Role Reversal

We love the story of Joseph and his mean brothers, don’t we? Andrew Lloyd Weber made sure the entire world knows the story. Last week’s passage from Genesis gave us the beginning of this now world-renowned account: how Joseph was loved by his father Jacob, how his brothers were green for envy that he was so favoured, how they schemed to kill him but then sold him as a slave to the Egyptians. Today’s passage skips over all the gory details, and takes us close to the conclusion of the story.

But before Joseph made his identity known to his scheming, but now trembling and needy brothers, some strange shenanigans went on: Joseph didn’t tell them right away who he really was. First Joseph turns the tables on his brothers and becomes the one who schemes: Joseph deliberately deceives them, makes false accusations, forces his brothers into painful choices. What’s all that about? Revenge? No, not really, because Scripture tells us that at every encounter, Joseph weeps – twice in secret, a third time in public which is what we are hearing today. People who desire revenge don’t weep like that, do they?

Remember the book by Jonathan Sacks I referred to a few weeks ago when we spoke of Jacob and Esau? Well, Sacks has another very insightful commentary on this yet another account of sibling rivalry. Before the story gets to the part we heard this morning, Joseph makes his brothers shake with fear at having to make difficult choices. Sacks states that Joseph’s strange scheming has an important purpose, and that is to bring about repentance. Joseph is forcing his brothers into a painful role reversal. When he was younger, the brothers suspected Joseph of ambition. Now they had to learn what it is like to be under suspicion. They planned to sell their brother as a slave. Now Joseph is letting them feel what it’s like to face enslavement themselves. They made their father Jacob go through the grief of losing a beloved son. Now they must witness that grief again, even if through no fault of their own.

Above all, they treated their brother as a stranger. Now they must learn that that stranger, the “Egyptian,” is actually their brother. Before revealing his true identity, Joseph takes his brothers through a process that  finds them in another’s place of suffering, which ultimately leads to the brothers’ realizing their guilt and their need to repent.

There’s a well-known, well-worn, saying that says: You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. In effect, Joseph constructed a controlled experiment in perfect repentance by letting his brothers walk a mile in his shoes. And what a success it was!. The brothers become truly remorseful of their past misdeeds, and at that moment Joseph can reveal his true identity, without feeling any revenge or anger in his bones …

Wow, imagine that … Imagine the people we don’t want around. Imagine the people that upset our routines. Imagine the ones we’d rather ignore or push away, like Joseph’s brothers did out of envy and spite. Imagine the people who are way too different for our own comfort …

First, Joseph shows how to maintain integrity in the face of scorn and rejection. next, and maybe more important, Joseph shows how not to be consumed by revenge and anger for what is done to us, but to extend mercy and forgiveness, in order that God can use for good what we intend for wrong.

We have another account today that teaches us a similar lesson. In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets a person who nobody really wants to be around, including at first – shock! — Jesus himself. We all know folks we’d rather avoid, right? The kind we’d rather not see as our own brother or sister. But that’s kind’a hard in today’s world. In today’s pluralistic, multi-cultural world we cross paths with people who are different from us – different ethnicity and culture, different colour, orientation, religion, etc.

But how often do we take the time to stop and to really listen? We can easily just keep on walking and keep on thinking of and viewing these ‘others’ according to the soundbites, talking points and stereotypes of the day. Hey, even Jesus did that: “Not my problem. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But sometimes, these folks keep on … Sometimes, with great courage, these ‘others’ continue to reach out, to call out, to refuse to be labelled and written off: Even the dogs get the scraps … They invite us to look closer, to hear their stories, to meet their families, to put ourselves in their place, and to learn … And when that happens, everything can change, just as it did for Joseph and his brothers, just as it did for the Canaanite woman who encountered, and dared to challenge, Jesus, the very Son of God.

You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. When ‘others’ remain strangers we can easily find reasons not to understand each other or to stay apart. Refugees, First Nations and people of colour find themselves in this situation. Today, with the Covid-crisis, Hutterites find themselves in this situation. LGBTQ+ people find themselves in this situation. But what can happen when we risk recognizing our common humanity, when we begin to care? What can happen when we find common ground and listen to their stories, with a willingness to walk a mile in their shoes? Would this have the power to silence the demons of prejudice and contempt that would rather keep us estranged from one another?

Joseph created an opportunity for his brothers to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes Joseph had walked in caused by his brothers’ actions which had been intended for harm. Jesus showed a radical reversal in his attitude: the Son of God changed his mind, by the persistent faith and witness of an outcast, a woman…

So this week, like Joseph, think about this: who is it that has wished us wrong? And how do we carry ourselves in the face of that wrong? How do we engage those who wish us wrong? And like Jesus, who is pulling at our heartstrings despite our reluctance to engage? Who is the other that is calling us to notice them? What might happen if we stop, open our hearts and listen? What might happen if we share the table of dialogue and friendship, and let our faith in one another as God’s children recognize us as sisters and brothers? As it did for the Canaanite woman, that faith could save us too. Who knows, we might find a heavenly feast of communion instead of crumbs falling from the master’s table. Amen.

Homily preached on August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1—15 and Matthew 15:21—28

  • With thanks to Jonathan Sacks’ insights into the Genesis themes in his book Not in God’s Name, and thanks to Rev. Scott Sharman for his thoughtful FB reflection on the Canaanite woman.

Feeling the Heat

Homily, August 20, 2017 on Matthew 15:21-28

Preaching is becoming a dangerous occupation. The homily/sermon is meant to help us connect the message from Scripture with our daily lives. But atrocities like the ones this past week in Charlottesville and Barcelona make preaching the Good News of God’s love and mercy increasingly more challenging. Preachers are feeling the heat as we engage the sacred words of Jesus with today’s tragedies. While BC has been feeling the heat of massive forest fires this summer, we preachers feel the heat of tension, of horror, of conflict. We feel the heat of helplessness, of sorrow, of guilt … How do we speak prophetic truth into racism? How do we speak healing into discrimination? How do we speak hope into a world careening towards self-destruction?

Feeling the heat of conflict should not surprise preachers though. After all, we preach One who had a knack for heating up conflict as a matter of course. Again in today’s passage, things are heating up under Jesus’ feet again. Who is Jesus’ ministry for?? Do foreigners, people of colour and outcasts have a right to claim God’s grace and healing? Just like in our time, there were strong cultural opinions in Jesus’ time about who was acceptable and who was not: clean and unclean people, they called them back then. The Canaanites were deeply despised by the Israelites. Jesus experiences tension and the ugly reality of racism, prejudice, and discrimination towards a defenseless person in need.

A foreign and despised woman approaches Jesus, a Jewish man. She even has the nerve to pay him homage and then begs a favour she has no right to. She bursts into Jesus’ space and pleads with him: “Lord, son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon.”

Whatever else he does or says, Jesus at least refuses … he refuses the disciples’ demand to remove this nuisance from their midst. (the disciples have a knack for sending people away or telling them to shut up and not “bother” the Master). Jesus responds by addressing the woman directly, with a comment that seems quite out of character for this man of God: “I am a stranger here; I should not interfere.” Is this out of character, or is Jesus merely testing her?Or in the worst case, is he just plain rude, insensitive, and harsh? “Help me!” the woman insists. Jesus’ next words seem excessively harsh: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs!”

“Dogs” was a derogatory much like “nigger” or “Redskin.” Slurs such as these are an insult, a metaphor referring to others as less than human, more as animals, only good for eating leftovers.

The Canaanite woman issues a bold challenge: even if Jesus’ mission is initially meant for the Jews, is he nevertheless willing to respond to genuine faith no matter where and in whom? But then again … who knows what this woman is about… Better safe than sorry; better not throw the message of God’s kingdom to the dogs.

It’s disturbing to see Jesus act this way. But let’s be honest … how often do WE act in this way? We’d rather be safe than sorry ourselves. Most of us have made up our minds about what is important in our lives and who counts in the grand scheme of things (and who doesn’t). We are diligent in living our faith and church commitment. We stick to our priorities with honourable loyalty and a principled sense of duty.

So principled and so loyal are we that nothing can divert us from our goal to serve God. Until someone rattles our cage, and reveals how far short we actually fall from serving God when we exclude and ignore and unjustly label another. The Canaanite woman rattled Jesus’ cage… The tragedy in Charlottesville rattled our cage, revealing the ugly poison of racism. The tragedy in Barcelona rattled our cage, revealing our global failure to foster justice and respect in all people, esp. those disadvantaged by the world’s economic systems which favour the few at the expense of the masses.

Sure, Jesus’ mission is intended for God’s chosen people. But who are God’s chosen people? The Canaanite woman calls Jesus Lord, refers to him as master, and humbly says that she, like dogs under the table, will gladly take the leftovers of his mission and power.

It is no coincidence that Matthew placed this story right smack between the two miraculous feeding of the multitudes, both of which reported leftovers. While these crowds were adequately provided for, it is the Syro-Phoenician woman who seeks what Jesus’ own people don’t even realize they have – the leftovers! And Jesus, astounded at her faith, is forced to leave the beaten track. rethink his whole mission and gives her the … leftovers of God’s healing love.

How many times, Lord, do we fail to recognized you because we are too busy with our own private interests and have long ago set limits on who deserves our love? We can all be outraged by the news reports of refugees smuggled and drowning in the Mediterranean, or other countries closing their borders to them. It’s easy to be outraged at terrorist attacks like in Barcelona or the racial clashes in Virginia. But our outrage is sometimes cheap and hollow. For we are the ones who have everything at the expense of people who are oppressed and exploited. We all help perpetuate the unjust distribution of the earth’s wealth, a wealth given by God to be shared with all people.

Sure, Jesus’ mission is intended for God’s chosen people. But as Jesus himself discovers, God’s chosen people includes the Canaanite woman, invites outsiders and nuisances, includes smuggled immigrants, people of colour, and all people of good will. God’s love has no limits and accepts no boundaries. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence, Jesus himself gains new insight and extends his mission past his own people, his own religion, his own nation. And don’t forget that we … are the beneficiaries of this shift.

Pope Francis repeatedly urges us to risk veering off the beaten track in the name of Jesus and for the sake of the world. “Jesus,” he said to a gathering of young people, “is the Lord of risk, of the eternal ‘more.’ Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths. … Teach us how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. “Have the courage to teach us that it is easier to build bridges than walls!”  

On this side of death, we are all saved and unsaved, saint and sinner, both at the same time. We all bear the status of “foreigner” in God’s kingdom. We are really not that different from the Canaanite woman, blacks suffering racism, refugees running for life, suicide-bombers disillusioned with the worlds greed and exploitation, smuggled and suffering illegal immigrants desperately seeking safety and a future.

We may not experience their particular illness, social rejection or utter destitution. But we all know what it feels like to be rejected, unloved, ignored, denied, attacked and judged. None of us goes through life without collecting the deep scars that sin and evil inflict. Engaging with someone who cries out for justice and healing is always unsettling, and can re-open scars in our own heart. Only when we let this happen can compassion be born and healing occur. In the end, we all stand together, hungry and thirsty before our God as God’s chosen people. Only then, boundaries and distinctions will fall away.

Despite Jesus’ initial reluctance to grant her wish, never once does he rebuke the Canaanite woman, never does he silence her, and never does he send her away. Instead, Jesus engages her in dialogue. Jesus enters a relationship with her, which has everything to do with human dignity.

We cannot limit God nor trivialize what God can do. Every person we despise should remind us that “there for the grace of God go I.” To all of us Jesus says: “Always remember both your own need for mercy and healing as well as your calling to bring God’s healing to the world.” Or as C.S. Lewis once said: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

And so we feel the heat of the world’s tragedies, and we should. We feel the heat of our complicity in perpetuating racism and discrimination, injustice and greed. We feel the heat of the temptation to give in to helplessness and apathy. The tension in today’s Gospel remains unresolved. Instead, we live that tension fully in the day-to-day challenges and encounters. For we are wounded healers, saint and sinner. As wounded healers God calls us  in the service of the Gospel. Without limiting God, and without trivializing God’s healing love, we are the hands and feet, and the heart, of Christ. “We” are all God has on this earth.   AMEN

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