Based on Matthew 15: 21-28
This weekend during my message at The Land I shared that, about a month ago, after sixteen years of marriage, my husband and I separated. As things were unfolding, I had been quite certain that this was news unnecessary to share publicly. It wasn’t going to impact my ability to do my job and I had already proved that to myself that I was capable of compartmentalizing my pain enough to continue playing the role of a pastor. And then, on a Sunday night after everyone had gone home, standing with two members of my core team, I started to cry, and I couldn’t stop.
And I told them, “I think I just have to take a break,” because I did not want them to have to take care of me. I did not want to be the pastor that fell apart and became a mess. The pastor who was such a wreck that it required everyone to rally around me and then I became the job, not our call and mission in the world.
So, my fool-proof plan was to take ten full days to deal with this whole grief mess so that I could come back stronger than ever with everything behind me. I cleaned the house, the cars, the pets. I threw lots of things away. (Some things I am discovering that I actually now need). And still the mess followed me beyond the ten days. The car broke down, I failed to get Fiona’s medication forms in on time for a trip, and it didn’t get easier… Buying groceries for three and remembering there was only one.
All of these things cracking this façade that for 11 years I had built up in my head of what it meant to be a pastor. For me, the pastor is the person who stands tall in the midst of the storm. The person who holds the person crying, not the person who falls apart. This is an image I created for myself. It was never taught to me or told to me. It was something I relied on to give me this false confidence in my ability to meet the expectations of pastoral leadership in the 21st century. When everything around me is breaking it feels as though the most useful thing I can do is stand tall and remain the firm foundation.
This morning’s story of the Canaanite woman easily functions as a spiritual Rorschach test. Reflection and interpretation of the meaning of this story displays more about who we need Jesus to be for us and why we need him to be that…than anything the author was attempting to communicate in that day.
Consequently, this is one of my favorite Bible stories. I have read this scripture many times and each time I think to myself, “good grief, Jesus was a jerk.” I smile and feel warm inside. I feel connected to Jesus in my own broken moments of shattered self-image and fragile self-worth. I feel more human witness Jesus’ humanity. I read this Scripture and I imagine Jesus flipping someone off in traffic after just being cut off or loosing it on the comcast automated help line. I imagine a Jesus like me, and I imagine myself to be just a little less alone.
On my best days, my darkest days and all the forgettable days in between, I need this human Jesus. I need him to plead with and argue against and hold a grudge over. I need the human Jesus because the comfort of his humanity is the presence that remains when the Savior I needed failed to show up. When I am curled up and worn out, it’s the crumbs of hope left behind by my human Jesus which sustain me to rise up to the challenge of another day.
There are a lot of people who do not agree with me on this one. Like, seriously disagree. To the point I feel as if I should be looking over my shoulder in case a cranky commentator should lose their minds. Most weeks the starting place for my sermon study is with The New Interpreters Bible; A Commentary in 12 Volumes. Generally speaking, I find it to be the most basic, boring, yet reliable commentary. Until this week. This week when the “reflections” section read eerily similar to a threatening letter from a middle school bully. Six paragraphs summarized by me as “watch your back, preacher!” warning the student that they must avoid the temptation of seeing this story as a realistic report. This mistake, they strongly suggest, would raise difficult and inappropriate questions. Difficult and appropriate questions that I found disappointingly bland and absent of the promised scandal which had been foreshadowed in that opening line.
Three points explain why Jesus’ words should be seen as a sacrificial lesson to the remedial modern-day reader. As if somehow this story is an ancient version of Jesus plays the bully in the school assembly skit. He didn’t want to play the part, but they always make the most responsible students play the part of the bad example to really drive the point home.
Third point begins, “It should not be lost that the example of such victorious faith is a Gentile woman…” followed by a shockingly blatant transition into shredding the worth of the Gentile’s woman’s character in the storyline. “The text should not thereby be embellished and placed in the service of an ideology, as though the Canaanite is an aggressive single parent who here defies cultural taboos and acts to free Jesus from his sexism and racism by catching him in a bad mood or with his compassion down, besting him in an argument and herself becoming the vehicle of his liberation and the deliverance of her daughter.”
So, that is super specific. If the commentator is trying to avoid his or her version of a poor exegetical translation, they just did a really good job of writing the sermon you shouldn’t preach.
The Canaanite woman can’t be in the right because it would put Jesus in the wrong. She couldn’t possibly be the main character because we don’t want to worship a Jesus in a supporting role. The interpretation must support the Jesus who never made a mistake. The Jesus who was never mean or ignorant or thoughtless or short-tempered. The Jesus who is 100% divine and simply plays the part of a human to prove a point to the people he surely pities.
This Jesus sits stately on a golden shelf, a crystalized Christ; pretty to look at but too precious to touch. And, maybe we resist the temptation to touch, to pick up and examine, to knock off the shelf while looking angrily up to heaven and shouting “why!” But if we are faithful, eventually the shelf falls down and we open our eyes to see the Jesus who so lovingly held the little children in his arms calling a desperate mother a dog.
Sure, they argue, it was the well-groomed domesticated dog that Jesus is referencing not the semi-wild, stray dog but seriously does anyone think that makes this story better!?! Call me a critic but I feel like that really isn’t a worthy defense. Jesus was a jerk whether he was a paid actor of a reality show star, if we are honest about the encounter this isn’t the Jesus we were taught to love or even wish to know.
Pretty Jesus falls off the shelf and shatters on the ground around us and we have a choice to sit with or walk out knowing neither option is the safer. I decided to sit down into the broken pieces of Jesus’ image in the dialogue of the story and reclaim the mystery and multiplicity of a God broken open for me so that I might see myself entering into this mixture of humanity and holiness.
Jesus was holy and Jesus was human. It only depends on the momentary perspective life offers which determines the angle we see. The goal not being to see a certain side but to continually keep Jesus within our range of vision. We need them both. The Jesus who is a jerk to reveal the Christ who for me was crucified. I need the crumbs to lead me to the miracle. The savior may never leave me starving but I would be remiss to not admit that I am regularly left hungry for more; more answers, more meaning, more miracles.
The story demonstrates that humanity is the birthplace of holiness. That it is not in the division into good and bad that we know Jesus but in the merger of humanity and holy. That faith comes to us in broken pieces, in fresh crumbs fallen from a feast once whole. It requires a hunger to witness the work of God in the world we live in. Creativity to see a crumb as a meal. It is the work of staying faithful to the trail that connects us to the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of Christ. A safe zone from which we cannot wander away. The jerk Jesus is the presence that feeds me but the divine deity beyond form is that which pulls me forward and pushes me through.
I thought long and hard about preaching this sermon. Eventually, I figured that the red flag of a personal leave wouldn’t be something I could easily avoid explaining. Even before the moment that I began to preach I hadn’t committed to sharing. I had hoped that there would be no new people yesterday at The Land. That this could be an “insider’s only” conversation. That I would spare someone new from the unfolding of my familial drama. And yet, sure enough one person showed up to check us out.
I made the call at the very last moment to be honest with the people around me and to take the risk to tell them about my brokenness. About my own uncomfortable moment. And, after the service our new friend came up with a tear in her eyes and shared that she was also going through a separation. I imagine she was looking for some comfort in a community where she wouldn’t feel alone. And in what felt like the lowest point in my pastoral leadership, God brought her to be with me.
I probably could’ve gotten away with not saying anything. We probably could’ve probably gotten away with not talking about the moment when Jesus was a jerk. But when things are broken open and when the pieces come apart it is the opportunity to invite new people into our stories who never thought they fit. May we be willing to open ourselves, to break into pieces, and to know that there is still plenty to eat.