The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – The Rev. Jennie Talley

The Rev. Deacon Jennie Talley

The Rev. Deacon Jennie Talley

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15: 10-28

 Preacher: The Rev. Deacon Jennie Talley, Transitional Deacon Sponsored for Priestly Ordination by St. Michael’s Church

My dear sisters and brothers of St. Michael’s, good morning! It has been exactly three years ago today that I stood right here before you, preaching just a few weeks before officially leaving you as a weekly worshipper here, to begin my studies at General Theological Seminary in Chelsea as a postulant for Holy Orders. Of course I have stood here several times since then, but there is something special about marking anniversaries. So here I am three years later, having had a rich, illuminating, and formational seminary experience. As many of you know, I graduated in May, was ordained to the transitional diaconate in March, and am scheduled to be ordained a priest on September 27 up the street at the Cathedral. And of course you are and always will be my special church family, and are all invited!

So how did I realize it has been exactly three years ago today that I preached here? Well, as you may know, we are on a three-year cycle of Sunday scripture readings that are taken each week from our prescribed lectionary list, and I easily recognized that these are the same readings that I preached from back then. But I see them somehow differently three years later. Some may see our lectionary cycle as somewhat upwardly linear: going through the readings for Year A, then advancing to the readings for Year B, culminating in the readings for Year C, then falling back to start all over at the readings for Year A again. But I envision the progression more like an upwardly and ongoing traveling spiral, where we continually advance through the readings, with some ups and downs, but we can never repeat seeing them exactly as before, even with only minute differences. Our life experiences of ups and downs, and the Holy Spirit working through us, take us to beyond a point where we might have been three years ago. The readings are the same, but the inner and outer landscape of life is different. We might not realize it, but we are always growing spirally, ever ahead, even with the ups and downs, towards that pull which is God drawing us closer, in all God’s mercy.

But the all too numerous violent international and local events of the past few weeks, seeming to spiral out of control, sure don’t make it look in any way like we as a human race are moving forward. You have all seen the headlines. There are bombings and mass killings in the Middle East and Iraq, just when we had been so hopeful for peace.  There are Central American children fleeing to our borders in record numbers as refugees, from the violence and killing in their own countries. The children are being turned back in record numbers, just when we had been hoping for fair immigration laws. And there is a horrible epidemic going on all across this country of white police shooting and killing our young unarmed black men, just as we thought we were making some small strides against racism with the election and re-election of a black president. But painfully, racism remains entrenched in our culture, built into our education, voting, and legal justice systems. As the Psalmist sings, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is when God’s children live together in unity!”[1] And how violent and destructive and miserable we can be when we don’t show mercy to each other, when we don’t recognize our common humanity as children of a merciful God, a God who loves each one of us as a unique, one-of-a-kind, and precious creation.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is a challenging one, and I say challenging because the Jesus who is always so merciful, who is always so ready to heal the sick and tend to the needy, seems to have drawn some boundaries, and initially seems to view the Canaanite mother as separate and as “other.” Unlike Jesus’ fellow Jews — the Pharisees, and even the people from his own town who reject him — this foreign and gentile Canaanite woman does recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, for she addresses him as “Lord, Son of David,” while she begs for mercy and a healing for her ill daughter. But Jesus inexplicably ignores her. It is only after Jesus’ disciples ask him to “send her away” that he explains to the woman that his mission is exclusively for those of the house of Israel, and not for the gentiles. And even as she kneels before him pleading for mercy in a worshipful way, Jesus in an all-too-human self, versus a divine self, acts as if there is not enough of God’s mercy to go around for foreigners such as she and her daughter — these foreigners who are sub-human, these gentiles who are no better than dogs. But this woman, in all of her humility, seems to stir something in Jesus when she says, the crumbs, the crumbs are good enough. The Canaanite mother realizes that a bushel of healing can take place with just a few crumbs of mercy. She knows that just a tiny bit of mercy is all she needs for her daughter to be healed. Just a tiny bit. And through that tiny bit of mercy, the gentile woman’s daughter is healed in a miraculous way, and in that tiny moment, we see Jesus’ ministry open up beyond the Israelites, and burst open to include all of humanity. In an instant, the human boundaries of differences have been erased with just a few crumbs of mercy. In God’s realm, crumbs of mercy produce bushels of healing. And as God shows mercy to us, we are all called to have mercy for one another.

There is a tremendous amount of healing that happens through acts of mercy and loving-kindness. We see it in the reading from Genesis where Joseph shows great mercy to his brothers who had, years before, sold him into slavery. Joseph not only forgives them all, but beckons them to bring their households to Egypt where he can protect them during the years of famine to come. The brothers all kissed and wept. Crumbs of Joseph’s mercy produced bushels of family healing.

And in all the recent strife in the world, we have seen amazing acts of mercy this week from individuals that have produced bushels of miraculous healing. There is the act of mercy when the helicopter pilot swept in to drop water and supplies to the Yazidi refugees trapped on a mountaintop in Iraq by jihadists. But the pilot’s heart broke with compassion, and with courage and mercy, he ended up landing his helicopter and loading as many of the refugees as he could to save as many lives as he could.[2] Then there is the immigration judge, Judge Loprest, right here in New York City who showed mercy to many, many Central American children escaping violence by compassionately letting the dozens appearing before him know that he would not rush to deport them, but instead gave them a few months to seek the legal counsel they so desperately need. [3] And on Thursday, with communities of color under siege in Ferguson, Missouri, and confronted by a militarized police department, Captain Ronald Johnson of the State Highway Patrol took charge with compassion to meet and greet the people of the town, not with assault rifles and tear gas, but with an outstretched arm, a hug, and an understanding of the community’s pain and the merciful response needed. Yes, crumbs of mercy produced bushels of healing.

So how do we as faithful people respond to such tragic and challenging events swirling about us? On Tuesday, the Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori called today, August 17, to be a day of prayer for those in Iraq and the Middle East who are “living in fear of their lives, livelihoods, and ways of believing.” And last month, the Episcopal News Service reported how parishioners in our own diocese have been helping and assisting the fleeing Central American children currently housed in detention centers, taking them clothing, and visiting and praying with them while the children await the next step in their detention process.[4] Then on Thursday, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri, Wayne Smith, joined at least 1,000 other clergy, public officials, and residents for a 2-mile march in solidarity with the people of Ferguson over the killing of unarmed Michael Brown. Bishop Smith posted on the diocesan website, “I call upon Episcopalians and other people of faith, especially those whose race or culture gives innate privilege, to look upon what has been laid bare, to pray about these things, humbly to learn from them, and to yearn and work for responses that would bring justice.” The Dean of the St. Louis Cathedral, the Very Rev. Mike Kinman added, “Right now, it’s in the media, we’re riled up about it and that’s important and that’s good. But the issues this is all about are power and privilege and race and class and they have been around a long time. This will take a sustained effort to deal with.  And it’s going to take people of power and privilege and that’s most of us white Episcopalians … ; it will take us becoming educated and becoming really good listeners and examining how we are being called to change some of these systems that led to the killing of Michael Brown.”[5]

So let us begin by responding to all this violence with prayer, and let us pray often. Prayer brings us better into the trajectory of spiraling closer to God and changes our hearts, helping us to fill up our inner stores of mercy and to better see the world through God’s eyes.  A merciful heart lets us better recognize our human hearts as being the same, regardless of our different exteriors and beliefs. And recognizing our human hearts as the same helps us become more merciful to one another.

Then we might do as Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, suggests, “Step out [of your own safe boundary]! Look a Canaanite in the eye, … ask an outsider what their life is like, enter a new relationship.”[6] Perhaps you are called to speak a gentle word, lend a listening ear, or give a smile, for as the death of Robin Williams this week has painfully reminded us, so many are suffering alone and in silence. We might never know how we have touched someone. Or maybe you have been stirred to take action in supporting your favorite human rights group. However we might be called to act, it is God that is transforming our crumbs of mercy into bushels of healing. And it is God always drawing us closer to God’s mercy; it is God constantly and gently assuring our spiraling forward, closer and closer, never ever letting us go.

[1] Psalm 133: 1.

[4] Lynette Wilson, “Unprecedented numbers of children detained crossing the border: Church responds to humanitarian crisis,”, July 8, 2014., accessed August 14, 2014.

[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 67.