Harrowing Of Hell
October 9, 2016

A Kingdom of God Response

Preacher: Wellesley Chapman

In the Chapman house, shoes were once a reliable source of conflict. Shoes, or the lack of them, more precisely. For about eight years I’ve been “in charge” of school drop-off each morning, and the routine of dressing, eating, and getting out the door has been most sticky just at the point of putting kid shoes onto kid feet. Frequently I would call out a warning: “5 minutes, girls!” And I’d hear back, “Okay, Dad!” Sometimes I’d be more directive: “So get your shoes on.” And the response: “Okay, Dad!…Dad?…I can’t find my shoes.” And this would drive me mad. In these moments, my anxiety mounted. I had to get to work. I’d think about traffic, about how late I would be and how others would judge me for disregarding the schedule. Some days the shoe issue would cause me to lose my cool, speak sternly, maybe even say uncharitable things. And then I’d go look for the shoes, and I’d feel sorry about having gotten mad. But I wasn’t really over it.

This thing with the shoes happened a lot. It was a predictable circumstance that set me up with a choice: show up with love and patience—a Kingdom of God response—or let my anxieties do the talking. I was generally so distracted by my fears that I missed opportunities to enjoy some joyful little moments with my kids. Zoe and Elliott needed me, and in the moment that felt like a burden. I didn’t think finding their shoes should be my job. But of course it was. Those moments were really precious. I get that now.

Studying today’s gospel passage, I recalled those maddening, shoeless mornings. In Matthew’s gospel there’s this repeated call for help from the Canaanite woman, and the disciples initial response seems to be “Ugh, Jesus, make it stop!” I can relate.

But let’s take a look at what’s happening in context. Jesus and the disciples have just come from the Sea of Galilee where Jesus was healing the sick and sparring with Pharisees over their obsession with traditions about hand-washing, rules that distract them from what Jesus says really matters. It is what comes out of your mouth that defiles, not what goes in, says Jesus. And the disciples hear this this. And being students of the Messiah, one supposes they understand. But when tested, would they put this teaching into practice?

Jesus and his disciples leave Galilee and travel to Tyre and Sidon, which was then outside of Israel (and still is). They were tired, seeking rest and solitude. The parallel story from Mark chapter 7 explains that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; he could not keep his presence secret.” They must have been incredibly popular by then. Like the Beatles in 1964. I can imagine it was wonderful and exhausting.

Here in their place of refuge a Canaanite woman finds the group and cries to Jesus “Have mercy on me, my daughter is tormented by a demon.” She calls and calls, provoking the disciples to ask Jesus to have mercy on them by sending her away. And Jesus answers: I was sent for Israel, she’s a Canaanite. As the Messiah, Jesus makes a good point. He was indeed sent to rescue the nation of Israel, and this woman was not of Israel. As a Jew, though, it would be incumbent on him to show kindness to the Canaanite woman, even though by Jewish standards she would be thought ritually impure.

This is an opportunity for Jesus to teach his disciples what he’s been talking about in Galilee. The woman does not follow Jewish traditions of purity, but it is not adherence to rules that gives her value. What gives her value is that she’s a child of God. Jesus and the woman have this kind of humorous exchange about dogs and crumbs from the table and he heals her daughter. As he was always going to, perhaps.

I like this how this story reminds me of the risks of distraction. The disciples are fatigued, expecting rest. This call from the Canaanite woman is annoying. Her daughter’s suffering is not their concern. “We’re tired, make it stop. Your yoke easy and your burden light. Remember?” Jesus nudges them back to what matters. Love God. Love one another. Even under the constant personal mentorship of the Messiah, it’s possible to forget that.

So I’ll forgive myself about the shoes. I’ll go gently with myself for wandering through Kingdom of me and my priorities.

The shoeless mornings are happily a thing of the past, mostly, but lesson of the importance of being emotionally present came back to me just a few days ago. I was going about my morning routine totally distracted by a difficult conversation I’d had with a colleague the day before. We had disagreed about the importance and urgency of a project, and the discussion had been emotionally difficult for both of us. My brain was busy spinning the story out again and again, making assumptions about her motivations and assigning meaning that did nothing but fuel my anxiety. I was completely lost in these perseverations as I prepared for the day. It wasn’t going well.

Fortunately, nine year old Elliott noticed my distraction and inquired sweetly “where are you?” She’s good counsel, so I explained the story to her and how I planned to “fix the problem”. Elliott smiled, validated my feelings and quietly added: “I also wonder if maybe you could listen to her and try to understand what she’s feeling?” Elliott is nine. She’s camped out in the Kingdom of God and inviting me to join her, to come back to the present and tend to my relationships with empathy. The invitations of the misplaced shoes were always too subtle me. I’m glad my kids abandoned subtlety. It is easy to forget the simple mission is to love God and to love one another. A firm nudge is often just the thing.

That I can even tell these stories to you through a Kingdom of God lens is thanks to this place and to you. Epiphany exists to support us in our journey to discern our relationships with God and with one another. And it is a beautiful place. The church. The Ellsworth Story chapel. The Fireside Room. The attention to detail around acoustics and lighting is exquisite. And we are blessed with instruments to make music: organs, pianos, a harpsichord. We are blessed with so much. And you know what? Those are all just things. Epiphany is not these things.

Epiphany is you. It is you who make this space alive. It is for sure you making the music. And it is you who embody our spiritual fellowship.

To illustrate, I’ll share with you my current favorite Epiphany moment. One Sunday during Lent last year I came to the eleven o’clock service and installed myself in row five on the aisle in front of Ed and Nancy Emerson, which is my favorite place to be. And after I had communion I knelt down and closed my eyes closed to reflect and listen to you sing. But what I was really doing was worrying—about how much there was to do, about schedules…about laundry! And when I opened my eyes there you were, walking together to receive communion, some solemn, some joyful, coming forward to take these holy sacraments and recommit yourselves to your spiritual journey. And you seemed to me to be saying with this act: “We are not afraid. Not afraid of death, not afraid of human judgement, and certainly not afraid of the laundry. (So snap out of it!)” In that moment my anxieties vanished. I return to that moment a lot for solace and inspiration.

Someone, perhaps John Lennon, perhaps someone else once said: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end yet.” What you show me is that everything is okay right now, because the Kingdom of God is right here and we are children of God. The universe is a perfectly safe place to be.

Did I mention this is the stewardship sermon?

This is the season in which we think ahead to our work and our budget for the coming year. In the coming weeks we will invite your fellow parishioners to share their Epiphany stories during our services. You will also receive letters at home with details on pledging.

And in six weeks (November 20) we will have our annual Ingathering service at all four services. I would like to invite you now to begin thinking about how you would like to support Epiphany with your pledge, and also what prayer you would like to bring forward with your pledge to lay here on the altar at Ingathering. That this place needs your financial support goes without saying. But I’m saying it. We are grateful for your support and hope you’ll continue it.

Because Epiphany is you. You, coming forward, fearless and without distraction. You on your spiritual journey. You nudging one another back into the Kingdom of God with kindness and generosity. I welcome you to this season of discernment.