Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Jesus spent a lot of time with sick people. Some had what we might call “traditional” handicaps – they were blind or deaf or lame. Others had what the text calls “a demon” – we would say they were mentally ill. And, Jesus had compassion on and for them all. At least most of the time.
I say “most of the time” because of today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew – Jesus and the persistent Canaanite woman, a woman whose daughter, the text tells us, “had a demon,” that is, most likely, was mentally ill. And Jesus does not at least at first seem very interested in helping her. Jesus avoids this woman at first and then, since he cannot get rid of her by avoidance, Jesus says he came to earth only to help the Jews, not the Canaanites. Jesus even calls the woman a dog. No compassion in that response!
Reflecting on this text, theologian David Lose asks “Can Jesus learn?”
The traditional view of this text is that Jesus was testing this woman, that Jesus did not mean it when he called this woman a dog. No, some commentators say, Jesus was not calling her a dog, he was testing her faith. They even translate “dog” as “little dog” or “puppy” to show that Jesus said “dog” with affection for the woman. And, of course, in this view, the Canaanite woman passed Jesus’ test by her persistence and faith. And, in reward for this woman’s persistence, Jesus healed her mentally ill daughter.
People like this interpretation. I like it, too. With it, Jesus does not look like a so much of a jerk.
The other possibility, of course, is that Jesus’ own sense of God’s kingdom is challenged, stretched, and enhanced by his encounter with this fierce and faithful woman. Maybe, that is, Jesus is serious – that is, he believes he was sent only to the Israelites – and the woman takes him on and, in fact, persuades Jesus that something larger is at stake. In this context, her “great faith” is not so much an amount, but rather is simply the fact that she just plain holds on. She will not let Jesus go until she wrests a blessing from him on behalf of her daughter.
We have all met Moms like this woman, some of you have even been this woman, a Mom with a sick child who will not let anything get in the way of her taking care of her child. Not unsympathetic doctors or health regulations or lousy insurance, not even a seemingly slightly narrow-minded messiah-type.
If you accept this interpretation, then Jesus can, in fact, learn. And Jesus does learn. He learns that God’s kingdom and Jesus’ mission to enact that kingdom is bigger than he had initially imagined and that it is more encompassing that he had at first dreamed.
This passage invites us to imagine that God’s purpose unfolded throughout Jesus’ life and ministry and continues to do so in our own lives and experiences. This tenacious and faithful woman, a complete stranger, pushed Jesus to reconsider, to learn, and to grow.
This past week I have watched the reaction of so many to the untimely death of actor/comedian Robin Williams. Some folks in this congregation and many in this community knew him personally. It has been wonderful to hear those stories. Everyone has something good to say about Robin Williams.
I have wondered what it is in Williams’ death that causes so much deep reaction? Perhaps because he played, and lived as, the perpetual man-child – Williams even played Peter Pan in the film Hook! Or perhaps it is because his personal traumas were so well known – drug & alcohol abuse, depression, heart disease, divorce and now suicide. Or maybe because he was a Baby Boomer and there are just so many of us!
Regardless, Williams’ death struck such a cord with so many in our community, across the nation, and even around the world, this week.
Writer Anne Lemott is, perhaps, my favorite Christian writer, although her sometimes rough language makes her far from a traditional Christian writer. Lemott knew Robin Williams – they grew up near each other, Williams in wealth and Lemott in poverty. Lemott writes, “if you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, as Robin and I did, life here (on earth) feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to stay one step ahead of the abyss.” Lemott adds, “Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction.”
Suicide is a major problem across the USA – nearly 40,000 suicides last year, more than homicides. Suicide is growing among young people and military veterans but its largest growth is among white males over age 50. Folks like Robin Williams. And depression so often goes hand-in-hand with suicide and follows alcohol and drug abuse and, often, heart disease - all so closely tied to suicide.
I want to say several things as clearly as I can about suicide – it is NOT God’s will or plan that a person takes his or her own life. Not ever. Never.
However, it is also true that God loves every person, even those who commit suicide – God has a special concern for those in greatest need and we would all agree that people who take their own lives are among those with the greatest need for God’s unconditional love.
Some people think that a person who commits suicide cannot go to heaven. I suspect this is a misinterpretation of an old Roman Catholic tradition which I do not believe was ever Roman Catholic theology. So, let me be clear again – while God does not want a person to take his or her own life, people who commit suicide are welcome in heaven. No question.
Reacting to Robin Williams’ death, theologian Fred Buechner wrote “It is absolutely critical, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling.”
Anne Lemott adds to Buechner – “Live stories worth telling! Stop hitting the snooze button. Try not to squander your life on meaningless” … tasks. (Actually, Lemott did not say “meaningless tasks” but I am cleaning up her language for this sermon. If you have read any of her work, you can guess what words she used.)
Lemott continues, speaking to those needing help, “Get help. Be a resurrection story.” And, if you ask for help, Lemott adds, “You will be surrounded by the arms of love like you have never, not once imagined.”
It all goes back to that favorite text of mine from Romans 8 – “Nothing can separate us from God’s love.” Not depression, alcohol or drugs, divorce or even suicide. Despite how Jesus began his conversation with the Canaanite woman, today’s gospel lesson assures us, once again, how much Jesus loves us all – even outcasts, those from other races and cultures, and the mentally ill. Jesus loves us all.
Jesus loved Robin Williams. He loves Anne Lemott and you and me. And, as Fred Buechner suggests, Jesus is calling us to live lives filled with stories worth telling, to take risks in life and love for others, no matter how broken they or we may be. Or, as Lemott wrote this week, the world can “yank us down, even yanking down a man like Robin Williams. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered, banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining.”
If you ask for help, you will be surrounded by God’s love, a love from which we, you and I, are inseparable. Today and always, whether we are famous like Robin Williams or just ordinary folks like you and me. Surrounded by God’s love. Today and always.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California