Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Sermon for Last Sunday

Sermon for Proper 15, Year A

From Matthew 15:28
"Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

“What you see is what you get.” This phrase is often used to describe something we are about to purchase; a kind of warning that what is seen is all there is; there isn’t any more. Or, the phrase may indicate that what is seen on a computer screen is exactly like the thing that will be printed out or as it will appear on a web site.

However, WYSIWYG has another at least one other meaning: what you think you are going to see, what you have become conditioned to see, is often what you WILL see, and what you WILL get.

I have a friend who is red/green colorblind. Last year, we were out camping and went for a hike on a sunny day in a glorious coastal forest. We came upon a red huckleberry bush, laden with bright read fruit. Both of us are avid berry-eaters. I pointed to the bush and said: “wow, that’s rare – a red huckleberry bush covered in berries.” My friend responded: what berries? I can’t see any.” Of course, to him it was a kind of grayish plant with all sorts of leaves – some pointed, and some round. Because I can distinguish between red and green, I could tell that the pointed leaves where really leaves, and the round ones were actually succulent, sweet-tart red hucks.

Like colorblindness, some people, I think, simply don’t have the right equipment to apprehend spiritual realities. For whatever reason, they simply can’t pick out things that aren’t concrete or physical. Some such people actually are members of the Church: they are attracted to something else about the Gospel, or Christ, or the worship, teachings, practice, or history of the Church.

Unlike colorblindness, which is a genetic condition, we can acquire spiritual blindness by how we have been formed, or by the choices we make. In the Old Testament Lesson today, Joseph’s brothers were blinded by the years of separation and by Joseph’s changed condition; they were also blinded by the sin that had led to them to consider killing Joseph, and then settling for selling him into slavery. This is the blindness of human sin; but Joseph’s words show that God’s purposes are so deep, and his love so vast, that even human sinfulness cannot overcome it. Joseph’s brothers’ blindness was ultimately used by God to bring about for them, their father, their families, and all the peoples of Egypt.

But there is another kind of spiritual blindness, even more entrenched than this; for, indeed, Joseph’s brothers repented for their earlier sin and overcame its effects by God’s grace. This other form of spiritual blindness is based on the belief that we know better than God. Spiritual blindness is most terrible when it produces smugness, arrogance, and self-certainty.

This is what Jesus condemns in the first part of today’s Gospel reading. It is not what we eat with the mouth, but what proceeds from out of our mouths, that defiles us. It is a supreme act of spiritual folly and blindness to think that we can justify ourselves by a code of purity. What God wants is not our religiosity, our capability to blindly follow rules, but a living faith, willing to contend, to risk, to grow, to engage a Living God.

The second part of today’s Gospel lesson is disturbing to many. Jesus seems to be cruel to this Canaanite woman. Yet, St. Matthew is carefully making a point. The pious, officially “religious” people in the previous verses reject Jesus because he rejects the automatic, almost vending-machine way of relating to God through outward observance. St. Matthew then places a story about a foreign woman (a doubly-difficult position in the culture of her day) who actually contends with Jesus as she seeks the healing of her daughter.

The Canaanite woman verbally wrestles with Jesus, not unlike Jacob wrestling with the Angel. In the end, she prevails and comes away with the blessing she sought. Jesus’ actions show that is precisely this sort of living, open-eyed and engaged faith – not the mechanical and ritualized faith of the Pharisees – that His God and Father wants.

And so we are bidden to ask ourselves a question today: what form of spiritual blindness do we suffer? Has a form of sinfulness, anger, or envy blinded us to the value and purpose of others in our life? Or, have we become complacent in our faith, looking at God as a sort of spiritual vending-machine fulfilling all our wants and needs because that’s His job?

In any case, the way we have come to see God, the expectations we bring, will help determine what we see when we raise our eyes at Communion this day: just some flat bread and some sweet wine with perhaps a little history and a good deal of sentiment attached, or the real presence of Christ Jesus, inviting us to contend with Him, so that we may join her in hearing the words said to her: “Great is your faith; let it be done for you as you wish.”

What you see is what you get. What do you see today?

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