Disagreeing with God – September 9, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146


Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen..

What would Jesus do? The classic ethical question that was common in late twentieth century American evangelicalism continues to serve as a popular test of right and wrong. Would Jesus keep all his money to himself or would Jesus set up a soup kitchen? Would Jesus retaliate against a friend or family member or would Jesus generously extend forgiveness? Would Jesus murder someone? Would Jesus lie, cheat, or steal? Jesus, many assume, is a paragon of moral excellence, someone who always makes the correct choices and whose choices can be universalized to apply to every other human being.

“What would Jesus do?” suggests that navigating ethical decisions is easy. It assumes that we can determine what Jesus would do, that we know enough about Jesus’ moral priorities from secondhand accounts of his life and teaching to be able to predict with confidence how he would behave now—in very different conditions, continents away and two thousand years later. Conveniently, we seem to regularly come to the conclusion that what Jesus would do has a lot in common with the beliefs and prejudices we happen to hold. Pacifists think that Jesus would have condemned war; environmentalists claim that Jesus would have driven electric; pro-life activists say that Jesus would have fought against abortion. “What would Jesus do?” often functions as a “Gotcha!” question that aims to stifle debate and shut down dissension from those who disagree with us.

If we are going to ask “what would Jesus do?” it might be helpful to refrain from conflating Jesus’ priorities with our own and instead consider what Jesus actually did. Jesus, after all, did not always act or teach in accordance with the values of respectable twenty-first century Americans. He did heal the deaf and champion the cause of the poor, but he also vandalized the stalls of merchants and waxed on scarily about the end of the world and extolled the virtues of hating one’s father and mother.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus dismisses a woman of a different religion and ethnic origin by calling her a dog. It is a horrific story that ends happily—the woman displays an impressive amount of tenacity in pushing back against Jesus and Jesus rewards her for her faith. But the story’s reassuring outcome does not entirely compensate for the inexcusable way in which Jesus behaves earlier within it. We can explain the story away by supposing that Jesus is testing the woman or by characterizing the tale as a fable about the value of wit and persistence, but we cannot escape the fact that Jesus acts within this passage in a way that seems misogynist and racist and dismissive and just mean.

Certainly the temptation for entitled, privileged men to call women of other backgrounds dogs has not disappeared in the past two millennia, but Jesus’ retort is still shocking because it shatters the ideal of the perfect, pure, meek-and-mild Savior that we have constructed for him. How can the man whose words we listen to each and every Sunday, whom we worship as the Christ, the Son of God behave so reprehensibly? How can the person from whom we have learned goodness act in a way that we associate more with evil than with good?

Perhaps Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is an invitation to treat others and ourselves with a little more grace. After all, if Jesus—the Christ, the Word Incarnate, the Son of God eternal—can treat others so terribly, maybe we are not the worst we have done, and maybe others are not the worst they have done either. Prejudice and cruelty are intolerable evils, but we are all capable of them and none of us is beyond redemption—particularly if we listen when we are challenged and corrected.

The Syrophoenician woman challenges Jesus and is rewarded for it. Yet we often see Jesus as someone beyond challenge or reproach. “What would Jesus do?” becomes a binding standard we dare not question. If Jesus would do it, we better do it too; if Jesus wouldn’t do it, it’s not an option. But Jesus did call a woman from a different ethnic background a dog, and that is not something I think most of us would be comfortable with or think of as the right thing to do. Jesus time and time again welcomed outsiders in, and yet this outsider, until she lifted up her voice against him, Jesus tried to shun. Jesus was a complicated person. What if Jesus is waiting for us to stand up to him and register our dissent? Is that a possibility that we’re willing to consider?

Those of you who have studied the Bible with me at some point during my time here at St. Paul’s know my fondness for a video lecture by my former professor Joel Baden. The lecture, which is called “What Use is the Bible?” examines the first few chapters of Genesis and points out something that most people don’t realize: that there are actually two creation stories in the Bible—two different stories that depict the creation of the world in undeniably contradictory ways. In one story, creation takes place over six separate days; in the other, it seems to take only one. In one story, human beings are created last; in the other, they are created first. In one story, women and men are created together; in the other, men exist before women.

Baden argues that it essential for us to acknowledge these contradictions. He encourages us to stop using the Bible as a “prop to advance individual agendas” and grapple with the Bible’s complex, multifaceted nature. “We have to remember,” he says: “if there are two creation accounts in the Bible—two contradictory stories—that doesn’t happen by chance. Someone made that happen. Whoever put these stories together, even if you think it was God—especially if you think it was God—made a choice that we as serious readers of the text have to reckon with, not gloss over and not try to interpret away but actually come to terms with…[that person] was willing to sacrifice easy meaning and singularity of perspective for the presence in scripture of multiple perspectives.”

“If we as a culture are going to invest the Bible with authority and privilege it as a source of truth,” Baden goes on to explain, “then we really can’t pretend the Bible is anything other than what it is and it is anything other than a single clear statement of belief or truth. It’s a jumble of beliefs; it’s a mixture of opinions; it’s a combination of voices. And that multivocality is embedded in the text right from the word ‘Go.’…There are many truths [in the Bible]—they are all equally Biblical, equally Scriptural, authoritative, valid, valued by our traditions. The Bible doesn’t preserve an original claim that is there for us to retrieve. There are many original claims here. ” I love to come back to that lecture of Baden’s because I am heartened by his reminder that the Christian faith is intrinsically complicated and that disagreement and conversation and complexity are embedded in the very scriptures that witness to who God is. I feel better about my own disagreements with God because I remember that challenging God or the Bible or the Church is not a betrayal of God but an embrace of God’s very nature; it is not an act of unfaithfulness, but an act of faith.

“Be opened,” Jesus says to the deaf man, and of course Jesus means this literally. Soon the deaf man’s tongue and ears are opened and the man can finally talk and hear. But I suspect that Jesus’ desire for openness extends beyond the literal opening of tongues and ears; I suspect that Jesus also years for the figurative opening of minds and hearts. In his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus own’ mind and heart are opened. Because of how she challenges him, he perceives and treats her differently. I wonder how your mind and heart are being opened today, how you are being stretched to consider things from a new perspective, how you are being encouraged to question and challenge and even disagree with everything and everyone, including God.

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