Diaconate Candidacy Sermon Given at Gentle Shepherd Metropolitan Community Church, Phoenix, Ariz.
Loving our Neighbor Includes: Engaging people authentically, as Jesus did, treating all as creations made in God’s very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class.” (Affirmation Five “The Phoenix Affirmations” In Association with Crosswalk America)
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24-30 NRSV)
A few years ago our family on my father’s side got together for the first time in 36 years. We celebrated the life of my grandmother who was the glue that held our family together. You see, the day my grandmother died, our family died with her. We split apart and for years were forbidden to see, let alone, speak to one another. Obviously there was a lot of family turmoil which we did not, and still do not, understand.
However, on that beautiful summer day, we defied our parents ruling of no see, no speak, and we gathered to talk about grandma. Besides, we were all adults and our parents (my grandmother’s children) had died and we didn’t need their permission anymore.
It was interesting that every one of the 78 of us that got together thought of my grandmother as a saint. And on that day, which so many of us had longed for, we glorified and crowned my blessed grandmother’s memory with good food (using her recipes), good stories (trying to imitate her voice), and a lot of love. Not one person had a bad thing to say about her. We reveled in knowing that she held close to her Irish upbringing and that she entered into enthusiastic dialogue about elves, little people and fairies. Her life was one of wonder and hope for each one of us, not knowing that her passing, when I was 9 years old, would split her children apart, causing the rest of us to suffer the loss of her in silence.
I personally had a great time with my grandmother. She used a type of engaging compassion, where she selflessly engaged in anything I might bring before her. I spent probably more time with her than most any of the other grandchildren and for good reasons. She was my protector and the person who I felt most safe with. She was the one who had all the answers and was always right about everything. I didn’t go to my parents for advice. I went to grandma, because she knew the right answers to my biggest questions and she had great foresight. After all, when I was one day old, she gave me the nickname of Butch, so I know, even today, that she was always right!
It was a joy every time that I was encouraged by her to spend the night because I knew that each day would be different, exciting and a time of learning. Although she was an Anglican Episcopalian, she was not religious, but she centered her faith in the Celtic way, a very mysterious and mind-boggling way to be. Because she held on to her Irish/Celtic ways, I would call her more of a spiritually grounded person than the religious folks, who surrounded me on my from my mother’s side of the family. With her Irish mannerisms and quietly held beliefs, she would tell me that I was safe because the “little people” were watching over me and that I had no fears except those I made up in my very visual imagination. Using her sharp wit and Irish charm, she made it seem as if she understood me more than anyone on earth and I trusted her with my life.
A day came when my trust in my grandmother waned a bit. I was outside playing safely in her beautifully kept yard and I felt something on my shirt. As I looked down, a bee was crawling from the center of my shirt right toward my face. Naturally, as most any child I would suppose, I screamed to my highest, pre-pubescent scream. My screams did not go unnoticed, for my grandmother immediately came running outside to see if I was okay. Asking what was wrong, I screamed: “A bee, a bee!”; pointing at it as it reached higher towards my face. Since she had been baking in her kitchen, she happened to have a potholder in her hand. She gave me a ‘less than loving’ look and took the hot-pad, wiped the bee away and then promptly called me a ‘sissy’. I actually don’t know what would have hurt me more at that time, getting stung by the bee, or my beloved grandmother calling me a name that I had never heard before, but I knew was not good. I stood stunned, as she walked back into the house without another word and the bee went about it’s business, trying to pollinate the next kid it could find. Little did I know, however, that this would not be the only time that I would be called names or be subjected to unseemly ways of others defining those who were different than themselves. Obviously my grandmother was not fearful of bees or calling others names, even if it was her ‘favorite grandchild’.
It only took a brief time to hear her voice saying, “Butch, come in the back door, I have something for you.” I slowly stumbled into her kitchen and she had baked me some of my favorite cookies. She sat me down, with potholder in hand and said that she was sorry for the name calling, but she was just as frightened as I was and spoke something that never should have been said. She also told me that she knew she hurt me and she was regretful of that, for name calling was never okay. She also informed me that the potholder swatting would have been enough and I got a swift lesson on why bees were important in her flower-filled yard. She turned a very hurtful thing into an education and a snack in her usual Irish way. Little did I know that being called a sissy would come back to haunt me. But on that day – I was with my grandma not realizing that looking back, years later, she probably went to bed worried that she had harmed me.
To this day, I have found name-calling to be hurtful, degrading, and difficult to deal with. I must admit that I’m no saint when it comes to such things, having shared my own unique choice of colorful words towards someone I did not like, could deliberately find fault with or was different from me; always using the excuse that if my sainted grandmother could do it, so could I. It became a crutch, one I would live with for many years to come, and one that still is a bit difficult to deal with.
One must also understand that in my small community detrimental words were encouraged because of the culture climate in those days, as has been the nature in all of our lives at one time or another. Name calling in our home was standard fare. It was used frequently and with subtlety. You see, it was common, it was part of our language and, as I found when I finally came out thirty years ago, it could even be dangerous.
As I was studying the Gospel lesson, I became deeply disturbed by Jesus’ behavior. I tried to find a way to not find fault with his actions, thinking he may have been joking with the woman, or that he was tired and just wanted to get away from all of the Jewish people, he had been called to be a teach and minister to. I couldn’t.
To understand this we have to first understand that Jesus had left the shores of Galilee to go to the city of Tyre to rest and slow down. Tyre was a large, wealthy city Northwest of Galilee and was steeped in pagan worship. I believe that Jesus chose this place because it was the perfect place for him to get away from the throngs of people so that he could relax, pray and rejuvenate without much intervention. You see, Jesus followed Jewish law and, up to this point, he felt he was only called to minister to the Jews. In fact, it was against Jewish law to even be near a Gentile. I believe that Jesus, a faithful Jew, still was in a period of growth, heeding the call of God on his life to minister, in his mind, only to the Jews. But little did he know that his core beliefs would be challenged and his ministry changed forever by going to a city where he would not be bothered. In fact, I’m certain that this was the furthest thing from his mind.
In this Gospel story, a woman, who was not Jewish, obviously knew about Jesus and I am certain she had tried everything within her own belief system to try and save her daughter’s life but to no avail. She, as a last resort, finds Jesus and asks him, with sincerity and faith, to heal her daughter. In my minds eye, I can see it now. Although the gospels don’t tell us this, I’ll bet Jesus got really heated over this request and it makes me wonder what he would have done if this was a Jewish person who had come to him with the very same request. Something tells me that he would have taken action immediately, healed their daughter and then sent them on their way, as he had done so many times before. However, he confronts this non-Jewish woman and labels her a “dog.”
We must understand that using this term “dog” was culturally acceptable to a person who followed the Jewish law. You see, in Egypt, dogs were highly regarded much more so than the Hebrew slaves. So in Palestine, where the Hebrew people had settled and lived many generations, dogs were rarely kept as pets and usually roamed wild in the streets, living off refuse and dead animals. Jewish people regarded dogs as unclean and a source of disease. So, to call a Gentile a “dog” was common because they were regarded as unclean, just because of who they were and what they believed. As far as the ‘religious establishment’ was concerned, they were not acceptable in God’s eyes and must be avoided.
Instead of helping, with the compassion that we seem to believe Jesus was born with, I see him coming unglued over this request. “How dare that woman ask anything of me, let alone even talk to me?” I can almost see him spit on the ground in agitation that this Syro-Phoenician woman had the guts to even come near him! So, he tells her that the kids must be fed first, meaning the Jewish people only, and then he moves on telling her that it isn’t fair to even throw the food to the dogs. We can make excuses for him because He is tired and weary, but we cannot negate his agitated state of mind and how he saw her as lesser than he was.
However, this woman, who’s faith in him is submissive, clear and hopeful, tells him in no unspecific terms that even they, “the dogs,” (referring to herself) will eat the kids crumbs or droppings from the table. I tend to wonder how Jesus felt at that point. Had he even been speaking words that God put in his mouth or humanly reacting to what he felt was a ‘common’ term bringing to the forefront his own bias? I don’t know the why he said this, but I don’t believe he was speaking with the authority of God at the time. In fact, I think Jesus was humbled and it set him in action – maybe not the immediate action that Mark shows in his story, but I imagine him taking a brief moment of silent contemplation and prayer, realizing how wrong he was and stepping into her shoes, and feeling her pain. And one must wonder if perhaps God brought this woman into his life to show him that his ministry was not inclusive to only the Jews, but had to be stretched to a broader one that was meant for all people – to the world. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that we should love God, love our neighbors and love ourselves? One must question how in the world he could have said such a thing after teaching those things? But there was a moment there when compassion had to be met above and out of reach of the law, and even though this lesson does not use the term compassion, Jesus must have certainly compassionately engaged in this Gentile woman’s plight and dealt with her situation, much as my grandmother did for me.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta had something to say about this type of engaging compassion:
“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”
The First Reading
As we have seen, even Jesus’ vision and ministry began to change. And we see that he began to actively pursue, what I see as compassionate engagement for all people. He no longer could speak only to those who were Jewish; he had to engage with all people, inclusively. As we shall see, all of his disciples would follow suit.
The 5th lesson in the Phoenix Affirmations, which was our first reading and is defined with one specific text and three subtexts, states clearly that we must continue the mission of ‘compassionate engagement’ that Jesus practiced.
This Affirmation tells us that scripturally we should engage people authentically, “as Jesus did”. It tells us that we need to treat all people as creations made in God’s very image and it spells out different ways that God created all of us, not labeled us. It calls us to stop the name calling – the labeling – and encourages us to actively engage with all people, no matter who they are, where they are, or where they came from. After all, if we are all God’s kids, isn’t the spirit of God within each one of us? I contend that the very same spirit, which calls us into being is calling us relentlessly into compassionate engagement with one another.
It also alerts me to why we call people names, for it spells out the different labels which have been given us and the roots to why name-calling and hurtful words separate us.
You must understand that compassion isn’t simply having pity on someone or even finding some sympathy for them. As we look deeper into the fullness of the word compassion, we must understand that it is broader than that. It is the act of wearing the shoes of someone else. It is bringing us into a deeper awareness of what pains, hurts, and emotions others must feel, just as Jesus did with the Syro-Phoenician woman.
Let me take this one step further, for the story doesn’t stop with Jesus. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Simon Peter has one of these moments too. Peter, up to this point, felt his mission was only to the Jews, even though Jesus had him and the others sent out to spread the Good News to all. So, God provides Peter with a dream which opens his eyes to those things and people who are considered unclean, and orders him to eat (bear witness) to all things considered unclean. This disturbs Peter so much that he even argues with God and tells Him that “the law” says they are not to eat anything that is profane and unclean. However God, like my grandmother, swats that bee from his heart and says: “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” Simon Peter had to be told three times before he understood that all are under the sovereign guidance of God’s Holy Spirit and that all, even the Gentiles, must be accepted and taught.
Peter’s evolution grew and he knew that he must do as God had guided him to do. The Book of Act’s tells us that He is met by two people who escort him to Cornelius’ Gentile home, which by the law, Peter was not to enter. However he did so, and tells them that God had sent him there and begins his ministry to the Gentiles by proclaiming: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”
Today, we are once again facing a crisis of compassion within the body of Christ – much like Jesus, Peter and others did in their time. Many churches must label people with unsuitable names, which promote arrogance, intolerance, bigotry that are hurtful and attempt to bring shame and hopelessness to others – words that are dangerous. These “church folks” truly feel they are doing this out of acts of compassion because the bible has become a book of rules and sins to them. Most of these folks sincerely believe that they are doing it out of love and compassion. But, their compassion is not the type of compassion that calls us into full communion as followers of Christ. Their theology of compassion wants to separate and judge in the name of the living Christ! I don’t always fault these people, as I once did, because I understand that their lack of tolerance is a lack of knowledge. It could definitely be defined as a greedy love which boxes God into something that I believe God is not. God doesn’t come to us in cute little packages, but God comes to us through the fullness of grace and meets us where we are and just as we are.
As we gaze at pictures of this beautiful planet from a satellites view, we can see that there are no boundaries, no borders, no separation, no lines or names, unlike the Globe’s that we scrutinize and study in our schools and homes. Do you think that these images are a glimpse of what God may be calling us to think about in the church today? That we are living in a moment in Grace where, as the author of Galatians words it:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)
Are we lacking the picture that God has tried to show us through Christ and the Apostles? That boundaries are not to be seen, for all are the same individually and collectively? That labeling, stereotyping and calling other’s unbecoming names are frivolous and sinful? That God created all of us equal in His eyes? I hope so.
What I have learned is that without compassionate engagement, we are not walking in the other person’s shoes. We are not experiencing what they are going through – with them. We are straying away from the purpose that may have been set before us. We are not concentrating on the fact that we are all a glimpse of God, even through our diversities. Have you given it thought that we are actually being called into a type of ‘God love’, which is the only thing that should define us? And that seriously engaging compassionately into one another’s lives is what will move us in the path to acceptance of all people? Have we stepped that far from the path, that we feel lost and lonely in our quest for God? If so, change must happen or the body of the faithful will be forever broken.
Methodist Pastor and teacher, Trevor Hudson, who grew up in Apartied South Africa coined the term “compassionate engagement”. He has this to say in his book, “A Mile In My Shoes”:
Following Jesus means moving out of our privatized, isolated, and self-enclosed worlds into a compassionate engagement with our suffering neighbor.
Whether one calls one a dog, a sissy, or any other derogatory name, are we seriously following Christ, our sovereign? Are we taking the example of Jesus and his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, who calls Jesus into compassionate engagement and unknowingly, with the help of God, changes his heart into doing what Jesus begins to do best? I think that by doing so, we have the ability, as followers of Christ in an evolving world, to heal the world and bring about change where the bee’s are gone and God’s pot-holder isn’t needed any longer.
Erny Phipps served as co-moderator of Whosoever Prays, an online prayer group that offered support to GLBT Christians, while living in Arizona with his son.