All posts by Miranda Hassett

Sermon, Sept. 13

I want to begin my homily today by reading you a story. It’s from a book called Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk (Crosswood Publishing, 1988). The Magic Monastery is a strange and wonderful place. People come there seeking answers from the wise monks. Often what they get instead are questions – or the insight to realize that what they need is different from what they seek.

In this story, a monk from another monastery comes to the Magic Monastery. He’s fed up with his brother monks, and wants a time of retreat. As usual, the Magic Monastery gives him just what he needs. 

The story begins: The guestmaster looked at me carefully and led me to a room marked “Righteous Indignation.” “Good,” I thought. “Back home some people don’t understand me. They think I’m judgmental. But this man understands.” 

There wasn’t much in the room besides the four walls, and that was all right with me. I sat down and meditated a while. Then I read my Bible. I found myself looking at those walls. I read some more, then meditated, then looked at the walls again. 

Late in the evening, as I was staring at one of the walls, it became transparent, and I found myself looking at my own monastery. FAScinating. What’s more, as I watched, I found I could see right through its walls and into the church and cloisters. After a while I could even see inside the cell of each monk. I saw everything. I saw what each monk had in his room and what he was doing. I saw some praying, some sleeping, some reading. I could even see what each one was reading. Brother! Do you see what that one is reading? And look at the private property! Soon I could hear their voices. I could hear everything that was said – the complaints, the backbiting. My own name was mentioned. Huh! That one to be complaining of me! 

I began to take notes. I filled page after page. I had thought the place was bad before, but here were the facts – what they said, what they did, what they had. Nothing subjective – just cold facts. As I kept writing, I began to see right into their heads, to see their very thoughts. These also I wrote down. 

Once, when I was resting my eyes, the thought came to me, “I wonder what I would see if the other wall were transparent?” Perhaps if I kept looking at it long enough… well, it did open up and through it I saw the Magic Monastery, every bit of it. What an eyeful! I thought my own place was bad. Talk about individualism. I began to write that down too. 

I rang for the Brother and asked him to bring me some more notebooks. There was so much to get down. From time to time a further question would come to me, “I wonder what’s behind these other two walls?” I became uncomfortable. “Who is there? What are the walls hiding? Why don’t they let me see? It’s probably dreadful.” I took to starting at these walls. The Brother said that behind the one wall were the deceased members of the Magic Monastery, and behind the other were the deceased members of my own monastery. 

“Ah,” I said, “but why can’t I see them? I want to see them.” 

“You won’t like it,” he said.

“Truth, that’s all I want. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I call it like it is. Show me!” 

“You’ll only get angry.”

“Show me. Bring me some more notebooks, and show me.” 

But he refused and hurried away. I was determined that when he returned the next day I would get the truth out of him. 

I did. I took him by the throat and demanded to know what was going on behind those walls. “Behind this one,” he gasped, “are the deceased members of your own community. They are all looking in at you. They are weeping and praying for you.

“Behind this other wall are the deceased members of the Magic Monastery. They are all looking at you and laughing.” 

I’ve loved this book for a long time, and this story is one of my favorites. It’s a story that points to the problem with righteous indignation.

Righteous indignation is a powerful, even intoxicating, feeling. Think back on a time you’ve felt it. Something was unfair. Somebody in power was wrong or hypocritical. Somebody said something stupid and dangerous.

Righteous indignation is important. It drives us to speak and act. It can drive us to stand up for what’s right, and against what’s wrong. But – as the story reminds us – there can be something both laughable and deeply sad about someone in the throes of righteous indignation. 

When we are seized by righteous indignation, it tends to be really hard to stay self-aware. To keep a sense of proportion about the situation. To be the person we mean to be. 

Both of today’s lessons have to do with righteous indignation. In this portion of the letter to the Romans, Paul is addressing a division within the church over faith practices, especially food practices. This is the passage where Paul calls me “weak” for eating only vegetables. 

Seriously: Meat was an issue for a couple of reasons. It might have been used in the rites of pagan temples; Paul addresses that issue extensively in 1 Corinthians. The animal might also not have been killed in accord with the practices of kashrut, kosher. In an urban setting where folks had to buy food instead of raising their own, the only way to be sure to avoid ritually impure meat was to avoid meat altogether. 

Paul uses the loaded terms “Weak” and “Strong” to refer to the parties here. The “weak” are concerned about whether their practices put them right or wrong with God. The “strong” know that all of that is details, and what matters is giving yourself, body and mind, heart and soul, to God through Christ Jesus. Their confidence might well put them at risk of judgmentalism and righteous indignation towards the “weak” with their tender scruples.

In case the “weak” and “strong” vocabulary doesn’t give it away: Paul agrees with the Strong, in principle. He says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” But Paul has seen this kind of thing play out enough times that he knows that there’s no future in having one group within the church be RIGHT and another group be WRONG. People need to listen to each other, love each other, and grow together, slowly, into a shared understanding of their life in Christ.

Even Paul’s identification with the Strong here is a strategic act – he’s trying to take their sense of righteousness and massage it into compassionate consideration for others. The really strong thing to do here, says Paul, is to accept people as they are and let them figure it out step by step, instead of arguing with them about deeply-felt convictions. “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

And then there’s today’s Gospel. In which Peter wants to know what do to if somebody isn’t just sinful but is, like, super-duper sinful, over and over again. And not just generally sinful but sinful AGAINST ME. What do I do about somebody like that? Do I have to keep forgiving them as many as seven times?Jesus says, Not just seven but seventy-seven – a number that clearly means, “as many times as it takes.” And then he tells a story, a parable: 

A king wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave owed him ten thousand talents – an incredible sum, a fortune. The slave, of course, could not pay him back. So the king ordered that the slave, his wife and children, and all his possessions, should be sold, to make up the lost money.

Let me pause and remind us that every king in a parable does not represent God! The king, the debt – all of this is just the situation Jesus sets up for the real point of the parable, which is about the human heart. Anyway. 

The slave, naturally, is horrified; he throws himself to the ground before the king and begs for mercy. And out of pity, the king releases him and forgives him his debt! An amazing gift of freedom from bondage and obligation! Imagine the slave’s gratitude and relief! 

But that same slave, as he’s leaving the king’s court, spots one of his fellow slaves who owes him 100 denarii. And he grabs him by the throat and says, Pay me what you owe. And when he can’t or won’t, the first slave has him throw in prison. People tell the king what happened, and he calls the first slave before him and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

I’m honest enough with myself to find the slave’s actions believable. He’s just been faced with losing literally EVERYTHING, because he doesn’t have enough money. He reacts from that desperate fear and sense of scarcity, even though the great debt has been forgiven; even though this second debt is literally one ten-thousandth of what he owed the king.

As much as anything, this is a story about self-awareness. If the slave hadn’t been awash with anxiety, he would have realized how senseless it was to make this demand from his neighbor. He might have said, “Hey, forget that 100 denarii! I just got my whole life back!” But that’s not what happens. Instead, he turns towards righteous indignation – You owe me, you good-for-nothing slacker! – as a release from his feelings of terror, shame, and inadequacy. 

The fundamental premise of righteous indignation is that somebody else is the problem. 

LOOK: SOMETIMES OTHER PEOPLE ARE A PROBLEM – in heartbreaking, terrifying ways, that touch many lives besides their own. Human beings can be both wrong and bad. And niceness is not a Christian virtue. Striving to follow Jesus by no means obligates us to tolerate abuse or to make peace with injustice and cruelty; quite the opposite. Jesus himself often corrects people and argues with people.

The lesson of the magic monastery, of Paul’s admonition to the Strong, of Jesus’ parable, is that part of the work is always, always self-work. 

There’s a prayer I’ve learned from a friend in the recovery community: Bless them; change me. So simple, and yet so hard to pray: Bless them; change me. 

Praying this prayer doesn’t mean simply accepting the other person as they are, even if they are dangerous to themselves or others. Praying this prayer is a recognition that I am only person I can control. And that even my capacity to maybe, possibly, begin to help that other person, or change that person, or change my relationship with that person, or change the circumstances in which  that person has power to do harm – all of that, too, has to start with my inner work. 

A couple of weeks ago a member shared a quotation from the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton, that’s been knocking around in the back of my mind ever since:“Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, and capacity to love, will have nothing to give others. They will communicate to others nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambitions, their delusions about end and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”

Merton doesn’t mention righteous indignation but it’s in there, right there at the center of the Venn diagram of aggressiveness and ego and delusions that WE are the ones who have it all figured out. 

Bless them; change me. It is hard to pray this prayer for the people who spark my righteous indignation. For the people who are most callous or clueless about the brutal impact of the Covid pandemic. For the people who refuse accountability for their role in institutions that harm and oppress. For the people who believe they are so righteous that they’re allowed to hurt God’s children in God’s name. 

But I try to pray it, even if I pray it with a little coda:  “… and also please change them too.” Because I know that the faith I preach and try to live is a faith that begins with metanoia: with a changed mind and heart that bear fruit in a changed life. The faith I preach and try to live is a faith that continues with self-examination, holding up our lives to the light of God’s loving purposes; and with confession, and forgiveness, and amendment of life.  I know that I am my own life’s work, in a way that is the opposite of self-centered or self-indulgent, because as Merton says, I have nothing to give others if I am not continually striving to deepen my self-understanding, freedom, and capacity to love. Because I can’t be part of any solution if I haven’t also taken a brave, honest look at the ways I’m part of the problem.

Righteous indignation is a powerful force that drives many human movements for a more whole, just, and merciful world. The nutshell version of this sermon is not that righteous indignation is bad. But that part of righteous indignation where we tend to lose our sense of self-awareness and proportion, and project the whole problem outward – that is risky. Because we are each our own life’s work. 

Comedian and kindness advocate Josh Gondelman says he has never been asked to give a graduation speech, but he wrote one just in case. It’s in his book Nice Try. Here’s part of it: “Every time you fail, or someone fails you, you could grow embittered and defeated and withdrawn. Or you could take some time to stomp around and curse heaven and earth before making the choice to become more resolute and compassionate and righteous and tender. Just because things are bad doesn’t mean you have to get worse with them. You don’t have to pretend things are good; you just have to believe they can get better…It won’t always be easy. In some cases, that will take a substantial amount of time, or effort, or support, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. But you can always learn how to better stand up for yourself or for other people… You can become gentler and more relentless.” 

Faced with the inevitable failures and errors of people and institutions, may we follow the way of Jesus by choosing to become more more resolute and compassionate; more righteous and tender; gentler and more relentless for the sake of good. And may the God who calls us to this work give us courage, clarity, and grace. Amen. 

Sermon, August 23

Read this Sunday’s lessons from Exodus and Romans here. 

This text from the beginning of the book of Exodus is full of women quietly working to resist and subvert a cruel and abusive status quo. Let’s see – can we list them all? …. 

– The midwives (more about them in a moment)

– Miriam, Moses’ big sister. Text suggests that her keeping an eye on Moses in the basket – & then approaching the Egyptian princess – is her own initiative. (And we see her boldness later in the story when she’s a grown woman.) 

– Moses’ mother, named Jochebed by tradition – hiding her baby & then finding a way to give him a chance at life while also being able to say truthfully, “Yes, yes, we put him in the Nile”

– Pharaoh’s daughter – her motivations are a little inscrutable. But she certainly knows of her father’s decree of death for the Hebrew babies, and she chooses to ignore it. I wonder if she guessed the baby’s Hebrew nurse was actually his mother. 

I’m not here to idealize women as somehow universally more moral or more righteous – or more sneaky. But there is something we recognize here: something about an overwhelmingly male-dominated system, in which some women find quiet ways to resist, and do what needs doing. 

Now let’s hone in on the midwives – Sifra and Puah. The text calls Shifrah and Puah, the “Hebrew midwives.” That is the simplest translation, but it loses the ambiguity of the Hebrew. It might be better to say “the midwives of the Hebrews,” because it’s not fully clear whether these women were Hebrew or Egyptian. 

They might easily have been Egyptian midwives whose job it was to attend to births among the Hebrew population. Nothing strange about that; we have plenty of white ladies in various helper roles with communities of color in America today. 

There’s been lots of wondering about the midwives over the centuries. I learned, in preparing this sermon, that Jewish commentators have held both views for at least two thousand years. 

I’ve believed for a long time that the midwives are Egyptian. I just think that’s what makes narrative sense. Let me explain why, briefly. 

First, Pharaoh asks them to kill the Hebrew babies. Would Pharaoh be so clueless as to ask that if they were themselves Hebrew? A 16th century rabbi, Don Isaac Abarbanel, wrote, “How could Pharaoh’s mind be confident that Hebrew women would murder their own people’s babies?” It makes much more sense if the midwives were Egyptian, and Pharaoh assumed they would share his point of view – that the Hebrews were threatening outsiders whose lives don’t really matter. 

Second – when Pharaoh calls in the midwives to ask why they’re letting the babies live, both Pharaoh and the midwives speak about the Hebrews – the Israelites – as others, as a “them.” “They give birth before the midwife even arrives!”  And notice how the midwives deflect suspicion by playing into demeaning stereotypes, saying “the Hebrew women are hardy.” “Hardy” doesn’t sound so bad until you think about the contrast with the delicate, refined Egyptian women. And the Hebrew word translated as “hardy,” when used as a noun, means “animals.” Those people – their women are like beasts, they just push out a baby before we can even get there…! What can we do? 

Finally, I think the very fact that this story is HERE indicates that the midwives were Egyptian. “Dog bites man” doesn’t make a headline. Hebrew women helping other Hebrew women, likewise. But “Man bites dog” – Egyptian women helping Hebrew women defy the Egyptian king – THAT’s a story. And it’s a kind of story the Hebrew Bible likes to tell – stories of people outside the covenant, people outside of God’s chosen lineage, who nonetheless honor Israel’s God and act righteously. In one 1000-year-old text, Shifra and Puah are named as Righteous Gentiles. 

(That brings them alongside people like Ida Cook, who worked tirelessly to help Jewish children escape Europe just before the Second World War; I shared her story back in February. Another tale of secret plots to preserve life that rest on the tendency of men in power to underestimate and ignore women.) 

I believe Shifra and Puah were Egyptians, who didn’t go along with their leader and their culture, but saw and did what was right. They weren’t conformed to the world but they were transformed by the renewing of their minds, discerning the will of God. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

In our somewhat abbreviated Sunday gatherings, we’ve skipped a lot of the texts from Romans this summer summer. Paul’s letter to the Romans is frankly ill-suited to the Sunday lectionary. He’s building long, complex arcs of argumentation that don’t break into pieces well. But from chapter 12 onward, Paul is offering advice about living as people of faith in community, and it gets a little easier to receive and understand a piece at a time. 

There aren’t a lot of verses in the Bible that stand well on their own. Generally you need context to know what’s being said. But if you want to memorize this single verse and carry it around inside of you… you could do a lot worse. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

It’s a good verse for the Egyptian midwives. Other Egyptians, and their King, were saying: Look, these Hebrew workers – there are too many of them, and they’re having too many babies. We need their labor, but they’re a threat to our culture and way of life. Let’s make life harder and harder for them; let’s make them struggle, let’s make them afraid, to make sure they don’t overrun us. 

Shifra and Puah didn’t conform to that point of view. They exercised their own judgment, followed their own values.  

One thing I respect about Shifra and Puah is that they knew the difference between what’s legal and what’s right. If you, like me, have been raised in a society where the laws and the rules mostly protect and privilege people like me, it’s easy to be fuzzy on the difference – but it’s pretty important to be prepared to ask ourselves, Is what’s legal, right? And is what’s right, legal? 

Slavery was legal; so was Jim Crow segregation. The Holocaust was legal. Jesus’ execution was legal. Separating infants and toddlers from their parents, indefinitely, at the U.S. border has been legal in the very recent past. Meanwhile, in parts of our nation, people have been prosecuted for feeding the homeless; and for leaving water caches in the desert to help desperate migrants survive.

Legal is not always the same as moral. Legal is not always the same as right. Laws are made by human governments, and human governments get things wrong. 

The text says that Shifrah and Puah went rogue because they feared God. That makes sense for the Biblical text, which is very interested in non-Israelites honoring Israel’s God. But I’m not sure I believe it. 

Egyptians had their own gods, including gods associated with pregnancy and birth. Shifrah and Puah were probably devotees of Taweret, the pregnant hippopotamus-goddess who watched over births, or Meshkenet, who gave strength to women in labor. 

Deaths of mother, baby, or both in childbirth would have been common, as they have been throughout most of human history. To wrest a living baby from the womb was to win a wrestling match with death. 

Midwives are people who deeply respect the birth process and, based on the ones I’ve met, really love babies. To be a midwife is to be on the side of life, in a fundamental way. To be willing to get soaked with blood and amniotic fluid and less mentionable substances, for the sake of bringing forth and preserving life. 

I don’t think Shifrah and Puah broke Pharaoh’s command because they thought the Hebrews had a better God. I think they went rogue for the sake of life. 

And that just happened to align them with God’s purposes – because our God, the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a god of life. 

Where would you be prepared to go rogue for the sake of life? 

The ways our governments, economies and societies deal death are, mostly, more subtle and indirect these days. In Lebanon: Government officials ignored warnings about a stockpile of explosive material in a warehouse for … six years. In our nation: A sluggish and incoherent response to a global pandemic has undoubtedly led to many more deaths than might otherwise have been. In Wisconsin, just this summer, a government committee rejected changes to state rules that would have prohibited the use of conversion therapy by licensed therapists and others.  “Conversion therapy” involves trying to change somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and it’s associated with psychological harm, substance abuse, and worse. 

You probably have your own item you’d put on the list of ways our status quo compromises and damages life – and not only human life, but also creatures and ecosystems. And that brings me to another thing I respect about the midwives: their crystal-clear focus. 

Shifra and Puah had their work, their mission, their cause: Save babies. And when the interests and fears of those in power put pressure on their work, they found ways to keep saving babies.

It’s pretty normal to be overwhelmed, right now. For many of us, even an egregious news story gets kind of a “Huh” reaction at this point. There’s just too much. 

I wonder if there’s something, some hope, some value, some cause, some work, that is as bedrock-solid for you as saving babies was for Shifrah and Puah. I wonder whether God has given you a heart for that hope or value or cause or work … for a reason. 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

Where are you prepared to go rogue for the sake of life? 

 

 

A really detailed, interesting investigation of Jewish commentary and translation issues related to the identity of the midwives: 

https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-egyptian-midwives

Sermon, Aug. 16

Read the Gospel here: Mt 15:1, 7, 10-11, 16-28 

I know this is a Gospel story – especially that second part – that some have strong feelings about. 

Jesus is being pretty snippy, frankly, for somebody who’s up on his high horse about what comes out of your mouth. 

Maybe we should just take it as a given that he is exhausted and overwhelmed. If we read what comes before this passage, we find that Jesus keeps trying to get away by himself to rest and pray, and he keeps being found – by crowds of desperate people seeking healing, or by antagonists who want to argue with him. 

I’m not going to tell you how I think YOU should read this text – but I am going to suggest how I think MATTHEW, the author of this Gospel, understands what happens here. 

Matthew gets this passage from Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. While Matthew and Mark don’t always tell things in the same order, these two pieces are together in both texts – Jesus’ little diatribe about what really makes someone unclean, and then this reluctant healing. But Matthew does tell things a little bit differently. (I encourage you to set them side by side & compare – that’s often pretty interesting! The Mark version is in chapter 7.)  

This month we are giving some attention to the ways we read, reflect on, and seek meaning in the Bible. Reading a passage out loud in different ways is a great tool; so is looking at a text side by side with a related passage from elsewhere in the Bible. Sometimes just reading a text closely and slowly makes you notice new things, too, even in a familiar story. We’ve found that with our Scripture reflections at Compline. And with some help from Bible scholar Richard Swanson, it happened for me with this Gospel – with the word Canaanite. 

Canaanite. When Mark tells this story, he says the woman is a Gentile – a non-Jew – and a Syro-Phoenecian. A descendant of one of the great empires that marched through Judea in ages past. But Matthew says this woman is a Canaanite.

Canaanite is a very old-fashioned word. The Canaanites were Israel’s great enemies in the time of Joshua and Judges over a thousand years ago. I had never paused on the word before because it’s a Biblical word; it’s familiar. But this is the only time this word is used in the New Testament… and for that matter, the last 2/3 of the Old Testament. The Canaanites mostly aren’t mentioned after the book of Judges – except when people are re-telling Israel’s early history, remembering how God brought them to the land of Canaan and said, This is for you; kill everyone who lives here and then move in and settle down. 

Calling this woman a Canaanite is like saying she’s a Redcoat. It’s recognizable as a term for an enemy we used to have – but it’s been a while since those were the bad guys. 

Why call this woman a Canaanite? The Canaanites were the peoples who lived in the land where the Israelites wanted to live. (Or – as archaeologists and Biblical scholars increasingly believe – they were the ancestors of the Israelites, whom the Israelites wanted to separate themselves from as they developed a new faith and way of life.) So this woman is a non-Jew who lives in a neighboring territory. Sure, call her a Canaanite. It’s not necessarily wrong; it’s just odd.  

Matthew isn’t making a mistake. He means something by using this archaic term. But what? 

Matthew is sometimes described as the most Jewish of the Gospels – the most grounded in the history and heritage of Judaism. Matthew believes, with the apostle Paul (Romans 11), that non-Jewish Christians should hold their faith with humility, knowing that they have been grafted onto a vine that was planted long ago;  that our life and vitality come from the deep roots and resilient growth of that vine. 

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy that doubles as a capsule history of Israel. He frequently shapes his narrative to present Jesus as a second Moses. In that light, Matthew’s use of the word “Canaanite” means to throw us back into the history of the Jewish people. He wants to evoke the time of Joshua and Judges, when the Canaanites were Israel’s despised neighbors, a constant cultural, religious, and military threat, to be resisted and, when possible, exterminated. 

Matthew’s deep commitment to Judaism may seem like it’s in tension with Jesus’ hostility towards the scribes and the Pharisees, Jewish religious scholars, in today’s Gospel. 

I’m sure Matthew is re-telling Jesus’ words here – potty humor and all. Jesus clearly had kind of a “frenemy” relationship with the Pharisees during his life. 

Matthew’s Gospel may lean into that antagonism because those tensions had become stronger in the decades after Jesus. 

Matthew is writing his Gospel, based on Mark and some other texts and memories and stories he’s gathered, around the year 75, give or take. 

It’s not long after the destruction of Jerusalem following a failed revolt against Roman colonial rule. 

Different Jewish groups are all trying to work out what faithful living looks like in this new time, after all that struggle and loss. The Pharisees are seeking the survival of their way of faith by calling people to daily observance of the ancient ways of Judaism. 

In contrast, Christians (at this point still a weird movement within Judaism) are seeking survival of their way of faith by cutting back on required practices, emphasizing heart and soul instead, and becoming a faith that actively evangelizes non-Jews. 

So these kinds of questions about what kind of life puts you right with God, and who Jesus’ mission and ministry were for, may have felt even more pressing and weighty as Matthew wrote down his Gospel than they did during Jesus’ life. 

I want us to notice that there’s a penny waiting to drop, between the end of Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees and the moment of his softening towards the Canaanite woman. 

He has just pushed back strongly on the idea that worthiness, holiness, rightness-with-God can be earned or kept through particular practices, things you do. 

He’s said, more or less, that his mission is not to restore Judaism as the Pharisees understand it.

But he apparently still thinks his mission is focused on Judaism, on the lost sheep of the house of Israel. On those descendants of Abraham who are hurting, hungry, helpless or hopeless.  

But then. 

I want to take a moment to honor this woman, this fierce mama whose fear for her child makes her fearless. She does something very familiar here – something that women in sexist systems and marginalized folk of all kinds sometimes have to do. She accepts the demeaning terms that are offered her, and makes her case anyway. Jesus says this flat-out racist thing, calls her a dog, and she says, Yes, sir. But you know, the thing about dogs is, when the kids are eating, the dogs are going to end up getting something. 

There are many little hints that make me think Matthew thinks Jesus’ heart changes, in this moment. It’s not just that Jesus is swayed by her feistiness and decides to make an exception, just this once. It’s that penny finally drops and the fully-human part of Jesus gets a little bit closer to understanding what the fully-God part of Jesus is up to. 

But right now I just want to circle back to that word, Canaanite. Remember that the Canaanites were Israel’s ancient enemy, to avoid and/or destroy. That a touchstone of their history is the story about God bringing them the land of Canaan, and telling them: This is for you; now, kill everyone who already lives here. 

Because Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite, suddenly this Gospel story is in conversation with Joshua and Judges. It’s not just that Jesus suddenly sees that his mission is to and for the Gentiles too. It’s that Jesus’ work and teaching, life and death and rising, are meant to mend and redeem a history of hatred, suspicion, and violence. 

By the way: Joshua – the great general of the campaign against Canaan –  and Jesus are the same name in Hebrew: Yeshua. Matthew knows this.

Richard Swanson writes,”The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when [the Israelites] invaded the land [of Canaan].  This is not idly done. This remembrance makes this [Gospel story] a scene of historic repentance: the Canaanites are shown to be capable of real faithfulness… The argument for [the] slaughter [of the Canaanites] – that they will lead you away from true faithfulness – is revealed to be false.” 

This is a pivot point in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s in chapter 15, close to the halfway point of Matthew’s 28 chapters. In chapter 16, Jesus starts warning his disciples about what’s going to happen to him.* And chapter 17 contains the Transfiguration, the literal mountaintop moment that turns the Gospel story towards the cross. 

I think Matthew sees this moment as the fulcrum – the point on which the story pivots. On which Jesus’ understanding of his mission pivots. From seeking and saving the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to breaking down the walls that divide us, making whole what has long been broken. and embracing all those of any nation who seek God’s healing, redemption, and grace. 

Thanks be to God. 

Online Vacation Bible School 2020: The Story of Joseph!

Our annual August intergenerational Vacation Bible School is online! We’ll do it “live” over Zoom on Sunday, August 9, though Thursday,  August 13, from 6 – 7PM every evening. (Feel free to join over dinner!) To get the Zoom link, email Rev. Miranda at or join our Facebook group.

Kids, youth and adults are all welcome! We can’t break up by age group online the same way we usually do in person, but we’ll do our best to listen, wonder, and learn together across age groups.

We’ll also make the videos & reflection materials available online for those who’d like to participate at their own pace, or have to miss a day. The materials for each day  will be added as new links below.

The Story of Joseph, Day 1: Video on Vimeo

The Story of Joseph Day 1 At-Home Reflection Materials

The Story of Joseph, Day 2: Video on Vimeo

The Story of Joseph Day 2 At-Home Reflection Materials

The Story of Joseph, Day 3: Video on Vimeo

The Story of Joseph Day 3 At-Home Reflection Materials

The Story of Joseph, Day 4: Video on Vimeo

The Story of Joseph Day 4 At-Home Reflection Materials

The Story of Joseph, Day 5: Video on Vimeo 

The Story of Joseph Day 5 At-Home Reflection Materials 

A Prayer for Spiritual Communion

A Prayer for Spiritual Communion
In union, O Lord, with the faithful at every altar of your Church where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving. I present to you my soul and body with the earnest wish that I may always be united to you, and, since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself with you, and embrace you with all the love of my soul. Let nothing ever separate you from me. May I live in you, and may you live in me, both in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

Sermon, July 12

Our Gospel today brings us one of Jesus’ parables – these stories he likes to tell. Why does he do that so much, anyway?…  In the verses our text skips, Jesus gives one answer, quoting the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The reason I speak to [the crowd] in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” The purpose of the parables is to perplex people, to keep the truth obscured. 

I wonder….  I think Jesus probably really said something a lot like that. But I think there’s more more going on here. If you want to hide the truth, why preach to enormous crowds? In Mark, Jesus goes on to say, “Nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” So maybe parables are supposed to leave you wondering – until the penny drops and you say, “Oooh! I see what he meant now!” 

Telling stories can be a good way to get away with public speech that might upset the authorities. There are several moments in the Gospels where people suddenly realize that a story Jesus is telling is about them – and not in a good way! 

Telling stories is a great way to talk to people who aren’t in the habit of listening to sermons or lectures – and Jesus wanted to reach people like that. People remember stories; they invite you in and stick with you much more than an expository speech making the same point. I try to use stories in my preaching often, for the same reason. 

Stories can hold big, strange ideas in deceptively simple containers. This might be the main reason Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God mostly in stories. 

The writer Francis Spufford offers this overview of Jesus’ Kingdom parables: 

“When [Jesus] talks about [the Kingdom], it sips from analogy to analogy… Yeshua’s kingdom apparently exists in ever-changing resemblances. He does not say what it is, only what it is like. It’s like a tiny seed. It’s like a big tree. Like something inside you. Like a pearl you’d give everything to possess. Like wheat growing among weeds. Like the camel climbing though the needle’s eye. Like the way the world looks to children… Like getting a day’s pay for an hour’s work. Like a crooked magistrate, who has fixed the case in your favor. Like a narrow gate, a difficult road, a lamp on a stand. Like a wedding party. Like a wedding party where all the original guests have been disinvited and replaced by random passers-by. Like yeast in dough. Like a treasure, like a harvest, like a door that opens whenever you knock…. The kingdom is — whatever all those likenesses have in common. The kingdom, he seems to be saying, is something that can only be glimpsed in comparisons, because the world contains no actual examples of it. And yet the world glints and winks and shines everywhere with the possibility of it.” (Unapologetic, p. 123)

So there are lots of reasons Jesus might have spoken in parables. To fly under the radar; to catch people’s attention; to point at ideas and realities hard to capture with other kinds of language.  And Jesus’ parables do leave us thinking, and wondering. Even the “easy” ones, the ones Jesus pauses to explain, like the Parable of the Sower. 

In his explanation to the disciples, Jesus describes the different soils as different people. That’s a reading that makes sense in that moment, as he’s preaching his message to larger and larger crowds. Let’s just note the genius here: with this parable Jesus is doing exactly what he’s talking about. He’s tossing out this story like seeds into the crowd, knowing it will only take root in a few. And as he explains the parable to his friends, he is managing their expectations. He’s saying, Not everyone in that crowd is going to get it. And not everyone who gets it, will stick with it. But don’t be discouraged. Enough will get it. Enough will stick with it. Enough will go on to bear fruit. 

This is a parable that says something about results, about outcomes. When we are good soil, we bear fruit. Jesus talks often about fruitfulness. Those whose hearts and lives are changed by turning towards God are expected to live lives that are fruitful in some way. Not to earn salvation or God’s love by deeds or accomplishments! No; our deliverance, our belovedness are givens. But as our response, as our willing participation in God’s work of healing, liberating, and reconciling. 

These verses about bearing fruit can weigh heavily because we’re not sure what it looks like – and we may compare ourselves with others, thinking our garden should look just like theirs. I can be prone to that myself sometimes. But I think God expects our gardens and fields to be different. What fruitfulness God wants to see in your life is an intimate, prayerful question. For me, it means asking God often, What matters? Where should I be putting my best energy? And trying to notice, and follow, any holy nudges. 

Which brings me to the way I’d like to dwell with this parable a little together.

Jesus explains this as a parable about how the seed of God’s word lands in different people. But that might not be the only way to receive this parable. Parables are like that. As I read about the Sower and the seed, I notice that I have all those kinds of soil inside of me. Our lives are full of opportunities and invitations – to begin or deepen a relationship, to get involved with a project or process, to help or advocate or build or connect or learn or rest or share joy. To bear fruit for God’s kingdom. And we don’t take all those invitations. We can’t. God understands that. God knows our limitations better than we do. 

Take the seed that falls on rocky ground.This reminds me of the inevitable seed sprouting projects that come home from school with young children. The traditional Dixie cup, or even worse, the plastic bag… I love teachers, don’t get me wrong, but WHY do they do this to parents? Get a child invested in a tiny fragile living thing and then send it home, putting it on the parents to either transplant it – tearing up tiny roots that have nothing better to grow in than a damp paper towel or cotton ball – and try to nurse it along until the child loses interest and it dies, or leave it in the bag and hide it quietly and hope the child forgets about it. 

These plastic-bag seeds sprung up quickly! They had moisture and sun. But they do not have what they need to keep growing and become mature plants. 99% of the time, they are not going to get past the seedling stage. 

What’s like that in my life?… In these seedlings I recognize my temporary enthusiasms, things that are gripping and exciting and urgent for a day or a week, but then fade into the background. For whatever reason, they didn’t get rooted in my life. Maybe because I didn’t take the time to plant them well. Maybe because I’m not the right soil for that project. 

Right now I’m working hard – I think many of you are, too – to keep our renewed commitment to racial equity from being one of these quick-to-grow, quick-to-wither plants. Transplanting the seedling from that Dixie cup to a pot, with soil and drainage. Watering it, putting it in the sun. Committing to tending it for a season, and seeing what it may bear. 

Next there are the seeds that get established OK, but then get overgrown by weeds. Weeds that tangle around, stealing the sun and the water, crowding and choking the young plant. Oh my gosh, so many things are like that for me. There are a lot of weeds right now, y’all. The ongoing thrum of anxiety, stress, grief – over lost opportunities, lost people, lost normalcy – all of that is big stuff that we can’t turn off. It may weigh heavier some days and lighter others, but it’s always there. 

It’s why I’ve pulled back on some impulses to create LOTS of content and LOTS of opportunities in our virtual church household. Sure, some of us have more time now than we did in the Before-times – but most of us have less bandwidth, less mental, emotional, and/or spiritual capacity.  A lot of things we might like to do in principal are getting choked out by the cares of the world, as Jesus says.

And then there are the seeds that the birds grab before they even get rooted. I struggled a little with finding this in my life until I realized – these are the seeds that never even start to grow. These are the opportunities and possibilities that cross my path, but don’t even register. I don’t click the link. I have a schedule conflict and don’t make it to the event. I don’t ask the next question that would take the conversation somewhere deeper. I know these misses happen all the time – even though I try to pay attention and notice which of the thousands of things that cross my path have that glint or shimmer of holy possibility. 

Now and then I recognize a miss, and grieve it. But most of the time I don’t even know the misses happen. That doesn’t keep me up nights… much – because I trust in God’s Plans B, C, D, E, F, G, and so on. Maybe that seed bounced off me and got nobbled by a bird. But somewhere else – I hope, I pray – a seed landed in warm, rich, moist soil, soft and deep enough to send down roots. 

And that’s where this parable points us. It’s a parable of reassurance. Maybe only a quarter of the seed lands in the good soil. But the ones that land in the right soil at the right time – they grow enough that there will be a harvest. A banquet. 

As I was working on this sermon, my husband Phil was out in the garden picking the first fresh pea pods off our pea plants. He picked a quart of peas – and that’s just the beginning. And each of our happy, prolific pea plants started as one pea. One. Pea. 

Now, it was work to give those pea plants good, rich soil, and make sure they get enough water and enough sun – even cutting down some old dead trees a few years ago! – and to keep critters from eating the seedlings. But it’s not work to make the plant grow, or bear fruit. If the conditions are right, the plant just *does* that. 

Our lives are full of opportunities and invitations to be part of God’s work of healing, liberating, and reconciling. And some of those possibilities WILL land in good soil. The season is right; there’s just enough sun, just enough rain; and the seed takes root. When something is really rooted in your good soil, it uses the gifts and skills you already have – AND it calls you into getting better at what it needs from you. When something is really rooted in your good soil, you don’t have to talk yourself into doing it because your heart is already there. Maybe it feels easy, maybe it feels hard – but it draws you onward. It grows. 

Here’s an example of something I currently want to drop everything else and work on: Turning the last fourteen chapters of the Book of Genesis into a script and a virtual Vacation Bible School for August. It’s not a big or significant project by many standards. And there are moments when I reproach myself for wanting to put my time into something fun and frivolous.

But then I remind myself of the endgame, the harvest I’m trying to cultivate with projects like this: Nurturing kids- and grownups! – in this church whose consciences and imaginations are deeply formed by Scripture, and its call to be people of justice, mercy, and reconciliation. 

When something is deeply rooted in your good soil, you want to give it your time and energy and skill. It’s okay that not everything is like that. But it’s glorious that some things are. 

We all have rocky soil within us, friends – and weeds that tangle and crowd. But we have good earth too – rich soil where things can grow, where things are already growing, already bearing fruit, already turning one seed into twenty or forty or a hundred. We all have the capacity to grow something for God’s kingdom – watermelons or cherries, zucchini or chives or potatoes… After all, fruitfulness comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors, thanks be to God! 

Question: 

Is there something in your life that you want to weed around, and water, and give a little more chance to grow? …