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Sunday, August 16, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

Holy Havoc and Holy Harmony

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church


Psalm 133
Matthew 15:21–28


The psalm we read this morning comes as balm in the turmoil of our lives. The psalmist paints a beautiful portrait of brothers and sisters dwelling in unity, and if there was ever a time in our city, our nation, and our world that we need not just a call to unity but also a vision of how we might reside together in harmony, this is the moment. The psalm—known as one of the Psalms of Ascent—is part of a large corpus of psalms that were likely sung by pilgrims making their way to the temple in Jerusalem. The tone is buoyant, celebrative. We can hear the joyous, exuberant pilgrims making their way over parched, rocky soil. Fathers and sons; mothers and daughters; old and young; those with infirmities being supported by the able ones; babies carried on shoulders—all journeying together toward the common goal of arriving at the temple, the location of God’s life and light, the place where all are one.

The psalm provides two metaphors for God’s vision for the family of faith living in harmony and unity, both of which challenge our scarcity mentality and call us to radical abundance and extravagant generosity. The first metaphor is that of oil. In an agricultural community, oil is precious. It is generally only used for the essentials of light and heat. It would not be wasted. So when the psalm suggests that oil is not spared in the celebration, the hearer must have found it preposterous. Really? Might there be a moment when oil could be wasted in extravagant showering? What would prompt a community to ever proclaim life to be so good that it could be marked by unguarded, careless generosity? Could we, in this time, imagine that we have such communal harmony that we throw caution to the wind and drench the world with the oil of gladness? Wow! But this psalm of joy and celebration takes our hearts and our minds into that territory.

The other metaphor is dew, which was the only moisture that came in the dry season to the vineyard growers and others, and it was enough to provide a bumper harvest. Both of these images—oil and dew—throw caution to the wind and realize the pleasure God takes in not only providing for us but also pulling out the stops on the grand spectacle of unity among the people.

Yet who sets the terms for unity and oneness? Coming together as one people is complicated in the human community, because many of us who have power and privilege want to set the terms for unity. We won’t let go easily. And many of us think we’ve got it right. We know the best path forward. Others of us are not so sure that unity should be a goal at all. We are living in times when it feels as if any shred of unity, of oneness, or any hope that we might be able to come together as a church community or a Chicago or national community has come unstuck and havoc prevails. In times of great dissention there is little agreement on principles, let alone outcomes.

Especially in this election year we live in the territory of havoc a lot. We live with the reality of candidates trying to convince all but their diehard supporters of a particular position on an issue. Political figures frame their case in either-or terms, because they assume that most of us folks listening to them are dualistic thinkers—that is, we live in the absolutes on one end or the other or they assume that we don’t have the bandwidth, time, energy or interest in complexity and nuance. Yet, as has been evident by the COVID-19 reality, there are consequences to any direction a government agent moves us, or anyone else for that matter: Health and safety or economic recovery? In-person schools or remote classroom and the reality that parents are working, children may be alone, and access to technology may be minimal? And these are only a few of multiple issues that warrant more attentive care, education, and time to understand. What we want more than anything is some clear direction, some path forward that will lead—where? To the good old times or to some familiar resting place or, if we dare, to a site of peace and harmony. So where do we look for a path toward the unity that the psalmist celebrates?

It may come as a surprise to you, but I actually think that our gospel lesson gives us a glimpse of the power of conflict and dis-ease that holds harmony in its grip. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is one that holds many perspectives and interpretations. Most biblical commentators say this passage presents many challenges, many assumptions about Jesus and how he understood his mission. Many preachers seek to soften the blow of it, to keep Jesus in charge, to deflect the insulting blow he gives to the woman by calling her a dog, to make it appear that Jesus has it all under control by assuming that he is stage managing the situation in order to teach the disciples and others about radical inclusivity.

That is not what I see here. Rather, I experience this story as one where the outsider becomes the teacher and the teacher/rabbi—that is Jesus—is taught. This is no easy exchange! In this story, even Jesus’ own mission is thrown off course by a persistent, insistent outsider who is desperate for her child to be healed. Some might say she was a revolutionary trying to call Jesus out on his stuff. I’d say she was a mom who did not have a moment to spare and who needed something very specific: a demon cast out of her child. She may be viewed as a radical, but her strategy had an endgame.

Yet Jesus does not even give her the time of day at first, and then when he does respond to her, he refuses her plea based on a zero-sum game. He implies, by his response, that mercy is a scarce resource and there is only so much to go around. If he gives the bread to dogs, there will not be enough for the children to eat. But the woman presses for the alternate possibility. What if mercy doesn’t work that way? What if there is enough to go around and abundance to spare? She may have heard rumors of the five-loaves-and-two-fishes incident. And her holding the idea of surplus in front of him may have even surprised him. Yes, even the dogs get the crumbs under the table.

The woman’s desperate parable prayer is so compelling that Jesus is caught up in someone else’s vision of what is possible. We see that just when we think we have it figured out, when we think we have all of the data in and the direction set, someone or something may just carry our minds and hearts to a new place! And Jesus’ own testimonial arrives in the words, “Woman, great is your faith!”

There is reciprocal vulnerability in the exchange, and this is radical. This is life-bearing, and it is wondrous. This is a powerful path to family and tribal solidarity! What a wondrous image of the two coming to unity. It is so unlikely, these two people who hold historic factions in their very bones—Canaan and Israel; land of promise and promised land. Two people—a man and a woman; one with privileged status and one with little status. Two people—an itinerant healer and this woman, an outsider with an uncompromising spirit and a child in need. Two people—one who tried to ignore the other and then insults her, and the other who takes it and won’t let up. Together they show us what true family unity and tribal solidarity is about, what the psalmist sings into our lives—holy havoc to remarkable harmony! And I have seen it happen today as well.

I recall some years ago a very egregious racial incident happened at one of the colleges where I worked. It was not only a slur on a dorm door, but that was followed with a very fear-provoking personal threat to one of the occupants. The student who lived in the dorm room was named by whomever wrote on his door. No one claimed responsibility for the action, and everyone was on edge. The college began to investigate the incident, of course, and the students in the dorm as well as the entire campus community hoped there would be evidence to bring charges against the perpetrator. But though many thought it was not a fellow student but maybe a visitor or off-campus friend, there was no clear path forward.

The evening after the incident an all-campus town hall meeting was called. Hundreds of students, faculty, staff arrived in the chapel of the college to hear from the college’s administration how we might deal with this kind of incident. Protocol was cited: Racial harassment will not be tolerated; students have a right to feel safe and supported in order to be able to participate fully in all aspects of their academic life. It was stated that we must all take responsibility for shaping a place where everyone belongs.

It was all pretty predictable until something astonishing happened. Just when everyone was packing up to leave, several of the students rose out of their seats and came to the front of the chapel. I knew them, as they had formed a gospel choir on campus. Others from the choir who were sitting in other parts of the room joined them. They began to sing a gospel song—pagans and Protestants; atheists and Adventists; Muslims and Methodists. It was a call-and-response kind of song. And within a very short time the whole crowd in that chapel was singing along, clapping, waving, thunderously filling that place with something between joy and conviction.

It felt like the coming of the Spirit—“God’s wild card” as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it. It did not take away the pain, but what it did was set us on a common path, a pilgrim’s way toward healing. I can’t help but think that what happened that night on that broken campus might just signal what the psalmist could see in the community who ascended the holy way toward Jerusalem: “How good it is and pleasant when the kids dwell in unity.” I have in my mind’s eye Jesus, the lady who came forward yelling at him for mercy and healing, who knelt down and signaled God’s mercy in a full-throttle way, and, yes, the little child who was healed by the encounter of faith and wonder, all grooving to the beauty of that moment. I’d say it is a blessing beyond expectation—a generous, joyous harvest of goodness beyond our wildest imaginings. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is our path in unity as well. Let us rejoice and be glad in it! Thanks be to God! Amen.