Sunday, August 17, 2014


I am here an extra time this year
            because Trinity is in a time of transition.
Transition means change
and change comes hard to Church people.

It starts early.
At my first congregation we started a children’s service.
Small children took turns carrying the processional cross.
But it was too heavy for them and they could barely keep it upright.
So I got them a lighter wooden processional cross they could manage.
There was an immediate outcry among the children.
I quote: “They’ve taken away our cross.”

I do love the Church.
I love Church people.
My favorite Church people are Episcopalians.

 But sometimes I see folks who’ve spent years in our pews
            calcifying into a stodgy nay-saying resistance to anything new
                        that makes our faith boring and worse still
puts a sour face on the gospel.  
Speaking of the gospel, we might learn something
            about flexibility and openness
                        from today’s lesson in the Gospel of Matthew.

When we read a novel for a literature class,
            the professor will usually ask
                        “who is the main character?”
There is a rule of thumb for figuring that out.
It is the one who changes most.
The main character is not a stable prop in someone else’s drama.
The main character learns things, grows.

King Lear is called “King Lear” because the old king
            eventually sees his own injustice and he repents.
Shakespeare didn’t name his play after faithful Cordelia
            who is good and virtuous throughout.
He named it “King Lear” after the character who moves,
changes, makes spiritual progress – and is therefore interesting.
So, who is Matthew’s book primarily about?
If it’s about Jesus, then instead of taking everything he
            ever said as the final word for all time,
            we might look to see if Jesus ever changes his mind.

His first teaching was the Sermon on the Mount.
Not much grace in that sermon.
Here’s what Jesus says about the law.
        “”Not one letter or stroke shall pass away from the law . . .
            Whoever breaks . . . the least of these commandments . . .
                        will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.”

He thinks the Pharisees are soft on sin.
He wants to make the law more rigorous.
His main point is that doing the right thing isn’t enough.
Dotting every i and crossing every t is not enough.
You have to get your heart right.

 Now fast forward to today’s lesson to see where that leads.
The disciples have just violated a law about hand washing.
The Pharisees cry “Shame. Not one stroke or letter . . .” they say.
“Whoever breaks one of the least
of these commandments . . .” they say.

But now Jesus says, “It’s no big deal.” His position has shifted.
He explains, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,
            but what comes out it.”
The heart is what matters. Not legal technicalities.

Jesus began to wonder what some of the law
has to do with the heart.
Maybe if your heart was right,
            it didn’t matter if you kept the law perfectly,
            so long of course as you were Jewish
                        and kept the law pretty well.

 That teaching drew fire from the Pharisees.
So Jesus, being a bright guy, knew when it was time
to get out of Dodge, so he took a little vacation from his mission
            in the non-Jewish country of Tyre and Sidon.
He had strictly ordered his disciples
            not to even tell non-Jews about the gospel.
They were the wrong race, wrong customs, “not our sort dear.”
So he was in Tyre and Sidon on a vacation, not a mission.

But along came this non-Jewish woman begging him
            to heal her daughter.
Jesus ignored her. She persisted.
The disciples said, “One of the goyim is bothering us.
            Send her away.”
So Jesus told her he served Jews only.
In desperation, she threw herself down in front of him.
He called her a dog and ordered her out of the way.
But she said, “Even dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.”

That rocked him.
She had called him her master.
It was at once beautiful and a violation of the taboo
            separating Jew and Gentile.
It was so wrong under the law, so right in the heart.
Jesus repented.

He had just recently said to his own disciples
-- right race, right gender, right religion –
 “O ye of little faith.”
Now he says to this foreign pagan
            -- wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion --
“Woman, great is your faith.//
 Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Jesus is stumbling toward a new kind of religion
This nameless woman had converted him.
And we had better be glad she did,
            because without her there would have been no gentile mission
            and we would still be sacrificing goats to Jupiter.

Matthew’s book still has a long way to go.
Eventually, It ends like this:
            Jesus says to his disciples,
            “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ..”
“Nations” means the non-Jews.

When Jesus first sent his disciples out to spread the gospel,
 he said,  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles
                        and enter no town of Samaria,
            but rather go to the lost sheep of . . . Israel.”
But after meeting this gentile woman,
            he began to change his tune.
In the end, he sent his disciples to baptize all nations.

So what might we learn from this story?
The first thing we see is Jesus modeling an open mind
            and an open heart.
His faith was a living, growing thing.
It changed. It moved. It morphed.

He wasn’t so stuck in what he said yesterday
            he couldn’t move on to a new truth tomorrow.
Jesus changed. So how about us?
It’s good to check our faith from time to time
            to see if it has any buds on it, any green shoots.
If not, we might want to fertilize it a bit
            with a new prayer practice, a new book,
                        a retreat or some act of mercy.

Maybe we need to meet someone outside our comfort zone
-- some modern equivalent of a Canaanite woman
            with a sick child
– someone to shake up our stultifying certainties.

The second thing we notice in this story
is its ethical trajectory.
Right from the beginning,
            the distinctive thing about Jesus
                        was his gospel of inclusion.
Right from the beginning,
            he sat at table with sinners and social outcasts.
But at first he was calling them into an even smaller circle
            of stricter rules than the Pharisees had drawn.
Then he extended the circle by disregarding
            laws that kept people outside
                        even if their hearts were faithful.
Then he took in lawless gentiles if they had great faith,
            and finally sent his disciples out to gentiles
                        who didn’t even have faith yet.

It is an  expanding ethic of inclusion, an ethic of embrace.
St. Paul kept extending that trajectory of inclusion.
“In Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,
            neither Jew nor gentile,” he wrote.

We have our trajectory set in the life of Jesus.
Who might be outside our circle of caring or acceptance?
Who might be the Canaanite woman for us?
If we keep an eye out for the people we are tempted
            to avoid, they may show us the growing edge of our faith.

Not all change is good. But some change is.
And the good change is as uncomfortable as the bad.
When our Church changes, it unsettles us.
But I’ll let you in on something: That’s on purpose.
It’s because we need a little unsettling now and then.