the world better than it is at the moment. My answer is to be like Jesus. Open your heart. Expose yourself to things you might not usually be exposed to. Try on ideas that are foreign, even offensive to your personal conventional wisdom, and give yourself permission to change your mind and your course, just like Jesus did. You know what lies in the recesses of your heart, how much you have to give, what you are willing to risk. And if you don’t, have faith and follow Jesus. He’ll tell you what to do.
It is good to be back. AMEN.