The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Proper 15, Year A
August 16, 2020
These things happen. It is nothing new. It is not really that surprising because nobody is perfect. Last week, Jerry Falwell, Junior posted a rather suggestive picture on Instagram. He is now on an indefinite leave of absence from being Chancellor and President of Liberty University. Those two facts were not connected in the announcement, but clearly, they are related. That is big news in this region.
I drove by Liberty last week when taking my son back to college. It looks like their mascot is the construction crane. The place has grown and continues to grow tremendously. They have some 15,000 students on campus and another 95,000 online. Liberty was doing distance learning before distance learning was a necessity, and they have kept tuition reasonably low in comparison with other colleges and universities. While I do not choose their particular take on Christianity, it is hard to doubt their commitment to service and ministry as integral in education, and admire their forward thinking model for making education accessible.
Falwell has had a number of public gaffes, but this latest photo, mostly because if he were enrolled as a student at Liberty, he could have been fined, sanctioned, or expelled according to their published standards of conduct. He is not the first leader to hold high standards only to fall short of them himself. He is just one of the latest ones. There is plenty of room for repentance and redemption in our faith.
Having grown up in Georgia, I always cringe when a wacky news story comes out of that state. I feel the same way about particularly prominent professing Christians who reveal some sort of hypocrisy or dishonesty. It is not a good look all of us – and ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us to remain humble and aware of our own shortcomings.
The gospel for today pounds that point home with a one two punch. The first section takes on the exceptionally strict Jewish purity laws. Jesus disciples warn him that he is making the Pharisees mad, but he keeps at it, saying that following strict rules does not result in more authentic faith or righteousness. As Garrison Keillor puts it a bit differently: “Going to church does not make me a Christian any more than sleeping in the garage makes me a car.”
After that, there is an immediate location change to Tyre and Sidon which is modern day Lebanon. After dropping his criticism on the religious elites, Jesus makes a 40-mile journey to a region completely outside of their influence. Word must have spread about Jesus because just as he arrives, a local woman chases after him, pleading with him to heal her daughter. This is culturally wrong on so many levels. The Jews of Israel look down on those folks, and those folks look down on Jews. Their rivalry makes Virginia and Duke seem cordial. As a woman in that time and place, she was never to speak publicly, especially to a man. So, this woman is so out of bounds, so outside of cultural standards, so loud, and so persistent.
Though they are particularly scruffy, even the disciples are shocked at her forward behavior, asking Jesus to send her away. And at first, Jesus goes along. But her response shocks even Jesus. She settles down, she kneels and bows before him, and in complete, surrender of dignity and decorum, acknowledges his power and presence, and begs for healing on her daughter’s behalf. Such desperation is something the parent of any sick child can understand easily.
This woman, this stranger, this outsider, this marginalized person shocks even Jesus. Her humility and kindness shake his own very human assumptions. Praising her pure humility in recognition of God’s very presence in him, Jesus grants her request for healing, immediately. Matthew recounts this story right after Jesus encounter with the Pharisees as it is a groundbreaking shift in Jesus ministry and message. God’s love and saving grace is not reserved for any particular group, sect, sex, heritage, class, or race. Jesus comes to the world, revealing God - to and for - all creation.
The event is unsettling for the disciples. It is scandalous for the Jewish authorities. It ought to convict us as well. While we may think of ourselves as open minded, tolerant, and accepting, there lurks in all of us some deep distrust, some enmity, some disdain for those whose ways, thoughts, traditions, or practices may be foreign to ours. We have labels for whole swaths of our fellow humans that we use to lump people into categories. We call them illegal, alien, conservative, liberal, white, black, brown, gay, straight. It is natural and to recognize difference, and it is appropriate to celebrate diversity, but Jesus challenges us to recognize sameness as much as difference. The woman in our Gospel breaks through the barriers and boundaries as she is seen, heard, and loved: human, worthy, a child of God, like us.
Despite our particularly polarized perspectives, most people really want the same things: to love and be loved, to be safe, seen, heard, and valued, to be healthy, and to find joy. While we may disagree on how to get there collectively, humans are not as different as we make them out to be. Our faith challenges us be more creative than destructive, more together than separate, and more forgiving than aggrieved. If we set ourselves up to be more righteous, more important, or more deserving of God’s love, we put ourselves farther from the heart of God, but never outside of God’s love.
If today’s Gospel does not make us a little uncomfortable and a little more self-aware, then we are not listening carefully. The great circle of God’s grace is ever expanding. As the poet, Edwin Markham, wrote:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!”
We are all a work in progress, and perfection is not something we attain this side of heaven. We have all been extended such grace through God in Christ. We have not been done wrong in this life. When we take the long view, we see that we have been done so right. Thus, when we flop and fail, when we fall short and flounder in our humanity, God’s grace is sufficient to pick us up dust us off, and help us to extend that grace to others. All of them are us. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood