I reread one of my favorite books this week. My copy of Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina has yellowing paper, a splitting spine, and some of the most compelling characters I’ve ever met in words. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read and recommended Imagining Argentina to others. It’s a hard book to read, but the vision of hope it presents is powerful precisely because the heart of the book is so difficult. I find that lots of books and stories are great to sink my teeth into, but then there are those precious books whose stories sink into me, and my life is different—more thoughtful, more considered, more virtuous—for it.
When Fr. Gil announced several months ago that I would be preaching on August 17, I looked up the lessons of the day and practically jumped for joy. The stories of the Bible we hear today from the Old Testament and the gospel are two of my favorite stories from scripture.
Fast forward to earlier this week, when I read an e-mail containing a message from our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She wrote to ask the entire Episcopal Church to make today, August 17, a day of prayer for those in Iraq.
It would be pretty hard not to pay attention to all the stories of what’s going on internationally these days. The Gaza Strip has been a focal point of terror between Palestine and Israel. Iraq is in the news for its highly visible genocide of Christians, among others. Thousands of militants who believe war is the only way to end war are ending the lives of innocent people, while they simultaneously inspire the uprising of new war-mongerers on every side. The desire to maintain the purity of one’s own land is the driving force behind much of this violence and prejudice. Even in our country, young unarmed men and women are being shot and killed by those who only seem to see that these young people are on the wrong side of the American color divide. Children are being detained like prisoners on our borders, in limbo between a land they cannot thrive in and a land that treats them as chaff among amber waves of grain.
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t slept well for weeks. These stories echo painfully in my heart. They force me to acknowledge that that simmering hatred becomes a blazing rage in manifold ways each day among people both far away and here at home, people who claim to be driven by the call of the law, or the call of God—people like me.
On this day of prayer for those innocents who are dying in Iraq, I see in today’s lessons stories that are less interesting than urgent, more deep than obvious.
The story of Joseph is an epic--we first meet him as a boy, Jacob's son. His many older brothers, in a fit of collective jealousy, throw him into a well, leaving him for dead. Then they change their minds, pull him out of the well, and sell him into slavery instead, figuring they ought to get something out of him. Joseph ends up in Egypt and endures prison and other grave hardships, with no hope but God's promise to help him. Eventually he becomes Pharaoh's most trusted advisor. When we encounter him in today's lesson, his brothers have just arrived, desperate for mercy from Pharaoh’s advisor in the midst of famine. They don’t know that the powerful man before them is their brother. As Joseph prepares to reveal his identity to his brothers, he sends everyone else away. In the end, all of Egypt, even the Pharaoh's household, hears his cries when he is alone with his brothers for the first time in years.
Next, in the gospel story, we hear about a Canaanite woman, a foreign woman, who comes to Jesus begging healing for her daughter who is possessed by a demon. At first Jesus ignores her, as if she weren’t even there. Then his disciples get antsy and ask him to send her away. To appease his friends, he gives her an excuse. She persists. He gives another excuse; she persists again, but this time she refers to him as master of the story that they’re creating through their dialogue, and it’s at that point where the story turns.
The difficulty with these stories for me comes when I try to put myself in them. I'm not powerful Pharaoh. I’m not wise, faithful Joseph. I’m not the woman begging on her knees for her daughter's life, and I’m certainly not Jesus.
When I put myself in these stories, the characters that resemble me most are the jealous, grudging brothers and the possessive, anxious disciples. I live a comfortable, privileged life. I don't easily relinquish my comfort, particularly for someone I don't like or whom I have no direct connection to. With all the horrors I read about in the news, whether in Gaza or in Iraq or in the United States, I perceive the selfishness of my fellow humans keenly, because it is that same selfishness on a grand scale that I practice on a micro-scale. I see in middle-eastern war-mongerers, as well as white-skinned insiders screaming at and threatening brown-skinned outsiders, unholy icons of the many ways in which my heart is hard and impenetrable. I cry over what I read in the news and in these scriptures, because I know how hard my heart is to break open, and I know it can't be any easier to break open any of theirs.
But here's the thing: Joseph's brothers, who sent Joseph to his doom, watched as God's grace broke through their evil deeds. God’s grace revealed not only their brother who had saved all of Egypt and surrounding lands from famine, but revealed their brother who loved them more than ever.
And then there’s the foreign woman from the gospel. By calling Jesus “Master,” she forces him to pay attention to her. Not only does he pay attention to her, but his understanding of what it means to be Lord is subverted by her. Through this woman’s unflagging persistence in the face of blatant rejection and humiliation, Jesus—God’s own chosen one-- perceives that his power as Lord is not just for the sake of “his people,” but for all who call on him for saving help. Through this foreign woman, God's grace breaks through the walls Jesus and his people had built against this woman, this outsider.
If God can accomplish mighty, gracious deeds through possessive, jealous, rebellious hearts like those of Joseph’s brothers, and if God's grace can break through the walls that Jesus' disciples and even Jesus put up to guard their selfish interests--then perhaps God's grace can break through right here in our midst.
What if the stories of war-mongerers and privileged insiders were subverted by stories more persistent and enduring than theirs? What if they were to see that they are indeed called by God--not called to hate and shut out strangers, but rather to love and to welcome and uplift them? I wonder, if we each take a moment to remember again our favorite books and stories, what we might discover about ourselves from them. What do we find most compelling? Do we embrace the bravery and outrageous kindness and selflessness that we encounter in our most beloved, imperfect characters?
What if we were to embrace Joseph’s love of those who had utterly betrayed him? What if you and I embraced Jesus’ humility in accepting that we, as citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, are accountable to more than just the people we call our own? What if we listened not to our own wisdom, but the wisdom that inspires us to become who we are called to be? Maybe the Word of God, Holy Sophia, would become incarnate in us as it did in Mary when she made her bold, unwavering, all-embracing “Yes.”
Perhaps, if each of us said yes to the wisdom in the stories that are most precious and compelling to us, we, like Mary, would become God-bearers in the world. Perhaps then, beginning with you and me, God’s peace would spread to all lands and peoples, and then perhaps the peoples of the world, both here and elsewhere, would come at last to dwell in the everlasting peace of God.