Saturday, August 16, 2008

Thank goodness for pushy women - Proper 15A - Aug. 17, 2008

I suspect that “pushy” women do an enormous amount of the work that keeps the world going. One very popular pushy woman is Baroness Thatcher of Grantham, the first woman to serve as Britain’s Prime Minister. In the late 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher was often criticized for being “school-marmish” and “hectoring.” But if she were a man, wouldn’t they admire her for being decisive and forceful?

Today’s gospel reading includes a story about a woman most of us would probably characterize as pushy, and perhaps aggressive and obnoxious, too. Matthew tells us that Jesus “went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.” Tyre and Sidon were in or near present-day Lebanon, an area occupied mostly by Gentiles. Word of Jesus' visit somehow got out, and a woman of the region came to Jesus seeking help for her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Matthew identifies her as a "Canaanite." He does not tell us how often she came to Jesus with her request or what she said initially, but Matthew tells us that she cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Matthew also implies that she came to Jesus at least twice and to his disciples at least once.

Sermons on this text generally spend most of their time trying to justify Jesus’ grossly insulting rebuke to this nameless woman: “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But Jesus does not need us to defend him, and even if we wanted to defend Jesus, there’s no way to do it. However, it’s worth noting that God became incarnate not only in a person but also in a culture, and here Jesus gives voice to two of the most fundamental prejudices of his culture: Jewish men did not speak to or allow themselves to be spoken to by women in public, and observant Jews tried to minimize their contact with Gentiles. First Corinthians 14:34 expresses the standard attitude of Jewish men toward women in public places: they are to be “silent.”

By far the most interesting person in this story is the nameless Gentile woman who didn’t mind being pushy and who cleverly turned Jesus’ insult to her own advantage. There are two ways to look at her. First, let’s try to see her as Jesus and the disciples must have seen her: unpleasant, annoying, and impossible to get rid of. She wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” would not have satisfied her. If you put her on hold and hoped she would eventually hang up, you would have been disappointed.

Now, let’s try to see her more objectively. Sometimes being pushy, aggressive, and annoying is the only way to get things done. Sometimes in hindsight we can see that “pushy,” “aggressive,” and “annoying” were just other words for “courage,” “persistence,” and “determination,” and that is we ought to see the woman in today’s Gospel reading. She defied social conventions. In Jesus’ world, women were expected to be more or less invisible and silent, but in spite of any number of spoken and unspoken cultural assumptions, the Canaanite woman would not be silent and persisted in seeking healing for her daughter.

Another famous “pushy” woman was the late Rosa Parks. On her way home from work in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus and sat in the last seat reserved for “colored people.” When a white passenger boarded at the next stop, the bus driver demanded that Ms. Parks yield her seat to the white passenger. Parks refused and was arrested. But the simple act of refusing to give up her seat had a profound effect on history. It launched a boycott that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to international prominence, and it was the beginning of the civil rights movement that did so much to secure basic human rights that had long been denied to African Americans.

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat may have had influence far beyond her time and country. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, reactionaries sought to reverse the process of democratization by overthrowing the Soviet leader, Gorbachev. During the tense days of the attempted coup the world watched as Moscow’s mayor, Boris Yeltsin, literally stood up to tanks attempting to disperse the Soviet parliament. When asked what inspired him to face down tanks, Yeltsin said that he was inspired by Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland. When Walesa was asked what inspired him, he said that he had long admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, civil rights campaigns. When Dr. King was asked what inspired him, he said that he admired Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. Is it possible that Rosa Parks’ defiance of injustice helped bring down the Soviet Union?

So although I'd like to give at least one and a half cheers for pushy women, being pushy is not enough. You also need to know whom to push. The Canaanite woman went to the one person who could command the demonic spirit to leave her daughter and restore the girl to soundness of mind: Jesus.

This story shows Jesus in the worst possible light, so why did Matthew include it? Maybe it’s in the Gospel to encourage us. Like the Canaanite woman, we often come to Jesus with desperate needs: we’re out of work and need a job, or someone we love is dying, or someone has just shattered our heart. Like the nameless woman, we may pray to God day and night but find no relief. But more than likely, we pray about something once or twice and then forget about it. It’s difficult to explain why God hears and answers some prayers and seems to leave others unanswered. But God seems to expect us to be persistent in our prayers (maybe even a little pushy) and come back again and again.

The final thing we should notice about the Canaanite woman is the nature of her request. Begging Jesus to free her daughter from demonic power was no idle, off-hand petition. The woman was not asking for a trip to Cancun or a new car: she was seeking justice.

Thank goodness for pushy women and even pushy men. Thank goodness for people who defy social conventions in their quest to right wrong. But above all, thank goodness for those who kneel at Jesus’ feet day and night and pray without ceasing. Thank goodness for women and men who seek justice and will not accept “no” for an answer – even when the “no” seems to come from God.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Outside Agitator - Remembering Jonathan Myrick Daniels (Aug. 13, 2008)

Almost from the very beginning, Southerners in general and Alabamians in particular have resented what they have called “outside interference.” At least as far back as the Civil War, Southerners complained that Yankees just did not get it; they did not understand the Southern way of life. Of course, what that meant in antebellum Alabama was that Yankees wanted to put an end to slavery but did not really understand what a good, kind, and benevolent system slavery really was!

More recently, during the Civil Rights’ movement of the 1960s Southerners complained that Yankees (and Yankee journalists especially) did not understand the dynamics of the relationship between black folks and white folks in the Deep South. If they did, then they would just go back home and leave us alone.

There may be just a little bit of truth to the charge that Yankees don’t get us. How can you explain sweet tea, cornbread, Hank Williams (both junior and senior), Mardi Gras, and any number of other Southern institutions to anyone from Massachusetts, Ohio, or California? Having spent a good part of my life as a missionary to New England, I know what I am talking about.

Today we remember Jonathan Daniels who was one of those folks that Southerners accused of “outside interference.” Indeed, his biography is entitled Outside Agitator. Forty-two years ago today he was arrested and less than a week later unemployed highway engineer Thomas Coleman killed Daniels with a shotgun as the young man tried to protect a young black girl. Coleman argued that he had acted in self-defense and an all white, all male jury exonerated him.

Alabama’s bishop at the time of Daniels’ murder was Charles Carpenter. Carpenter deeply resented the “outside interference” of Yankees who came to Alabama to take part in the civil rights’ movement. I still find this hard to believe but Bishop Carpenter’s one and only public statement about Daniels’ murder and Coleman’s acquittal took place at the diocesan convention that followed. Carpenter criticized "the crowd of visitors whose presence motivated by various objectives caused us much difficulty and brought unwarranted confusion and tragic consequences."

I don’t know how fully Daniels, a New Hampshire native, “got” the South, but at least he was aware that there was something he did not quite grasp. Not long before he was killed he wrote these words in his journal:

“I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one's motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.”

I love the phrase “self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance.” We’ve all encountered it, and it can be very annoying to say the least. But I think all of us here tonight would also give thanks to God for the “Yankee messianism” that motivated people like Jonathan Daniels and Catholic priest Father Richard Morrisroe and Unitarian minister James Reeb and others to risk and sometimes give their lives in the struggle to secure equal rights for African Americans.

But the Episcopal church designated Jonathan Daniels a martyr not because of his “yankee messianism” nor because he, like so many other young men and women from the north, came south to help register African American voters. We honor Jonathan because he gave his life so that another might live and because he was where he was and was doing what he was doing for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A martyr is a reminder. He or she is a sign in our midst reminding us of two things: First, they remind us that grace is costly. As Bonhoeffer said, “Grace is free but it is never cheap.” The cross shows us just how costly grace is. Indeed, if grace were not offered to us freely, we would be unable to afford it. But if we accept the grace offered to us in baptism and at the Lord’s table, then we may have to pay a very high price indeed. Daniels and other martyrs show us just how high the price might be.

Secondly, martyrs are God’s gift to the church to remind us that God is alive and well and active in the world. They are also God’s gift to the world, daring the world to explain away someone who gives her or his life for the sake of the gospel. If the crucifixion is a bonfire, then martyrs are the sparks from the fire. For a brief, brilliant moment, they light up the darkness. They give us just enough light to see the outline of a better world..

For several years now the Dioceses of Alabama and the Central Gulf Coast have sponsored a pilgrimage to Hayneville where Jonathan died and his killer was acquitted. The most moving part of that event to me takes place during the offertory. Members of the congregation carry large photos of persons who died in Alabama during the struggle for civil rights. As the names of the persons in the photos are called, the photos are brought forward and each simply says, “Present.”

There’s no disputing the truth of that. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer affirms that when we sing the Sanctus we are joined by “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.”

The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses”. But it is especially in the eucharist that the church on earth and the church in heaven become one.

Today’s significance is not just remembering men and women who gave their lives in a great struggle. And it is certainly not about beating ourselves up and feeling guilty because of what Bishop Carpenter did or failed to do or because we or our parents or grandparents could have done so much more to support the civil rights’ movement.

The message of Jonathan Daniels’ life and death is about the transforming power of God’s love. It is the message of Christ’s resurrection. What happened outside a country store in Lowndes County 42 years ago is caught up and redeemed by what happened in a borrowed tomb in a garden outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Light defeats darkness; justice overcomes injustice; life conquers death. But Jonathan stated it more eloquently:

“I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God…. As [we] said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible "communion of saints"--of the beloved community in Cambridge who were saying the offices too, of the ones gathered around [God’s] throne in heaven--who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and "ends" all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.”

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Sound of Silence (Proper 14A) Aug. 10, 2008

Text: 1 Kings 19.9-18

John Cage was a somewhat eccentric composer who made a name for himself in the 60s and 70s. He did such things as write music for toy pianos. His musical scores sometimes did not even specify which instruments should be used. I believe that one piece of music starts with the instruction: “For any number and combination of instruments.” Others simply tell the musicians to play any notes between C and F sharp or something to that effect. But perhaps his most famous piece of music (and I use that term loosely) is entitled “4’ 33””. It can be played on any instrument but I believe it was premiered on a piano. The pianist came on stage, sat down at a piano, and pulled out a stop watch, and sat there for four minutes and 33 seconds. Then he walked off stage. I don’t believe there was any applause and I’m pretty sure there was no encore.

One critic who despised Cage and his music wrote, “We may hope that Mr. Cage writes more and longer pieces like this.”

Kind of silly, right? It’s like hanging a blank canvas in a museum and telling visitors that the real art is what they can see in their minds’ eyes. Or like giving diners in a fine restaurant empty plates and having them imagine a marvelous meal.

On the other hand, maybe Cage had a point: Like a painting in a museum, music has a frame. Silence frames and surrounds music. When we go to a concert, there’s usually a brief moment of silence before the pianist’s hands touch the keyboard or the conductor’s baton falls. It enables to concentrate and really hear the music. Perhaps Cage was saying that we cannot really hear music until we are comfortable with silence.

How much more important, then, might it be to be silent before we listen to God?

We live in an amazingly noisy world. At any moment at least a dozen noises are distracting us: the radio, the telephone, 2 or 3 people speaking, the truck going by on the street, the timer going off on the stove. Now God could just pull the plug on all that. Can you imagine the eerie feeling you would have if suddenly every appliance, every radio and television, every cell phone and landline in your house fell silent? It would seem like one of those moments in a horror movie when you know the serial killer or monster is just about to gobble up the victim. But of course God doesn’t work that way. God expects us to do some of the work: to turn off the vacuum, the computer, the television, to sit still and listen. Maybe we need to do what Cage did: to get our stopwatches and just sit there for four minutes and 33 seconds. That’s a lot of silence and it’s not easy to sit silently for that long.

There are some messages that can only be conveyed in silence, some truths so enormous that mere words are not enough. The late John Claypool lost a daughter to leukemia when she was only 11 or 12 years old. His friend, the theologian William Hull, preached at the funeral and took his text from the first verse of the 8th chapter of the book of Revelation: “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Perhaps silence is the best response to the death of a small child. It is an event that transcends and defies words.

Just prior to the story we heard in today’s OT reading the prophet Elijah had defied not only the prophets of the false god Baal; he had defied Israel’s ruler, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. They had introduced the cult of Baal. To defy Baal was to defy the king and queen. It was an act of treason. So Elijah was fleeing for his life when he took refuge in a cave. And God said to him, “Get out of there. Go back and finish the job.” But Elijah was terrified, “they are seeking my life to take it away.” Elijah did not want to hear God’s message. So God had to get Elijah’s attention. So he sent an hurricane; then an earthquake; then a wildfire. But Elijah was still in the cave. He wasn’t listening. Then came the most ominous sound of all: sheer silence. The older translations call it “a still small voice” but I prefer “a sound of sheer silence.”

Silence gets our attention because we do not expect it. Silence reorients our sense and perceptions. After silence we hear things we had never heard before and hear old things in new ways. We may hear our spouse saying, “You have not been listening to me. We are drifting apart.” You may hear your children say, “We never see you and need you to pay attention. We are adrift in sea of moral confusion and do not know where to turn.” But most importantly, you may hear God say, “Are you listening? I’ve been trying to talk to you. I have something important to say: I love you. You are of infinite value. If only you valued yourself a small fraction of how much I value you.”

I studied piano for about a year with a woman who was a very serious practitioner of Buddhism. We always began our lessons by meditating. Remarkably, I played better after meditating because I heard things in the music that I’d never heard before.

Whether you call it meditation or not, I recommend silence, because there are many worthwhile things we can only hear if we learn how to listen.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Wrestling - and dancing - with God (Proper 13A) Aug 3, 2008

Text: Gen. 32.22-31

The Beijing Olympics begin next week. Even those of us who would usually prefer a root canal to watching a sports’ event find the Olympics fascinating. As ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to say, it’s all about the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

One of the oldest sports is that of wrestling. The original Olympics long ago in Greece included wrestling, running, throwing various objects, and not much else.

Wrestling is an intuitive sport. Men are aggressive; there’s no way around it. One of the reasons that men die at younger ages than women is that our hormones drive us to do risky and stupid things, such as drive too fast and get in fights. Put two young men on a mat and with the slightest provocation they are likely to “duke it out” or one will try to wrestle the other into submission.

Dancing is at least as old as wrestling and resembles wrestling to a degree. I suspect that dancing channels some of the aggressive urges that might otherwise go into wrestling or other forms of violent behavior.

Dancing, like drama, the visual arts, and music, began as a religious activity. Dancers acted out their relationship with the gods. They ritually portrayed their adoration of the gods, their submission to the gods; they danced to persuade the gods to send rain or victory in battle.

But even wrestling had at least a brush with the sacred. The ancient Olympics were sacred to the god Apollo and began with a priest sacrificing a bullock.

Another similarity between dancing and wrestling is that originally dancing was not a matter of choosing an attractive partner of the opposite sex for an hour or so of relatively innocent physical contact while moving rhythmically to the strains of music. Originally, dancing was exclusively a same sex activity. Indeed, today in many parts of the world it still is. In traditional cultures, men dance in groups and women dance in groups but they never dance together. When the waltz was invented in early 19th century Europe, it caused quite a scandal when young men and women actually touched each other as they twirled gracefully around the ballrooms of Vienna.

This morning we heard the story of the most famous wrestling match of all time: Jacob wrestled with a messenger of God. It was a match of Olympic proportions that went on all night. And in the end, God won only by playing dirty: he had to dislocate Jacob’s hip.

It seems to me that our relationship with God can usually be characterized as either dancing or wrestling. Sometimes we dance with God and sometimes we wrestle.

There are people who seem to dance through life. They seem to lead charmed lives and go from victory to victory. They move to music only they can hear and are graceful and confident.

Others seem to wrestle every step of the way. Nothing comes easily. Life is a constant contest, a battle.

I don’t begrudge those who dance their way through life, although I confess to feeling envious. But I can’t help thinking that perhaps there are things that can only be learned through conflict and defeat.

Jacob was more a wrestler than a dancer. He wrestled his brother Esau for the blessing of their father Isaac and won. He wrestled his uncle Laban to gain the hand of his daughter Rachel. And finally he wrestled with God.

I’d like to point out several significant features of the story of Jacob wrestling with God’s messenger:

First, it took place in the dark. I imagine that most of us sometimes and perhaps a lot of the time, wrestle with God in the dark. The wrestling matches often occur during those sleepless hours after midnight and before dawn when our minds just won’t stop. Where are you God? we want to know. Why is life so hard? Just like wrestlers who wrap their arms around each other in a rough embrace, our minds wrap themselves around these questions, and we tumble over and over until our minds are as out of joint as Jacob’s hip.

Second, Jacob emerged from his wrestling match injured. As I said earlier, God fought unfairly. He employed an illegal move and dislocated Jacob’s hip. Why was that? Certainly God did not need to injure Jacob. I think the best explanation I can give comes from a short play by Thornton Wilder. In the play a man who has lived with chronic illness is told that “in love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.” Think of that. The armies of earth’s nations accept only those who can pass rigorous fitness tests, but the armies of love are made up of the wounded. That is because it is our very wounds that enable us to love. Without our wounds, how could we feel the pains of others? Without our wounds, how could we learn compassion?
Imagine the armies of love marching into battle. One limps; another leans on a crutch; another is in a wheelchair. And yet no army on earth is more powerful. The very wounds that cripple love’s soldiers make them invincible in love and compassion.

Thirdly, Jacob sought a name for God and received a new name for himself. Whether we know it or not, we try to name God in our wrestling matches. In the Old Testament naming always implied that one had a degree of control over the things and people one named. In Gen. 2. God brought all the creatures of earth before Adam who named each one of them. Symbolically, this indicated Adam’s lordship every other creature God had made. We want to name God, acquire a degree of control over God, but cannot be named or tamed. When Moses asked who spoke to him from the burning bush, the divine voice said, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In other words, “mind your own business, Moses.”

On the other hands, Jacob did acquire a new name – Israel. We never leave a wrestling match with God unchanged. It always changes us in ways we do not expect and sometimes it makes us new people altogether.

Finally, Jacob entered the wrestling match as a solitary individual but emerged from it as a people. Jacob had sent his entire entourage on ahead of him before he lay down to sleep for the night and woke to find himself wrestling with God. But when the match was over, he was no longer Jacob the Trickster, the Deceiver, the Conniver; he was Israel – God’s own people. All religion is inescapably corporate. Every religion involves us in relationship with others. To become a Muslim one must confess that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet in the presence of three Muslims; to become a Buddhist one makes the so- called “refuge vows”: “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma (teaching); I take refuge in the sangha (community).” The most fundamental Jewish prayer begins “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God”. It’s never my God but our God. In early Christianity, a person being baptized stood in a pool of water to be baptized, and as the bishop poured water over the convert’s head, she or he would say “I believe in God the Father…” but when they entered the church to participate in the eucharist for the first time, they confessed “We believe in God the Father…” They entered the water of baptism an individual but emerged part of a people.

With apologies to Lee Ann Womack, I hope you dance more often than you wrestle with God, but I suspect that every life is some combination of wrestling and dancing. There is one other similarity to note between wrestling and dancing: they both involve contact with another. If you dance with God, then follow God’s lead wherever it takes you. And if you wrestle with God, don’t let go. Because whether you wrestle or dance, you will be changed. You may not emerge unscathed, and you may even walk with a limp for the rest of your life, but however bumpy the ride, hang on for dear life,