This is the sermon I preached this morning. You're welcome, Ben. :)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This summer, I’m interning as a chaplain at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. It’s part of our seminary program to learn about hospital ministry and all it entails. It’s been quite an experience! I only have a week left, so it’s closing in quickly, but, man, have I learned a lot about ministry. I’ve learned a lot about hospitals, too. If you’ve ever worked in a hospital or been a long-term hospital patient, you know that there is never a dull moment when you want one, and long, slow days and nights when you don’t. It’s quite a world.
For most patients, conversations with me are entertainment, distraction, comfort, or even bothersome. But the St. Joseph Hospital system, of which Mission is a part, is committed to the care of the whole person – a multi-disciplinary team addresses the mind, body, and soul of every patient. We guarantee that every patient will be visited by someone from our office, no matter the duration of their stay. Being in a hospital 30 hours/week, you learn a lot about people. You learn a lot about the triumph of the human will, and occasionally about the defeat. Throughout the process, though, you learn that all that goes on here is healing. Sometimes, the patient does not heal and the healing must instead be for their family, slowly but surely. Sometimes, healing takes much longer than anyone had hoped. Other times, people are in and out at lightning speeds. Every situation is different. But the underlying theme is healing.
In this Gospel text, Jesus heals that child of this woman who begs him. This Canaanite woman has faith that Jesus can heal her child, and the Gospel tells us that he does. But, at first, he doesn’t. He responds to her Canaanite social location as though she is unworthy of even asking for his help. She takes a stand and insists that she is worthy.
I was talking to one of the patients I’ve been seeing regularly about this week’s Gospel. Jessica is expecting twins in October, and has been on bed-rest since mid-July. She has a lot of time to talk to me. She said that she loved the idea that it was not Jesus or the disciples who first said that Jesus’ message was for Jews and Gentiles alike. In fact, Jesus recognizes himself as the Messiah for Israel, and no one else. This Canaanite woman saw what Jesus was about and wanted in on it. Jessica appreciates this human moment for Jesus. This moment where he doesn’t automatically know what to do. Jesus and this woman have this terse exchange where he denies her daughter healing; the disciples wonder aloud why no one has sent her away. But she knows that Jesus can give her what she needs – and she will not let him get away. This is quite unlike Jessica’s usual image of Jesus. Usually, he’s helping those who do not recognize him for who he is.
What’s also odd about this Gospel text is that the first half is Jesus rebuking the Pharisees’ obsession with ritual cleanliness. He says that is what comes out of our mouths – the words we say – that provides for cleanliness, rather than the food we put into our mouths. And yet, he responds to the social location of the Canaanite woman, rather than to her humanity. She refuses to accept that she is unworthy of even the scraps from the master’s table. Jesus realizes that she, too, is one whom he has been sent to serve. It is not her social location, in the end, that dictates her daughter’s fate, but her faith. Jesus responds to her deep faith, even though it was in an unexpected situation.
The texts today are really all about the consequences of a prophetic voice. For Joseph, Isaiah, Jesus, this Canaanite woman, and for us, now, it is not easy but certainly necessary to say that which is not being said by other leaders, especially those who consider themselves moral leaders. Sometimes ours will be the only voice of opposition. I’m sure by now you are sick and tired of hearing about our nation’s budget negotiations and debt crisis. Every news outlet has offered every “expert opinion” on the face of the earth to explain how we can get out of this mess. Among those voices has been the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson. In June, Bishop Hanson, accompanied by other bishops of various US churches spoke out against the budget proposals they saw as immoral.
Bishop Hanson said in a meeting with President Obama and other faith leaders, "Mr. President, isn't it good that God does not join in our drawing lines in the sand, but instead draws circles of protection beginning first with those who are most vulnerable. … Jesus kept standing with those whom individuals with political and religious power wanted to exclude and judged unworthy. We are pledging to stand with those whom God embraces in God’s circle of protection. In the difficult budget decisions to be made, let our shared commitment be to those who are hungry and those who live in poverty."
It is our responsibility as Lutheran Christians to fight for the rights and protection of the least and the lost. These leaders, of both parties, who campaign on American and Christian values, are doing a poor job of showing it. Those whom Jesus implores us to serve are the ones losing in these budget negotiations. Healthcare for the elderly and for children; pre-schools; women’s health; social services – all of these are in danger of disappearing entirely from the budgets proposed by our congressional representatives. This is unacceptable, as our Bishop has said publicly, knowing that it would not be a popular sentiment. It is this kind of prophetic voice that we are called to have.
It’s almost laughable that this Sunday worked with both Pastor Laura’s and my schedule, and happened to throw some of the best political scripture my way. I’m inclined to get political with my religion on a regular basis – you may have seen the bumper stickers on my car. At Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, where I go to school, we have a group on campus called Lutherans in the Public Sphere, or LIPS. We are committed to making sure that that which comes out of our mouths is ritually clean. We find causes to encourage our classmates and community to support, through local causes like the growing homeless population in Berkeley, or organizations like Students United for Worker Justice, and we discuss appropriate Lutheran responses to current events like the Arab Spring. Here at Bethlehem, you’re in luck – Bethlehem Serves is just around the corner. Take that opportunity to love and serve the Lord by loving and serving the outsider among us.
Our world and our nation are struggling. We have a greater disparity between rich and poor than ever before. On one hand, we have Dr. King’s dream. On the other, we have Barack Obama’s reality. The poor, hungry, sick, unemployed, young, old – they need their social location recognized and overcome now more than ever. It is these huddles masses that yearn to breathe free. It is our responsibility to offer relief to those who need it – not those who can afford it; not those who have easy access to it. And, sure, it took even Jesus two tries to practice what he preaches. We’ve had our first chance, at least – and it’s not working. So here goes our second chance.