“Bigotry and Racism is Overcome” – August 20, 2017

“Bigotry and Racism is Overcome”

August 20, 2017 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A

 

“I am woman, hear me roar

In numbers too big to ignore

And I know too much

To go back and pretend

‘Cause I’ve been down there

On the floor

And no-one’s ever gonna

Keep me down again.”  Sings Helen Reddy in 1972

 

That anthem for the women’s movement holds a power and truth for women throughout the ages.  All we have to do is really hear the scripture text of today to hear a woman roar some 2000 years ago.

The Canaanite woman certainly knew how to stand up for herself.  Some might even say she was persistent and tenacious.   With all that said, we can’t help but be astounded at her faith.  She is incredibly clear that Jesus is the One who can cure her demented daughter, a child likely living with epilepsy.  And wow, is Jesus ever impressed by her faith when he says to her “Women, great is your faith!”

In todays world, the Canaanite woman might well be one of our displaced Aboriginal women who dearly loves their child but have found it difficult to find a job, adequate housing, sufficient food, and proper schooling for her precious child.  The woman was called all sorts of names, including ones I can’t use in church, or anywhere else, for that matter.  Yet, in spite of all the deprecating understanding of this uppity Canaanite woman, there is no doubt that she is gutsy.  She is told that she is not worthy of food –  food that children throw to the dogs.  And even more outrageous, dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their owners table.  But there is no food for this hungry Mother.  This marginalized woman only wanted scraps.  And she wanted her daughter to be released from her horrible agony.

Todays Gospel story describes the only recorded occasion on which Jesus was outside of Jewish territory.   Some commentators suggest that Jesus was taking a break – a holiday, so to speak.  Perhaps that explains his reluctance to respond to the needs of the Canaanite woman when she initially requests help.  Jesus just wants to chill out.  If that is the case, what makes this account so startling is that Jesus was initially hesitant to respond to this Gentile woman’s need.  A Gentile is an outcast – a foreigner – a person not to be associated with.  Yet, when Jesus does respond to the woman and her child, he breaks down the barriers of bigotry, sexism and racism.

I decided on the sermon title “Bigotry and Racism is Overcome” back in June.  Little could I have imagined the horror that has occurred in Charlottesville Virginia.  The extreme racial tension and violence that has been sparked by allegedly 1000 neo-Nazis, skin heads and Ku Klux Klan members, which has widened the racial and ideological divide.  This college town finds itself in the midst of “take America back” chants, “anti-immigration” placards, and white Nationalists parading down their streets.  All this is happening while Gerry Neilsen and I were at a birthday party for one of our Syrian refugee families.  Shaad had turned 5 and Gerry and I and approximately 12 other members of the refugee committee were helping her celebrate her big day.  We were living out that racism has no place in Penticton.

2000 years ago a brave yet desperate woman,  persistently nagged  Jesus, until he came to the aid of her daughter.  45 years ago Helen Reddy sang about the strength of women, born out of pain.  35 years ago The Right Rev. Dr. Lois Wilson has this to say about the Canaanite woman and all of us:

“This is a story about a woman who refused to “know her place.”

She was poor, a foreigner, and a Gentile.  In the eyes of many she had no legitimate claim on God’s grace.  Yet she demonstrated self confidence, dignity, and self-assurance in her encounter with Jesus.  She is insistent, demanding, and unafraid.

The nub of the controversy was whether an inclusive table sharing of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians was justified in the new Jesus movement.  How ‘open’ should the Christian community be?  How open should it be to women like this Canaanite?

This remains an issue for the contemporary church.  What restrictions, laws, customs do we ‘lay on’ those who come seeking God’s grace?  Is ‘a mighty fortress is our church’ ever justified?  The major theologian and spokesperson for inclusive table sharing was a woman, and a foreigner at that!”  says The Rev. Dr. Lois Wilson, in a speech during the time she was Moderator of The United Church of Canada.

What does this story say to us in 2017? Does it have relevance today?  I believe that the learning for us is that of standing up for what is just and necessary.  I am not proposing the Charlottesville kind of speaking out, but instead working toward what is fair and life giving.  I am referring to wisdom and conviction that comes from deep prayer and profound faith in Christ’s life-giving way.  We need people who will write to companies that destroy our environment and urge them to reform.  We are called to be persistent truth-tellers who confront the people who degrade, abuse, and hurt.  This is done when, with love and kindness, we call inappropriate behaviours.   We need people who are tenacious and purpose driven.  But that tenacity must be tempered with mercy and compassion.  That is what Jesus learned from the uppity woman from Tyre and Sidon.

Let’s hear the words that Helen Reddy made famous in 1972 and see if they have something to say to us today.

I Am Woman

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
(Strong)
I am invincible
(Invincible)
I am woman

You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul

“What a Lifeguard” – August 13, 2017

“What a Lifeguard”

August 13, 2017 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A

 

The sea is rough – the wind is howling – the waves are breaking over the side of the boat – it is early morning and it is difficult to see clearly – someone is coming towards the boat – it looks like the person is walking on top of the water – just a few words were spoken and those in the boat recognized it was Jesus.  Oh My God!

Peter is a leery sort and directs Jesus to prove his identity by guiding Peter to come –  and also walk on the water.  All was going well until Peter lost his focus and fear overtook him.  The wind and waves frightened poor Peter and fear replaced faith.  “Save me,” he screamed.  And like all good lifeguards, Jesus reached out his arm and pulled Peter to the boat.  But a word of reprimand came with the rescue.  “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  With no answer recorded, it took a miracle to truly reveal the glorious nature of Christ.  The wind ceased and the disciples in the boat recognized Jesus as the Chosen of God.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “even if you have never tried to walk on water, you know how Peter felt.  Maybe you were crossing a stream on a fallen log, inching your way across its rough, rounded surface, doing fine until you looked down – or maybe you were learning to ride a bicycle, and had gained enough speed so that suddenly you stopped wobbling and started flying – when just as suddenly you lost your confidence, dropped one foot to the ground and brought the whole experiment crashing down on top of you.  Or maybe you were addressing a crowd, standing up in front of them to say something you believed in, and at first the words just flowed from your mouth, exactly the words you needed at exactly the moment you needed them, and then you looked at all those faces looking back at you, and you lost your nerve, and your brain turned to mush, and you sat down as quickly as you could, your cheeks burning, your ears humming – ‘Lord, save me,‘ Peter cries out, and Jesus does, reaching out his hand and catching him, hauling him out of the cold water like a big, frightened fish.”

The well-known poem, “Footprints,” (which we have printed on the back of our bulletin) describes the experience of not being aware of God’s presence until after the fact.  Isn’t this the way it usually is?  Only in retrospect are we able to discern God’s “fingerprints.”  And then, sometimes, we are never able to see them, or, if so, only faintly.  Certainly, that has been my experience.  I think of one church I served that was in the midst of extreme conflict when I arrived.  Unable to deal with the issues in a straightforward, direct manner, many in the congregation started to criticize and undermine me.  It was an awful few years.  And, for much of it, it was hard to discern God’s footprints or fingerprints.  However, as I look back on that time, I recognize the many ways that God reached out to me and gave me solace and direction.  I truly was pulled to safety and cradled in arms of love.  I learned much from the years I served that congregation.

There is a story about a man who asked a Mississippi river-boat pilot how long he had been at his trade.  The captain replied “26 years.”  “Then,” said the man, “I guess you know where all the rocks are, all the shoals and sandbars.”  “No,” said the pilot, “I just know where they ain’t.”

After Jesus reached out his hand to Peter to help him back up, they both climbed into the boat.  That reminded me of the story of the little rural church that was breaking ground for a new building.  Instead of using the traditional spade to turn over the first bit of sod, the minister arranged to get an old- fashioned plow with a rope and said, “Now I am going to break the ground.”  Of course, he couldn’t move it.  So, he said, “I’m going to get the chair of Council to help me.”  The two of them together couldn’t budge it.  So, he asked the whole church council to join in.  Still they couldn’t move it.  And on and on, until the whole congregation got hold of the rope.  Finally, they were able to move the plow.

To switch back to the first metaphor, everybody has to be in the boat together, along with God, in order to get the job done.  That is the way it is with miracles.  God seeks us – but until we quit fighting against, until we stop thinking we can do it alone, until we place our trust in that power that is far greater than ourselves – we are going to keep being stuck.  Or as Peter found out, we will sink.

Whether the miracle story happened as it is recorded, really doesn’t matter.  There are many lessons for us to learn.  The first is that our God is like a well trained and diligent lifeguard.  When we put our very being into God’s care and trust, then God reaches out to prevent us from drowning in fear.  There is a peace that surrounds us as if we are in a bubble.

The second lesson of the miracle story has to do with faith.  Jesus often spoke in parables to explain faith.  Using mustard seeds and rocks and light under a bushel basket, Jesus points out that even the tiniest amount of faith is all that is needed to be a follower of the way.  This time, it took a miracle to show the disciples what faith is all about.

There’s a story about an acrobat who used to travel with a small circus to the villages and towns throughout the countryside.  This guy walked the high wire, and so he would ask, “Do you think I can walk across the wire with a ball on my head?”  Everybody says, “Yes, yes” and he does it.  “Do you think I can push a wheelbarrow across the high wire?”  “Yes, yes!”  The cheering is growing louder and louder.  So, he says, “Okay, who’s going to get in the wheelbarrow.”  Now, that is faith.

Perhaps you are wondering what all this has to do with you and me, and all the many people who are facing the storms of life.  Perhaps you are living with cancer or heart disease.  Possibly your family is in crisis.  It might be that financial worries are keeping you up at night.  Perhaps a past trauma is like an anchor around your neck.  You might be anxious about more advanced housing needs.  Maybe you are living with a mental illness, or poverty, or a history of abuse, or neglect, or …..- and the list goes on.  I assure you that the compassionate hand of God is reaching out to all of us, inviting us to hang on – tight.  Keep your eyes focused on that which gives you comfort, whether it be the cross, the lakes and hillsides of Penticton, your favourite item of clothing, or whatever else that is the sign of God.  Pray diligently.  Hold on tight.  Talk to your spiritual Director.  Go for a walk with Jesus – on the water.

Let’s draw this message to a close with one more story:

The search committee was interviewing a new minister.  “What are we going to do?”  asked George.  “It’s a woman!”

“Let’s take her fishing,” said Pete.  “We can figure out if she’s any good.”

Out fishing, Pete cast his line and immediately snagged on a log.  The female minister got up, walked across the water and unsnagged the line.

“Just like a woman,” muttered Pete. “Can’t swim.”

 

 

 

 

 

“5 + 2 = more than 5000” – August 6, 2017

“5 + 2 = more than 5000”

August 6, 2017 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A

Glory be!  There is Jesus and his special tribe – his disciples.  I’d give anything to hear one of Jesus’ parables.  I hear some of his stories are pretty incredible.  I wonder what is going on. I’m going to tag along with the group.  There are getting to be quite a crowd.

Unbenounced to me, Jesus was grieving the death of this cousin John the Baptist.  John had been executed by Herod.  Seeking solitude and grieving time, Jesus heads to the lake.  Jesus wants some alone time where he can find refreshment and solace, so off in a boat he goes.  But as he nears the shore Jesus realizes a large crowd has gathered.  Talk about complex feelings.  He wants to be by himself to grieve, but Jesus is filled with compassion for the crowd.  So, to the shore he goes.  Healing many, Jesus knows he made the right decision.  But the disciples get antsy.  It is getting late and the people should be sent away to find food.    Just imagine what they are thinking when Jesus suggests that the disciples provide it.  What can they do with 5 measly loaves and 2 fish!   However, as you and I so well know, with Jesus, amazing things are possible.  So, they give what they have and it is transformed through Christ’s blessing.  The crowd was feed and 12 baskets were left over.

Why 12 baskets you wonder?  If you have attended church for some time, or if you have read the Hebrew Scripture, more commonly called The Old Testament, you would be aware that there are 12 tribes of Israel.  We also think back to the stories of manna in the wilderness and the miracle feedings of Elija and Elisha.

If you were paying attention when the Gospel story was read, you would have noticed the text states that there were 5000 men fed, not counting the women and children. We might more accurately call this miracle story the feeding of the 20,000.

This story – an amazing parable – a dramatic tale – is all about God’s incredible love. There is enough for all – enough nourishment, enough hope, enough love.  Love multiplies when it is shared.  It reminds me of the old camp song, “Magic Penny.”

 Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

It’s just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor.

Willa Cather suggests that “Where there is great love there are always miracles.”  Today’s story is a clear example of this truth.  It describes Jesus’ compassion with such clarity.  The most basic need, food for hungry stomachs, was accommodated.  While I was at seminary we learned much about Liberation Theology, with its preferential option for the poor.  That was not simply a vogue and timely topic, but rather a lens by which we can understand Jesus’ ministry priorities.   Be compassionate is what Jesus models for us.

We have modern day feeding of the 5,000 when the Canadian Food Grains Bank provides one tonne of food, and the Canadian government (through CIDA) adds 4 more.  Sadly, it’s not enough, especially when it’s so hard to get to where it’s needed. But, it is a good attempt.

 When I served a church in Stayner Ontario, one of our farmers each year, planted one quarter in wheat designated for the Food Grains Bank.  When harvest time came, area farmers brought their combines and trucks to the field and in an afternoon the field was harvested, the seed taken to the elevator and a community wide BBQ was held.  It was a great time of celebration, knowing that the hungry of the world would be fed 4 times more than that field produced.  The Canadian government quadrupled the worth of the crop.

Go and do.  That is the message we see lived out by the disciples.  Rather than standing back fretting over the lack of food, they gave what they had to Jesus and he bless it.  Then the disciples dispersed it among the crowd.  The call to go and do is expressed in concrete acts of love, justice and compassion towards others.  There is a common Texas saying – “Long as I got a biscuit, you got half.”  Is there a better goal than this for a global food distribution policy? 

A woman from an American congregation leads medical missions several times a year.  She constantly asks drug companies for samples to take along.  Before her last trip to Vietnam, she asked a vitamin company for some samples.  One day, a UPS man came to her in the clinic and said, “I’ve got a ton of drugs for you.  Where shall I put them?”

“Just put them on my desk.”

“No, lady, I have a ton of drugs for you.”

She is still giving away vitamins to shelters for the homeless and sharing with other doctors going on mission trips.  She doesn’t expect to be able to give them all away until some-time next year?

We as a community of faith have been trying to live out the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.  We donate to the Mission and Service fund of the United Church of Canada. Last year over $20,000 was donated by Penticton United Church for projects like First United Church in Vancouver’s eastside, funding 7 Canadian theological colleges, youth programs through the Vision fund, chaplains at University of Victoria, Right Relations initiatives with indigenous people, and supporting global peace and justice programs.  We join with other United Churches in raising over $25 million each year for the Mission and Service fund.  

God loves us deeply and passionately.  Out of that love we experience the compassion, generosity, and grace that Jesus Christ modelled.  While we bathe in such infinite mercy, the Holy One promises us “life in fullness.”  Experiencing God’s call, we accept the invitation to be disciples.  May you be fed for the challenge.  Amen.

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