SERMON ST. GEORGE CHAPEL
GENESIS 45: 1-15; MATTHEW 15: 21-28
Paul Tillich, the great 20th century theologian, once wrote, "If I were asked to sum up the Christian message in two words, I would say it is the message of a New Creation."
Having fled from his native Germany to the United States after Hitler’s ascension to power, Tillich knew oppression and political turmoil first hand. But he did not lose heart. Instead, he passionately preached about the transformation of the Old into a hope-filled New Creation.
"Don’t think that we want to make you religious members of a very high religion, and of a very great denomination within it, namely our own", he said. "This would be of no avail. We want only to communicate to you an experience we have had – that here and there in the world and now and then in ourselves is a New Creation, usually hidden, but sometimes manifest and certainly manifest in Jesus who is called the Christ."
"Here and there in the world, and now and then in ourselves is a New Creation…" Think of that! Is it possible that now and then in today’s polarized, politicized, pressure-cooker world, there is a New Creation just waiting to spring forth? Or that now and then we ourselves can bring that about?
Yes. With two characters from today’s Bible stories as our guides, I propose that that is exactly what we can do.
In the story Alice read from Genesis, Joseph chooses life over death for the brothers who years before dumped him into a deep pit and left him for
dead. In the gospel, an unnamed loud-mouthed woman confronts and converts none other than the Son of God.
The Joseph saga spans eleven lusty chapters in Genesis and is filled with jealousy, sibling rivalry, sex, politics and palace intrigue. At the outset, Joseph is a spoiled brat, his father Jacob’s pet and cordially despised by his eleven brothers. Strutting around in his amazing technicolor dream coat, Joseph courts the disaster than soon befalls him.
Behind Jacob’s back, the brothers dump Joseph into a deep cistern along a trade route between Syria and Egypt, reporting to their father that his favorite son is dead.
Joseph is far from dead. Pulled from the pit by some traveling salesmen, he has flourished and prospered in Egypt, becoming Pharaoh’s right hand man. Until recently I would have compared his position to our president’s chief of staff. But under the present circumstances, suffice it to say that Joseph has great power.
In today’s story, the brothers have traveled to Egypt in search of grain during a famine in Palestine. They have no idea that the powerful official they are dealing with in Pharaoh’s court is Joseph. But Joseph recognizes them immediately, and is deeply moved. With a flick of his wrist, he could avenge their treachery and be done with them as they meant to be done with him. He does something different.
Calling his brothers to him, he says, "I am your bother Joseph, but do not be distressed or angry with yourselves…For God sent me before you to preserve life…It was not you who sent me here, but God. Now hurry and tell my father, that all of you, your children and your grandchildren, your flocks and herds, all that you have shall be near me; I will provide for you here; you will not come to poverty."
‘Here and there in the world, and now and then in ourselves, there is a New Creation.’ The former spoiled brat Joseph, of all people, becomes a model for reunion, and the catalyst for a New Creation.
If ever there was another character in the Bible, or in modern literature for that matter, who brought a New Creation into the world, it is the loud mouthed Canaanite woman we meet in today’s gospel according to Matthew.
This is one Bible story preachers would just as soon skip if it weren’t in our lectionary, because, at least in the beginning, Jesus comes across as a real jerk. Confronted with the Canaanite woman, one wry commentator quips, ‘Jesus is caught with his compassion down.’
The context of this incident is crucial. Day after day, time after time, mile after mile, Jesus has healed people, physically and emotionally. Crowds pursue him down dusty roads, across green fields, into the Sea of Galilee…whatever it takes to be near him.
My close friend, a priest named Buddy Stallings, describes Jesus’ healing this way: "Wherever Jesus went, people experienced healing. I have never known how that worked and still don’t. But I know that as time passed and people remembered Jesus’ life among them, stories got bigger and bigger about how amazingly healing it was just to be in his presence. I believe them.
"I don’t know how spots stopped being leprous or how bling people started seeing or the lame walking, but I think something about Jesus caused people who encountered him to live like they had never lived before. Miracles aside, it changed them for the better every time."
Buddy says that so well. Being in Jesus’ presence was amazingly healing. But it came at a terrible price for the healer – for Jesus. Our church proclaims a profound paradox: Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. Today we have the quintessential example of his full humanity.
At the gospel’s outset, Jesus is exhausted, badly in need of time off.
Bone-tired, longing for peace and quiet, he and his disciples escape, heading north to Tyre and Sidon, modern-day Lebanon, for some rest and relaxation by the sea…the way Frank and I head for Maine every summer.
But while Maine is a second home for us, the area of Tyre and Sidon, Inhabited by Canaanites and separated by ethnicity, heritage and religion, from the Jews, is foreign territory for Jews. Surely, Jesus must have thought, no one will make demands on me up here. Wrong!
No sooner has he crossed the border than Jesus runs into the last person on earth he wants to see: a shouting, distraught Canaanite woman who barges past the disciples, gets right into his face, crying, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."
Jesus walks on, staring straight ahead. The woman is not seeking help for herself, but for her beloved daughter, and will not be deterred, not by the disciples’ sharp rebukes, or Jesus’ aloofness. When she continues to plead, he pulls out the religion card: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," he says, meaning ‘I have no time for your kind.’
Deaf to his insults, she violates every boundary of gender, ethnicity, religion and culture that she has grown up with, throwing herself at his feet in a sign of deep reverence, and crying, "Lord, help me."
What is it about the word ‘no’ that this woman doesn’t understand? Jesus has had more than enough of her, and he explodes: ’It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ which is to say, ‘I came to the people of Israel, not to dogs like you.’
His words must have cut her to the quick: in that ancient culture dogs were considered vicious scavengers, and to be referred to as a female dog has a modern equivalent which I choose not to use in the pulpit.
Stinging from the rebuke, she remains unflappable, and lifting her chin, she looks him full in the face,. "Yes, Lord." she says, "yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."
Something in Jesus snaps; his anger vanishes, he becomes fully and lovingly present to the woman kneeling before him, "Woman," he says, "great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish."’
‘And,’ the author of Matthew’s gospel concludes, ‘Her daughter was healed instantly.’ I wonder: is it going too far to add that the Son of God was healed as well? That through her dogged persistence, Jesus himself is converted, understands his mission in a new, expanded light.
Here and there in the world, and now and then , even in ourselves there is a New Creation.
This spring Frank and I arrived at the Memphis airport for a flight to Phoenix,only to find the airport teeming with people, most of whom had missed their flights the night before due to weather. Tempers were flaring, stress was high.
Approaching the check-in counter, we met others on our flight, including an attractive young blond woman named Anne who was almost in tears; her flight the night before had been cancelled. We stood stock still for twenty minutes while the oblivious ticket agent talked to an angry couple who ended up leaving the airport altogether.
As Anne eagerly approached the counter, the agent said indifferently, but loud enough for all of us to hear: ‘Too late. No more boarding.’ Anne begged, to no avail. The agent was adamant, firm. "It’s too late to check bags so it’s too late to board the plane. Period."
I do not know what came over me, but suddenly I exploded, shouting,
"B. S.!" at the top of my voice. I did NOT use the initials; I said the two words loud, and clear. There was stunned silence around us. Anne said in amazement: ‘look at her; so nicely dressed, and talking like that.’ Frank
added, "She’s a minister! —But she’s an Episcopal minister, and they will say anything."
The ticket agent looked at me. "All right," she said, "I’m calling the manager."
The manager materialized, quickly assessed the situation, and said in no uncertain terms, "Nonsense. They are all going to board, with their bags, right now." Before sprinting away with our new friends, I turned to the agent, saying, ’I don’t know what came over me. I hope you can forgive me.’
The agent, looking as if she was trying to suppress a grin, paused and said, ‘Forgiven.’ I turned and hurried away.
That airport incident is trivial in light of the terror and chaos and deep division in our world today, but Tillich is right, Now and then in the world, and here and there, in you, even in me, there is a New Creation just waiting to spring forth. Never with violence, but with outstretched hands, open minds, and willing spirits, let us live out Tillich’s promise that Here and There in the world, and Now and Then in ourselves there is indeed a New Creation. AMEN.