Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28

posted May 22, 2012

Sermon at West Cummington Church
May 20, 2012

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
a single nail, a single ruby–
all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.
-Jane Hirshfield, “Late Prayer.”

“I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known. And so I created the worlds visible and invisible.” -Islamic saying (c/o Cynthia Bourgeault


Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And suddenly out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting, ‘Lord, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’23
But he said not a word in answer to her. And his disciples went and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Give her what she wants, because she keeps shouting after us.’24
He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’25
But the woman had come up and was bowing low before him. ‘Lord,’ she said, ‘help me.’26
He replied, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.’27
She retorted, ‘Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.’28
Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted.’ And from that moment her daughter was well again.
Guitar playing is a lot like textual analysis—we each have a different signature, and we each bring to the task our own peculiar point of view. When approaching the text, we see what we want to see. We see what we need to see. There are so many ways of seeing this story. Jung said in our dreams, we are all the characters. Most novelists I know would agree. So with scripture. We are the Canaanite woman asking for what she needs for her daughter, we are the disciples wanting the problem to be solved and we are Jesus, breaking through our own cultural boxes and conceptual barriers.

The more I go along my spiritual journey, the more I read about Jesus, or Krishna or the Buddha for that matter, the more I am convinced that Jesus is a portal to the Point, which is love, which is presence, which is power for the powerless. And as much as I have learned from my many years of studying Buddhism and practicing meditation, from decades of yoga and close reading of the Bhagavhad Gita, Jesus is my portal. At the end of the day, I am a Christian for four reasons.

First of all, I believe in the radical social justice Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry advocating for. Second, Jesus is a healer. I have spoken in the past about the particular healing I’ve witnessed and experienced, and for me this wholeness, this power to make one well now matters more to me than any promises of eternal life.

Third, and woven into and everything warp and weft that Jesus teaches is the concept of the Kingdom of God, which I take to mean a state of consciousness open and welcoming to all. I’ll talk about this more in a moment. But the fourth reason I love Jesus is not that he died for my sins. Patti Smith said, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Well, that’s one of the many things I don’t know about. I respectfully leave questions about eternal life on the altar, along with many other questions I have. Like Iris DeMent, I prefer to let the mystery be. But that particular calculus about original sin and redemption, Jesus as sacrificial lamb never rang true for me. I am much more interested in how Jesus directed us to live today.

I had the good fortune to be raised in a Presbyterian church where it was a matter of course for the minister to work out his doubts up in the pulpit with all of us as witnesses. Jesus’s gospel took us into the inner city where we worked side by side with members of an African American church to learn how to create more possibilities for the young people there. Eternal life versus hellfire and damnation weren’t mentioned.

No, the fourth reason I love Jesus is because I agree with King Missile. Jesus is way cool. I just love the man. Jesus is uniquely and eternally Jesus, just as Johnny is Johnny, Lila is Lila, Tom is Tom and Katryna is Katryna. He is a person and a personality, and I love him, just the way I love those intimate members of my family. I don’t expect this reason to win over any converts, but that’s not really my business. And yet, I do feel passionate these days more than ever, that it’s imperative for Christians like me to make our voices heard loudly and clearly that Jesus called us to love so hugely, so persistently that love can overcome our own prejudices. All of our prejudices.

This passage from Matthew has it all: social justice, healing, Jesus’s huge insight into the meaning of the Kingdom of God, and most of all because in this story of the Canaanite mama, we see Jesus himself change, learn and grow beyond his own prejudices. He evolves! As with Siddartha Gautama, as with our own president, we get to see Jesus’s own spiritual journey.

I was going to talk about how mad I am about the North Carolina vote, but you all are mad about that too, and for us all to be mad together is really no different than what happens in a Bible Belt church where the preacher bashes Obama and cites Leviticus and everyone agrees that abortion and homosexuality are abominations. We’ve had Steve already teach us that the book of Leviticus might be well understood as a documentary explaining animal and agricultural policy in the 5th C BCE. You all know that other references to homosexuality are from the letters of Paul, a passionate, possibly closeted homosexual who was clearly struggling with all sorts of questions about how to create a church in the 1st c.
And yet, my friend Peter Ives, the retired long-time pastor at First Churches in Northampton, a congregational church like this one, says that the world needs people who will take the ancients texts we know as the Bible and rescue them from the hands of the religious right. And as much as I want to rise above the fray and not engage in the dialectic/perpetuate an us/them mentality, I also feel that this is a fight worth having, just as the Canaanite woman thinks it’s worth it to persuade Jesus to heal her daughter.
In researching this text, The traditional Bible Belt interpretation of this passage says that Jesus was cool and noncommittal to the Canaanite mother because he was testing her faith. In this view, Jesus is omniscient, knowing exactly who and what he is, eternal; a judge, watching us to see what we will do. Will we make the right choice? Excellent! Go on and be healed then!

But I think what’s really going on is more interesting than that. I was fortunate to be in the old church one Sunday several years ago, when I got to hear Steve preach on a similar passage in Mark. In the Mark version, she is a Syro-Phoenician mama; either way, these were tribes who were enemies of the Jews in the same way Native American Indians were enemies of the American settlers of the 1800’s. In other words, oppressed people who were at best marginalized and at worst victims of genocide. And Jesus may be blind to this. As the passage begins, he sees this woman as outside the purview of his ministry. IF he sees her at all. And yet, she is willing to reach across a great divide to engage him, and after she succeeds in getting his attention by saying, Yes, you might see me as a dog, but make a place for dogs in your Kingdom of God. Jesus hears this. He grants her request. In the Marcan gospel, he goes further, saying “For that retort, be on your way, the demon has come out of your daughter.” She returned home and found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.” (Mk. 7:25-30).

So Jesus is changed, by a radical act of listening and engaging, and doing his own share of reaching across a great cultural divide of class, race, gender and religion. This was way out there for a first century rabbi.

I get that I have to reach across a great divide too, that somehow I have to communicate with people I basically have no dealings with—the religious right. And it’s sad that I have no dealings with them. Like the Jews and the Canaanites, we share a land. We even theoretically share a faith, though at times it’s hard for me to recognize my Jesus in their idea of Christ. If you put a Bible between us, we’d rip it apart; me taking the synoptic gospels, the psalms and the prophets, while they take John, Revelations and the letters of Paul. I’d point out that there are 7 dubious mentions of homosexuality in the Bible while the directive to take care of the poor is mentioned over 300 times. If you removed all the times the Bible mentioned the poor the book would fall apart.

But back to the Canaanite woman. She reminds me of Akhilandeshvari. Akhilandeshvari is a Hindu goddess whose long name means, in typical Sanskrit fashion, “Never Not Broken.” She is the goddess we find when we are in a heap on the floor after a breakup, after a bad diagnosis, after bad news about our child. She comes to us in that place where everything we once knew is lost and we somehow have to scramble to make sense of it all. In some traditions, she rides a crocodile; in others she actually is a crocodile, carrying her children in what my yoga teacher Sara Rose calls the “safest and most dangerous place—her mouth.” And like a crocodile, who destroys its prey not by biting but by whirling it around in the water until it passes out from disorientation, she wants us confused. She wants us so confused that we surrender our tightly held beliefs and have the willingness to try something else. Ironically, the teaching is that in this broken state, we are the most powerful that we’ll ever be. Why? For the same reason Jesus tells us that the rich man will have so much trouble entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Or to quote Bob Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” It is when we are at our most powerless that we have to rely on the power of God. Either that, or shake our fist at God, which might be the same thing. (That’s how my 3 year old functions, at any rate.)

I see Akhilandeshvari in the Canaanite mama, at her wits’ end with worry about her little daughter, chasing after this Nazarene, this amazing faith healer and just throwing her ALL into her request. And when Jesus basically likens her to a dog, she retorts right back, Yes I am a dog. And dogs need to be fed too. This is an amazing combination of self-esteem, assertiveness and humility.

I think in this moment, Jesus really gets that his call is to everyone, even the people he had regarded as outsiders or even enemies. Because after this passage, in the Marcan gospel, the very next story is the one about Jesus healing a deaf and dumb person, by spitting on his tongue. Then Jesus sighs, looks up to heaven and says, “ephphatha,” which means, “be opened.” And is he talking to himself here? Hasn’t he been opened by the Canaanite woman? Hasn’t he been whirled around like Akhilandeshvari? And don’t I need to be whirled around and opened up in order to hear you? Don’t I need to be opened in order to speak to you? Don’t I need to be open to love you, all of you? It’s no hardship to love my gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual brothers and sisters. They are my friends, neighbors, employers, fans, family. They are me. I love them as myself, easily, fluidly, with no translation necessary. But how about Rush Limbaugh? How about Cardinal Dolan? How about the voters in North Carolina?

I know that what Jesus keeps pointing me towards is love and forgiveness. Forgive your brother 70 times 7. “You will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love…This is my commandment… that you love one another as I have loved you…” (John 15:10, 12). And it is true, in the same way that any law of nature or physics is true: when we love, we are dwelling in the kingdom of heaven, which as I said before I believe Jesus understands to be a state of mind, and not a physical destination or utopia. In the Kingdom of heaven, there is no distinction between God and human, no distinction between human and human. We experience that state every spiritual tradition talks about: Unity. Oneness. Non-dual consciousness. (“The Kingdom of God is within,” Luke 17:21).

I know that when I drop the fight—really truly drop it and let it go and am glad to see it go–I am at peace. Or to borrow from a teaching of my husband Tom: when I can look deeply into your eyes and know, really know, that you are completely fine and well just as you are, I am automatically going to approach you, be with you, communicate with you differently—and better—than if I look at you to see how I can fix what’s wrong, going over you with a fine tooth comb for nits (I know about nits this week.)

But what about the fighting? What about advocating for change? Doesn’t there sometimes need to be struggle—a duel/dual– in order to get to that place of peace? Is there peace without strife? Can one see white against a white background? That is what I want to get back to. Is there such a thing as holy anger? Does it rattle in my heart like the ruby and the nail and make the same sound? I think the better question is: Do I, like the Canaanite woman, persist (with love) to my enemies? What do I do when I have a friend with whom I respectfully disagree? Usually, I smile and nod and let her go on her way. Who am I to annoy her with my different opinion? The Buddha says, “Opinions just go around bothering other people.” But Jesus overturned the money tables. He came to overturn the societal apple cart for sure. He spoke truth to power, over and over again. And yet he went without a fight to the cross. Do I lean too heavily on my passivity when I live and let live? i am so glad that when the church burned down, we didn’t passively shrug and go, “Oh well, we still have the parish house.” And I have to admit, that’s where I was on January 17 2010. This is good enough for me.

It’s not static. None of this is. With God, we don’t get to nail anything to the floor. It’s always a whole new ballgame. Again, this is why I am drawn to Jesus, my human brother who learns from human beings, who witnesses the Canaanite mama model this amazing balancing act of self-esteem and humility. Yes, there’s anger. Yes, there’s struggle. And over and over again, we get shaken by the struggle, rattled to our core, whirled around in the water, twirled around like a dervish. And if we are lucky, if we are open, if we are brave enough to shake our fists at God and demand God’s attention, it breaks open. We break open. Our hearts break and the love comes pouring out, connecting us to each other. The visible world crumbles like the illusion it always was and something shiny catches our inner eye. We see ourselves in the other. We see the other as ourselves. Not “as much as” ourselves, but AS ourselves. Today, to me, that’s worth it all. That’s the God I worship and follow.

The Comments

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  1. Love this. I noticed two typos that added to the beauty for me: “alter” (for “altar”) was the first. An altar – for me, coming from a Wiccan perspective – is a place to focus and direct intentions to create change. A place to alter reality. So that was sweet. The second was “dual” (for “duel”). And that was equally perfect: in a duel, we have separated from one another, we have forgotten our essential unity…

    I always enjoy your writing; very inspirational.

  2. Thanks, Sarah; I didn’t do that on purpose! I corrected alter/altar but just amended dual/duel. Very cool. And thanks for teaching me about how an altar is used in Wicca.
    Love, Nerissa

  3. Beautiful sermon, Nerissa! I am currently reading “The Underground Church,” by Robin Myers, which I recommend if you are not already familiar with the book. It has been books like that (and sermons like yours) that have helped me find my faith again after a long dry spell in my teens and twenties. Ever think about writing a book on this topic for a young adult audience? I’m guessing there are a lot of teens out there who could benifit from knowing there is a more compassionate and sophisticated version of Christianity than that portrayed in the media. Just an idea.

    Thanks for your recent posts on faith…and for the new album. I am a huge fan of both! : )

  4. Beautiful sermon, Nerissa! I am currently reading “The Underground Church,” by Robin Myers, which I recommend if you are not already familiar with the book. It has been books like that (and sermons like yours) that have helped me find my faith again after a long dry spell in my teens and twenties. Ever think about writing a book on this topic for a young adult audience? I’m guessing there are a lot of teens out there who could benifit from knowing there is a more compassionate and sophisticated version of Christianity than that portrayed in the media. Just an idea.

    Thanks for your recent posts on faith…and for the new album. I am a huge fan of both! : )

  5. Thank you! Wow! That’s actually a great idea. I am working on a YA novel now, and there is an element of a teen finding relief from a more compassionate, as you say, Christianity. Also, i just heard about “The Underground Church,” via Anne Lamott. I must read it!

  6. I am so glad you posted this. I would have loved to actually see and hear it being presented. (I bet it would provide the foundation for a great song!)

    I was particularly struck by the concept of each of us being the characters in our own dreams, or of the characters in the biblical passage. Indeed, we are at war with ourselves. The self-righteous right-winger is in each of us, though we’d be hard pressed to admit it. Dogma is dogma from whatever perspective (including the center.)

    To be truly open and listening, I have to recognize, even cherish, that I might be wrong, even about the most important things. Especially about the most important things. That kind of humility is deeply woven into my reform Jewish tradition. It allows me to joke that whenever you have two Jews together, you have three opinions.

    It’s that honest, open search for truth that allows us to break down barriers and find meaning. Whether it’s done with other persons or between multiple parts of oneself, it will lead to growth. It’s painful, it’s messy, and it’s slow, but how delightful it is when warring parties are able to reconcile.

    May your words resound throughout the land.

  7. Hi, your blog really touches me, have been reading it for awhile… Just wanted you to know about a website i started… It’s a place for Bible study guides.. I also put a forum in that can be viewed from a mobile device.. I couldn’t find where to contact you privately so I’m commenting, hope that is okay. 🙂 God Bless!

  8. Thank you for this inspirational post, Nerissa. It reminds me of the things I knew in my heart were WRONG in my southern baptist upbringing. I never understood how you were ever supposed to reach someone with testimony when you essentially are taught that those that aren’t like you are unworthy of even wasting your time trying. You made me think. Today about where I am in my own journey, and what are my own reasons for loving Jesus. You always teach me something, my friend. I am continually blessed by you.

  9. Dear Jeff,
    I love what you wrote: “To be truly open and listening, I have to recognize, even cherish, that I might be wrong, even about the most important things. Especially about the most important things.” Yes. I think that space, the cherishing our not-knowing, is where God resides. That is true humility–seeing ourselves as we really are, not better than we are, and not worse than we are. Very hard to stay in that place of grace, at least for me.
    Love, Nerissa

  10. Hey, Nerissa.

    I love this whole sermon, from beginning to end. I especially like the way you compared the Canaanite woman to the the Hindu goddess Akhilandheshavri (close enough on a busy day)…. I love that idea of “Never Not Broken” confusing us, unsettling us, helping us to see in new ways. And I see a link not just to the Canaanite woman, but to the Jesus who goes to the cross–and who is willing to learn from this woman what it means to really be open.

    If you want some more fun, take a look at Mark 8:22-26, and how the blind man is healed in stages. Just like Jesus, just like the disciples, the blind man learns to see gradually.

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