On 9/11 Twenty Years Later


9/11 is personal for most Americans. I am no different. Perhaps being in New York City that horrible day makes my sense of loss a bit more acute. Perhaps all the events surrounding my life at the time does the same. I don't know.

I had just moved to Manhattan a couple weeks before that world-altering event. My wife and I for the year prior were teaching Conversational English in South Korea. It was overall a terrific experience, but some serious health issues related to air quality and physical limitations made the month before our departure from Korea rather tenuous and stressful. Holly was forced to leave early a month earlier than expected (July 2001). She'd recuperate in Florida with her parents while I went to New York City to begin seminary. She'd join me in mid-September.

Union Theological Seminary is on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, some 4 miles north of the Twin Towers though connected by the Subway system as most places in NYC are. My first day of classes was on that unbelievably beautiful Tuesday. That day felt very much like this day as far as the high blue and cloudless skies and the pure, dry and breezy air goes. Maybe just a little cooler.

My first day of classes were cancelled. 

I was alone in a new, humongous city just getting my bearings straight before 9/11. When it hit, bearings being straight was beyond the realm of possibility. I did not know what was happening in those moments after the tragedy. I did not know how to flee, which was my natural instinct. Head home due north to Albany where my parents were - that was my first thought. But the City shut down. No car. No cell phone or landline connection. Dazed people walking out of the Subway whose line runs stopped. Sirens wailing. Then, helicopters and military planes flying overhead, the latter of which was hard to differentiate from possible commercial planes like the two that just hit the Towers. All I could do was stay put and pray.

My wife would fly into NYC just a week later on 9/18. Not able to find work in NYC, which was economically depressed for weeks, she’d be forced to move out of the City just a couple months later. She’d eventually enter grad school herself, and we’d live in two locations for awhile.

I did not lose a loved-one on that day, for which I thank the Lord. I in no way compare my losses to the losses experienced by the victims or their loved-ones. But we all lost something that day. I certainly did and in poignant ways. 

A loss of innocence and insulation. A loss of a sense of security. A loss of togetherness with Holly in those difficult months and years after 9/11. And maybe more significantly, the loss I experienced all around me in a city drowning in grief, in a nation numbly wading through trauma and loss, in a world that was forever changed.

Then came the wars, one of which continued for almost 20 years. More grief. More loss. More lives forever changed.

Twenty years later, the last war connected to it over (at least as far as we know), we mark 9/11. Yes, “I’m proud to be an American,” as the song says. I am as patriotic as the next guy, I like to think. But I must admit, the strongest feeling I experience remains grief and loss. Maybe an even deadlier and worldwide pandemic effects this. I am sure it does in some indecipherable way.

Related to my sense of grief and loss is the knowledge that we are so disconnected as a people. We are so torn and frayed and ready to lash out. We are as divided as we’ve ever been. 9/11 has not resulted in us being better as a people. We are a shadow of a collective self we always envisioned ourselves to be. 

I just finished watching a powerful TV series on HBO-Max titled “Mare of Easttown.” It is a crime drama involving a murder and two disappearances in a small, eastern Pennsylvania town. But is about much more than that. It is about individual and collective grief. 

A major theme that develops near the end of the series points to an integral truth. We often experience a severe loss or trauma, and instead of facing and grieving that loss, we lose ourselves in other people’s issues, their losses, and in our work. We transfer our grief onto other things, in other words, to escape the wrenchingly hard work of facing our own grief. No judgment here, but how sadly this effects us, keeping us locked down and preventing us from moving forward!

Could it be that in the wake of our collective loss on 9/11, we transferred our grief onto the almost immediate talk of war followed by multiple wars? Could it be we’ve never fully or properly grieved 9/11 as a people? We went from singing God Bless America on 9/11 to literally battling in front of the doors of the Capitol on 1/6 this year. 

As we’ve seen in our history, namely in our never coming to terms with our original sin of slavery and with the Civil War that resulted, not fully grieving collective loss and trauma has dire consequences.     

So, as an American and as a pastor, I am profoundly sad these days surrounding September 11th. But in this sadness, I rely on my faith and prayer. I pray as an American living in a nation filled with promise and possibility and progress but held back by collective loss and pain. I pray that we can somehow tap into our shared grief, nourish ourselves in the common bonds therein, and experience healing together. I pray we can somehow, someway begin to actualize again some semblance of compassion and togetherness as a people.  

Masks - WWJD?

We are experiencing a dilemma these days. Public health versus personal freedoms. Collectively getting a vaccination for better collective health or refusing to do so using your individual rights. Wearing or having your kid wear a protective face covering to improve public safety or refusing the wearing of masks declaring personal freedom.

I won’t get into the science that overwhelmingly shows the efficacy of both vaccines and masks.

What I want to look at today is what ethics and Christian ethics has to say on the issue of individual freedom versus the pursuit of the collective good, in this case, good public health.

Let me begin by looking at basic, secular ethics when it comes to individual freedom and the public good.

First, we need to define freedom.

I define freedom in general terms as the capacity to live fully, void of forced constraints. Put simply, freedom means being able to live without some kind of power constraining us.

But that “us” is vital. Look at masks. You may say, well, I am free to live free from the constraint of a mask. But unless you are living on an island alone, there is someone else to consider. I and others live alongside you on the island. And if we live in close contact, notions of personal freedom must be considered alongside persons. I deserve to live free from constraints just like you do, namely the constraints that the Covid virus would entail.

This raises a dilemma, doesn’t it? What happens when individual freedoms conflict? We are seeing that play out now, aren’t we?

This dilemma tells us something crucial - freedom must exist in community, among individuals living together, for it to matter much. If your freedom restrains my freedom, there is no freedom shared among us. You have it and I don’t.

The ideas is to maximize the freedom of all, not just individual me or individual you. How we can all live as free as possible, that is the key question. Is life amid a pandemic feeling so free?

So, the dilemma is really about individual freedom and collective freedom, between your right to personal freedom and the community’s right to be as free as possible.

Christian ethics actually helps us confront our dilemma. In fact, it seems to me what Jesus would do and what Christian ethics has to say is often left out of the debate.

The best way to approach the idea of Christian freedom is to consider two things: where human freedom comes from in the Christian understanding. And what the point of human freedom, what the aim of freedom is.

Well, the source of Christian freedom and the point and aim of that freedom are one and the same – God!

Freedom comes from God. Freedom is a gift of our Triune God. Want to know what freedom looks like, look at the Trinity. Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, on the basis of love, selflessly and freely living in community with one another. The freedom found in the selfless love of the Trinity overflows as a gift to us.

The overflowing gift of freedom is revealed most powerfully to us in the person of Christ. Jesus was the freest person who ever lived, right? He revealed the free life to us most potently and most clearly.

And what did Jesus do? He lived a selfless life, a selflessness that took him to the foot of the cross, and the freest of choices – to lay down his life for us. His selflessness and his freedom were one and the same in him.

As for us, the truest freedom amounts to a life transformed by this selfless and fully free Christ. By taking in Christ, we are given the capacity to freely live, living in a free-flowing way on the basis of his selflessness and compassion.

The opposite of a free life, according to the Christian faith, is a life lived on the basis of selfishness. A life filled with choices and ways moved by selfishness, is a life that is not free at all.

Paul in his letters to the churches of Rome and Galatia focuses a great deal on this enslavement to selfishness. Most Bible translation term this, slavery to the flesh.

The Bible says, we lack godly freedom because of our enslavement to selfishness.

But thanks be to God, the selflessness of Christ frees us from such enslavement to selfishness.

Through Christ, we overcome freedom's opposite – enslavement to selfishness.

And what does a life freed by Christ, what does a life free from the slavery of selfishness look like. Paul points to fruits of the Spirit as the answer. If someone is truly free spiritually speaking, they exhibit these attributes:  love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If one is truly free, one is loving, joyful, peaceful and nonviolent, forbearing and tolerant, kind, goodhearted, faith-oriented, gentle and humble, and self-controlled.

So what it the effect of all this, as we come to a close? Well, when it comes to public health or anything else in our collective lives, a choice or decision based primarily on self-interest is not the mark of a free person. Freedom and selfishness are not in the same camp, according to the Christian understanding.

The freest thing we can do as Christians is act out of this sacred knowledge – that we don’t exist alone but live connected to God and interconnected with the world around us  The freest thing we can do is to act out of this sacred insight – that our freedoms are tied together and are sourced in God’s freedom, and God’s freedom is always based in selfless love. The freest thing we can do is to free ourselves from selfishness in service to God and to others.

As we come to a close, we ask what would Jesus do?

Its clear where Jesus stood. The story most often told in the gospels, told some 6 times, is Jesus feeding the thousands. You know the story. Jesus’ disciples just want to get on with things and leave the scene after working all day helping Jesus heal and teach. Despite his disciples and his own weariness, Jesus says, no, no, we are all about sacrificing our personal comfort, we are all about getting past our desire to do what we want to do. Jesus says, yes it's hard, but let’s feed them!

Then there is that Old Rugged Cross, the heart of the Jesus story. Remember the story? Jesus sacrificed his individual life for the collective good of all. Remember the story? Christ selflessly giving all away for the sake of all, giving away his freedom in an ultimate way, all to free us. Remember the story? Jesus endured the pain and the persecution out of love for the world, even portions of the world nailing him to the cross.

We are called to be like Christ! The very word Christian means just that – Christ-like. To use that name means to assert that selflessness and sacrifice are core to who we are and to carry our own crosses.

As for masks, show your freedom in God and wear your masks out of a free-flowing love for others! It's what Jesus would do. 

Connection


This is the 2nd Part of a Sermon Series titled "The C3P2 Church." Last week we discussed Community. This week is Connection. Next week is Compassion. The C3 of Community, Connection, and Compassion will be followed by the P2 of Prayerfulness and Progress.

1. To God

“Breath…Light…Us… (Genesis 1) “God is Breath…” (John 4:24); “God is Love…” (I John 4:8, 16); “God is Light…” (I John 1:5)

God is Breath, scripture originally says.
And Breath breathed, breathes life into us
in the beginning, at the dawn of Creation.
The Life of God enlivens Life in us, through us.
We are alive in God. Our connection
to our Life-Giver more a inter-bond,
unbounding us to do Divine Life’s work.

God is Light, scripture originally says.
And Light enlightened the stars and sun,
sculpting this universe, the source of creativity.
The Light of God undimmed our dark rooms.
We are now alight in God. Our connection
to our Enlightener more an extension
from You to me and out to the world.   

God is Love, scripture originally says.
And Love loves us into becoming and being
in the here and now, and infinitely so.
The Love of God loves us, in us, infusing us.
We are beloved in God. Our interconnection
to the Loving One more an at-one-ment,
atoning us to love one another as One loves us.

Genesis 1 indicates that before the beginning of creation, there was Light, there was Breath, usually translated as Spirit, and there was a loving, harmonious we.

God created light in the universe as one of the opening acts of Creation. “Let there be light,” Genesis 1:3 says. But before Creation, was there light? Well, yes. God was light. Light created light.

God as Breath was moving from the before the beginning, Genesis 1:2 says. And the Breath moved over creation, and more creativity happened. Then later in Genesis 2, verse 7. God breathed into the nostrils of Adam, the first human, the breath of life.

God as Love is a little more implicit. It is not directly obvious in Genesis 1 and 2. That God is Love itself is really a Christian original idea. What we call an innovation gifted to the world. But we can interpret God as Love in the Genesis story. Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make human in our own image…”

Who is the Us and the Our?

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity provides an answer. In the beginning and before was the Trinity. And what is foundation of the Trinity? Love. An intra-love between Creator, Christ, and Sacred Spirit. That’s why we say, God is Love.

So, light, breath, love, these three define God.

How does God connect to us? How do we connect to God?

We breathe and do it mindfully. Mindfully and gratefully breathing connects us to God.

We notice light from the sun rising in the morning, gracing us with vision and warmth. We notice how there’s a light that guides our path. We remember Jesus telling us, “you are lights unto the world,” and we seek to be the light, as Amanda Gorman so powerfully reminded us Wednesday. Noticing light, seeing that we are light, and being it – these practices connect us to God.

 

2. To Each Other
“So God created humankind in God’s image, in the likeness of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27)

You like me carry a little of God within
You like me walk like God. Do you know?
You like me speak like God. Do you know?
You appear like God from dawn to dusk. Do you?
Will you? Can you? Will I? Can I?
Can we, can we see one another anew?
Can we see one another in the manner
we enter Sunday morning, worshipful,
reverential, sanctuary-filled and feeling?

Buddhists with palms together
bow arriving to one another.
To the Awoke One in you I bow.
To the Awoke One in you I bow, too.

The Christ-christened, let us do the same.
Let us with our hellos if merely inwardly
bow to the Anointed One in you and me,
bow to the Anointed One in you and me.

That of God in us, as the Quakers say,
encompasses us and connects us,
creating in us compasses of compassion,
compasses carrying a little piece of the Cross,
a little touch of Christ who empties self to save.


A central doctrine of the Christian tradition is known as Imago Dei. We are each created in God’s image. The Hebrew word for image here tselem. It can also mean likeness, image, or form. When Gen. 1:27 says we are created in God’s tselem, it points to a powerful, unbelievable reality. We carry God’s likeness, God’s form in the human things we do such as walk, talk, and live our life. Realizing this and acting according is the point. Forgetting this means we fall into the scenario that Adam and Eve experienced.

Some Christian teachings argue that that Image of God status we were created in was degraded by the Fall to such a degree as to have disappeared. But how can anything resembling God die? God doesn’t die. Neither can the divine image. It merely got covered, hidden, forgotten in such a way that it seemed lost to us.

Imagine the moon covered with thick clouds. The moon is imago dei. The cloud sin. God’s image, the moon, though hidden by the cloud of sin, remains. Christ, Christ’s work, and our internalization of Christ’s transformative life, is what moves those clouds away.

Anyway, that we each carry God’s image as human beings means God connects us, unites us, creates a common ground that we all share. Realizing our connection to each other via God’s connection to us is everything, changes everything, and can heal us and our divides.

 

3. To Our Communities
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

God is in Community;
Community is in God.
Creator, Christ and Sacred Spirit,
the primordial community
giving way to the diverse glory of Creation.
Two or more gathered,
an earthly society mirroring the heavenly one,
called to unfold the loving bond that enfolds
more and more into belonging as it goes.  

I am in my community;
My community is in me.
This is true,
This is truth
Like it; like it not.

I choose to love,
to love the Truth,
making it present and future together.

I choose in the now ever-coming
to push myself outward and out there,
to compel my self to expel self-enclosure,
to love neighbor as neighbor alongside neighbor.

We are in our Community;
that Community is in us.
A community like ours cannot be cloistered,
enclosed within walls
and within the claims of personal heaven.
A community like ours cannot be quiescent
at least without dying a slow collective death.

Shall we choose to breathe the church where we live,
crying good news to the people, news of connection,
Shall we embody communion amid the lost, the left-out, the lonely,
baptizing our neighbors in the name of active love?


As mentioned, the Trinity is the primordial Community. When two or three are gathered in Christ’s name is a Christian community. Three gathered in one divinity, that is a Triune Community.

The task of the Christian community is to mirror the Triune Community in heaven.

It doesn’t stop there, as the Triune Community reached into human history and the created world via Christ’s works of compassion, we are tasked as a church with reaching into our wider communities and creation found there to do the Christ-like work of compassion. Christ’s act of self-emptying talked about in Philippians 2, where he let go of godly form to selflessly provide us refuge – this is what we are to mirror as a church.

How we do this and in what form, that is the key question.

 
4. To All Things
“God saw every created thing, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

The Ultimate Good
unspooled the Blue Marble,
the planet we recall seeing
through the eyes of space’s photographer.

That Blue Marble
and All things within it,
the Ultimate Good
declared Good.

Each day of the week
upon each workday’s end,
the Good Word declared:
“It is so and it is good.”

Good begets Good,
Good into the Good,
Good infused in the Good,
Good upon Good upon Good.
The interconnection of Good.
The harmony of Good.
And Good is Harmony with Three Parts.

The ungood? The ungodly?
The absence of harmony,
the beginning of harm,
the resorting to a sole self singing out of tune.
to no one, for no one.

Let all things join the Holy Trio.
Let all things sing their song,
finding their voice and a melody
in harmony with the whole.
Let all things find belonging in community,
Community akin to a choir
Singing a holy song, an infinite song,
a song that unites heaven and earth,
a song that takes up residence
in each and every heart
that in turn touches the heart of the universe.


God with each day of creation declared all that was created good. From the heavens and the earth to the smallest animal, God declared it good. In the same way, God declared human beings, God’s closest creation, good. If creation is still, human as the pinnacle of creation contain the good still.

This is understandable. God is the Ultimate Good. God is good itself. And if God includes God’s self in God’s masterpiece, like any magisterial artist does, then good is part and parcel of what God creates.

God’s goodness, like God’s love, comes from within the Trinity, shared among Creator, Christ, and Sacred Spirit, and overflowing out in creativity to paint creation. Good is akin to harmony innate in the Trinity.

Where does the non-good, the ungodly come from?

The absence of harmony within us. Or our refusing to hear that harmony that is God. Or our forgetting of the song of God. These lead to cacophony, even chaos in our souls. And they may lead to a harming of our own psyche and then a harming of those around us.

Returning to God’s harmonious way that is our hope and our salvation. All things Joining the Holy Trinity and singing in a kind of worldwide Community Choir of God – that is the sacred duty of Christians, of the Christian church, and all Compassionate beings of Good Will.

King & Courtship

Thumbing through the library’s card catalog (yes, card catalog!), I came upon a new card with a new book that looked very intriguing – Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King. Coincidentally, I was in the throes of a self-study of the Civil Rights Movement at the time, and this was surely an essential new addition to that study.

In a more lasting way, it is this book that in many ways is responsible for my marriage and that marriage's child. Let me tell you the story now that is now part of family lore.

I excitedly went to locate that book that day. But the book wasn’t in the new arrivals section as it should have been. I wrote down the call number, went downstairs to the stacks, and where the book was supposed to be there was just empty space. I went to the checkout desk and asked about it. They informed me it had just been checked out, but that I could place a reserve on the book so that no renewals could be placed on it after the short borrowing time for new books. I did just that.

A couple weeks later I got a notice via inter-campus mail (no email yet either) that the book was ready to be picked up. I went straight to the library and checked the book.

I carried that book everywhere. I read it as often as I could. In chapel. In classes big enough to hide it. At meals. It became my Bible for those days I first had it.

A couple days after, I brought it into a student organizational meeting. I was early and so I began reading the book. I planned on doing so until others began arriving. 

The first to arrive was the chairperson of the organization called Social for Social Justice. She was a petite young woman with dark brown hair and almond shaped eyes. She easily distracted me. I placed the large book on my desk as she sat down. Immediately, she frowned.

“So you’re the one!” she spouted

Surprised by her remark, I answered with a one-word question, “what?”

Continuing in her faux-frustration, she responded, “I was enjoying that book just a week ago, but wasn’t able to finish it. I was kind of disappointed with the unknown person who took it away from me. That unknown person is now known! I am glad someone is enjoying it.”

Of course, I offered to let her finish it. But she was herself - gracious and patient enough to wait. She then introduced herself – Holly Glenzer. 

This introduction began our love story, one that resulted in our son and one that continues to this day. We still share our own copy of the book. It sits prominent on our bookshelf as a reminder of not just the greatness of a man and of the movement he led but as a testament of our own shared hope as well. 

My House of All Peoples

 sermon delivered August 16, 2020 as Senior Pastor of the Congregational Church of Plainville

The Irish novelist and poet James Joyce, author of the masterpiece Ulysses, in 1939 wrote this: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

In 1965, from a jail in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote these famous words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Sometime in the 8th century BCE, a prophet named Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets of his people and of all peoples, wrote these words in the moment of God’s inspiriting him:

“7 …my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
    who gathers the outcasts of Israel.”

 

What do these quotes all have in common? Well, I gave my answer away with the first quote from James Joyce – “in the particular is contained the universal.” These 3 quotes deal with the constant and pervasive tension between the particular – our here and now – and the universal – the universe’s here and now.

Put another way, these 3 quotes probe the relationship between the one and the many, or between one particular group or place here and all groups and places everywhere.

Religion has been dealing with this tension between the particular and the universal, between the here and now and the everywhere and all times, for as long as one religion came across another. Biblical religion, which we discuss every week here, is a great example.

It is clear in the Hebrew Bible, called the Tanakh, that God’s chooses a particular people, Israel. The Hebrew scripture paints a portrait of Creator God, the One and Only true God, choosing a people to be God’s people. It is often quite a lovely portrait. Despite the chosen people’s straying, field-playing, and forsaking of their faith, God again and again doesn’t give up on them. The Bible shows us how God has chosen Israel, and will not choose another.

Then came Jesus. With Christ, we see God expanding divine chosenness to include followers of Christ. The Jewish and the Christian faithful make up the particular peoples that God has chosen, according to New Testament authors.

But what about everyone else? What about the vast majority of people throughout time who were neither Jewish or Christian?

This is a question of the particular and the universal.

Our scripture from Isaiah hints at the answer.

The presumption is that God starts with a particular group. In this case, it is “the outcasts of Israel.” God has chosen and continually choose Israel, a people once enslaved, a people constantly facing threats and bullying by more powerful nations, a people currently occupied and oppressed by the Babylonian Empire. Likewise, in the New Testament, God chose and continually chose a humble nonconformist from the backwoods town of Nazareth as well as his followers, followers maligned by the powers that be and a culture that saw them as nobodies.

God starts with the particular.

But in the particular is found the universal, as James Joyce reminds us. By reading about, pondering, internalizing the story of the nation of Israel as told in the Hebrew scripture, we are able to understand all peoples. By reading about, pondering, internalizing the story of the community called the Christian church, we are able to understand all communities following their own religions that teach love, compassion, and truth.

Isaiah understood this some 2,700 years earlier. Isaiah is speaking from the particular vantage point of a Jewish prophet. He is part of the outcasts of Israel, a particular society and culture of people. From this particular vantage point, Isaiah, inspirited by God, calls for all peoples to join the singular people of Israel. Isaiah suggest, as God moves him, until all peoples see the singular people of Israel and their faith, until all peoples identify with, spiritually join with the outcasts of Israel, then the house of all peoples cannot be realized. Likewise those do see, identify with, and join with these outcasts in their time and place, then the house of all peoples can and will happen.

The larger aim is, yes, to make that house of all peoples, a universal house with God as Love its head, a reality. But this happens only when we collectively see, acknowledge, identify with, and join with the cast-out ones, those whom God has chosen, and start building that house together.

I’d like to close with a story from the Gospel of Mark. Maybe you know it. It is in Mark 2 and comes after Jesus has chosen a tax collector as a disciple. He has dinner with this tax collector along withother tax collectors and sinners, as Mark 2:16 says. Now, in Middle Eastern culture to this very day, to dine with someone means to indicate intimacy between guest and host. You dine with family. If you bring non-family in to dine with, they are in that moment family.

And that term “sinners,” it is actually a category of people, namely those who do not follow Torah. Sinners and Gentiles are synonymous, in other words. So Jesus is eating with and seeing as family both tax collectors, deemed traitors in Israel, and Gentiles innately seen as sinners. To the Jewish hierarchy, Jesus is eating with and declaring as family the outcasts, the rejects, the marginalized of his closed society.

This of course draws huge blowback from Jesus’ religious colleagues in high places. Let me paraphrase Mark 2:16-17. “16 When the religious hierarchy saw that Jesus was eating with the marginalized of his society as if they were family, they said to his disciples, “Why does he choose them?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are not well; I have chosen not the acceptable ones but the marginalized.”

What about us? What about us who are doing well enough, in the middle, feeling fine? We are called to humility. We are called to tap our own experiences of suffering and vulnerability, and connect it to others who experience far more suffering and vulnerability.  We are called to lower self to see those at their lowest, those perennially seeking to find a way up and a way in, and be present with and for them.

That is humility. That is compassion. That is the way of Christ.

I close by paraphrasing Isaiah 56, recalling I John’s claim that God is Love.

Those who join themselves to Love,
    to minister to Love, to love what points to Love,
    and to be servants of Love,
all who devote time to and rest in Love,
    and do not profane Love,
    and hold fast Love’s covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their worship and devotion
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.

Thus says God who is Love,
    who gathers the outcasts,

I will gather others to them,
    to stand next to those already gathered.

Did Jesus Really Refer to Gentiles as ‘Dogs’?

  excerpted from A Life Lived & Laid Down for Friends

And going out Jesus departed from there into the regions of Tyre and Sidon. And look: A Canaanite woman from those bounds came forward and cried out, saying, “Have mercy upon me, Lord, son of David, my daughter is badly demon-possessed.” But he answered not a word to her. And, approaching, his disciples implored him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out behind us.” But in reply he said, “I was not sent forth except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and prostrated herself to him, saying, “Lord, help me.” But in reply he said, “It is not a good thing to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord; for the dogs also eat, from the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” Then in reply Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; as you desire, so let it happen to you.” And her daughter was healed from that hour. (Matthew 15:21–28)

The story begins with Jesus in Gentile and Samaritan country. Tyre and Sidon are Gentile and Samaritan towns respectively. Jesus in in this region. The place that the story unfolds matters. That Jesus is in Gentile and Samaritan country is a big surprise and a big tell. Why?

Jesus just a little while ago prohibited his disciples from going into Gentile or Samaritan towns. In Matthew 10:5 he said, “do not go forth on a road of the gentiles, and do not enter into a city of the Samaritans.”  

However, in Matthew 15, here are Jesus and his disciples in the Gentile and Samaritan towns of Tyre and Sidon. Somewhere in between Matthew 10 and 15, Jesus had a change of heart.

I suggest a couple things influenced Jesus’ change of heart that moved him to become more open to ministry to Gentiles and Samaritans and thus go into Tyre and Sidon. The first influence is the death of John the Baptist in Matthew 13. John the Baptist was not just his cousin but also his mentor and baptizer. Grief like this tends to soften hearts. John was excluded and criticized by the religious-political hierarchy, something that Jesus was increasingly experiencing.

And that is the second point. Jesus is getting more and more flak from the religious hierarchy. We see the religious hierarchy coming down hard on Jesus in the three chapters leading up to Matthew 15.

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are criticized for not keeping the Sabbath the way they think it should be kept. He heals on the Sabbath and receives more criticism which spills over into animosity among the religious hierarchy toward Jesus. A plan is then hatched to “destroy him.”

Also, at the end of Matthew 13, Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth and is not received well. The religious hierarchy “took offense” and, according to Jesus, he was dishonored.

The first part of Matthew 15, the religious hierarchy again attack Jesus and his disciples for defiling the “tradition of the elders” and for not following Torah well enough. This seems the final straw for Jesus. He departs the Galilee region and heads for Samaria as if to imply, “enough is enough.” If my people are not going to listen, maybe others will.

In other words, Jesus embodies a command he once gave to his disciples. "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” That the next town is in Samaritan or Gentile country no longer matters. Things have changed now.

Changed Mind or Lesson Taught

As for Jesus’ interaction with a Canaanite woman in Gentile country, the usual reading of the passage is that the brave Canaanite woman changes Jesus’ mind. Upon closer examination, however, the passage shows Jesus teaching his disciples what faith and the Commonwealth of faith looks like by pointing to the woman’s persistent faith.

In the story, Jesus is worn-out and needing rest. He heads to Tyre to hide away. Being a “Gentile town,” Jesus cannot avoid coming across and interacting with Gentiles. This is what ensues in our story.

A Gentile woman pleads that Jesus restore her daughter to psychological and emotional wholeness. Jesus at first doesn’t answer her. Again, he is tired and seeking to rest and take a day off. He hopes she will get the idea he needs a break. He also knows he is unlikely to get it.

Jesus’ disciples, bothered by her screaming in their ears, “implores” Jesus to stop the madness and “send her away.” We know Jesus doesn’t take fondly to his disciples imploring him to choose callousness. We have many examples of Jesus’ response to this kind of nagging.

Jesus once chastised his disciples for their callousness in trying to turn children away (Matt. 19:14). Jesus once grew bothered by his disciples who implored him to send hungry people away. He curtly quipped, “you feed them” (Matt. 14:16). Jesus once grew annoyed by his disciples’ callousness toward a woman offering him a kind a deed, retorting, “why are you bothering this woman [anointing me with perfume]?” (Matt. 26:10).

Jesus responds to the disciples’ imploring him to send the Canaanite woman away with a lesson. A lesson for his disciples. Jesus will lift up this Gentile woman and her faith, knowing motherly love does give up so easily and that she will not go away. He is going to exalt her as a model of faith for his disciples “of little faith.” In fact, we might juxtapose the Canaanite woman’s faithful persistence despite Jesus’ three denials to help her to Peter’s fearful persistence in denying Jesus three times in Matthew 26:69–75.

The Test

First, Jesus tests her resilience. Jesus already intuits that her pain and hurt and motherly love and faith is not going to be turned away. Her test is to publicly show that love-soaked faith.

This test is meant for her. It’s also meant for his disciples. Jesus wants to show how her faith is so much stronger than the disciples’.

Jesus first ignores her, his first denial. Then, he directly denies her initial request with a verbalized no and rationale. Both denials are a test to the tenacity of her faith.

In the Zen tradition, the first step to entering the monastic life is finding a teacher and proving to that teacher that you won’t be turned away. Stories are told of a would-be novice monk being denied and ignored in various ways by a would-be teacher. Rabbi Jesus is doing a miniature version of this.

In the background of all of this is the fact that Jesus is acting the way the Pharisees would act. This pharisaical way is evident earlier in Matthew 15. He is also acting in a way the still relatively new disciples might expect any faithful Judean to act toward a Gentile. Jesus is acting in a way Jesus himself claimed was kosher in Matthew 10 (i.e., avoid Gentile and Samaritan regions).

Jesus gives a “no” because that is what is expected of the messiah. Any worthy Israelite messiah, according to Jesus’ religious-culture, is sent forth to the lost sheep of Israel and Israel alone. Basically, Jesus’ faux answer mirrors this religious-cultural understanding of what a messiah does. He mirrors that religious-cultural understanding in order to shatter the mirror.

 
She Persisted

As Jesus intuited, the woman persists.  “Lord, help me,” she begs. Jesus gives a third denial, once more testing her faith. He gives this rather pointed quip: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

The lost sheep of Israel are the children in his statement. The bread he has come to give is for them. It is the children’s bread and no one else. The “no one else” are called the euphemism, “dogs.” Sharp, harsh words for Jesus! He doubles-down on his Israel first and foremost test.

The Gentile woman’s reply is a perfect one and just as pointed. She basically says, well, even dogs need to eat, even if its crumbs from the children’s tables. The gist of her response is that Gentiles are people too and need the bread of heaven. She subverts Jesus’ euphemism and turns it on its head. It is something Jesus is usually expert at in the gospels. The Canaanite woman is standing in for Jesus in this moment.

Jesus likes her answer. Her faith passes the test and teaches his disciples in the process. Her faith is a pure model for his disciples to see, the disciples who initially wanted her sent away but who Jesus instead engages and exemplifies. Jesus calls her faith “great.” When does he ever say this about his disciples? He grants the Gentile woman her request. He heals her daughter.

The Teaching Moment’s Rationale

Why do I think Jesus’ conflict with the Gentile woman was a teaching moment? Well, Jesus never resorted to using a euphemism like this (unless he is talking to the religious hierarchy). Jesus’ statement seems so out of character otherwise, especially when you compare it to the compassion he shows the Samaritan woman at the well (which we will discuss later).

What’s more, if Jesus did not expect to be approached by a Gentile and have to turn her away, why did he go there in the first place? Why not head to the mountains and hills? Jesus expected a Gentile to approach him.

More than this, I believe Jesus was hoping for such a teaching moment. He needed to make it clear that his and his movement’s mission had turned a corner and was heading in a different direction.

By merely going to a Gentile town, Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms just that. He is saying things have changed now. In Jesus’ interaction with the Gentile woman, he makes it plain that things indeed are different now.

Jesus also wants to show the promise and hope in this new mission field to “the Other,” to the dismissed and ignored Gentiles. The Canaanite woman shows this promise and hope perfectly. She perfectly pictures a tenacious faith for the disciples to see. She becomes a lesson of faith, humility and compassion. In the woman’s not being turned around, she proves that this new mission field is ripe and ready for the Commonwealth’s spread.

Confronting Particularism

Alycia McKenzie, professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, suggests this reading of the text. Writing of the parallel text in Mark 7, she writes:

Jesus spoke as he did, in the mode of rabbinic argumentation, to satirize the attitude of the Pharisees with whom he had just been arguing and to offer a lesson to those around him and the woman. We have no inkling of his facial expression or tone. We do have a record of his pattern of relating to supplicants, and it is with unfailing tenderness and poignancy.[1]

As McKenzie points out, Mark is written for a Gentile Christian audience and seeks “to confront Jewish particularism.” What this says is that Jesus is on the “Gentiles’ side”’ in this case. He is confronting the religious exclusivism found in the religious tradition Jesus was born into. 

A common reading of the text, especially among progressives, is that Jesus basically concedes the point and admits his wrong, learning a lesson himself in the process. This is certainly a fair interpretation, and one I appreciate.

Even with this common interpretation, the confronting of particularism and the focus on pluralism remains. Jesus in the end agrees that the good news of wholeness and healing is not just for the lost-sheep of Israel but for all.

Jesus’ core message throughout the gospels adheres to this pluralistic reading of Jesus and the Canaanite woman interaction. As we saw with Jesus and the centurion, Jesus consistently dismisses attempts to minimize and particularize the reach of God’s commonwealth.


 



[1] Alycia McKenzie, “Commentary on Mark 7:24–37.” pt. 3, par. 3

Sanctuary

This morning’s reading from the gospels is, to put it mildly, thought-provoking. It is one of the most pointed, provocative passages of scripture in the New Testament. I thought about preaching on it this morning, but I’ve been rather heavy in my past few sermons. So, I’ve decided to link here a sermon that focuses on our rather heavy gospel reading this week. As for this morning, Father’s Day, I’d like to focus on something unrelated to the lectionary readings this morning.
I want to talk today about the idea of sanctuary. Its a pertinent topic since we are newly back to worshiping here in St. Paul’s beautiful sanctuary. Its even more pertinent thinking about the times we live in.
Who doesn’t want to sometimes seek sanctuary from all the stress, strife, and struggle around us? Who doesn’t want a hiding place from all the hopelessness and hatred? I admit to wanting a sanctuary and hiding place sometimes, and I am among the fortunate ones. Magnify this hope a few times for other folks feeling isolated and ignored in our society.
Sanctuary. It is a beautiful thing to think about. And so I want to discuss it for a bit.
But first, we should define what we mean by sanctuary. Well, sanctuary simply put is the sacred space where God dwells. It is space set apart from the world yet in the world that is extra-filled with the presence of God. For us, living in the world, it is space where we can go to be with God in an extra-ordinary way. That is why sanctuary has the sense of being a place where we can go to feel protected, comforted, and strengthened.
I think of the verse from Psalm that the beautiful praise song I played earlier comes from. Psalm 32:7- “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” This song is about sanctuary. When the world feels likes its getting us down, we can go to God as our sanctuary. And for many, church represents a physical manifestation of that sacred space where we can go to escape the weights of the world for a little while to be enfolded by God’s presence, and then return to the world strengthened and prepared to be conduits of God’s love in the world.
So, Sunday morning’s in many ways Sanctuary morning. We come to this sacred space to be where God dwells and seek sanctuary.
Yes, seeking sanctuary in God’s presence, this is a Christian act. It is a spiritual practice. Sunday mornings are about resting secure in God’s presence, expressing gratitude for godly love and for godly grace, a love and grace that lifts us and holds us and keeps us keeping on. Sunday worship is about seeing all that is worthy being sourced in God, the worthy one we worship. Sunday sabbath is about releasing our worries, our wearying work, and worldly woes at the feet of Christ so we can sit with God, get to know God, and yes, even see God in the here and now.
Simply put, we come into this sanctuary to find sanctuary, and we find sanctuary by sensing God is with us, in the here and now, and in each and every breath.
Worship is sort of like exercise, spiritual exercise, a spiritual workout, if you will. You go to a gym, in normal times, to work on your physical health and strength. You go to church to work on your spiritual health and strength. Through worships services on Sunday, we build up the spiritual muscle of sensing God’s presence with us and sensing, as Ephesians 4:6 says, that God is over all and through all and in all, providing us sanctuary and shelter.
But the spiritual exercise of finding sanctuary in the everywhere presence of God does not end with postlude of Sunday worship. The spiritual practice of sanctuary is not meant to stay here. Monday through Saturday we can, we need to build that muscle of spiritual insight, the spiritual muscle that seeks and finds the sanctuary of God in the all, including in our very being.
This last statement points out a crucial point. We find the sanctuary of God in our very being. Did you know that?
Did you know as a Christian you are yourselves God’s sanctuaries? Paul asks this very question in I Corinthians 3:16. “Do you know that you are God’s temples and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Yes, impossible but true, each of us, you and I, are sanctuaries in which God dwells.
Maybe you know that praise song. "Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary pure and holy, tried and true. And with thanksgiving I'll be a living sanctuary for You." These lyrics come from Paul's teaching that Christians are God’s temple.
What does it mean that we are to be God’s sanctuaries? Well, it first means we are called to daily do at home what we do at church on Sundays. Daily within ourselves we are to pray and praise, meditate and contemplate on scripture.
But it doesn’t stop there either. We are called to take that sanctuary with us out into the world. We are to be walking sanctuaries living among others and in creation. We continue with a worshipful life in the world by seeing and honoring God by honoring God’s creation. We continue with a worshipful life in the world by seeing and honoring God’s masterpiece, our fellow human beings wonderfully created in God’s image. We continue with a worshipful life in the world by conducting ourselves in ways that see and honor God all around us.
Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Christian thinker, once wrote these powerful words: “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.”
We talk about unity in church life. Our hymnals, if you peruse through them, have a whole section of hymns under the topic of Christian unity. Where does unity come from? From God, from Christ, yes. Looking at it deeper we see that true unity comes from the fact that God is over all, through all, and in all, namely all humans. We are each God’s children, united by God. Each of us, each person you see, is full of God. The common denominator each of us shares is that we, each and every one of us, were created in God’s image. Some might be ignorant of this truth and suffer as a result. Some might fall victim to the same thing that fell Adam and Eve. But God’s image created in us is still there, just latent, like a light covered by a bushel, waiting to be discovered via faith in Christ and his love.
From unity we also get equality. God’s image created in us is not more formed in me as it is in you. Thomas Jefferson got it right in this regard. It is indeed self-evident that all men – and women – are created equal. This truth goes all the way back to Genesis. Going from created equal to treated equally is the hard part. But the spiritual exercise of seeing God in all things helps. I’d say it is vital in the Christian work of security unity and equality among us.
Lastly, the ultimate aim for us is to take the sanctuary we find in God and in all that God is and apply it in our lives as Christians. Going from finding sanctuary in God to partnering with God to be a sanctuary for others – that is the ultimate call.
A song I really like paints a picture of what this being a sanctuary for others looks like. It is with this song and us listening to it I come to a close. Let us reflect and contemplate these truths as we hear the song "Brother" by Christian musician Jordan Feliz.