Proper 28, Year A
This is another gospel that is difficult for me to understand, let alone try to tell it as good news to you. Matthew has a theme, last week with the maidens and their oil lamps, this week servants and talents, and next week the separation of the sheep and the goats. There was an earlier ‘kingdom of God is like’ where a king throws a banquet for his son and those invited do not come. The ending to all these parables is that someone is left out or thrown out in the darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Our challenge is that Matthew’s audience was different than those of us listening to his words today. Matthew writes, primarily, to Jewish Christians who are struggling both with the delay in Jesus’ return, the parousia (pair-oo-see-ah), and the Jewish population surrounding them. They have differentiated themselves from their Jewish family and are not sure how to embrace the Gentile Christians. It seems the end time has come – the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, and yet Christ has not returned as they expected he would. As time went on Christians began to focus more on how to act than on preparing for the arrival of the son of man in the near future.
Looking at the gospel in the terms of what it meant to Matthew’s audience may give us ideas as to how this is good news for us today. The ‘talent’ in the gospel story is a huge sum of money. Five talents today would be around 4 million dollars. It is only important to know that it was a great amount of wealth to leave with a servant.
“In the Parable of the Talents, the master showed great trust by leaving so much money in the care of three servants. The FIRST servant honored that trust by using the master’s money wisely. Likewise the SECOND servant. Those two servants respected the master. They knew what he wanted, and did their best to give it to him. The THIRD servant, though, acted quite differently. (Perhaps) he acted differently because he felt differently toward the master.
He didn’t respect the master. He didn’t love the master. He feared the master. He thought of the master as a hard man, even though the master has been generous to all three servants. This third servant didn’t care what the master wanted, so he didn’t try to do what the master wanted. The third servant cared only about himself –– his own life. So instead of using the master’s money wisely, he buried it in the ground. In the culture of that time, he would not be held responsible for the sum if he buried it and it became lost. Because he didn’t want the responsibility, he just hid it away. But it didn’t work. The master left the money to be used. He expected his servants to DO SOMETHING –– to make the world a little better place –– to make someone happy –– to put the money to work. “ (Sermonwriter, Dick Donovan)
God gives us gifts, abilities that we call talent. We are expected to use those gifts. When they are used, they multiply, and spread the goodness of God’s kingdom. When we hide them, ignore them, or choose to not do anything (like burying them away), we do lose them. They remain unused or worse fade away to nothing. God asks that we use the talents that have been bestowed upon us.
I tend to picture God as a merciful, loving, forgiving, creator. To see a judgmental, condemning God is difficult for me. That third servant pictures a God that is indeed unmerciful, unloving and most definitely unforgiving. Fear of the consequences of losing what God has entrusted to him leaves him one option – to hide it all away. Would God care if we try to use our talents and end up losing them? I don’t think so.
It seems that God is most upset and hurt when we turn away and hide – only because God knows that in the end we will be hurt by our own actions.
How you respond to God by either boldly using your gifts/talents or hiding them away will indicate the way you envision God. Are you the beloved child of a loving, merciful, caring, forgiving God? Or are you the servant of a Master “who is harsh, reaping where he does not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed”? Paul tells us that we are “children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness…God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Over the next week, reflect on three things: What has God given you? What are you doing with those gifts? What should you be doing? Next week’s gospel will outline how we are to use our God given gifts/talents. It is a special Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the season after Pentecost. It is the last Sunday in our church year. We can continue this conversation next week…
Proper 27, Year A
How many choices have you made in your life, and how many choices has life made for you? It feels that way sometimes; we don’t get to choose. Life happens and we find ourselves dealing with it. There is seemingly so much beyond our control that we hold on to the things that are familiar, comfortable or stable – until someone or something comes along and messes with our life. Perhaps that’s why religion survives. We need the hope that all will be well.
The Israelites have made it to the land that God had promised them. They have been on a journey for years and almost nothing is the same. Sure they have something to eat and water to drink, but they still longed for the ‘good ole days of slavery in Egypt’. But now, they have settled in their new land and they are asked to make a choice – a choice for how they will live out their lives. Joshua gathers the tribes and says, “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods our ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living, …or serve the LORD.” It is an important decision because if they choose to follow God, their LORD, then they can’t change their mind later without paying the consequences. The God of the Israelites was a vengeful and jealous God, and yet the people choose to follow the one God, to forsake all those other gods. They make their choice publically in front of the assembly so as to be held accountable. They choose to stay with the God that has protected them and done great works in their sight.
This morning Jesus tells another parable about the kingdom of heaven. This one has to do with 10 maidens and their lamps. Five bring extra oil – just in case. Five do not. Well, the bridegroom is delayed and all ten lamps are low on oil. The five that brought the extra oil are present when the bridegroom comes and get into the wedding feast. The others are late because they had to run to the market to get more oil and get locked out. Culturally, at that time, “the bridegroom has gone to the home of the bride to determine and sign the marriage contract with the bride’s father and then he will return with the bride to his home (or that of his father). Since negotiations about the terms of the marriage contract could get involved, perhaps the groom’s delay should not be considered unusual. At the return with his bride, the wedding feast could begin at the bridegroom’s household. The ten maidens await the groom’s return with his bride.” (Sacra Pagina, Matthew, page 349).
Hard to say what choices were made by the maidens that led some to get extra oil and some to not bring any. Did some choose to go have manicures/pedicures in preparation for the banquet and then not have time to get to the market? We can identify with this scenario. We’ve overscheduled our day so that we don’t have time to pick up something at the market or we are late for a meeting or we miss our child’s event? And we’ve done it more than once! That’s one lesson to take from the story. Don’t get so involved with doing, that you forget to take care of living.
Jesus was speaking in parable using events from everyday life. The people listening to Matthew’s gospel would understand that he is the bridegroom and that the “maidens become positive and negative models on how to act in view of the Son of Man’s delayed arrival.” (Sacra Pagina, Matthew, page 350). This parable reiterates the need to be prepared, to be ready, “because you do not know the day or the hour.” Another lesson to take from this parable is not so much about judgment or the character of God as about being ready for the kingdom of heaven and what the time of Jesus’ return will be like.
There are two ways of looking at the “end time”. One is called cataclysmic, and the other is the continuum. The people to whom Matthew was writing lived with a belief of a cataclysmic eschatology. The Son of Man would suddenly return and if you weren’t prepared, you got left out, like the foolish maidens at the wedding banquet. My preference is the continuum, that the end time comes with the reign of God. All people on earth will work together and bring about the reign of God. We are all ready, because it can’t happen unless the whole earth is one family. It rather goes along with the vision of a loving, merciful, God. It also makes our job harder. We not only have to get our own lives in order, we need to help and support each other. In this way, we need to use the resources we receive to help bring about the reign of God (heaven on earth). That is the lesson to take from the readings today. For the people in Matthew’s day, they thought Jesus was coming at any time and had to be prepared. For us, so much time has passed; it is a matter of continuing to work more than being prepared.
We gather our pledge intentions this morning. The money is used to continue our work in bringing about the kingdom of God here in our community. I pray that we share our gifts and talents with each other and with those in need, believing that God will continue to provide for us. We, as Christians, have promised to serve the LORD. Let us follow the role model of the wise maidens and be prepared to do this work. AMEN.
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BEFORE her drinking spiraled out of control, Sylvia Dobrow “drank like a lady,” as she put it, matching her wine to her sandwiches: “Tuna and chardonnay, roast beef and rosé.” But soon she was “drinking around the clock,” downing glasses of vodka and skim milk.
“When you try to hide your drinking from your grandchildren, you do whatever you can,” said Ms. Dobrow, 81, a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother living in Stockton, Calif.
A former hospital educator, Ms. Dobrow’s alcohol consumption became unmanageable after she lost her job and subsequently “lost my identity,” she said.
One night in early 2007, after a particularly excessive alcohol binge, Ms. Dobrow fell out of bed and suffered a black eye. That was when her two daughters, one of whom was a nurse, took her to Hemet Valley, a recovery facility in Hemet Valley, Calif., that caters to adults age 55 and older. Ms. Dobrow, who was 73 at the time, stayed for 30 days, which cost roughly $20,000, about $13,000 of which was covered by insurance. When she returned home, she continued with a 12-step program. She has been sober ever since.
An estimated 2.8 million older adults in the United States meet the criteria for alcohol abuse, and this number is expected to reach 5.7 million by 2020, according to a study in the journal “Addiction.” In 2008, 231,200 people over 50 sought treatment for substance abuse, up from 102,700 in 1992, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal agency.
While alcohol is typically the substance of choice, a 2013 report found that the rate of illicit drug use among adults 50 to 64 increased from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 6.0 percent in 2013.
“As we get older, it takes longer for our bodies to metabolize alcohol and drugs,” said D. John Dyben, the director of older adult treatment services for the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. “Someone might say, ‘I could have two or three glasses of wine and I was fine, and now that I’m in my late 60s, it’s becoming a problem.’ That’s because the body can’t handle it.”
Many, although certainly not all, of these older individuals with alcohol problems are retired.
Over the course of 10 years, Peter A. Bamberger and Samuel B. Bacharach, co-authors of “Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic,” conducted a study funded by the National Institutes of Health on substance abuse in older adults. They found that the impact of retirement on substance abuse was “anything but clear cut, with the conditions leading to retirement, and the economic and social nature of the retirement itself, having a far greater impact on substance use than simple retirement itself,” said Mr. Bamberger, who is also research director of the Smithers Institute at Cornell University.
But events that arise in later life often require coping skills older adults may not possess. Some retirees are lonely and depressed, and turn to alcohol or drugs to quell their anxieties. Others may drink to deal with late-life losses of spouses, friends, careers and purpose.
“In retirement there can be depression, divorce, death of a spouse, moving from a big residence into a small residence,” said Steven Wollman, a substance abuse counselor in New York, . “For anyone who’s an addict, boredom’s the No. 1 trigger.”
Sandra D., 58, who works in the financial services industry in Toronto, said that her father’s drinking increased so much after he retired that she often took the car keys away from him.
“He and his friends meet for cocktails at about 3 or 4 and then he passes out, which he calls a ‘nap,’ ” said Ms. D., who asked that her full last name not be used. “My dad didn’t plan out his retirement well. My mom was very ill for many years before she passed away, and my dad was a caregiver. He was pretty well looking after the house and taking care of her. When she passed away, there was a very big void for him.”
Ms. D. said her father, an 82-year-old former maintenance worker, doesn’t believe he drinks too much, a common perception among many seniors.
“People are really good at redefining things,” said Stephan Arndt, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa and director of the Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation. “They say, ‘I don’t have a problem, I just like to drink.’ Or, ‘I’m a big guy, I can handle it.’ In the case of prescription drugs, it’s, ‘Well, I got it from my doctor, and it’s for my pain. It’s medication.’ Consequently, they don’t seek help.”
Physicians often aren’t trained to talk to their older patients about chemical dependency — or, perhaps more pointedly in an era of managed care, they often don’t have the time to thoroughly screen a patient. Also, many signs of chemical dependence like memory loss and disorientation resemble normal symptoms of aging. “Is this person confused because they’re messing up their meds, or is it dementia?” said Brenda J. Iliff, the executive director of Hazelden, a residential treatment center in Naples, Fla., that offers special programming baby boomers and older adults for about $21,000 a month. “Is their diabetes out of control, or did they fall and break their hip because they were woozy from Atavan?”
Another misconception is that older adults don’t benefit from treatment. “There’s this lore, this belief, that as people get older they become less treatable,” said Paul Sacco, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, who researches aging and addiction. “But there’s a large body of literature saying that the outcomes are as good with older adults. They’re not hopeless. This may be just the time to get them treatment.”
Pamela Noffze was 58 when she arrived at Hazelden‘s center in Naples for treatment. At her worst, she was drinking a case of light beer a day, but she didn’t think she had an issue until her daughter threatened to ban her from seeing her grandsons again unless she sought help. “That’s when I knew I had to do something,” said Ms. Noffze.
On her first night at Hazelden, she discovered that she was also addicted to Klonopin, an anti-anxiety medication that her psychiatrist had prescribed in 2009 to help her cope with a divorce. Weaning herself off prescription medications was harder than stopping drinking, she said. Still, she has not had a sip of alcohol or any pills since rehab.
Ms. Noffze, now 61, who lives in Naples and is unemployed, regularly attends 12-step meetings. She said she was astonished at the number of people who “have their cocktails every night, and the next thing they know they find themselves addicted because some doctor gave them Ambien to sleep or they were on pain pills for arthritis or whatever,” she said. “You put those two together and you put yourself over the edge.”
As for Ms. Dobrow, she was so emboldened by her recovery that in 2010 she went back to school to get a credential as a substance abuse counselor. She now works part time counseling older adults at Hemet Valley.
“Losing your purpose in life is the singular thing that hurts people,” said Ms. Dobrow. “We involve so much of our ego in our career, but these last seven and a half years have been the most fulfilling of my life, because I can help people. What is when people used to wear a sandwich board and walk around in a commercial? I feel that mine says ’Hope’ on the front and on the back.”
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Proper 25, Year A
The collect asks God to increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity; make us love what you command. In the time of Jesus, God’s commands were numerous – over 600 rules for the Jewish person to heed. How difficult to keep all the laws, and yet the Pharisees and Sadducees and the chief priests and the elders of the temple did it. They kept the letter of the law, but not necessarily the heart of the law. So this morning they are still trying to trap Jesus with a test. What is the greatest law?
Who knows what they expected him to say. Instead he gives us the commandment, the law that we try to live by today…”love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” is part 1 and the part 2 is to “love your neighbor as yourself”. I’m thinking that they are impressed with his answer – not that they like it, but he sure had a good answer. Jesus returns the favor and asks them a question, a question they cannot answer and it ends the game. “From that day no one dared to ask him anymore questions.” Can you love what God has commanded?
The theme for the Diocesan Convention was ‘travel light…leaving baggage behind.’ We spent heard about baggage from Bishop David and why it’s necessary to leave it behind. Baggage can be things –possessions we can’t give up; possessions we love more than God or our neighbors. Baggage can be relationships that have hurt us and hinder us from moving forward – like a diocese that has been isolated and abused. Baggage can be ideas or habits that we’ve had for so long, we aren’t able to hear or see what new things God is doing in our community.
Bishop David demonstrated with an amusing visual on Friday evening. He left the Renewal of Baptismal Vows service at the peace. When he returned he had traded his cope and miter for a fishing vest, waders, sunglasses and a hat. He talked about when he first began fly fishing he got all the equipment and clothing so that he could fit in with other fly fishermen. Then he proceeded to show us what he wears when he goes fly fishing. He removed the heavy 39 pocket vest filled with all the gear. He removed the waist high waders. He was left in a pair of shorts, his clergy shirt, and he slipped on a pair of sandals. Okay, I’m sure that he wears a t-shirt instead of his purple clergy shirt, but we got the idea. Baggage needs to be set aside. It weighs us down and hinders our ability to act.
This reminded me of an experience I had at a women’s cursillo many years ago. I’ve told this story before. We were half way through the weekend and were doing an exercise of washing each other’s hands. One woman sat at her table and sobbed. She couldn’t have her hands washed. Now understand she is one of the those people who are so positive, generous and loving to others that they make your day brighter just by being with them. It took several minutes, but she was able to share her thoughts with us. She carried so much baggage that she literally felt like she was holding it all in big shopping bags. She couldn’t open her hands to let someone wash them because she would drop all her bags, and so she could only clench her hands shut. Yes, she eventually was able to open her hands and place them in the basin of water, but we had no idea that she felt that way or that she carried such burdens. We could see the joy that came from setting that baggage down.
If we are holding on to baggage, we need to spend our time and energy focused on it – holding it, carrying it. We can’t focus on God or on the people around us, our neighbors. We can’t keep God’s commandment to love God with all we have and to love ourselves and our neighbor. That is why Jesus tells those who will listen that those are the greatest commandments and all the laws are encompassed by them. Putting God first helps us to let go of baggage. What helps you remember to put God first?
Our meditation this morning uses the example of making the sign of the cross. The cross is a symbol many Christians use to help them remember to put God first, but something else may be more relevant or helpful for you. Prayer beads, an icon, the Lord’s Prayer, a butterfly, a rainbow – whatever works for you.
This week, think about what helps you focus on God being present. What baggage would you like to give up? What do you need to give up? What do we as the community of St. Anne’s carry as baggage? I invite you to mentally bring that baggage to the altar at the Eucharist and set it down. Leave your baggage and open your hands to receive Christ. Then you will be able to go out with love to put God first. AMEN.
Proper 18, Year A
Do this for the remembrance of me…
Note: This is a Children’s sermon, and there are props and dialogue which will not be recorded in this sermon because it hasn’t happened yet.
For those who are not here in person, this is the set-up. I bring out a small table and a large bag. The children are invited to come forward. I begin to pull things out of the bag and set them on the table. Some wrapped boxes…toy plastic flutes…some party hats…a pan with something baked in it…a package of candles. Put some candles in the cake (that’s what is in the pan).
Ask the children if they know what all of this might be for. A birthday party? Yes! Do we all have birthdays? Do you celebrate your birthday with most of these things? Would you have a party with cake and candles, hats, presents and maybe toys to share? We commemorate (remember in a special way) our birthday. In the Hebrew scripture this morning we hear a story about the first commemoration of the Passover.
Moses and Pharaoh have been arguing about letting the people of Israel go from slavery in Egypt. God has sent plagues to make Pharaoh and the Egyptians miserable so that he will let the Israelites leave. The tenth plague is coming – “about midnight, the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die”, from Pharaoh to the slave to the livestock. God tells Moses to have the people prepare, and put the blood of the lamb around their door. When God comes through in the night, God will “pass over” the homes marked with blood and no plague shall destroy the firstborn of that house. Further, God says, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord…” And it happened just like God said. To this day our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the Passover feast in the spring remembering how God saved the people that night and how God has saved the people many times before and after. To the children: Now if you will have a seat in the front or you may return to your parents if you wish.
As Christians, we don’t celebrate Passover. The last time Jesus was in Jerusalem and celebrating the Passover meal in a room with his friends, he changed the commemoration. He did something new. “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat: This is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28)
Does that sound familiar? That is our Christian Passover. Every Sunday we remember how Jesus has given us life. We celebrate the eucharist as a commemoration of what Jesus did. He gave himself to heal the world. Our part is to remember his gift and to try every day to love each other.
God is always present. Usually we need God the most when we are alone. How can you remember that God is always with you? For many Christians, the cross is a way to remember that God is present all the time. I know that some of you have crosses you wear that have special meaning – maybe they were a special gift or a birthday present. This morning, I have a cross that I invite you to take. It’s one that can be stuck above your bed, or on the dash of your car, or on the door of your locker; somewhere you can see it to remind you that God is there. When you need to talk to God, you can. Put it where you might need a reminder to feel God’s presence in your day. AMEN.
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Proper 17, Year A
Bring forth in us the fruit of good works…
How does God talk with you? What does it take to get your attention, to make you stop and listen, to hear? Some people are really good at discerning God all the time. Others, like me, not so much. Too often God needs a 2 x 4, that’s something like the burning bush that is not consumed for Moses. God hears our needs, observes our misery and our joys – God is always present in our life. We don’t always notice it.
In this story from the Hebrew scripture, God is asking Moses to help the people in captivity, to lead them “to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Remember that Moses has fled from his posh position in Pharaoh’s court to become a shepherd in a land far away. As a young man, the adopted son of the daughter of Pharaoh, he learns he is an Israelite and that his siblings and mother are slaves. A few days later he tries to help some of the slaves that are being harassed and ends up killing one of the Egyptian taskmasters. So he runs away – far away. Now God is calling him to go back to Pharaoh and bring his people out of Egypt.
This morning we hear the first of many conversations that Moses will have with God as he attempts to get out of doing this task, and then as he is trying to accomplish the task. Moses doesn’t really have a relationship with the people he is supposed to help. He doesn’t know their names or anything about their lives – he didn’t live with them. Moses does know God. Moses listens to what God wants him to do, and then, reluctantly at first, he tries to do the work that God has given him to do. Moses chooses to serve the Lord, to do good works.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he is encouraging the Christians to listen to the word of God. Society is tough for those people; Christians are persecuted. They are a strange minority religion in a city with many different religions. God sends Paul to give them counsel on how to live a life of good works in a culture that values earthly power and riches. The list of things that Paul encourages them to do, we are encouraged to do today. It is not an easy list. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another…rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…extend hospitality to strangers…bless those who persecute you…live in harmony with one another…do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…do not pay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…” So which of those things is hard for you to do? What has God been calling you to do?
Jesus is preparing his disciples for what is to come. It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s not the victory that those who have been following him envisioned. They expect that the messiah will triumph over all who oppress the Israelites (much like Moses who leads the people out of slavery to a good land – their own land) and that they will have peace in a land of milk and honey. Jesus sets them straight. The victory is going to be eternal life overcoming death. Our part is to let go of our love of life as society may dictate as successful and live a life that God dictates as successful. Serve the Lord by bearing fruit of good works.
What has God been calling you to do? That might be the wrong question. What is God doing in the community and how can we be part of God’s work? The emphasis is that God is working whether we choose to do anything or not. God does call us, continually. It’s just not always to do something comfortable. In his last Friday reflection, Bishop David suggested that it may be better stewardship to replace our church lawns with gardens. Can you imagine our neighbors’ reaction if we did that – planted lots of tomatoes, beans, carrots, corn, squash? I was talking with the Bishop about this and how I imagined we would get word from the neighborhood association in short order. We talked about how our church should be a reminder – even an irritant – to our neighbors. Our church should be about raising social issues to the attention of the affluent whether they are sitting in the pews or living in the blocks around us. We’re not a social club; we are called to work with God.
Many of you are involved with groups that are already doing this work. We need to hear from you. How are you helping do God’s work in our community? Are there ways that others can get involved, too? Last Sunday I talked about the Community Partnership for Families and the different programs they are developing with recently released prisoners. Some of us got involved with their backpack project. I know that we have parishioners who are members of the Assistance League, coach youth sports, volunteer for Hospice, and other organizations who are working with God in our community. It’s time to let the rest of us know what you are doing.
I am going to put up a large poster in the back…a Fruits of Good Works. There will be pens available. List your name and the work that you do. If you have a picture you can post, please put it up there. We need to see some of the outreach that is being done by members of St. Anne’s. God is working here in Stockton and we have been called to follow. God promises “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” We can do this – together.
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Proper 15, Year A
Have mercy on us Lord…
For those who have been to an Episcopal general convention or EYE 2014 (in person or through You Tube broadcast), you have had the experience of hearing the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry preach. When the Bishop gets up to preach, you settle in because he is going to speak for a while – a long while in Episcopal terms. But he is going to come at you with energy and passion.
(Describe the experience at EYE in Philadelphia – one word “go”)
The word this morning is mercy. It runs through our lessons and our hymn selections at the 10 o’clock service. Now I thought that the reading from Genesis, the end of the Joseph story, was about forgiveness, which is different than mercy. But Joseph plays two roles; publically he is a ruler in Egypt and controls who gets food and how much in these years of wide spread famine. Privately, he is the little brother that was sold into slavery by his siblings. Okay, Joseph does have his fun when he accuses them as spies and has them put in prison for a few days. He orders one brother to remain in prison while the others go back to Canaan, with full sacks of grain, and to prove they are not spies, to bring his brother Benjamin back with them to Egypt. As a ruler, Joseph shows mercy to his brothers; as a sibling, he shows forgiveness.
What is mercy? What does it mean? Checking the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, “Mercy is an attribute of both God and the good human being. Hebrew uses several words for “mercy,” of which the most frequent is hesed, which mean loving-kindness, mercy, love, loyalty, and faithfulness. Another Hebrew word and the Greek word for mercy in the New Testament refer to the emotion aroused by contact with undeserved suffering, that is, compassion and a deeply felt love for a fellow human being…grace is also another word used to mean mercy…Divine and human mercy are closely associated with justice and righteousness because all refer to behavior appropriate to a relationship…Jesus shows mercy to the needy…” Mercy is an attribute, showing compassion for someone suffering undeservedly. Joseph as a ruler is providing grain to all the people who are suffering the famine, even those who are not from Egypt, because the whole area will suffer from the seven year famine. Joseph recognizes that God has turned their actions – selling their brother into slavery – as a way to save the famiy; “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” In Egypt the Israelites will have a place to live and work and multiply; without it Israel’s (Jacob’s) family would perish. Mercy, compassion for the underserved suffering.
The Gospel for this morning has an interesting and uncharacteristic story of Jesus encountering someone asking for help and his ignoring them. We left out reading the optional story this morning of the encounter with the Pharisees where they challenge Jesus about dietary laws. He tells the disciples that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them, but it is what comes out of a person’s mouth via their heart that defiles them. Some time passes as they walk 25 or 30 miles over the next couple days. Jesus must be contemplating the recent events. A Canaanite woman comes to their group and shouts for help and mercy. Jesus ignores her. Then the disciples ask him to send her away; they too assume that he will help her and send her on her way. But he tells them that he was only sent to help the house of Israel, but he has healed outcasts and Gentiles before. His refusal to help her, even when she comes and kneels before him begging for help, isn’t what we expect.
Jesus dismisses her with “it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman replies, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table”. You can almost see his face break into a little smile as he tells her that her request is granted. The woman notices that Jesus used the word, not for stray dogs that wander the streets, but for household pets. Pets are not outsiders but insiders. The pets do get to lie under the table and eat scraps that fall or are tossed to them. This foreign woman asked Jesus for mercy, the same mercy Jesus had asked the Pharisees to show.
We can have fun speculating on why Jesus acted the way he did with this woman. Has he decided that he must give all his time and energy to his own people? That he needs to really concentrate on helping the religious leaders to ‘see’ what God originally planned for Israel and how they may have erred? Is it the human behavior of frustration and tired of dealing with those who just don’t get it? Did he know that her faith was strong and that this would be a good learning exercise for his disciples and for us?
Yes, for us. Because we are challenged daily to be merciful. At times, showing mercy to someone we love is not the same as being nice. The phrase ‘tough love’ comes to mind. When our behavior is enabling or co-dependent, we are not being compassionate to one we care about. We are not showing mercy and love because it is not a behavior appropriate to our relationship. It is hard to change. We, like Jesus in the gospel, are challenged to be merciful with the stranger. One afternoon, a man pulled into the office parking lot in an old car and he looked – well – scruffy. My first thought was ‘What now?’ But as he came to the door, I smiled and said hello. He needed help with an address – that’s all. He was looking for 1032 Lincoln at which point I knew he was probably looking for Lincoln Street. But it began a very short conversation and my attitude was changed; he was not a stranger, he was a father looking for a son who was dying…so he could say good-bye.
Lord, grant me the grace to get past the ‘what now’ and be open to hearing the request for mercy. Let your wisdom guide my responses, and may I strive to be merciful in my encounters. AMEN.
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