“Christ, look upon us in this city, And keep our sympathy and pity Fresh, and our faces heavenward; Lest we grow hard.”
In her provocative and prayerful writings on the Christian Scriptures and tradition, Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemporary North American Anglican priest, speaks of the Jesus she sees in the Gospels as an “ignition event”. The Lord of life lights life up, it gets hot, things burn when he shows up, and I think she’s right. Because to come to see and know the wisdom of this Christ is to be changed beyond expectation. In this Bourgeault shows a deep understanding of life and love in the early church. She often quotes the fourth century desert fathers where “Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: ‘Father, to the limit of my ability, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and to the limit of my ability, I work to cleanse my heart of thoughts, what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: ‘Why not be utterly changed into fire?’”
Scripture is full of people who have utterly changed, lit up beyond their own experience and expectation into new and larger lives. You see them everywhere in the Gospels! Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night asking how someone can be born again; the woman with an issue of blood reaching out to touch the hem of his robe with the hope of healing; Zacchaeus the tax collector getting above himself and asking Jesus to come to dinner, repenting and righting all his past wrongs as he makes ready for this great feast. And today’s Gospel with this women making such scandalous trouble because she’s worried for her daughter’s illness.
Each and everyone stretching beyond who they thought they were and what they thought they could do, racing forward in this amazing hope: fearfully and faithfully reaching out to finds their world changed beyond what they thought possible before they first saw Jesus. Now coming face to face with the Lord of new life who comes to enlighten all creation, face to face with the God who embodies our human hope, all with their hearts beating hard and breathing deep into that love which is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
But it’s no easy task. The Canaanite women in todays Gospel would know she was taking a risk, getting “above herself.” For any good observing Jew of that time and in that neighbourhood would view her as something less than human, and more like an animal. Everyone would simply agree that she was not important enough to bother any right-thinking rabbi of the time. Yet she speaks out, reaches out to Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter, and things heat up more than a bit.
It’s hard for us to see the scandal of it now, but in its time it would be ringing out like an obscenity uttered in a holy place. It was taken for granted knowledge that a tainted foreign woman does not call on a good Hebrew Rabbi and, conversely, that no son of David should ever acknowledge a loud outsider, an unbeliever; that’s how pure belief gets dirty and reputations get ruined. Everyone would agree that you just don’t do this, but she does!
What was she thinking, what drew her there that day? I think she saw this man who lived love beyond the boundaries or tribe and gender and culture, she saw the common call that weaves the world together, she saw love walking towards her, calling her to a new community of compassion and wholeness, she saw Jesus and thought; “this is my body, this is my blood, this is my love, this is my life.” And so in that faith she calls out in love to life for the life of her daughter.
And even when Jesus comes back with the coldest response imaginable — calling her a dog — she meets him where he is and asks for more: “Even the dogs can take the food that falls from the children’s table.”
We need to note that Jesus’ answer is horribly rough and makes this story tough to tell. It’s a nasty speech with a stridency that disturbs our easy suppositions on the ways of God in the world. But look deeper at this in the light: turn up the temperature. The woman who should not be there and the man who should know better — looking at each other, as if for the first time, and finding a new connection of necessity and love that heals and opens new life to them then and still speaks to us now.
It’s important here to remember that Jesus does change his mind in scripture; mainly in Mark, some in Matthew and Luke, ‘though hardly every if at all in John. And I think that’s wonderful! For here is Jesus in the middle of the human story, taking the risk of full relationship with us in all the wondrous and mysterious surprises of our unfinished human life, meeting us on our terms so that we might take a chance of life alongside him. And here is Jesus surprised and turning to the Canaanite woman saying “Great is your faith; your daughter has been made whole.”
What did Jesus see? He must have looked at her anew, seen her as a shining surprise of love dancing with all the hope and fear of her life, gaping for God’s grace. He must have thought, “This is my body, this is my blood as well!” And so her daughter’s healing happens.
Unfortunately that’s not what always happens, and what of the times when the child is not healed, the prayer not granted, when the answer sought comes back as No? Because for most of us, most of the time, the miracle doesn’t come. But — and I say this most tentatively — could it be that what happens is the greater miracle?
What if Jesus just joins us in our defeat and death? Could that be enough? For here is Jesus in the middle of the human story, taking the risk of full relationship with us in all the wondrous and mysterious surprises of our unfinished human life so that we might take a chance of life alongside him. What if we’re called to follow him, walk with him passed the miracle that didn’t happen and on to the hard, sad journey to Jerusalem.
What if the final miracle is the one that happens on the other side of defeat and death (and only then) when the final healing, this larger life is opened for everyone? What if love only wins then? Can we walk that far and faithfully, be open for ignition, conversion on the long road home? Can we be changed to live into this largest expectation of life?
We’re here to expand our expectation, our belief that this kind of surprise, this recognition, this ignition event in the long-term, can still happen. We’re here to reach out our unqualified hands, to make our uncensored demands, as we can and must, to take ourselves seriously enough to call God to turn around and bless our wounded and wondrous ways; and (even when the answer doesn’t come as we would like) still consent to follow Jesus through life and death and the journey beyond, so that, in the end, we may all go home again together to that peace that passes understanding.
And my prayer today is that we all may learn to take this risk together.
“Christ, look upon us in this city,
And keep our sympathy and pity
Fresh, and our faces heavenward; Lest we grow hard.”
Pentecost 8A - 2017
Holy Trinity Cathedral