I find myself looking back now on other times when I have grappled with the very difficult words before us now. You are welcome to do the same. I imagine you will also discover that in many ways my struggle with Jesus in this story has not changed:
- For it is so that I do not know how to understand Jesus doing all he can to ignore the piercing, insistent voice of the Canaanite woman who comes to him, pleading for the health, the wholeness, the life of her child.
- And I certainly do not know what to do with his words once he does finally respond, cruelly reminding her that what he has been sent to give was not meant for her nor for her tormented child. It is downright difficult to not hear his words as degrading, insulting, perhaps even racist.
- Indeed, I hardly know what to make of it when this unnamed woman (who could be any mother, every mother) actually bests Jesus in a theological argument, leading to her daughter to receive the healing she had come pleading for from the start.
Among all the stories we are given to help us understand who Jesus is and how he was and is at work in the world, this one has to be one of the hardest to comprehend. And while countless scholars have tried to explain this away by suggesting that Jesus’ tone was joking or that he was setting his disciples up to learn, I am not entirely convinced. In fact, I, for one, cannot help but wonder if Jesus was also learning as he went, if he was also discerning his mission one step at a time. Even as we are called to do. Even as individually and together, we are all called to do.
Hearing it in this way, while still powerfully disturbing, this is the most life giving understanding I can take with me. For if Jesus was just feeling his way forward with some basic tenets or principles to guide him on his way, what is to say this is not also so for all of us?
- It seems to me there is freedom in this.
- And that within this there is some inherent encouragement to take a step forward and then perhaps to step to the side or even backwards from time to time as we listen and learn better and deeper.
- And there is a whole lot of grace to even say things or do things incorrectly, especially as we find ourselves gifted with those who will not let go, insisting upon and reminding us as they do so, that the gifts we have been given to share are abundant and powerful. So much so that even the crumbs on the floor beneath our tables are more than enough.
This is at least part of the take away for me this week.
And as a result, there is also this:
Just as was the case with Jesus, perhaps it is also so for us that God’s vision for who and what and where we are called to be is far greater than what we before imagined, or experienced, or perhaps dared to hope. Until now. Until the crying needs of the world have come home.
For surely we hear this even now in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Prior to this moment, it was apparently enough for him to have come only ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ To my understanding, her desperate, tenacious plea pushes him to recognize that the gifts of God were then (and are now) meant for far more than even Jesus was first led to believe. And certainly for far more than you and I before believed or experienced as well.
So this is where I am landing now:
I know that many of you live and serve in a place different from where my call has led me. In some of your places COVID-19 is not now threatening and you have already taken steps back into the nave for worship. In others, the lock-down continues or has returned and there is not yet any serious talk of returning to in person gatherings. Where I am, the numbers are edging up, but not too alarmingly yet. As a result, it seems:
- Some area schools have decided to start out the year remotely.
- Others are opting for all day, every day in person learning.
- Some are somewhere in between.
In a similar way:
- Some congregations are back in person together.
- Others are opting to meet in parking lots and outdoors.
- Still others are staying fully on line for the time being.
No matter what our choices have been so far though, it would seem that just about everyone is eager for the day when ‘things will be back to where they were before.’ I know that in past weeks I have spoken here of how much I miss all that was. I am not alone in this. Not among all of you and certainly not among those who call the congregation I serve ‘home.’
And, yet. And yet, as I was standing still in our current situation this week. As I was trying to discern how God has worked before and how God always promises to work yet again, even perhaps here and now when the fear and anxiety is running deep and the losses are piling up, it occurred to me that God’s vision for what will be is always bigger than our own. Just as Jesus realized when he finally granted healing to the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Indeed, what if what God has in mind for us is far broader and deeper than only going back to the way things were before?!?
I mean, think of this with me.
- Consider the story of Abraham and Sarah and of all the times that they gave up on God’s promises or the ways in which they sought to manipulate the world to make those promises come true in their way, in their time. And of how God pointed to the very stars in the sky to help expand their understanding of what God had in store for them. Of what God would do.
- Remember the epic story of the Exodus, where God led the people out of slavery into freedom. As we recall the story, almost as soon as the people tasted freedom things also became uncertain and difficult. Many among them wanted nothing more to go right back to Egypt. Back to where they at least knew where their next meal was coming from. They were ready to give up on God’s vision for them almost before they began!
- Recall the story of Ruth and Naomi. Certainly it would have been entirely understandable had Ruth decided to return to her first home following the death of her husband. Her mother-in-law even articulates that. Instead she heard a call to something more and honored her commitment to Naomi, accompanying her back to her home, a place entirely foreign to her. And yet, Ruth could not have imagined then, it seems to me, that her union with Boaz would result in her being part of something so central to our faith story: to be among those leading to the birth of Jesus.
- Think of Zechariah and Elizabeth and how Zechariah could not imagine that God would bless them with a child at their advanced age! And of how God did, giving them far more than they could have imagined asking for at that point in their lives!
- Consider the story of the apostle Paul and how his vision was expanded after being knocked to the ground, albeit at first he lost that sight for a time until it was restored by one who before had been a sworn enemy. Think of how Paul was called to see God’s intent for us all in new and expansive ways, later extending it to all people, not only ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Much as Jesus did.
The Biblical witness goes on and on and on in this way.
And again and again, every single time, God’s vision is so very much larger than ours.
And so it is I am wondering these days if this very time might be another of those times.
As with Abraham and Sarah. As with the people of Israel in the wilderness. As with Elizabeth and Zechariah and the apostle Paul. And yes, as with Jesus. Could this be one of those times when our vision has also been far too small?
Specifically, I am wondering these days if our hope of ‘getting back to the way things were’ is nowhere near large enough.
I am wondering if our vision of getting back to ‘in person worship’ is not nearly as large as the hope God has for us and for God’s beloved world.
Beyond that, I am not at all certain of where God’s response to this wondering may lead, so for now at least I am simply posing it to you. And to me. And to all of us together.
I mean, what if God envisions something more than what has been?
Certainly all those beloved, ancient, stories which carry us even now point us to more.
But what is it, I wonder?
And how will we know?
And jumping off the story we hear today, how will we along with Jesus, tune our hearts to the suffering of the world as we listen to where God is calling us next?
Will it come to us in the piercing, desperate cry of one or of an entire crowd?
- Will we be led to look at the night sky as Abram and Sarai were, to live ever more deeply and unexpectedly into an earthly commitment as Ruth did, to sense the promise growing within us as Elizabeth did?
- With Paul, is this virus knocking us to the ground and temporarily blinding us until we can see again?
- Oh, along with the people of Israel will our eyes be opened and our bodies and spirits fed in this wilderness time even as we yearn for life in a new long awaited land?
Again, I wonder with you: Is my vision, is our vision too small?
What do you think?
- I have offered several examples from our shared Biblical Witness of when God’s Vision proved ever larger than those who were recipients of the gifts and promises of God. What story or stories would you add?
- Is it possible that God’s Vision for what will be is larger and deeper and truer than what we have before imagined? If yes, what makes you think so? If not, why not?
- Finally, if this is so, as those who are called to lead, how will we bring this vision alive to a people who are lost and afraid — very much still ‘in the wilderness’ in so very many ways? What does this look like where you live and serve? What support and encouragement do you need as you seek to cast this vision, wherever it may lead?