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Sunday, September 09, 2012

In the Land of Astonishment

“In the Land of Astonishment” (Mark 7:24-37)
Pentecost XV – Proper 18 B – September 9, 2012
The Episcopal Church of All Saints, Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

This morning we find ourselves right smack dab in the middle of what scholars call a “Classic Markan Sandwich” – two different stories, slathered with a rich gospel “special sauce” and held together by the Bread of Hope.

Today, we’re confronted with the story of the woman who wouldn’t stop talking and the man who couldn’t speak.  After listening for the last two weeks, back-to-back, of political conventions, I think I prefer the later to the former.  It won’t get much better between now and mid-November, so I suggest we all fasten our seatbelts and try to endure this bumpy ride through the election season.

We may well need this Markan sandwich for nourishment and sustenance to get us through the difficult months ahead. It has ever been thus. The Gospel is not just for times like these but for all times of difficult decisions, made in hope to bring about change.

I want to talk about the place I find myself in the midst of these two stories.  I’m calling it “The Land of Astonishment”. The journey to that place usually begins in an unfamiliar place where you may have very carefully planned to be but unexpected things happen. And sometimes, if you are fortunate, you find yourself moved from dislocation to astonishment and into transformation.

Let me begin by putting these Gospel stories into context.

Jesus is in the region of Tyre, heading eastward and a little north towards the Sea of Galilee.  Although there were undoubtedly many Jews living in this region, Mark is clearly telling us “This is Gentile Country”.  This is important to note.

Jesus – whom we believe to be ‘fully human and fully divine’ – is out of his human cultural element. He’s in an area where there is great commerce and trade, which means that there is great diversity in the population. Indeed, many of the Jews there intermarried with some of these “foreigners,” which some considered anathema to the purity of the Jewish blood line.

They were considered “mongrels” or “dogs” – which helps us understand when Jesus calls the Syrophonecian woman a “dog”.  He was talking as much about her ethnicity as anything else. Oh, but wait! There’s more background story to this part of the Markan sandwich.

The local Tyreians were heavily invested in what today we would call ‘commodities’. Grain was the name of their game and their gain and they bought up all the grain they could and sold it to the less fortunate – especially the Jewish ‘homesteaders’ –  at a huge profit.

Now, the people of Tyre couldn’t do that all by themselves. They needed some help to haul that grain and ship it to where they could get the highest profit. And, guess where they got a little help from their friends?

The Phoenicians! Now the Phoenicians were great seafarers but they were also known to be less than above-board in their business practices. The great Greek epic poet Homer tended to paint them a little on the greedy and tricky side, and not above kidnapping or extortion to insure their piece of the pie in this operation.

Dogs, indeed! Dirty, low down lyin’, thievin’, sell-your-mother-and-steal-your-father-blind kinds of junkyard mongrel dogs.

Perhaps you understand a bit better the reluctance of Jesus – already out of his cultural and ethnic human element – when this woman, this Syro-Phonecian woman – asked him – begged him – to heal her daughter.

Now, the human part of Jesus rejected her, at first, saying, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Right. You got your gain from grain. I’m all about feeding the children of Israel first.  That’s my commodity.

But the woman astonishes him by saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Imagine that! Not only a woman and a Syrophonecian woman, but a smart one. Not only that, but she is humble and faithful to boot.

Jesus is astounded and, in the mist of his astonishment, his human heart is softened by his own divinity and he finds the compassion to heal the woman’s daughter.  Not only that, but he finds his own understanding of his vocation and ministry to be profoundly changed and transformed  p expanded to include Gentiles – and he was never again the same.

I think, when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place which we may have very carefully planned, but unexpected things happen. Sometimes, if you are fortunate, you find yourself moved from dislocation to astonishment and into transformation – if you keep your heart open.

I have been, several times, to this Land of Astonishment. One of those times was last March, when I was privileged to visit Thailand for three weeks. Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” not only because of the natural, lush beauty and rich historical resources, but because the people there are so naturally friendly. I suspect part of that smile is the secret they keep in their hearts when they see the astonishment of the faces of ‘foreigners’ like me who visit there.

The first thing I had to get accustomed to was being called ‘Sir’.  Yes, just like Anna in “The King and I”. Men called me ‘Sir’ and most women called me “Madam” (MA-dam, please. Not 'Madam'. I'm not from Nevada.) That’s because, in Thailand, the use of the pronoun is dependent not upon the person but by the person using the pronoun. So, a man will say, “Saawaadee (or, Good day), Kap (sir),” to a man or woman, and a woman will say, “Saawaadee Ka” to a woman or man. 

I know. It’s confusing. It makes sense after a few days of being there. So do the smiles you see on Thai faces when your face registers confusion and astonishment – especially when you don’t know what you’re doing and you say, “Saawaadee Kap” to a Thai man or a woman.

I was a ‘farang lady’ – a foreign woman – and a source of seemingly endless delight as well as many smiles for many Thai. One waitress at a local coffee shop giggled and said to my friend, “Farang lady ding dong.” You KNOW that became a term of endearment for me for the rest of my stay there. Still is. When I get letters from my friends in Thailand, their salutations are always, “Dear Farang lady, ding dong.”

About my third day in Thailand, I went to a local “Wat” or Buddhist Temple to be part of a great national Thai observance known as Makha Bucha Day. The third lunar month is known in the Thai language as Makha. Bucha is also a Thai word meaning "to venerate" or "to honor". It’s the day, nine months after Buddha’s Great Enlightenment, that 1,250 Arahta - or "Enlightened Ones" (priests) - without so much as a memo, email, text or tweet much less an appointment - suddenly and spontaneously arose together and came to see the Buddha and were all simultaneously ordained by Buddha himself.

I had an incredible spiritual experience or enlightenment that day which led me to pray with the monks every day I was there. I’ll save that particular story for another time but I want to tell you about one of the simple, unexpected conversations with one of my brother monks wherein I found myself in the Land of Astonishment.

The monks called me a Thai phrase which translated “Little Lamb”. One day, I asked, “Perhaps I am missing something, but I have not seen any lambs in Thailand. Why do you call me that?”

“Is that not what you call your Arahta, your Jesus? Was he not the ‘Lamb of God?”

“Why, yes,” I said, a bit astonished that he would know this much about Jesus when I knew so little about Buddha.

“Then, it follows,” he said, smiling, “that you would be his ‘Little Lamb’.” He walked away, smiling as he said, “But you are not Mary. You do not have a little lamb. You are one.” 

Thai monk make little joke on farang lady ding dong. Ha! Ha! Ha!

One day, I arrived early for daily prayers at the Wat to discover a large truck making deliveries to the monastery.  I was astonished to see box after box after box of Apple computers and screens and laptops being unloaded. I knew these monks lived – by choice – in poverty, so I couldn’t imagine how they might afford – or even need – these brand new, never out of the box – computers and laptops.

One of the monks suddenly appeared at my side – they always seemed to be doing that – and  said, “It is a great generosity, is it not, Little Lamb?”

“Then, these are gifts?” I stammered, and then, suddenly blushed with embarrassment.

“Ah, so,” he said. “You think these things a sign of wealth?”

I blushed again. Frankly, I didn’t know what to think much less say, so I did what my mama taught me and let him think me a fool rather than confirm his suspicions by opening my mouth and saying something stupid. I became the woman who wouldn’t stop talking to the woman who couldn’t speak a word.

“You would be right, Little Lamb, “ he smiled one of those beautiful Thai smiles, “but that is not the wealth you think it is. The computers themselves are not the symbol of monetary wealth. They could be that, but if they were only that, it would cheapen the gift and make it vulgar. No, they are but a symbol of the wealth of generosity that is inspired by a life of poverty.”

“I….I….don’t understand,” I said, honestly.

“Ah, so,” said the monk. “Then, come and pray. There is much you need to learn about the poverty of your own wealth and the wealth of your own poverty and the inherent beauty and harmony of each. Prayer will help you learn about that. Come, let us pray.”

All of a sudden, right there in the parking lot of the Wat, I found myself standing in the Land of Astonishment that leads to transformation.

Here’s what I learned while there: There is nothing in the world wrong with being wealthy.  What is wrong with being wealthy is when you have all that you have and do not share at least some of what you have with others. Gladly. Willingly. Gratefully. Expecting nothing in return.

There is nothing in the world wrong with being poor. What is wrong with being poor is when you do not choose it for yourself or you have it forced upon you by greed and avarice and arrogance and injustice. 

What I’ve learned from Jesus this morning, as I learned from my brother monks, is that there is everything in the world wrong with taking away the hopes and the dreams of the poor AS WELL AS not affording the rich the opportunities to be generous and kind and compassionate.

In this morning’s Letter from James, we hear,  
“Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?……

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
When you travel outside of your comfort zone, if you keep your heart and your mind open, you may often find yourself in the Land of Astonishment. There, you will confront all of your unexamined assumptions and cultural and religious expectations. You will discover that, as that old song goes, “You have to be carefully taught” about prejudice which can only be unlearned by being astounded and confronted by another’s Truth.

There are no road maps to the Land of Astonishment. You cannot book passage there or fly first class or even travel in steerage.  No one can tell you how to get there, or even show you or lead you there. Rather, you find yourself there by planning to move outside of what is familiar and comfortable. So, you probably won’t find it in too many churches, unless those churches, like this one, provide you with opportunities to put yourself in places that are foreign to you.

Celtic spirituality has a name for those places of dislocation and discomfort. They call them the “thin places” – places where there is a thin veil between heaven and earth. They are the places where, like Jesus in this morning’s gospel, our humanity is confronted by the divine spark that is within us all. We’re not Jesus – fully human, fully divine – but we are all born with enough divine spark within us to find our way to the ‘thin places’ – if we are willing pilgrims with open hearts and minds.

I think we have much to learn about out own wealth and our own poverty – and the poverty of our wealth and the wealth of our poverty and the inherent beauty and harmony of both. 

Come, let us pray and trust that we will often find ourselves in the Land of Astonishment where we, like Jesus, can be changed and transformed and never again be the same.  Amen.


Father Les Singelton said...

Elizabeth, what a GREAT sermon.
I liked about "thin" places; and about wealth, and about being poor by choice or having it forced upon someone.
Today we had Three Religious Leaders Speak for Peace in Micanopy, FL (Hindu, Jewish, Christian) For my sermon, based on the Syro-Phoenician woman, I had props. I used as my props, four circles of paper. Large paper rings large enough to be seen. Now go look up Moebius strip. Two of my rings were intact. One was twisted 180 degrees-- the Moebius strip. One was rotated 360 degrees.
I began by singing "Jesus loves the little children... red and yellow, black and white." So we sang on Sunday. On Monday some had to ride the back of the bus, drink for a different water fountain, go to a different school.
The woman was Syro-Phoenician. Now, people could read & write before the Phoenicians, but it was tough. Cuneiform or hyroglyphics. The Phoenician merchants invented an alphabet they could use in trade; and from that alphabet we get Greek, Latin, English; and from another direction Hebrew and Aramaic; and another direction Sanscrit. INTACT STRIP: some people think only so much love will go around. INTACT STRIP CUT IN HALF. Jesus would not help this Gentile.
STRIP CUT WITH 360 Degree twist. The woman said even the dogs under the table go the children's crumbs. She wanted some God. ((The two pieces form two linking circles))
Jesus expanded his definition of how far love could go. (MOEBIUS STRIP WITH 180 DEGREE TWIST) What results is a strip Twice as Big. Jesus Love expands. Ray Stevens picked up on Jesus loves the little children. "Everything is beautiful." Everything is NOT beautiful. I choose peace.
((And in three years, I am going to crib some of the excellent ideas that Elizabeth presented))

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Your sermon sounds wonderful, Less. In three years, I may be cribbing your stuff. ;~)

Kay & Sarah said...

Thank you sooo much for your thoughts on yesterday's "teaching", as Bishop Robinson described his sermon at Integrity's service. Your thought's help bring me back and push me in directions I want to explore. Those conversations with the Monks give greater meaning for me. Peace be to You!

DeanB said...

The Buddhist idea of the wealth of generosity sounds a lot like the northwest native American potlatch idea of wealth being measured not by how much you have but how much you can give away?