Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pentecost 9

Preached @ St. Anne’s, Damascus, MD 8/14/11, Matthew 15:10-28

Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. A friend of mine told me about some problems she is having with her daughter. Katie is eight, small for her age, overweight and is near-sighted making her wear glasses. All of these outward personal traits have made her an easy and regular target for schoolyard bullies. Although she is not physically attacked, she does suffer verbal abuse from her peers, making her life, at present, a fairly lonely and unpleasant one. Children can be so mean sometimes when they see someone who is different from the rest of the group….. As is so often the case, Katie is just the nicest child: caring, loving, funny and lively. These harsh words directed at her, the snide glances given, Katie’s simply being ignored as if she does not exist, are all very hurtful and wounding at a very deep and personal place. This impacts all aspects of Katie’s life and is a cause for great concern to her Mom.

What comes out of the mouth is what defiles us. Jesus is doing something pretty radical today. Just before today’s passage begins, Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for allowing his disciples to eat without washing their hands, without following the purity laws. These rules and regulations controlled Jewish life for thousands of years. Instead of answering the Pharisees directly, he turns to the crowds and abrogates all the food laws: he says, enough with these rules and regulations. Jesus gets rid of thousands of years of rules and regulations today. The magnitude of this can easily be lost on us. By tossing these rules and regulations, Jesus is saying that what we do externally (washing our hands and feet) and what we actually eat, is not what defiles us before God. What makes us unworthy to approach God is what comes out of our mouth, which Jesus says comes from the heart…. What is our intention, what is in our heart when we say and do things?

The state of a person’s heart is much more important than any rules and regulations. Rules and regulations cannot be the ends of religious practices but are meant only to be a means toward religion, toward faith. Our tradition in The Episcopal Church, our liturgy that can bring such comfort, is not religion in and of itself. These traditions are a way to being faithful, of being religious, not the only way, but are a way toward getting to know God and opening ourselves to God.. When our heart is turned away from God and we act in vile manners, we are defiling ourselves; we are moving ourselves away from God by these actions.

Jesus’ actions in the second part of our Gospel today seem to fall into this category of acting inappropriately. We have an insulting and condescending Jesus here…..(Not a very nice Jesus at all.) There are a number of explanations for Jesus’ actions given by different theologians, mostly apologetic in tone. I do not buy any of these apologies. If we believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, well I think today we are seeing an aspect of Jesus being fully human. This is very bad behavior. Shocking in fact. To call anyone a dog, even if they were ancient enemies of your people (who were a hated, indigenous, rural people), these are disturbing things to hear coming from God’s son. After all this is a woman, kneeling in front of Jesus, begging for help for her ill daughter, and she is treated quite poorly by Jesus. What was in his heart when Jesus said these things?

This Canaanite woman was not deterred by her mistreatment; she persisted and found a way into Jesus’ heart. In a very clever way, this outcast individual turned Jesus’ insult around pointing out to Jesus that dogs eat too, dogs are also under God’s authority. And it is almost as if a switch has turned on in Jesus’ heart and mind, and he grants the woman’s request healing her daughter. Looking at this story in this one particular way makes Jesus appear like the schoolyard bully who learns his lesson, unlike the ones who are a torment to Katie, my friend’s daughter.

Words can sting so much, no matter how thick we might think our skin: inconsiderate words can hurt. It is not only words directed straight at a person though, it is also when we talk about others, when not in their presence. Some call this trash talk, but it all really boils down to being gossip. I find it amazing that after all these many eons of years and ages, we still gossip and triangulate. I am getting to the point where I believe this need to gossip is innate in us and needs to be un-learned. That is something Jesus did not do today, he did not turn to his disciples and “diss” this Canaanite woman behind her back…he at least had the guts to do so to her face. For talking behind someone’s back, gossiping about people, trying to triangulate a person into a conversation, sending anonymous letters, are all part of bad communication skills and I believe result in two things: defilement of the person saying or doing these things; and injury to the person about whom the things are being said. This is a different kind of schoolyard bully mentality then the one exhibited toward Katie, or the one practiced by Jesus today, but bullying it is, defiling it is.

In our Gospel selection today we have a “believing” Gentile pit against Pharisees stuck in their purity rules and regulations. St. Augustine pointed out another pairing: the pride of the Pharisees in their rules and regulations set up against the humility of this Canaanite woman of faith. We have those same self-righteous Pharisees nit-picking at Jesus, positioned against the persistent faith of an excluded individual, a true outsider. We have role reversals today: first it is Jesus responding to being bullied by the Pharisees paralleled against Jesus bullying the Canaanite woman.

Much like we saw when Jesus healed the centurion’s slave from a distance, here we have Jesus healing another outsider, from a distance. This could be Matthew signaling the clear trajectory of the Gospel: the universal invitation of Jesus to reach to all people. Today’s event is a part of Jesus’ journey on the way to that endpoint in the Gospel; it is a movement for Jesus beyond his tradition, both religious and cultural. This is a growing of the heart to encompass more, to reach out to the true other.

It is only from a clean and clear heart, an undefiled one, from which this kind of reaching out can truly happen. There needs to be an inward beauty that controls us, (much like Katie’s), and thereby helps to control our tongues. We all know people who outwardly appear beautiful, cool and confident, who, as we get to know them, are not like that on the inside. (It is not only children who can be cruel.) Inwardly these seemingly beautiful people are anything but: they are cold and calculating and unlovely to behold. Their outward beauty and their “cool-factor” usually disappears when this realization sets in: when we see the rot under the shiny exterior.

When we find ourselves in a situation where gossip is starting to be traded, or where an individual is being talked about who is not present, or if we are asked to participate in a scheme to malign an individual, we need to take a step back and think about what is in our heart. Is this how we would want to be treated or talked about?.....Is this really how we want to act? Perhaps we should not only step away from that kind of conversation but also suggest that direct communication between the parties involved would be healthier for all. For then, our shiny bright insides cannot help but to emanate through whatever façade we may have built…..thereby showing our true and good and undefiled selves to the world. There is no better evangelism we can undertake and live. Amen.


Copyright 2011, The Rev. John F. Dwyer. All Rights Reserved

Photo: Brett & Jason's Wedding Reception, 2011

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