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Terror Melting Into Wonder

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 24

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons from awhile back pictures a little man dressed in pajamas holding a cup of coffee.  He’s standing on his doorstep, mouth agape while looking up in the air as a giant, I mean house-sized, New York Times, is flying straight for him.  Though we may not all get our news by home delivery these days, I’m guessing you can relate to the image.  The news this summer reminds me of something my dad and no doubt others before him would say when weighted down by something: “I feel like I’ve got a herd of elephants on my chest.” These headlines, let alone whatever personal tragedies we may know, are weighing down our hearts as if a house or a herd were on top of us! And we aren’t even the ones who are experiencing these news stories on the front lines, be they picket or protest lines, or the Green Line between Israel and Gaza, or at our own borders.

Cries of desperation are rising from all around our country and planet and there seems a common experience that unites so many of them.  The thread is this: the cries are coming from people, mostly black and brown, who are seeking to be recognized as human beings and treated as such with basic dignity and respect.  We hear them from over 50,000 Central America refugee children left homeless and temporarily orphaned after fleeing violence and death.  We hear the cries from Gaza where an unjust, racist Israeli policy of occupation is coupled with terrorist reaction on all sides.  We hear them from Northern Africa as a terrifying Ebola outbreak threatens entire populations with deadly disease and mass quarantines that are sure to impinge on civil rights.  And we hear them most recently from Ferguson, Missouri where protesters have taken to the streets outraged by a police killing of Mike Brown who was gunned down with his hands up. Never before have I sent so many friends and colleagues an email with the line “Hope your summer is going well despite the horrendous headlines.”  Most of us meet these headlines, with a coffee cup in hand, maybe in our pajamas, in the comfort of our homes.  Around here, things have slowed down for the summer but the righteous cries and shouting for justice and mercy and peace have made it a hard time to take it easy, and to find rest, which brings me to our passage from Mark.

If you found yourself doing a mental double-take upon hearing Jesus response to the Canaanite woman, you are not alone.  This poor woman is suffering.   Her daughter is sick.  She’s desperate for his healing touch.  His first response is silence, a not very Christ-like silence that seems to say “Not now.”  His disciples only encourage his disregard.  “That’s right, Jesus.  Send her away…this pagan is shouting at us and calling you Lord and Son of David like she’s one of us; she’s not even a Jew!”  In fact, she was an outsider to them, a Gentile from the unfamiliar lands of Tyre and Sydon in the north country where Jesus and the disciples find themselves well outside of their usual sales territory in Galilee.  She would have made that quintessential other, the Samaritan, seem like a next-door neighbor.  So Jesus for once agrees with the disciples.  He says, seemingly exasperated, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel!” Apparently, he can’t be bothered with her.  Then, as if to add insult to injury, our fairest Lord Jesus tells her, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”  Oh yes he did…. He did say just that, according to Matthew!  Now, to be fair to Jesus, some scholars have noted that he was just trying to get away, he was trying to find a little peace and quiet for himself, a chance to rest, to pray, to vacate or empty himself, for even a moment, of the weight of the world he was called to carry.  Who could blame him for that, right?  He was human, after all, or so our tradition tells us.  And to be fair, he never says “no” to her, not outright at least!  His response can be seen as more like a “wait” or “can’t you wait?” to which the woman respectfully says, “no”!  As in ‘uh-uh’...“no peace without justice!”  

Does this sound familiar to us?  At one point on my computer screen this week, I had this scripture on one side of the screen and that photo of the people in Ferguson, protesting in a line, standing in solidarity with Mike Brown, their hands in the air, shouting slogans like “We are human too.” “Stop the brutality.” “Don’t shoot!” “No Justice. No Peace.” Don’t let my baby die!    The set up of our scripture is a classic, and so very timely – a person in power, in this case, Jesus, trying at least initially to “keep the peace” if only for his own sanity, while a person on the margins cries out for recognition, for mercy and justice, cries out things just like what the Canaanite says that “even the dogs eat the crumbs,” “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” Unlike much of what we’ve been reading these days, Jesus eventually sees and hears her and relents. He sees this woman as the child of God that she is and responds accordingly. He recognizes her humanity and draws her into the fold of divine love.

I’m a latecomer to an amazing piece of creative non-fiction that came out in 2011. Its called Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest.   Father Boyle, or G-Dog as his co-laborers call him, has spent 20 years working gang violence programs in LA.  He’s officiated funerals for at least 167 gang members killed by street violence.  Boyle has been relentless in treating gang members with compassion, as he would his own kin, and is responsible for creating Homeboy Industries, an economic development non-profit which now employs over 300 former gang members mostly in small businesses from a bakery, to a diner and to food trucks and tattoo removal services.  The motto: the business of “second chances is everybody’s business.”  The book is full of hard-knock stories of gang members, also known as homeboys or homies, whose lives are turned upside down by joblessness, poverty and violence.  There is a turn of phrase that he uses in one story that has been echoing in my mind this week.  The story is one of the more light-hearted in the book– about the first time he took some homies on a flight, about how terrified they were when they learned there were no parachutes.  And then came the takeoff.  Boyle writes:  “Terror melting into wonder, then slipping into peace.”  The line could be a subtitle for the whole book as many of his remarkable stories follow that same course.  “Terror melting into wonder, then slipping into peace.”

In Boston on Thursday, and throughout the country, people have gathering in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, terrified, if not terrorized, by scenes of police in riot gear, hurling tear gas and pointing rifles.  We are far from ready to slip into peace on this current event or any of the others that I mentioned, but some are at least beginning to stop and wonder, wonder as Jesus might have wondered after the Canaanite woman came back at him, and after her initial round of shouting and demanding to be seen!  People are being called anew to wonder about the state of our democracy, about the disparity of the different worlds, the different Bostons in which we live.  Many of us are questioning the slogan Boston Strong and ONE Boston when socio-economic and racial inequality divides us so deeply.  Many are joining with those who have been wondering for years, and fuming and resiliently waiting and waiting and pushing for deeper conversations about our nation’s historic and present reality of systemic racism.  Next week, we will pick up one thread of that conversation here as we discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates recent Atlantic Monthly article called the Case for Reparations, the byline of which is “250 years of Slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal.  35 years of state sanctioned redlining.  Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors America will never be whole.”  Please join us after the church in the Hastings Room as we will share our wonder together.  Even as the right gains traction, so is a steady Spirit-driven movement from terror to soul-searching wonder - the kind of wonder that leaves plenty of room for righteous outrage and anger and fierce resistance but that seeks love for enemies and stops short of violence.

In the case of our scripture, Jesus was moved to something like this wonder.  He was moved from his own ingrained and historic fear of the Canaanites. He was moved from his present-day fear that he would not have enough time to rest. He was moved to a place of wonder and awe, from which he could listen to and learn from the tenacity and persistence of the woman. Mind you, she wasn’t asking for reparations for generations of racist oppression that her people would have felt. She was asking for one simple act of mercy and healing which she knew he had the power to deliver.  In the face of her suffering, in the face of her courage and faith, humble yet confident, Jesus is reminded that he was trying to do the impossible; he was trying to place human limits on the divine love.  He was trying to say “my love stops here, for these my people; it can stretch no further.”  The Canaanite woman somehow knows better.  She knows, perhaps from her own undying love of her sick daughter, that you can’t stop something that is infinite!  She helps him to realize that doing so is like trying to cut space in half…it just doesn’t work.  God’s infinite love is still and will always be growing within him, transforming him, enlarging his sense of wonder and purpose, and expanding his love to embrace ever-wider circles of God’s children and creation.  
Terror melting into wonder, then slipping into peace.  Dear hearts, all of you, these are anxious and overwhelming times, even terrifying. Too many of our sisters and brothers in our God-given human family are being terrorized, and too many people in power are trying to draw lines, to set limits upon the power of God’s boundless compassion and love for all.  If you are feeling tempted to step aside when that giant New York Times or Boston Herald or Buzzfeed alerts come hurdling straight for your heart, take comfort from our scripture. Know that even Jesus at times needed to learn how better to hear and respond to cries of desperation that were pressing in on him, even when he was trying to catch a break.  Swallow the coffee but swallow also the pride, the apathy, the anxiety and fear that’s been brewing. And make room to wonder anew at the boundless love of God, and the call to stand in solidarity with the least of these.

I have one more story, something that was not covered by the headlines this week though it should have been. On Wednesday, we picked up Nellie at the end of 10 days of summer camp with Kids4Peace. As many of you know, every summer Kids4Peace Boston hosts an interfaith peace-education camp for 12-year-olds. Twelve boys and girls from the Boston area are selected, along with twelve from the Jerusalem area. In each group, one-third is Muslim, one-third Jewish, and one-third Christian.  This year, Nellie was one of the 12 from Boston.  As the Kids4Peace website describes with photos and videos and text, “each child gets a Peace Pal from the other part of the world, someone of the same gender but a different religion. They start communicating even before meeting face to face.  [The kids just spent 10 days together a summer camp in the mountains of New Hampshire.] Along with swimming, hiking and campfire singing, they learn about each other’s faith and traditions, while maintaining the diet and religious practices they know from home. For many children, this is their first friendly encounter with someone of another faith,” and this is especially true for the kids coming from Israel and Palestine. Too many stories to share now, but let’s say this for today. I’ve never known Nellie to be one for sappy or dramatic goodbyes but on Wednesday, there she was, bonded with her new peace pal from Jerusalem, Ayala, in a farewell embrace that lasted a full 5 minutes, with tears streaming down her face.  And this, following a rousing final chance for the kids to belt our their Kids4Peace chant with all their inimitably robust 12 year old energy. The chant is this, and we can all feel free to share it in since First Church has been a supporter of Kids4Peace since its founding in 2010. Repeat after me (and don’t worry, Nellie’s here and can help you out!): Ready?

Every where we go…..
People wanna know…..
Who we are…..
So we tell them…...
We are kids for peace…..
Mighty, mighty kids for peace….
No more fighting….
Time to do the right thing….
Salaam Shalom….
Shalom Salaam…..
Kids For Peace!

Imagine that righteous shouting given the current reality that the Peace Pals are returning to! Imagine that history of tension and terror. And imagine 10 days of that “terror melting into wonder,” and laughter and fun and learning, and “then slipping into peace” and into the most tender of embraces.

For all those cries of desperation, we must pray. In addition to engaging our time and energy and resources into programs like Kids4Peace and Homeboy Industries, we must pray, as if each of these people in our house-sized newpapers were our own brother, our own sister, our own child. We must pray that God’s compassion and love for them and our ways of sharing it, remains as boundless and blaring as large group of 12 years old shouting for peace at the top of their longs. Together, we pray that their terror and ours melts into wonder, then one day slips…into shalom, into salaam, into peace. Amen.

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