"Let's Get Scandalous, or, 'Take Up Your Cardboard Sign and Follow Me'"
Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
14 August 2011
Texts: Isaiah 56.1, 6-8
Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32
"Dear God, I'm trying hard to reach you
Dear God, I see your face in all I do
But sometimes, it's so hard to believe in you...
Why is the world ugly when you made it in your image?
And why is livin' life such a fight to the finish..."
-"Dear God 2.0" - The Roots feat. Monsters of Folk
-My old undergrad thesis advisor was fond of saying that “if people knew what was actually in the Bible, wild horses couldn’t keep them from reading it.” Parts of Scripture read more like a South Park script than sacred holy writ. Yet, as much as we Americans love a good scandal, nothing’s prepared us for where Matthew takes us in this week’s Gospel.
-Pick your poison: you’ve got the Jewish Jesus traveling in unclean Gentile territory. You’ve got the male Jesus talking to a woman. You’ve got the powerful Jesus denying deliverance to a demon-possessed daughter. And then, of course, there’s the matter of that racial slur, of the Son of God calling the pleading mother the modern day equivalent of “Charlie,” or “Towel-Head,” or "Spick." Pick your poison – it’s that really that offensive.
-Confronted with such a challenge, it is tempting to do what we are so used to doing in the face of scandal: paper it over. This week, I’ve read countless creative attempts to square the circle of this scandalous text. My favorite one proposes that, faced with the Canaanite woman, it is Jesus who learns the valuable lesson. As one prominent emergent leader puts it, “Jesus is converted and healed of his racism by the woman he calls Bitch.” While it may be a tough pill to swallow to believe Jesus, as human, can learn something new, its worth it for the comfort of know that Jesus is learning not be a racist - just like a seminary student at Iliff or a regular church-goer in a progressive emergent church! Learning to let go of prejudice. To embrace those on the margins. A Jesus just like us enlightened urban postmoderns! Hooray! Scandal removed. Next text please.
-Problem is, this version of the story just doesn’t get the facts straight. See, the people of Tyre and Sidon were not poor little puppies and ragamuffins, but wealthy sea-traders, merchants, and war profiteers off the Roman occupation of Palestine. Sort of the Halliburton of the Ancient Near East. They also had a documented history of murdering Jews en masse. So like other Gentiles in Matthew who approach Jesus for help, this woman is not as marginal as we’d like to think. For her to address a Jew, it’s a step down, not a step up.
-It's less like the comforting, sentimental image of the homeless guy with a cardboard sign begging the rich, white male executive in his Benz for spare change. More like the exec pulling his Benz over at the entrance ramp to I-25 in a rough neighborhood to ask a woman with a cardboard sign, “um, so, do you have some change I can borrow for gas? I’m empty.” And her response? “Sorry, rich man, you’re screwed.”
-See, I think that’s the scandal, the true outrage, the utterly terrifying part about this story. That sometimes, even in the face of our deepest, most desperate need, Jesus, can and sometimes does say, “no.” Jesus’ God does not look on our privileged status as Americans. Doesn’t look upon the riches of our theological imagination or our bank accounts. She does not look at how biblical or orthodox, or how radical or progressive our community is. There is absolutely nothing human beings have to offer to impress or manipulate this God. Like the woman, we are the privileged reduced to beggars. At the mercy of a God who can look us straight in the eye when we come to Him as beggars, and can say, “sorry. Not this time.”
-This “No” would be less terrifying if it didn’t come so damn often. And we’re not talking in response to the deluded prayers of frat boys hoping to pick up a date, or the whispered pleas that the policeman walking up to our window will overlook his radar gun in favor of my spotless record. We’re talking God’s NO to real prayers. Desperate prayers – prayers that dad will make it through this recent bout of health problems. Prayers that the dark clouds of depression and despair will lift. That employment will finally find us. That our marriage or family or job will not fall apart. That children will no longer go hungry, that the world will be healed of its demonic possession by the powers and principalities of sin, injustice, violence and death.
-There are few things more scandalous, more disturbing, more offensive to us than the apparent refusal of God to hear the agonized cries of a world resounding with the echo of God’s refusals. And so, rather than confront this pain, we find a tamer God we can live with. The progressive God, who asks us to fix the world’s problems for Her. Or the distant, watch-maker Deity, whose absent silence is just part of the design. Or, we simply stop seeking this God at all, and we walk away, refusing to carry on the conversation any longer. We settle for the silence we’ve come to expect.
-But the Gospel of this Canaanite Woman is that she doesn’t take God’s “no” for an answer. She refuses God’s refusal. For this woman knows that this is “the Son of David.” That when she begs for scraps, it is from the “Lord’s table.” That this God is the God spoken of by the Jews, Jews like Isaiah, who promised that along with the Outcasts of Israel, so too would people of all nations come to worship at the mountain of the Lord. Its as if this woman says, “wait a minute, are you the God the Jews told us about, or not? If you are who you say you are, Jesus, then you’d better not refuse me. Keep your promises!”
-In this response, filled not only with Gospel truth, good theology, and right worship, but also with impetuousness, defiance and even a little sarcasm, this Canaanite woman acts as the Jewiest of Jews. She is like Abraham, bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. Like Moses talking God down to repentance when he is ready to obliterate the obstinate Israelites in Exodus. Like Jonah, shaking his fist over forgiven Ninevah, declaring, “Bollucks! I just knew you were a merciful God!” Like Jesus, on the cross, crying out with the Psalmist’s words, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This mortal enemy of the Jewish people has learned from the outcasts, the descendents of immigrants and slaves, that the God of the Universe is not a vending machine giving out “Yeses” when fed the correct theological or ritual change. She has learned that this is a Living God, a God unlike any other in the world. That this God may say “no.” But that this No is also not the end of the conversation. It is rather its beginning.
-This woman teaches, not Jesus, but us, that relationship with God is a no-holds barred affair. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel until he gets his blessing, and so being named “Israel,” we who have been included by Christ’s cross into this conversation are invited to get in God’s face. To challenge this God when God seems to have foreclosed on God’s promises. As children of this God and of Her promises, as theologians of the cross and not of glory, we are called like the Canaanite woman to abandon our privileged entitlement and come before the God of beggars and bums with boldness, impetuousness, and even a bit of sass. We are called to rage against this God when He refuses. We are called to dance naked like David before Her when we experience the Yes of Her love. For this God desires mercy, not sacrifice; conversation, not cold calculations; relationship, not rationalizations. This God is not afraid of conflict, or of scandal, or of offensiveness. And as this God’s children, we shouldn’t be either. What is scandalous to the proper is the salvation of the desperate.
-Many of us are here at House because we’ve been made homeless by the wounds inflicted by churches who have settled prematurely for what they thought was God’s No. Our challenge is not to find “a church that speaks to us,” but rather, to become a church that truly “speaks with God.” Because with God, no should not always mean no. God’s Yes is far too brilliant. And the Church is the people willing to hold God accountable to the goodness we know She is capable of. Because we know God can tell a better story than this. And we can demand that He lives up to it.
-We’ve all been approached by homeless persons telling the same old sob story, seeking to manipulate our emotions with lies when all they really want is a couple of coins for beer. Its hard to feel good about giving in this situation. How surprising, then, when we see a cardboard sign that appeals to the best in us – not by BS’ing us, but by making us laugh! By telling us, not “Need money for food,” but “wife attacked by ninjas – need funds for karate lessons!” or “why lie? Need a cold beer!” Even in scandal, there is also room for playfulness, affection, and joy. May we be these kinds of beggars as we set down our privilege, pick up our cardboard, and follow Jesus. Life is too short, the world too needy, our God too great, not to be desperately scandalous before Her. Let us settle for nothing less.
(Signs were made by HFASS community members during Open Space following the sermon)