Proper 15 Year A
August 20, 2017
As I’ve moved through the bustling and swirling energies in this city over the past week, I’ve found myself trying a little more than I’m used to, to notice what’s going on. To get a sense of how the people around me are.
I’m somewhat used to doing this. The job of a preacher is, after all, to try and say what’s on the hearts of the people with whom she or he is engaged. But since Charlottesville, I must say, that heart-centered observation has changed. Become more pointed, almost more urgent. Things are, once again, like they seemed after the election last November. Maybe a little worse because of how sharply it seems some of our fears have actually been realized.
I spoke with a man at a meeting the other day. He’s been noticing an increase in uneasiness too. A wide-spread malaise, or anxiety. He talked about the psychology of this moment in our nation, likening it to a relationship with an abuser. A borderline personality disorder narcissist who purposefully attempts to muddy the mental landscape. Pitting people against each other. Making everyone – as much as possible – so much on-edge that they – that we – begin to become suspicious. Suspicious of those around us and even of ourselves.
I had a hard time disputing these observations. I’ve been in a work relationship with someone who employed abuser tactics. A man who created a real, tangible sense of chaos and destruction as he went about moving his own power-mad personal agenda forward at the expense of the community we’d been serving, I thought, together.
It’s hard to live like this. And while I know somewhere deep in my heart that we don’t have to live like this, sometimes the dark spirit can have the kind of impact that, oddly, makes for hesitancy in terms of living into the light. And I’m pretty sure I’m less interested in why negativity can be so seductive, and more interested in how to release it and move in a better, kinder and more open direction.
And then I found myself admiring the Canaanite woman. Envying her, almost. I like this moment in the gospel a lot. As you might imagine, I’ve had the chance to reflect upon this story a number of times over the years. I love how rich a story it is. A lot happens in a short span. Jesus seems, at first to test the woman’s faith. She’s tests him right back. He appears to change his mind, somehow signaling the rightness of our dialogues with God. Their interaction reveals to us a sacred process of finding common humanity. The object of her genuine compassion is made whole and, in an almost stunning reversal, we wonder if it isn’t the disciples’ faith that has been challenged. It’s a treasure trove of evangelical proclamation potential. And as I sat and prayed on this passage this week, yet another door opened for me.
Trapped in her situation, with a different kind of demon, she moves without the hesitancy of a dark spirit, to seek God’s help. Nothing stands in her way, and we ultimately see the fruits of her movement toward God. It’s the moment before that acts as a gateway for me.
As an actor, I was taught that the dramatic moment is deeply enriched when it clearly bears traces of the moment before and the moment after in the life of the character. I find myself, presently, looking at the moment before this Canaanite woman ran from her home to seek Jesus. Perhaps the usual hubbub in the street outside her home quickened and became more intense. Perhaps she overheard someone talking about that crazy itinerant preacher and healer who was coming down the lane. She leapt from her daughter’s bedside. That spark is what I’m searching for. It’s like the neon sign of spiritual discernment Meredith talked about last week, and I haven’t been able to find it in the mixture of disappointment and the overwhelming feeling that we must change the world. And we must. And maybe I’m imagining that the spark in the heart of the Canaanite woman is the key to how we will change the world.
If somebody burst in the door right now and shouted that Jesus was in Washington Square Park, I’d want to be the first one running to beg him to save my daughter – to save my people. The people who are being ignored, abused and hated. The people who are doing the ignoring, the abusing and the hating! I’d push past the people surrounding Jesus – I can see him sitting by the fountain, or maybe near that guy with the pigeons all over him – and I’d throw myself at his feet and beg him to help.
And then what?
No doubt he’d extend his hand and draw me to my feet. Put his hand to my cheek and, smiling, say, “I think you know what needs to be done.”
And that’s where it gets fuzzy. It’s almost like Jesus keeps talking but it’s not 100% clear. I have a feeling I know what he’d want me to do, but I can’t quite make out the words.
And so I go on. I continue to put one foot in front of the other. Step after step. (I did 35 miles this week!) I continue the searching process. Searching my heart. Seeking out what’s in the hearts of the people around me, the people I pass as I walk to and from work. The people I work with. Friends. Family. People on the subway.
And then something happened on the subway, of all places, that brought Jesus’ mysterious advice as to how to help this world, into slightly sharper focus.
I’d been up to have a session with my spiritual director at The Church of Notre Dame, near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. We talked about current events, and I shared with him some of the difficulty I’ve been having navigating this new and yet sadly nostalgic darker spirit post-Charlottesville. He very gently noticed how odd it was that I should seem so much pulled from my spiritual center. And rather than bristle at his observation, I took it to heart, completely trusting the spirit in which it was offered. He went on to share his thoughts on some writing from Richard Rohr who speaks about the necessity, perhaps especially in dark times, of remembering God’s love for us. Remembering that this world that God has created still contains enormous beauty. That joy is still available to us. And that we might best serve God and each other by not losing sight of all the wonder – not letting the pain and fear in the world – which will probably always be a part of the world – not letting it get, or keep, the upper hand.
I left his office with what seemed a new mix of spiritual energies. Was I a little clearer on Jesus’ mysterious advice?
I got on the subway train. It was pretty crowded. Friday was really hot and humid and the people on the train seemed to be tired from the heat and yet relaxed in a moment of cooler air on the train. I was standing in the center of the car as, at the first stop more people filed in. I noticed, with a kind of consolation, the ethnic diversity of the passengers. Among those just getting on was an African American woman and her daughter. It appeared to be her daughter, anyway. She looked to be about 11years old and she was eating a Popsicle. A man got up and offered the girl a seat. She smiled and sat, clearly relishing her Popsicle. Next to her sat and Asian woman with what appeared to be her grandson of about 4 or so. He pointed to the girl and spoke in their native tongue. He seemed to be saying, “I want a Popsicle too!”, to which the grandma seemed to reply, “I don’t have any Popsicles, so you’ll have to wait.”
The African American woman immediately extended he hand, in which there was an apple. The boy and his grandma smiled and nodded as he took the apple and brought it to his mouth. Shy smiles all around. It was a lovely moment.
At the next stop, the grandma and boy exited the train, nodding and smiling toward the woman who’d given the apple and her daughter. The woman sat next to her daughter. It was then I heard a clear voice in my head saying, “..you should say something.” “No,” I replied to the angel. “I don’t do that. I can’t talk to a stranger on a subway!” “…yes you can!” I still felt resistance.
And then I whispered a little prayer – something like “help me Jesus” – and I leaned down and spoke to the woman. “…can I say something?” She looked into my face, her expression quite open, her eyebrows up a bit. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bother you. But I found what you did, y’know giving that little boy an apple? – that was so nice. And I was moved to tell you so.”
She smiled, and so did her daughter. “You see, I’m a priest. And I’ve been struggling lately – especially since last weekend – with how terrible it seems things are in the world. And what you did – and you probably think it was such a small thing – but I just wanted you to know how glad I am to have been here to see that there is still so much that brings joy, so simply and sweetly, even now. You’re very kind and I wanted to say thank you.”
“You’re a priest”, she said with a little laugh, “I’m sure you’re kind too.” I laughed and said, “….nah…we’re all sinners!” She and her daughter smiled and, as I stood upright, I saw that a number of people in the immediate vicinity of our conversation were smiling too.
As I got off at 14th Street, she and her daughter did too. We went in different directions, wishing each other a beautiful day. On my way back to the office, I felt a little tear – the best kind – come to the corner of my eye. And that message from Jesus got even clearer. In part, because of a sign I’d also seen: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” And darned if Jesus didn’t look just a little like Angela Davis just then….
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
August 20, 2017