God writes straight with crooked lines. I have always liked that Spanish proverb. And every time I read the letters I now ask from people who are to be confirmed, received, or reaffirm I am reminded of it. There are very few straight lines in our lives. When we take the time to think about how we got from point A to B, we are usually truly amazed by the journey. And often when we look at it realize, we could not have planned it that way if we tried.
We are challenged in these readings today by the notion of faith and works, the difference between faith, which we often see more as something we just assent to, rather inactive, and works, doing something. James says it, and even Jesus, to a degree, seems to say it too. Although in this story of him, it comes out in a different way.
This encounter has been of great interest to many a commentator over the centuries, and does indeed, have many diverse understandings of what is going on. Some say that, since Jesus was God, and knew everything, this was a fabricated encounter designed to get something accomplished. Some say we misunderstand the dialogue because of the times, the idea of a “dog” being a Greek philosophical group that was often referred to as dogs. Some say it didn’t even happen. No matter what, when our ears hear it today, it is a bit of a shock, for all we believe and know of Jesus. It just does not seem like him.
One of the most compelling thoughts I have read about this encounter calls this woman, the woman who changed the world. I struggle with all of this too, but I want to offer something here. Our theology says that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. One has to wonder just how that all goes together, a question that is as old as our faith, and will not be answered fully until we meet Jesus. But if Jesus was truly, fully human, then I think he must have had, at some point, the feeling and experience of being called up short, of being changed by another person. In a sense this woman evangelizes Jesus. She, in that moment, believes in him more than he believes in himself. This encounter makes us ask some really simple, yet profound questions. Did Jesus ever have a bad day? Did he ever just want to leave it all behind for a while? You notice here he does not seem to have his disciples around, he might have just had to get away from it all, and then here she comes!
And so it is not his finest hour, we all have those times. I did it this week, I do it a lot. A woman, who I respect very much, asked me a completely legitimate question, but in that moment and with all that had happened in the past few hours, and what I knew was yet to come, I just lost it. I made a response something like what we hear Jesus make here. Almost immediately I knew what I had done. You see, this woman I believe does nothing less, and nothing more, than remind Jesus who he was. For a moment he either had lost that, or didn’t want it. Somewhat similar to when he is about to go to the cross. That is a very human thing. But she reminded him. And even if what he heard in that moment was a person who just needed what they needed, a selfish request, her response said to him, “hey, she get’s it.” Yes, I remember now, who I am.
The other important part of this story today is that both the woman and Jesus have crossed all kinds of human barriers and boundaries set up by the time in which they lived. Jesus wasn’t really supposed to be hanging out with her. His counterparts would have totally agreed if he had shrugged her off and moved on. In fact, in Matthew, this story has the disciples with Jesus and this is exactly what they tell Jesus to do. No, he has wandered out of his boundary here, and for the first time encounters the Gentile world, where Paul would follow some time later, expanding Jesus’ message. And thus, this is why she is called sometimes, the woman that changed the world. She broadened Jesus humanity, and Jesus himself, by going here did the same. It was a crooked line, with miraculous results. This woman’s sheer persistence overcame the legacy of ethnic separation that was as real then as now.
I think we can learn from this story that our paths are not useless, that what may seem like a dark, forboding walk, may still have in store a whole lot of light, transformation, something remarkably needed.
I think without realizing it, Jim Campbell more or less preached this sermon in his letter to me regarding his reaffirmation today. He talks in the letter of a time in his life when he simply came to church, but wasn’t doing anything. I have to admit that is a part of Jim I cannot imagine, nor can I imagine our church without his work but he tells it himself, and then he felt called again not just to be present, but to do, to do something. He describes all of this, like, well a crooked line. He says he is coming today because it was 45 years ago since his last public statement, and he hopes to be an example to others about declaring our faith, not just doing things to show our faith. We need to say it to each other, and in the world, not just be quiet and do things and have others guess why, why we do what we do.
You see, full circle. This is really the life of a Christian journey, finding the straight in the crooked lines. Jim describes the rythmn which we all know, that pendulum between being and doing, between faith which is simply there within us, and the need to show that faith through our actions. You see I have never really thought that James was saying something that goes against Martin Luther for instance, who by the way called the Book of James, “so much straw.” Luther of course, says, we are saved by grace alone, and I agree, and I just have to say I wonder if James would too. I think James might have been trying to say, when he says faith without works is dead, that you can’t know it fully without the works, that a deep faith cannot live and breathe and set you free, until you exercise it. God loves you anyway, I don’t think James ever contradicted that notion, but perhaps James knew if you were going to love yourself, if you were going to truly remember who you are, a child of God, then the action of the works that come from that faith, are what will awaken you to that.
This notion is in all the letters I received, in the stories I hear from those who present themselves. We are almost always awakened by the actions of someone around us, those who make the church that welcomes you, those that call just when you need it, the one that writes the book that you read right when you need to read it,
In my first parish, there were a small group of people who worked diligently on the gardens around the church. People would often complain about any money we spent on this and would even say, what a waste of all the time. But one day, a young woman showed up with her children and when I asked how she had found us, she smiled and told me that she had lived down the street for a long time, and that her children knew this as “the butterfly house” She said they would walk by most days, to look at the butterflies in our beautiful gardens. She eventually became a member, and now her mother and father are members too. The butterflies brought them, and they came because of the hard work of those who prepared the gardens.
We never know, we toil nonetheless, we don’t always understand, but we should always remember we have a God that writes straight with crooked lines. Amen for that.