a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”

Incredible!

This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.

 

Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

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Easter means…

a sermon, based on Acts 7.55-60 and John 14.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

Continuing our Easter season celebration at length and contemplation at depth of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, today, I offer one word: home. Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home.

Stephen, before stoned to death, beheld a vision of “Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” His dying testimony anticipated our creedal affirmation that Jesus “came down from heaven…became incarnate…was crucified…suffered death…was buried…rose again…ascended into heaven…seated at the right hand of (God).”[1]

Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari

Easter means that Jesus found his way back home.

Now, if Easter is all and only about Jesus, then we have little reason to celebrate. Blessedly, there’s more! Jesus declares that finding home is about us. On the night before he died, Jesus bid his disciples be not troubled by his departure, promising that he would welcome them into God’s infinitely roomy house. So also testifies our creed: “(Jesus) will come again in glory…and his kingdom will have no end.”

Easter means that we go home to God.

Where is this home? Stephen “gazed into heaven.” Presuming a first century cosmology of a spherical earth suspended in space at the center of a series of concentric heavens, Stephen looked up. Yet I think God’s “many dwelling places” is not a description of celestial space or heavenly architecture. The question, therefore, is not where, but rather what is home? As we’re talking about the realm of God, indeed, God’s being and nature, “many dwelling places” is a symbol of the infinite capaciousness of God’s Love.

Easter means we always are at home in God, Who, as Love, allows nothing to keep us apart, not even we ourselves.

George Herbert[2] understood this. In his enchanting poem, Love Bade Me Welcome,[3] he writes of God who, as Love, unconditionally bids him come…

Yet he, aware of his mortality and iniquity, resists…

Love perceiving his hesitancy, draws closer; swift to erase any distance, to ease any dis-ease between them…

Herbert, desiring to be a worthy guest, honestly confesses that he is not…

Love replies in future tense, “you shall be”; for Herbert’s sense of his present unworthiness does not, cannot prevent Love from loving…

Herbert, perhaps disbelieving for joy, counters with specificity, naming his chiefest sins, unkindness and thanklessness; his guilt so great that he dares not look at God…

Love draws closer still, taking Herbert’s hand, smiling, speaking Self-referentially that the Creator of the eye best can decide whose eyes shall see God…

Herbert presses the point, declaring his shame in misusing the gift of sight; begging to be given what he deserves: the punishment of banishment from God’s presence…

Ah, says Love, shame, Herbert’s and ours, already has been embraced and embodied in Jesus; God, our Lover, living with us as we live and die, being in us for all time and beyond time…

Herbert, persuaded, agrees to come to table as Love’s servant…

Ah, no, says Love, it alway is I who serves…

Herbert, all of his protests overcome, finally accepts Love’s welcome; sitting with Love, supping, partaking of Love.

Easter means we become Who we receive: Love.

In our Anglican ethos, scripture, tradition, and reason proclaim God’s existence. Yet it is my life’s experience that proves God’s Love. Herbert’s experience is my experience! I have known moments of painful glory when unconditional love welcomed me. When others (and I’m not talking about people who didn’t and don’t know me, but rather people who knew and know me well, very well; knowing things about me that I despise and wouldn’t want them or anyone to know!) embraced me without regard or reserve, overcoming every obstacle of my sense of my unworthiness, calling me to accept, to love myself just as I am. Though never a constant state (indeed, what is?), I have known moments of being so loved that I love.

In my pastoral ministry, listening to, loving others, I also know that everyone has not had moments of this pained glory when, in spite of their poor self-esteem, indeed, in some cases, self-loathing, the love of others bade them welcome. I have grieved with those who, in their experiences of judgment and rejection, largely only know pain and no glory.

Easter means finding and knowing, going and being home. Easter means we are called to rise in new life here on earth, being and becoming, and giving what we have received that all will know God’s Love.

If Easter ain’t about that, then Easter ain’t about anything!

 

Illustration: Martyrdom of St. Stephen (c. 1560), Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Footnotes:

[1] From the Nicene Creed. The full text:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

[2] George Herbert, Portrait by Robert White (1674), National Portrait Gallery George Herbert (1593-1633), Welsh-born Anglican priest, orator, and poet (Portrait by Robert White, 1674, National Portrait Gallery)

 

[3] Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

 

“and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about self-differentiation, defining it as “knowing where others and I begin and end.” Being (most of the time!) a well-developed “self”, was…is for me one of the most difficult aspects of human living. For I arrived at adulthood through childhood and adolescence (I write this without any want or need to blame my folks, but rather with a firm hold on my responsibility for me) with a powerful and abiding yearning to be acknowledged and accepted.[1]

Whenever I’ve followed the leading of this longing, I’ve fallen into a chameleonic trap, adjusting what I do and say, even what I think to adapt to others’ expectations. (I say “trap”, for such people-pleasing conformism always proves too high a price to pay in misshaping and losing my self, my soul. Moreover, given that the person I’d presented myself to be was inauthentic, whatever acknowledgement and acceptance I gained was counterfeit.)

Now, whenever I’ve maintained a genuine respect for (that is, acknowledging and accepting) my need for acknowledgement and acceptance, I’m able to behave in a variety of healthy ways. I can hold in balance my dependence on others and their dependence on me, truly, our mutual interdependence. I can face criticism without defensiveness, conflict without retaliatory offensiveness, and rejection without self-pitying sadness.

This brings me to toxic people or, truth be told, people when they are (when I am) toxic. For the balance of self-differentiation is simply and profoundly that. A balance that I do not believe any of us, being marvelously and maddeningly consistent in our human inconsistency, always achieves or constantly maintains.

Speaking always and only for myself, when satisfying my hunger for acknowledgement and acceptance is my topmost aim and especially if…when I don’t get the response I seek, I’m subject to exhibit manifold unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors. Though I don’t intend to universalize my experience, there are two chief attitudes and actions I’ve seen in myself and others that I now identify as toxic: being unpredictable and unapologetic.

Unpredictable. I’m smiling, chatty, and engaging, then the next day or hour or moment, dour, quiet, and withdrawn. You, concerned, ask, “What’s wrong, Paul?” I shrug and sigh, “Oh, nothing.” Will you take the relational bait and pursue? If so, I’ve got you hooked wondering, worried about what you may have done to provoke such a change and perhaps wishing you could fix it.

At times like this, one my dearest friends, truly, brothers, the late, great Tim Veney, knew best, that is, healthily and helpfully, what to do. Walk away, leaving me to deal with me and telling me, always with a kindly smile, “Come back when the real Paul returns.”

Unapologetic. You try to engage me, reasonably describing your observations of my suddenly sullen discontent. I’ll lie, “No, I’m not. I don’t know what you’re talking about” or I’ll deflect, refusing to name and claim my feelings, “Hmmm, methinks you’re the one with the issue. Are you upset about something that you’re not saying? If I had a problem, I’d tell you” or I’ll exaggerate, “You always try to make it about me” or “You never really try to understand me” or I’ll recriminate, “Do you remember last week when you were acting like you’ve accused me of behaving?” or I’ll judge, “When you’re like this, I’m much kinder to you than you are to me.”

When I’m in my toxic rut, my beloved wife, Pontheolla, like Tim, well knows and faithfully practices healthy and helpful, sanity-saving responses. Sometimes, she does it with a look, all at once, understanding and firm and sometimes with a word, “Paul, I will not engage you now. When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.” Either or both ways, the effect is calming and disarming and sooner than later I return to my best…well, my better self.

There are myriad toxic behaviors, but the two aforementioned shall suffice. Moreover, this is my final word (for now) on human behavior. So, I’ll end where I started…

I began this series (October 12: “and” – a personal reflection on human behavior) with an opening word about a certain presidential candidate. As I reflect, he professes to be unpredictable and unapologetic. Hmmm

 

Footnote:

[1] I mentioned my need for acknowledgement and acceptance in my October 13 post: “and…most of the time!” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 2. It took me quite the while to discern how and why I am this way. For years now, I’ve seen it clearly. The roots trace back to my formative years and upbringing. I perceive my hungering need to be acknowledged and accepted as a combination of the sometimes spoken and largely unspoken and perhaps unintended lessons of my household and, equally, how I reacted to my foundational, familial environment. Given the latter, again, I have no desire or need to blame my folks (Lord, have mercy, I confess that I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime!). I also need not or ever blame anyone or anything else, for, until I die or become too decrepit or disabled to remain a sentient, semi-autonomous, ethical actor in the world, I’ll be the only me for whom I’m – and no one else is – responsible!