August 20, 2017: Rector Robyn – “Gentle People, Do Not Despair”

I offer you two passages to ponder:

for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Isaiah 56:7b-8

Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “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.”  Matthew 15:10-11

Those of you who know me and who have listened to my sermons through these last several years know that I try really hard to keep politics out of the pulpit.  But, there are times when the Holy Spirit calls even the most reluctant of us to speak.  There are issues of concern for Christians and for all people of good heart that are politicized by those who seek to manipulate and control the minds and hearts of the population. Issues of economic and environmental justice…of social equality and equity….of care and concern for the poor and the vulnerable …of compassion for the fragile, the sick and the broken.  These concerns are the purview of Christ and his followers and when they are politicized we must become political.

There have always been those who feel no reticence or remorse in perverting the truth or outright lying if it gives them power, influence and wealth.  Unfortunately, in today’s entertainment focused culture many of the media sources people trusted to provide objective accounts of events now seek primarily to sensationalize and dramatize with a spin that appeals to their chosen demographic.  The media is not to blame for this but rather those who would rather hear news that agrees with their personal worldview rather than confront the complexity of the social and political climate in which we now find ourselves.

I say all this as preface to remind us that in his day Jesus himself was very political speaking against the powerful while offering solidarity and support for the oppressed, the vulnerable, the outcast and those broken by a society structured to make certain that the poor stayed poor and the powerful remained wealthy.  Judea was an occupied territory and the Jews were a conquered people.  The Romans allowed them some religious autonomy, as long as it was convenient and the religious leaders who collaborated with the Empire wielded their own bit of power over the faithful, taxing the poor into deeper poverty and tamping down unrest before it was noticed by Rome.

Looking around at the state of this world we can see that the situation now is not that different.  The hearts of men have not changed with the passing of millennia.  There is still hatred and violence, injustice and oppression, greed and intolerance, ignorance and arrogance.  The machineries of war still grind up the bodies of the young and the old relive glory days that were never glorious and try to hide the scars on the soul that they carried back from their own battles.  The poor are still battle fodder for the wealthy and while the rhetoric of the sabre rattlers continues to be about defending freedom and other noble causes the truth is war is very profitable.  Even those begun as just causes eventually become about acquisition…of land…or resources.  In the end weapons must be sold so more can be made…and so goes the war. The world is in the throes of a mass unrest and if we do not bomb, or burn or shoot ourselves into oblivion we seem intent on destroying the planetary ecosystem that keeps our fragile bodies alive.  One would think humanity has some sort of default tendency toward self-destruction.

It is probably pretty evident that I am feeling more than a little overwhelmed, and I suspect some of you are as well.  While these things have always been going on somewhere in the world as the background noise of our global society, the heavily armed men marching and chanting hatred, the threat of violence in the streets….the terrorist attacks in London and Barcelona…the rise in the number of mass shootings….  The incessant growling and snarling of supposedly civilized folks as they argue with their neighbors or post their rants on social media…..  Road rage and hate speech and all manner of ugliness boiling over or oozing out of the mouths of seemingly regular people.  Brothers and sisters what have we become?  And perhaps the more important question….how do we stop this becoming?

If our faith practice means anything at all I think it is important that we remind ourselves of some basic truths of our tradition.  The first and the most vital to our understanding of who we are is that we and all living things were created by a loving God.  We humans were made in the very image and likeness of this God, which means that if this God is love then we were made in love to be loving, creative beings. God made us to be in relationship with one another, with all of creation and with God.  This is a relationship based in love.  We were made as one people and God does not love some of us more than others.  Even in the Hebrew Scriptures when the people understood themselves to be chosen and set apart by God we read the prophet Isaiah declaring God’s welcome to all people:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,

all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant–

these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

The Psalmist too declares:

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.

Who are we to deny those whom God welcomes?  I say this because the time is coming when we, as people of faith will be called upon to make a choice…to stand in opposition to hatred and bigotry or to hide in our comfortable lives because we would rather go along to get along.  Brothers and sisters words have power…to hurt or to heal.  While it is always good to think before one speaks and listening to someone else’s story can create relationship, there are times when to be silent is to be complicit.  We must not keep quiet in the face of injustice, abuse or exploitation.  We must speak God’s truth with love and without apology.

In our Gospel lesson today Jesus told his followers that : it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.  He was speaking to the power of words.  Just as you will know someone by their deeds you will also know them by their words.  Jesus goes on to say:

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  No matter how good we are at lying to ourselves and others eventually our words will show whom we really are.  That racist joke made at an unguarded moment among friends…that hateful story about a neighbor…that salacious bit of gossip about a Christian brother or sister…..the cruel critique on the appearance of a coworker…the angry Facebook rant at someone who disagrees with our opinion.  If your heart is filled with anger and hate…with scorn and disdain…with arrogance and cruelty it will eventually seep out in your words.  This is not who we are called to be.

I know you may be angry…the events going on in this world are enough to make even peaceful people angry but anger that is fed eventually becomes hatred and hatred will eat you up from the inside.  One can be angry and not sin, especially in the face of injustice but we must not let anger cause us to forget that in Christ we are called to be peacemakers…to heal and not hurt….to bind up not wound…to comfort not afflict.  We must be the ones on the front lines speaking love into  being.  There is power is words and those spoken out of love …those spoken about love….are the most powerful of all.  Yes, you will probably be ridiculed…yes, you may be ignored and yes, you may even be threatened or injued….but if the followers of Christ do not have faith in the power of love then we are lost indeed.

It was love that led to the Incarnation…for God so loved us that he came to be with us…as one of us…to show us how to live….to show us how to die…to show us how to love.  We, who are made in the image and likeness of God have been given the power to love this world or to destroy it.  Never underestimate your own power to do something good.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”  This wisdom from a man who lived through the horror of South African apartheid and saw the healing made possible through the Truth and Reconciliation project.

You must discern God’s call to you in these troubled times.  For some it may be to be part of a larger movement or to engage in the political process…to march….to speak publically to the issues that are of concern.  For others the call will be more obscure…to help heal the breach between those who let opinion become more important than relationship….to find moments within the everyday to show compassion and to teach peace.  But none of us gets a pass…there is too much strife in this world for any of God’s people to stand by idle while hatred is breeding violence.  We must be awake and alert to opportunities to oppose the evil and to encourage the good, with the strength that comes from true humility.

Humility is not dismissing the good or demeaning oneself.  To see oneself as less than the precious child of God is either false humility or a detrimental lack of self-esteem.  Rather, true humility is to see oneself clearly both the good and the not-so good.  It is to be open to change while respecting one’s talents and abilities.  We must all be open to change and enter every situation with a willingness to learn and if necessary to be corrected.

Even Jesus, who was fully divine, but also fully human had to learn.  The latter part of our Gospel lesson today gives us a very revealing account of Jesus interaction with the Canaanite woman.  When our Lord at first refuses to heal her child he gives this truly awful excuse…. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  There is no way to hear this without cringing at the insult.  He basically called this woman and her child “dogs”.  Remember too that unlike our own culture where our dogs are like family….the same was not true in first century Palestine.

To be honest while offensive Jesus’ insult would not have been considered a sin.  The Jewish Law, as he would have understood it would have been very clear on the inferiority of the non-Jewish Canaanites.  They were despised because they were idol worshippers and in the early history of the Jews some of the people had intermarried with them and been led astray into questionable religious practices.   But the Canaanite woman in our story was not deterred by Jesus’ disdain for her.  She was a mother on a mission to save her child and I suspect she would have willingly faced worse treatment if there were a chance her daughter could be healed.  So she has the intelligence and the courage to argue with the Jewish Rabbi:  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  In that one statement she expresses her humility in being willing to accept even crumbs; her obvious belief that she too was a child of God serving the same master; and her certainty that even a tiny bit of Jesus’ power could heal her child.  Humility, dignity and faith.  Jesus in that moment saw her great faith…in God and in him and he healed her daughter.  I believe that this was the moment when Jesus began to realize that his purpose was not only to save the Jewish people but in fact through him God intended to save the whole world.

If Jesus could be taught, how much more is there for us his followers to learn?  We also have in this story the great example of the Canaanite woman.  If like her we can remember that we are all children of God and trust that this God loves us and wants us to be well and happy then we have no need to hesitate but can come boldly before God asking for what we need to accomplish God’s purpose in our lives.  We are all agents of God’s grace….vital to the mission of bringing God’s Kingdom into being.

Brothers and Sisters, I know I spend a lot of time talking about the power of love.  This is because somewhere deep inside I truly believe that it is the only thing that will bring healing and renewal to this world that humanity has so sorely wounded.  I believe that love is the only thing that has the power to heal and renew the brokenness in each of us.  We have all been damaged in some way by circumstance, by those we love and by those who did not love us.  Healing comes with forgiving and being forgiven….in allowing ourselves to acknowledge the pain and holding fast to the love of Christ to move through it.  It is this life-altering, mind-changing, soul-stirring love of Christ that helps us realize that the most hateful of us…the most violent and destructive of us is often the most broken on the inside.  It is this brokenness that allows the devil to take root and evil to grow.  We cannot and should not accept the evil that these broken brothers and sisters perpetrate but we must try to love them and even when that seems too much to ask we should and can pray for them and for those they harm.    But prayers without action are like words without meaning.  We must be willing to put our love to task, doing good works of mercy and being Christ in the world at every opportunity.

Gentle people, do not despair.  Even when things seem darkest, God has not abandoned us. The light of Christ still shines in each and every person of good heart who seeks to bring peace.  In the early Church the first Christians believed that the “Peace of Christ” had power and substance and could be passed from one person to another by a touch or a kiss.  What if they were right and we have reduced what was a profound sharing of the power of the Holy Spirit to a friendly ritual greeting.  What if we could through prayer and intention share the literal peace of Christ with one another here in this assembly and with those we encounter out in the world.  With a touch we could begin to create peace in the world around us….the peace we pray for…the peace we work for…the peace we long for with a deep and abiding hope.

Let us then go into the world with the peace of Christ in our words and in our hands.  Let our very touch become a blessing and every word we speak be love….and may God be with us all.