10 Pentecost—Proper 15—A
August 17, 2014
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
There’s been a lot of fierceness in the news this week:
We’ve seen the fierceness of hate: ISIS fighters driving Yazidis out of their homes and into the mountains of northern Iraq, threatening them with genocide if they don’t convert to their extremist form of Islam.
We’ve seen the fierceness of anger: protesters in Ferguson, Missouri seeking answers to another death of an unarmed black teenager.
We’ve seen the fierceness of mental illness: actor and fellow Episcopalian Robin Williams succumbs to depression which turns a person, not against others, but against himself.
We’ve all know the fierceness of hate, anger, and self-inflicted pain.
This morning’s gospel, however, gives us another form of fierceness. It is the fierceness of love.
We don’t normally associate love with fierceness but we all know it’s true. Any time someone attacks our child or grandchild we feel that fierceness rise up within. We’ll take on teachers, principals, doctors, lawyers, police, or even a 300 mountain lion.
It is this fierceness that drives a Canaanite woman to overcome the barriers that want to keep her from the healing she seeks. She crosses over the wall of hatred that has existed for centuries between Jews and Canaanites. She takes on the disciples who complain to Jesus she is bothering them with her shouting. They ask Jesus to send her away which is their way of saying give her what she wants so we can have some peace and quiet.
But Jesus refuses because he says there is another wall: the Father has sent him only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
But the mother keeps on coming—and finally throws herself down in front of Jesus and says the most effective prayer I know: She says, “Lord, help me!”
But Jesus seems to resist even this prayer, saying it is not right to give the children’s food to dogs.
You’d think this would finally shut her up, but she responds: “Yes Lord but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
This mother’s love is fierce and she is not giving up.
We know that passion. Many of us saw our own mothers act that way.
We are told in Mark 3:8 that “hearing all that Jesus was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon” so it is not unreasonable that she had heard of Jesus.
What is striking, however, is that this Canaanite woman calls Jesus “the son of David”, which is a Jewish messianic title.
She has the intuition that this Jewish healer is connected to God in a uniquely powerful way, so that it makes sense to throw herself onto his mercy on behalf of her sick child.
At this point she has a deeper understanding of who Jesus is than the disciples, since Peter won’t call Jesus the Messiah, the son of the living God until the next chapter.
Maybe Peter finally gets this because of this woman.
I think she can also be our teacher: as Episcopal priest and mystical writer Cynthia Bourgeault points out, contemporary Christians living in a pluralistic world have drawn back from naming Christ as unique, “the cosmic singularity”. She says, “Contemporary images of Christ again follow that downsizing tendency, reframing the human Jesus in more modest spiritual categories—as teacher, brother, prophet, mystic, revolutionary….”
But she says, quoting Indian theologian Raimon Panikkar that “there is no Christianity without acknowledging the centrality of Christ, not just as founder, master, teacher, enlightened being, but in some sense, ‘the icon of all reality’, bearing in a particularly intense and illumined way the nature of God, the hologram of reality itself…. that in the person of Jesus heaven and earth have been brought together in a decisive and ultimate way.” The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity, page 203. This is a fascinating, encouraging and sometimes confusing book, but one I recommend for those serious about looking at the Trinity and Jesus in a fresh, deep way.
The mother says: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David”….and then “Lord, help me.”
At the end of her encounter with Jesus he says to her, “Woman, great is your faith.Let it be done for you as you wish.”
What makes her faith great?
Could it be her vision of who Jesus is combined with her willingness to fight through every obstacle and boundary to get to him?
She could have easily given into hatred and anger by blaming others for her fate. She could have been overwhelmed with depression and just given up.
She could have been so caught up in her pain that she was unaware that Jesus was walking down her street.
When we become self-absorbed we lose the ability to see what is right in front of us.
But we have not finished with this story if we stop here. There is another fierceness we need to see: it is the fierceness of the love of God for us in sending Jesus Christ.
This love is so fierce that it is willing to break down all the barriers in order to include everyone in the family of God.
It’s easy to see God’s love for the persecuted, but it is much harder to see God’s fierceness of love for those doing the persecuting.
When I was in Atlanta my nephew James and I went to the newly opened Center for Civil and Human Rights. It is right next to The World of Coke and the Aquarium.
On the main floor which covers the history of the American Civil Rights Movement is a re-creation of a 1960’s lunch counter. You sit on a stool, put on headphones, and then put your hands flat on the lunch counter. Then you hear hostile voices telling you that you don’t belong at the place whites eat. You are called names and threatened. How long can you stay there? And then there is a loud noise and your chair vibrates as if you’ve just been hit.
It is a startling, unpleasant few minutes. It’s easy to imagine God’s fierce love for those who are treated this way then and now. It is not so easy to imagine that same love for those so taking part in such attacks.
But I think of the “Bootleg” Southern Baptist preacher Will Campbell, author of Brother to a Dragonfly, who died last year at 88. He was the only white minister present at the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. He got thrown out of his church job because of his fierce love for justice.
Yet this same Will Campbell also became an unofficial chaplain to members of the Ku Klux Klan, sipping whiskey on their porches, in an attempt to understand and love them.
He wrote “I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”
Will learned this from Jesus who loves even those nailing him to the cross.
The woman who fought her way to Jesus encourages us to also fight our way to him through our hatred, anger, and depression. She invites us to fall on our knees in front of him and say: “Son of David, Lord, help me!”
And is a witness to us that even if we only get a crumb there will be more than enough fierceness in it to transform our lives.