Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lifelong Learner

Sermon from August 14, 2011
(Pentecost 9 – Year A)
Matthew 15: 10-28
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

There are some people who say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
But there is something that I really like about people who don’t think that they are too old to learn something new.

In Time magazine this last week, I read about a 94-year old woman named Clara Cannucciari who has started her own cooking show.
In her cooking show, Clara demonstrates the recipes that she learned during the 1930s, when the Great Depression made folks utilize cost-cutting measures to stretch a meal on a tight budget.
Clara’s cooking show is on YouTube and it is called:
“Great Depression Cooking with Clara.”

A 94-year old great grandmother who starts her own cooking show certainly proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Either that or it proves that America will watch just about anything.

I sometimes wonder:
When did Jesus stop learning?
Did Jesus ever get to the point where you couldn’t teach that old dog some new tricks?

In the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that we have to tackle this morning, Jesus is not portrayed in a very positive light.
Jesus is presented as an old dog who can’t learn a new trick.

Jesus goes away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and shouts:
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;
My daughter is tormented by a demon!”

Now Canaanites and Jews were enemies for centuries and centuries.
When the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land after they had escaped from Egypt, their “promised land” was not empty, but was instead inhabited by Canaanites.

We sometimes assume that the American West in the 1800s was empty and ready for our “Manifest Destiny.”
Yet the American “promised land” was filled with native Americans, people who already inhabited the land.
We then killed or put onto reservations those native Americans in order to take over our “promised land.”

The Hebrew people had done the same to the Canaanites, taking over the Promised Land, beginning with the battle that Joshua fought, the battle where the walls came a-tumblin’ down.

You see, when the Aggies bolt from the Big 12 to join the SEC, they will still sing about sawing our horns off,
And the Canaanites and the Jews still have bad blood between them.

Anyway, a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus to heal her daughter.
Jesus’ followers retort:
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.”
Yet the Canaanite woman gets on her knees and pleads:
“Lord, help me!”

And then Jesus does not respond very well.
Jesus utters an unfortunate statement, a rigid statement that shows that he is unwilling to learn a new trick, as Jesus stares at the Canaanite woman on her knees and says:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food, [the food for Jews only], and to throw it to the dogs.”
Yet with a gleam in her eye, even after just being called a dirty dog, the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus a new trick, as she replies:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumb’s under the masters’ table.”

Now I could be getting myself into theological hot water here, but I do believe that Jesus was a lifelong learner.
From boyhood into adulthood, Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and in years.[1]
In his life, Jesus learned.

It is a tough thing to wrap our brains around the idea that Jesus is the Son of God,
And yet did Jesus know that the earth was round before scientists did?
Did Jesus know Einstein’s theory of relativity?
Or did Jesus continue to learn about the world and about people well into his adulthood?

It is my belief that Jesus was a lifelong learner.
It is my belief that Jesus grew in wisdom.
It is my belief that over Jesus’ lifetime he had to unlearn living as an exclusive and rigid Jew,
So that he could learn to be an inclusive and loving Savior.

And if Jesus can learn how to treat a Canaanite woman like a person instead of a dog,
If Jesus can learn a new trick,
If Jesus can be a lifelong learner,
Then I can be a lifelong learner, as well.

This summer while on vacation, Susan encouraged me to read the book called The Help.
And yesterday, I saw the screenplay version of The Help at the theater.
It is an excellent book and a great movie.

The story of The Help is told through the eyes of black domestic maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963.
It is a time when black-skinned people were treated like dogs, many times even worse than dogs.

As I sat in the movie theater yesterday, I was taken back to that time.
Back to a time when my grandma’s maid, Elsie, used to fry up the best friend chicken I have ever tasted.
Back to a time where accusing the maid of stealing the sterling silver was explained as “that’s what those people do.”
Back to a time romanticized as 1960s glamour, with turquoise cars and Jackie Kennedy style.
Yet also back to a time when human beings were forced to use different water fountains and different toilets and different schools, just because of the color of their skin.

The book and the movie called The Help took me back to a time when the Canaanite woman, the black housemaid, pleaded on her knees at our feet, screaming:
“Please, help me!”

And as individuals and as a society, we did not respond well in 1963, but we responded with the unfortunate statement:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food, the food for whites only, and to throw it to the dogs.”

Yet the lifelong learners heard the perseverance of our African-American brothers and sisters.
Those who were open to new learning heard the Canaanite woman reply:
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dog’s eat the crumbs that fall from the white man’s table.”

And with Jesus, we unlearn judgmental and prejudiced behavior.
With Jesus, we learn to respond to everyone, everyone:
“Sister, brother, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish!”

You see, in every generation, in every era, in every time, Canaanite women have begged to sit at the table with us.
As I sat in that movie theater yesterday, tears ran down my cheeks as I watched the pain of a black maid pleading for a seat at the table.
Tears ran down my cheeks because I know that a part of my calling as a priest in God’s Church is to give a voice, voice to those in every generation who have begged for just a crumb under God’s table.
My calling is to unlearn the mindset of a white male from the South.
My calling is to stand in this pulpit and to fight:
Fight for the lonely, for those who are bullied because they are different, for the undocumented Mexican aliens, for the uninsured, for the constantly-persecuted Jews.

Tears ran down my cheeks in that movie theater because I know that my calling as a Christian is to give everyone, everyone a seat at God’s table.
For we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, yet all of God’s children, all of them, are to be fed.

I believe that Jesus was taught by a Canaanite woman, a woman whom he had just called a dog.
And as a lifelong learner, Jesus was taught a new trick:
To open up a seat at God’s table - for all.

And I believe that you and I are taught by the Canaanite woman, taught by maids in Mississippi, by the people whom we might treat as dogs.
And as a lifelong learner, us old dogs are taught a new trick:
To open up a seat at God’s table – for all.


[1] Luke 2:52

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