Friday, August 19, 2011

Throwing the Life-line

Scripture for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: 21-28

My father crossed the Atlantic in 1908 at the age of two, with his mother and sister, in steerage. His father and older brothers had come across from Scotland earlier, and I assume that once they had found work, it was time for the family to reunite in the new world.

What caused them to emigrate was never discussed in our family, but for sure it was hardship, not enough to go around, a chronic lack of work, poverty. I have from my father some of the precious things they brought with them: a punch bowl—a punch bowl, for heaven’s sake!—and a set of dessert plates with spaces in the rims for threading ribbon. These people were going to have a life again! Had these been wedding gifts? They’re in surprisingly good shape, once carefully packed in that steamer trunk, kept now for nearly a century on one set of shelves after another, silent reminders of a great and challenging journey compelled by hard times. Reminders, too, to be ready to celebrate, once good times came.

For a family, such a momentous move may come seldom. But if you could imagine time-lapse photography capturing all the movements of migrating humanity, from the beginning til now, planet earth would seldom be still. Some of those migrations would be massive, like the one going on now in East Africa, as Somalia empties itself one way into Kenya, another into Ethiopia, both of those nations increasingly desperate to stem the tide and bring pressure upon Somalia to take care of its own (which it won't, perhaps can't) or, failing that, to press other nations to intervene and locate new camps within Somalia.

Meanwhile, this famine respects no national borders and asserts itself as a regional disaster. None of its fleeing refugees will be carrying punch bowls or dessert plates, though we pray that they will see good days again, sooner than later. As they flee, they are barely able to carry themselves. People in many nations are feeling the distress of hard times. The peoples of East Africa are in the hardest of times, and we do right to keep plugging away, week by week, gathering our gifts in Raile’s Bowl, multiplying those gifts by matching dollars through our mission funding, and helping three world-class organizations do good in our name, the World Food Program, Doctors without Borders, and the International Rescue Committee.

Famine is the back-story of the Joseph saga coming to us from the Book of Genesis. Last week, we watched his brothers sell Joseph into slavery after that youngest upstart brother with the big ego had pressed their buttons one time too often. By the hindsight of a couple of decades living through the disaster of his own hard times, Joseph tells those same brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God…” And “here” was Egypt, where Joseph, by his talents and gifts and sheer chutzpah, had become like a father to Pharoah, a royal advisor to the king who was treated like a god.

Joseph, poster-child of resilience and making-the-best-of-a-bad-situation, impresses his masters by his natural talents, charm, and efficiency. Promoted and placed in the household of Potiphar, a royal officer, Joseph runs afoul of Mrs. Potiphar who is attracted by his physical beauty and then quickly frustrated and embarrassed by his principled rejection of her campaign to seduce him. This lands Joseph in jail, where he shows his stuff by correctly interpreting the dreams of two of Pharoah’s key servants imprisoned for displeasing their king. Meanwhile, Pharoah himself struggles with the meaning of mysterious dreams, so Joseph makes his mark as a psychoanalyst to the king, interpreting his dreams.

Joseph goes from strength to strength and glory to glory, and soon he is put in charge of the royal response to a massive famine in the land. Wisely, Joseph stockpiles foodstuffs while he can, filling Pharoah’s warehouses. The famine worsening, people line up at those warehouses for relief. When they can no longer pay with money, they pay with the deeds to their land, and, as the famine reaches yet deeper and wider, they indenture themselves as slaves to Pharoah.

Presiding over this national disaster is Joseph, Joseph the Just as Jewish tradition remembers him. Instituting a national system of slavery is far from just, but at its primitive best the story has Joseph saving the lives of the Egyptians and matching the inexorable collapse of that economy with the unifying order of central authority.

All of which is back-story to what is foremost throughout the Book of Genesis, the birthing of the nation Israel and God’s fulfillment of the promises made to Joseph’s paternal forebears, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel, to settle them in a land, and to bless the world through them.

Though veiled, that fulfillment is happening before their eyes. Joseph has been a blessing to Egypt, serving its Pharoah and saving its people. And with that regional famine afflicting the land of Canaan where Joseph’s family of origin were still tending their sheep and claiming the land as theirs, the only way they would survive was by migrating south to Egypt where the food was, and where—who could ever have guessed it?—Joseph of the mighty ego, rejected by his brothers, had been given such power that he could welcome as resident aliens not just his father and brothers and families, but all their tribal counterparts who would have ridden the coattails of this miracle and been rescued from poverty. So down from the hill country they came in their donkey carts, their punch bowls and dessert plates packed for the journey. One day, generations hence, their descendants, numbering in the many thousands, would follow Moses out of Egypt and across to Canaan, into what they would call the promised land. The witness and message of the Bible as a whole, both Hebrew and Christian testaments, is, as Paul says today, that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

And universal, international, multicultural, so these readings suggest today. To fulfill the covenant promises made to Israel, God is at work in Egypt, to bless Egypt. In our Gospel, Jesus the Messiah blesses a Canaanite woman and recognizes that this crossing of boundaries helps fulfill his mission to serve and save the house of Israel.

She and Jesus cross two boundaries to have this encounter. He is a Jew from Galilee to the north, she a Gentile from the coast, from what was in ancient times Canaan, the original “promised land” that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel colonized. This is an Arab woman who approaches Jesus. The first step was his, as he crossed from his country to hers. Culturally, just as great a step is taken as a woman speaks in public to a man, and the man replies.

Though he doesn’t, at first. She has shouted across all the gulfs that separate them (race, sex, religion), begging him to intervene on behalf of her tormented daughter. Jesus does not answer.

“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us, just like that!” the disciples tell him. Perhaps when he sees how closed they are to her, he opens to her, crossing that gulf with thin words—like when a sailor on a rescue boat throws a lifeline to a boat in distress, he hurls a heavy knot (it’s called a monkey’s paw) wound around a stone and tied to a light line that the receiving sailor can pull across. At its far end is the heavier lifeline that will pull to safety.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It isn’t fair to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.” That’s about as thin a line of compassion as a man can toss.

“You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table,” she says, catching that monkey paw in mid-air. She realizes that his replying means that he is opening to her, and she will not miss this moment. She will pull that thin line, and pull, and pull until that strong secure lifeline is in her hands. Subtly, he rises and opens to her the moment… to which she decisively rises, and in her bold appeal for God’s help, Jesus recognizes the same gracious God who has ordained his bold mission.

“For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind,” we sang, moments ago. That’s what our readings today announce.

And they challenge us to complete the verse: “If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.”

Today’s Bible voices urge us to step across the boundaries of nations, look across the gulf of race and class, and gain from East Africa fresh perspective on our own relative distress, and from our own relative abundance throw the lifeline.