One of the hallmarks, one of the identifiers, of the Episcopal Church is the way we preserve and honor our religious traditions and rituals. The Episcopal Church delights in being the “Via Media”, the middle way, incorporating ancient traditions and rituals from the Early Church, through Roman Catholicism, along with the understanding and acceptance of The Protestant Reformation. We are a well-blended mix of theology and practices which we use to express that which cannot be put into words. To me, those traditions and rituals are foundational to who we are as a Church.
While these traditions and rituals are very important, we must be careful in their use. We must constantly examine why we do what we do. What message are we sending, and who is hearing it? How is that message being received and how is it being interpreted? Traditions and rituals can be an aid to worship, and a way of understanding who we are as a worshipping people. But traditions and rituals can become a trap, a force of oppression, if misused and perpetuated without prayerful and thoughtful understanding.
The writer of today’s Gospel is also wrestling with the idea of a blended, changing church or group. Matthew is writing to Jews who are trying to follow Jesus, and non-Jews, Gentiles, who are also attracted to and curious about this new teaching. The Jewish Jesus followers were raised with all the traditions and rituals which were existential to them as a Chosen People, a people set aside. What are they to do with these new-comers, those who do not understand, maybe don’t even know about, those identifiers handed down through the generations? Should we force these things upon them, or should we be forced to give them up? Neither one seems acceptable to a community based on the life and example of one who came with a message of acceptance and love.
Matthew uses these two stories in today’s Gospel to show us how Jesus saw himself and his ministry as a way of reaching across borders, ethnically, spiritually and physically. Jesus was raised as an observant Jew, and remained such throughout his life. His Jewishness was central to his identity. He understood the value and necessity of ritual in his life and in his community.
But he also understood the danger of using those same rituals and traditions as a measurement, a yardstick, to help identify those who are in the group and those who are outside. He understands that these practices which are to help us get closer to God and to each other are now being used to exclude and condemn. To determine who is “good enough”, and who is not. Who is to be trusted, and who is to be feared.
When traditions and rituals no longer serve to bring people together, when they become a demarcation between “us” and “them”, that’s when we get into trouble. That’s when understanding becomes doctrine, and doctrine becomes mandate.
The first half of today’s Gospel tells of Jesus’ reaction to the criticism of his disciples by the local religious leadership. It seems some disciples were seen eating without washing their hands.
Let me be clear. Eating with dirty hands may very well imperil your health, but it will not affect your relationship with God. It may be gross, and offensive to those around you, but The Creator of the Universe probably won’t lose any sleep over it.
But when a large and growing part of the population is starving, or does not have access to nutritious food or adequate health care, we do not have the right to see or treat them as undeserving because they aren’t living up to our standards!
Jesus tells us that what comes out of our mouths is more important than what we take in. Our words are formed by conscious and unconscious thought. Our thoughts are based on the accumulation of our learning, experiences and beliefs. Our thoughts are a product of how we live. How we share the abundant gifts of God. How we live a life of justice and peace, and how we help each other live fulfilling lives of justice and peace, these are much more important than dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s of some arbitrary religious standard. It’s how we see each other, what we think of each other, how we value each other that’s important. If we see others as a commodity, something to be used for our own gain or amusement, then, yes, we will become defiled. We become defiled and coarsened to the great gift of life when we fail to honor it in each other. When we objectify each other, we deaden our own spirit, cheapen our own humanity. We are denying God’s Grace and Goodness inherent in every human being. Indeed, by objectifying any part of God’s Creation, we lessen ourselves, and distance ourselves from God’s love.
In the second part of today’s Gospel, Jesus makes that point very clear by setting himself up as an example. I think of this passage as, “Jesus meets Elizabeth Warren”. A woman, an outsider, a Canaanite, one of “those people”, she begs Jesus to heal her daughter.
Tyre and Sidon are far removed from Galilee, both physically and politically. There is great animosity, even hatred, between Jews and the Gentiles identified here as Canaanites. And yet, Jesus decides he must go there. He and his disciples are me at the border by a very distraught woman. Although a Canaanite, she knows this Jesus. She addresses him as “Son of David”, acknowledging him as the Messiah as foretold by Isaiah.
Jesus ignores her, yet she persists! She continues, even louder, to get his attention. So much so, that the disciples demand Jesus send her away. To make matters worse, Jesus, this all-to-human Jesus, begins “man-splaining” why he won’t help her.
Ok. Wait a minute. Jesus just got finished saying that it’s what’s in our hearts and minds, and what comes out of our mouth, which defiles us. Now, he’s calling this poor woman with a dying child a dog!!! Yet she persists! “Even dogs get to eat the crumbs from the Masters table.” Suddenly, Jesus seems to get it, and her daughter is healed.
Now. Did Jesus go all this way only to taunt and test the faith of this poor woman? Was Jesus so fixated and locked into his ministry to Israel, that he could not help others? If that’s true, why did he bother to go all the way up to Tyre and Sidon in the first place?
This does not sound like the all-knowing, all loving, all forgiving Jesus we are taught to know and love. But maybe, just maybe, this is the fully human Jesus, the one we don’t know what to do with because he’s too much like us. This is the human Jesus who faces starvation and temptation in the desert. Maybe this is the human Jesus who loses it and overturns tables in the Temple. Maybe this is the human Jesus who, reduced to fearful tears, begs to be spared in the garden at Gethsemane.
Maybe, just maybe, this is Jesus, the observant Jew, who was raised with the same traditions, rituals, fears, and prejudices as were his disciples. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus NEEDED to be confronted by the persistent woman. Maybe he needed to confront that prejudice he carried as a human being, and to repent. And maybe, just maybe, seeing Jesus embrace this moment of realization and change, maybe that’s just the lesson Jesus wanted to give to his disciples. After all, they are the ones who will be charged to take the Word of God to all nations. They better be ready.
These past few weeks felt like an assault on the decency of our nation. Or maybe it’s a wake-up call that we really aren’t all that decent. As a person of privilege, I can see how we congratulated ourselves on the election of the first Black President. We convinced ourselves we were now living in a “post-racial” America. Those attitudes and stereotypes we grew up with were gone forever. After all, we were the liberals! We were the good guys! We were the ones to give freedom and dignity to Black, Brown and Native Americans. We will give freedom and dignity to immigrants, as long as they worked our fields and lived off the crumbs of our table. Many of us approached our ministry with the same arrogance we see in the disciples trying to silence the woman in today’s Gospel.
We remained complacent about, and complicit with, the evil we built and continue to maintain in our social, justice and economic systems. Charlottesville was a wake-up call, as was Ferguson and the others before. But we didn’t hear those earlier ones because the people didn’t look like us. Charlottesville is a wake-up call not to the fact that this evil exists in our country, but that we, privileged white Christians, we too, carry the seeds of prejudice and hatred within us. We saw it reflected in those with a cross in one hand and a torch in the other. We saw ourselves under those banners and behind those shields decorated with the symbols of our faith. We saw it, and I hope we never forget how it made us feel.
So what do we do with this anger and frustration? How do we deal this those prejudices and fears we learned too well and buried too deep, and lived with too long?
Perhaps, as it was with the disciples, our answer lies in the example of Jesus. Following the example of Jesus, we, too, need to go away from our Galilee, away from our comfort zone. We need to go to those places we don’t want to go, where we know we’re not welcome. We need to search our own hearts, question our own assumptions, face our own fears, and examine our own lives. Then we need to listen, really listen, to those voices which seem strange to our ears. Voices which, for too long, we refused to acknowledge. And we need to forgive, even if it’s only ourselves.
Hatred is learned behavior, and that which is learned can be unlearned. We are creatures of habit, but our capacity for change and growth is amazing and unlimited. And with God’s help all things are possible.
U.S. Senator Corey Booker writes, “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all God’s children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.”
My friends, let your life show your faith. Faith in God, faith in each other, and faith in yourself. I wish you peace.