Thursday, August 21, 2008

Little Things Mean a Lot

20 Sunday A #118

Is 56, 1. 6-7
Ps 67
Rom 11, 13-15. 29-32
Mt 15, 21-28

Deacon Tom Cornell

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
August 17, 2008

Oh what a beautiful morning! The worst of the summer heat has passed and the air is so fresh. It’s great to be out in it. But even so, life gets too noisy sometimes, lots of times. It was the same with Jesus. Jesus and the apostles didn’t have radio, TV, movies, cell phones, i-pods and e-mail, but they had noise too, the braying of donkeys, the clatter of chariot wheels on cobblestone, the shouting of peddlers and fishwives in the streets and often the crowds that followed and gathered around them. Jesus had to get away sometimes, away from the crowds, away from the smells and the noise and distractions. Jesus had to take time to pray, to center on his mission, on his Father’s will. Remember, directly after his baptism by John, Jesus spent forty days in the desert, to listen to the voice in the stillness. If the incarnate Word of God has to collect himself in quiet to pray, then surely you and I do too.

Last Sunday Matthew recounted how Jesus withdrew from the crowds after having fed the five thousand. He had been preaching to them all day. He must have been exhausted. He had to get away, even from his close friends, so he sent them on ahead across the lake. This week Jesus and his disciples are traveling north, away from Jewish territory heading into the district of Tyre and Sidon in what is now Lebanon. They are looking for some peace and quiet where they are not known and nobody will bother them. Suddenly a Canaanite woman approaches and breaks the silence. She begs Jesus to cure her daughter, says the girl is tormented by an evil spirit. It was a nervous disorder probably, but the ancients didn’t know much about neurology. They attributed all kinds of disorders to evil spirits. Whatever the case, the disciples have had enough of people and their problems and ask Jesus to get rid of her. He doesn’t do it. Jesus engages the woman in a dialogue, a dialogue that sounds very strange to our ears.
He tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She throws herself down at Jesus’ feet and begs him, saying “Lord, help me!” He replies, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Then she said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “Oh woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

It’s a little easier for us to hear this passage if we know that the Greek word for dogs used here is really puppies. It takes some of the sting out of what sounds like an insult. But to refer to non-Jewish people as dogs of any age or kind seems insensitive at very least to the modern ear. That’s not how Matthew’s audience heard these words. Most of them were Jews who had accepted Jesus, but they remained Jews. They observed the Torah commandments, went to synagogue and the Temple and saw themselves as “The Chosen” in a way that no other people could claim to be chosen. But more and more pagan converts were joining their Christian ranks. Soon they would be outnumbered. Both Peter and Paul taught that the Holy Spirit does not discriminate in the house of faith in Jesus Christ. The Jewish Christians didn’t quite know what to make of this, how they should relate to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.

In today’s Gospel story, it is remarkable that Jesus is talking to a woman at all. That isn’t done in that part of the world by traditional people even to this day, unless the woman is accompanied by a male family member. But more than that. She is a Canaanite! Any good Jew would avoid even words with a pagan. But Matthew’s hearers would enjoy the one-upmanship in this inter-play. The Canaanite woman gets the better of Jesus. Jesus enjoyed that, and so did Matthew’s hearers.

The obvious point here is the power of faith. It is her faith that Jesus can indeed cure her daughter that moved him. There is another point here too, and that is the mysterious relationship of Jews to Christians. Saint Paul is at pains in the readings we have heard today and last week to point out that God’s Covenant with the Jewish people is not broken, the Promise to the Jews is irrevocable, and more, that salvation comes from the Jews because Jesus is a Jew. Jesus is the new Moses. Moses freed the People from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Law. Jesus frees us from sin and death and writes the law of love, not on tablets of stone but on the flesh of our hearts. Jesus is a prophet in the line of Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah and the fulfillment of their prophecies. And Jesus is a priest, a high priest in the line of Melchizedek, the only high priest, the sole mediator between God and man. And Jesus is king, the son, the heir of David. God promised David his seed would reign forever, his kingdom would have no end, and so it does, in Jesus. Paul suggests that if the Jews as a whole had accepted Jesus, then the mission to the gentiles would not have been. So we are in a mysterious relationship, Jews and Christians.

The modern ear has difficulty hearing of an exclusively “chosen” people. God’s grace is just that, free, as Saint Paul tells us. God will give it where he will. Otherwise it wouldn’t be grace, a gift. God chose Israel not for its own sake, but to be a light to the nations. The Jerusalem Temple would at last be a house of prayer for all people. The temple of stone is long gone but the temple of the Spirit remains. The Christian Church, Paul tells us, is as a branch grafted on to the root stock of the olive tree that is Israel. How can the branch survive if the stock should wither and die?

In the end, Israel will enter the fullness of salvation, as we pray every Good Friday. And so will we. But what each one of us as individuals will be in the New Jerusalem, Jew or gentile, will depend on many things. First, the grace of God to accept the faith as it has been handed on to us and make it our own. Then how we live our faith. In the rush of modern life, in the clang and clatter of it all, we must take to the desert, as Jesus did, make a desert place in our hearts, an empty place, for God. If you don’t already, set ten minutes aside every day for prayer. Then make it fifteen, then maybe twenty. Quiet down, calm down. Make room for God. It will lower your blood pressure.

Life is unpredictable, our own individual lives and our life in common. Whatever comes, the little choices we make every day add up and in the end they make all the difference. If little, ordinary things are done in the love of God and neighbor, then that’s what really matters. Sweep the floor for the love of God and of your wife. Do the dishes as a prayer. When I see my wife make a bed with such love and care and attention, I know it is a prayer. Be mindful of the pain of your neighbor who is caring for an ailing child. Comfort the mourner. Say a kind word to someone in need. Many years working in soup kitchens and homeless shelters taught me that a smile, a friendly word, “How are you?” “See you tomorrow,” “God Bless you!” are far more important than the bowl of soup or the bed.

Make it a habit. That’s what the word virtue means, a habit. We can’t tell what the future will bring, our own or the larger world’s, a dread diagnosis, the effects of natural disaster, or of war or economic collapse. The best we can do is to meet every crisis that comes with the strength to meet it, to make the right decision at that time, out of habit, the habits that guide us day by day in all the little things we do. It’s the little things that add up. The rest is up to God. So pray, like the Canaanite woman, “Lord, help me.”

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