Blessings and Boundaries

Blessings and Boundaries

Oh, how lovely it feels, when we all live in unity, writes the Psalmist (Psalm 133).

Grant that we all, made one in faith, may find the wholeness that reaches all of humankind, writes Mr. Green in the hymn we just sang (O Christ, the Healer).

We know how good it feels when everybody gets along.

You can enter a space like this church and sense the love and the joy that comes from a common purpose.

The psalmist describes this sense of togetherness as oil pouring over the head… not just a simple blessing, but buckets of costly oil anointing the priest and running everywhere.  Abundant blessing, flowing from God to all of the people.

This is God’s will.  This is God’s desire.  That every person would come to know the outrageous and extravagant love of God and that it would connect us not only with the divine, but also with one another.

How good it is.

How lovely it feels.

It is why we bless our children’s backpacks today.  The oil moves out of this building, out of this house of worship into the world.  So that they might learn and grow and find common ground with classmates and teachers and that blessings would multiply.

We look upon their lives and see opportunity and possibility.

We see the best of ourselves.

We see our hopes and dreams.

How good it is.

How lovely it feels.

 

That blessing represents our best intentions for life together…

But we know that our lives are far from expressing that reality.

A far more common experience is that of division and brokenness, of isolation and suspicion.

Too often, we allow petty differences to rip us apart.

Now, I show that video illustration for two reasons.

First of all, we had a Facebook poll a few weeks ago with two options: throwing more seeds in worship, or talking about chocolate in a sermon.  Needless to say, chocolate has won.

But I also think this video can help us find our way into a deeper conversation about what divides us.

Two brothers, partners, create something extraordinary. Delicious chocolate, a cookie center, gooey caramel.

Oh, how good it is when we all can live in unity and work together!  God’s blessing flows through our relationships with one another and as we are blessed, we bless others.

But then the stupidest argument or disagreement can divide us.  They can rip apart families.  They can divide friendships.  They can create enemies out of neighbors.  All of this, we witness in the commercial.

Our gospel reading also describes the kind of animosity that can grow between peoples.

Jesus is traveling on the borderlands of Israel, in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  These two cities are along the Mediterranean Sea in what is today Lebanon.

This would have been like traveling on the other side of the Missouri River and finding yourselves among Nebraska fans!   People talk funny over there, they look different (well, okay, not all that different), but there is some long held animosity between the people of Israel and the people “over there.”

Before they realize it, a woman comes up to Jesus and the disciples.  Not just any woman, but Canaanite woman.  She starts yelling and begging and pleading with them to heal her demon-possessed daughter.

I can just see the disciples now, wondering if she is really the one in need of some assistance, if you know what I mean…

What really surprises me about this passage of scripture, however, is that Jesus, who is supposed to always have the answers … well…  Jesus just ignores the woman.  Doesn’t give her the time of day.

Now.  If I were a disciple, and I saw Jesus ignoring someone – well, I think it would probably confirm my worst thoughts and assumptions about that person.  It would only serve to further divide us.

The disciples felt like they were too good to stop for this persistent, annoying woman who was starting to make a scene.  One of them worked up the courage to tug on Jesus’s sleeve…  “Let’s ditch this lady.  She’s getting on our nerves.”

This is where I fully expect Jesus to put the disciples in their place.  I want him to show us God’s abundant, extravagant, overflowing love and blessing.  I assume he is going to take care of the woman’s concern and the disciples will learn a lesson.  How good it is and all that.

But he doesn’t.

I don’t know what was going on inside of Jesus head, but he refuses to help her.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” he says.

I was only sent for the Jewish people.

My blessings aren’t for you.

This woman, this Canaanite certainly wasn’t a Jew.  In the gospel of Mark she is called a Syro-Phoenecian woman, but however you look at it, she isn’t included.

She drops to her knees in an act of worship and begs Jesus, “Lord, help me!”

Because it takes place between two miraculous feeding stories, Scott Hoezee claims that

“this woman is asking for a place at the table, but Jesus, chillingly, relegates her to the floor of life.  ‘It’s not right to toss perfectly good bread meant to feed the children to the dogs.’ Jesus calls her a dog. It’s a kind of slur, and epithet, and the disciples no doubt approved.”

This is a far cry from blessed oil, abundant love, and unity.

Instead of blessing her, Jesus dehumanizes her.

This is not beautiful.  It is ugly.  It is painful to watch.

There is nothing pleasant about watching a couple fight or neighbors get into an argument.

In fact, while I turned to that Twix commercial as an illustration today, I find it hard to believe that it is serving them very well in the sales department.

We are full up on division and disunity in this world.

This past week, especially.

We wait with bated breath to see if the extension of the cease fire will hold in Israel and Gaza.

The lives of innocent people have turned upside down in Iraq by ISIS.

Our television shows and radios are interrupted by democrats and republicans pointing fingers at one another in political ads.

We find ourselves mourning the loss of Robin Williams, even as we debate and argue with one another about the meaning of depression and suicide.

And I don’t know about you, but my stomach turned as I watched this week the tensions rise in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Mike Brown.

How ugly it is when we stop living together in unity.

How awful it feels when we stop seeing one another as human beings.

We create boundaries even as we describe these events.  The labels we use carry value judgments. How we name someone tells us if they are with us or against us.  They dictate how we will respond. They shut down conversation.  Just think of the dichotomy of words we have to choose from…

Protester or Looter.

Depressed or Selfish.

Freedom Fighter or Terrorist.

Canaanite or Dog.

 

There was a particular image that struck me this week.  It has stayed with me as I thought about our gospel and the psalm that has shaped our blessing.

Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American
Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

It is an image from Ferguson, but it could have just as easily have been from Memphis in 1968.

“I AM A MAN” the sign reads.

Because in the midst of all of the tensions, in the midst of all of the labels and names being thrown around in this world of conflict, we need that reminder.

“I AM A HUMAN”

I am just
like you.

 

This story of the Canaanite woman makes me so uncomfortable, but what I love about her is that she never backs down.  In the face of dehumanization and isolation, she boldly speaks back.

“Okay, so you want to call me a dog? Fine.  You think I don’t deserve the food from the table, but even dogs get the crumbs that fall under the kids’s feet. Even dogs deserve that. ”

She shouts back in protest. She forces Jesus to see her.  “I AM A HUMAN”

We don’t know why Jesus labeled and excluded her, except that he had a mission to preach the Kingdom of God to the Israelites.  He had drawn a line, a boundary.  He had placed a limit on what he was willing or able or felt called to do.

Maybe Jesus had been planning on her challenging those boundaries all along as a test.

Maybe she helped Jesus to change as a result of their conversation.

What we know is that after she spoke out in protest, after she refused to be pushed aside, Jesus had nothing but praise towards her.

“Oh Woman!  You have GREAT FAITH”

He made sure everyone around him, Jew and Gentile alike, knew that this woman, this Canaanite, this nobody who he had moments ago called a “dog” – she was not only faithful, but her plea for help would be answered.  As she was blessed, her daughter was healed, and the blessings just keep going.

 

As we bless the backpacks of our children, we send them off to school with all of our hopes and dreams.  We envision a world for them of peace.  We pray for a world where black and white, Christian and Muslim and Jew, women and men, rich and poor, can live together in unity.

But this week, I have been forced to stop by world events and question my assumptions and boundaries.

This week, stories of moms and dads and kids just kept opening my eyes to how different the experiences of children around this country and around this world really are.

And the biggest thing I have learned this week is that we need to listen more.

Like Jesus let the Canaanite woman talk back and tell her story, we need to listen to the experiences of people who walk in different shoes.

We need to hear their struggles.

Like the little boy who wears three pairs of pants to bed, so his body will hold together if a bomb falls on him in the night.  (Humans of New York, series in Petra, Jordan)

The daughter of a beloved man who suicided.

The mom who is teaching her 12 year old African American son how to be polite during a police frisking. (NPR)

 

If we are ever going to get to a place of blessed unity and peace, then we have to start by seeing each other as human beings… fellow travelers in this crazy and messed up world.  We need to listen to our neighbors near and far so that we can see the boundaries that separate us.

And sometimes, we need to step across those boundaries, invisible or real, and go to the places where hurting is real to offer a blessing of time and energy,  to be a shoulder to cry on or hands to help pick back up the pieces.

How lovely it is, how good it feels, when we dwell together in unity, solidarity, and love.

1 Comment

  • Julius Trimble

    August 27, 2014 at 3:18 pm Reply

    Real preaching does not skip over the hard stuff of life. Thank you pastor Katie .

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