A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 15, Year A

Some of you may have already heard me share that a few weeks ago my garden suffered a near tragedy. A particularly windy day pushed over a majority of my tomato plants, splitting one along its trunk, and breaking off more than a few branches. I was devastated when I encountered the damage. No doubt, that strong emotional response will sear in memory the lessons learned by the experience. I now know how to properly stake, tie, and cage my tomatoes. I also know just how much my garden has come to mean to me. 

They say pain is a great teacher. It is the experience of witnessing a death that allows the characters of the Harry Potter novels to see thestrals, the otherwise invisible, skeletal, flying horses who pull the carriages at Hogwarts. So too for us, witnessing suffering and loss in the world holds at least the potential of opening our eyes to deep truths and realities that would otherwise lie hidden. I’ve wondered what it was that Joseph learned amidst the famine that allowed him to welcome his turncoat brothers with such open arms as we heard in the Genesis lesson this morning. Was it his natural predisposition to show mercy? Or, was there a lesson buried in the pain of betrayal, the experience of being sold into bondage, the exile from family and loved ones, or even in the two years of famine in the land of Egypt, that taught him compassion and mercy? What so formed Joseph that he could not only forgive, but reconcile with his family after being victimized by their jealousy and hatred? The story doesn’t tell us, and we are left to imagine how Joseph learned to be merciful in a world where we so often expect to see the opposite.

In his beautiful letter “Dear Students: There Is No Afterwards” written by Dr. Leonard DeLorenzo, professor of theology at Notre Dame University, describes how loss is a universal experience, and that suffering and loss teach lessons that could not simply be told by one person to another. He explains too that with most significant suffering there is no afterward, no returning to normal. Instead, whatever comes next is forever shaped and illumined by the pain we have encountered – we cannot return to normal, we cannot pull the veil back over our eyes which suffering has removed. This pandemic, he contends, is just such a teacher. What’s more, it is a teacher for all of us. This is a moment of collective loss. With nearly 170,000 deaths in our country alone and over three quarters of a million deaths globally from Covid-19, the loss is staggering. Add to this the economic devastation, the lost jobs and income, the sense of rising vulnerability and fear, not to mention the now nearly universal feelings of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness that this pandemic has wrought and we could posit that the lessons we are learning are well-cemented in our collective consciousness. While on the surface we are learning that we are vulnerable, contingent, and not in control, the deeper lessons here might not at first be obvious to all. What we are really learning, says DeLorenzo, 

…we are all dependent. At times, our dependency is not so pronounced, and so we see ourselves as the potentially benevolent moral agents—rational, capable, secure. But the reality is that our extreme dependency has just been suspended in times like that, since we enter and leave the world in dependency…Our assumed independence is forgetfulness about our dependence, and the illusion of youth peddles the false promise of unending independence.

t”[T]he point” of this learning, he says, “is not to enforce our will, seeking to bend things back to our preferred version of ‘normal,’ but instead to respond to the given circumstances with humility and courage.” What we are learning then, is that Zulu concept popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of Ubuntu – I am, because we are! My existence and thriving depends upon your existence and thriving. These things are inseparably linked. It is to take our collective experience of great scarcity, and rather than to hoard and guard our provisions, instead of taking what we need by force, it is instead to share and share alike. It is, in the midst of this pandemic, to make choices for the common good, wearing a mask, staying home, avoiding gatherings, not only for your own health, but for the health of all. It is to acknowledge as the Canaanite woman does in this morning’s gospel, that in the economy of God, even the crumbs of mercy that fall from God’s table are enough to feed the least and lowest and neediest. 

In Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the director takes liberties, as directors are wont to do, with the original. Fans of the books will happily enumerate these differences, in particular where Jackson departs from the books not only in substance but in essence as well. But, not all departures from the text are problematic. Some even improve the story. One such departure comes as the hero, Frodo Baggins, his trustworthy friend and constant companion, Sam Gamgee, and the slippery ne’er-do-well Gollum are resting high atop the steps leading to the pass of Cirith Ungol and into the evil lands of Mordor. Gollum who has been sowing seeds of division between the two friends is working an evil plan to divide them.

Here Frodo buys completely the deception of Gollum and banishes Samwise from the company. In their persistent and prolonged experience of lack and hunger, Frodo, seeing the crumbs and empty pack succumbs to fear – fear that Sam is out to get what is his, fear that there won’t be enough, fear that he and he alone must complete the journey. Of course, Jackson needed this conflict to help drive home the enormity of Sam’s coming heroics and to cement Gollum’s treachery. But, I think it improves the story in highlighting the choice each of us has to make in how we interpret the lessons that pain and loss are teaching us. Always loyal, Sam cannot contradict the will of his friend Frodo, and in his misery, descends the stairs, at the same time as he is slipping into the deep grief of rejection. That is until he stumbles and falls, crashing perilously down the cliff, coming to rest, face to face with the discarded packet and crumbs of bread. This moment is a galvanizing moment. The crumbs that drove Frodo to fear are the same crumbs that propel Sam back up the stairs to his friend’s aid and ultimate salvation, to what DeLorenzo says are needed of all of us in this moment – humility and courage.  

And this is the choice that faces each of us living amidst one of the worst health crises in living memory. Who among us has not felt something of the famine described in Genesis this morning, or the hunger for crumbs of mercy from God’s table as described in Matthew’s gospel? Who among us today is not hungry for connection, for a merciful respite from this long famine of human contact, of absence from the sacraments – who among us does not yearn and crave a morsel of reprieve from this long and pervading season of fear and loss? 

Scholars don’t all agree, but there is some truth to the interpretation that in the interaction with the Canaanite woman she is teaching Jesus something about mercy. As the encounter opens, it appears that he is not willing to heal her daughter. First he ignores her. Then, as if she were not even present, he describes her as a dog. And, then he hears something in her response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She has experienced long and pervading suffering. She has long craved the mercy of healing for her daughter. And in that truth, Jesus must have heard something that resonated with his own experience. Perhaps he saw in this mother, his own mother, Mary, and her poverty and struggle. Or, perhaps her understanding of the nature of dependence opened his eyes such that he could share courageously with her, an outsider, as if she were an insider. Perhaps her humility was instructive in shaping his own humility. 

Again as DeLorenzo writes,

The gift of this season is that we are forced to recognize just how vulnerable and dependent we are. Even if there is not a new “normal” in the world “after” all of this, perhaps we can begin to change what we ourselves consider and crave as “normal.” Maybe our new normal will build on the lesson of loss that suffering brings now, where we feel in a way we have not before that each of us is ultimately dependent and we are responsible for one another. 

My prayer is that here at Saint John’s as we yearn to be together, as we crave reconnection and relationship in the flesh, that as we grieve the absence we are all experiencing from the Body of Christ, that this yearning and grief will guide us into acts of humility and courage, that we will reach out to one another with renewed passion, that we will share acts of mercy by sending cards and notes, by making phone calls, by giving, when able, a little more generously of our time and talent and treasure so that those whose needs are reminiscent of our own, might be met and nourished by what we have to give. My prayer is that in this time of loss, we are learning how much we love and depend upon one another, and on the God whose crumbs are enough to feed all of us.

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