For three years I worked in Harlem, with HIV positive patients, many with a history of substance abuse and mental health challenges. This was a hard and rewarding job. Many of the clients had given up on organized religion, but most had never renounced a sense of spirituality. They would often tell me, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” It was sort of a proverb.
As a religious person, hearing that, would make me question: Am I spiritual” Do these two have to be in conflict?
I came to understand that by spirituality they meant an experience of connection with the Divine, Mystery, God, or a Higher Power, that gave meaning and purpose to their lives. Spirituality was a healing and transformative experience. Religion, however, represented for them intolerance, bigotry, meaninglessness, manipulation, coercion, even abuse. It was disheartening to hear this. However, I had to be honest and admit that religions many times conveyed this shadow side of humanity.
Nonetheless, from my own experience, I knew that all religious expressions have, at their core, a profound spiritual experience. My own religious journey sprung forth from a deep and transformative experience of the love of God in Jesus.
Every spiritual experience, if significant enough, will eventually be expressed in words, or song, ceremony, rules, or dance. It will be cast in a mold that, if meaningful enough, becomes a religion. As humans we have no choice but to make religion out of our spiritual experiences. It is part of our humanity to want to express a spiritual experience in words and rituals. There is nothing wrong with that.
The problem is when those words, rituals, rules, and traditions get in the way of the original spiritual experience, when religious expressions obscure and hide the Spirit, when they are an obstacle in living transformed lives of love, forgiveness, and peace. I think this is the message we heard today in the story of Jesus.
The story has two parts. In the first part Jesus makes a strong critique of certain religious traditions of his time. The religious leaders, who heard these, took offense at Jesus words. Jesus had made a radical reinterpretation of some important religious purity laws of his time, he said: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
For a people that had been oppressed and marginalized the need for these purity laws were helpful in securing an identify, a sense of belonging, and a sense of being chosen by God who had liberated them from the slavery in Egypt. These purity laws where an expression of their spiritual experience, of their spirituality!
The problem, as Jesus saw it, was that these religious expressions had become an obstacle to the life in the Spirit. Instead of helping they isolated us from God, from each other, from nature, and from ourselves.
Now, Jesus was not throwing away all traditions. Jesus had previously said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. (5:17).
Moving on to the second part of the story, it is interesting that Jesus seems to get caught in his own tangle of unhelpful religious traditions. He had gone into pagan territory, and a woman who begs him to heal her daughter is met with a rather insensitive, and may I say, a rather downright rude Jesus!
Jesus states a religious belief, he has not been sent to non-Jews, pagans had no right to benefit from his ministry.
Now this woman is bold. When she hears that Jesus tells her: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.“ (wow what harsh words!) She is not cowered, she responds with courage: “Yes it is right, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Wow, what a response! It appears that Jesus is now at the receiving end of the critique of religious traditions.
The story definitely represents a turning point in the Gospel. What happens with the Canaanite woman is the logical consequence, the practical enactment, of the new attitude of Jesus towards religious purity laws that was established in the conversation with the religious leaders, in the previous verses.
In summary, I would say that we have today a double challenge (or a double nudge…or a double push!) that will mean different things to different people.
First, the challenge Jesus issues is to be open to hear God’s voice and question our own religious traditions, to ask whether or not they bring life and love to all of our relationships.
The second challenge is to be always open to discover new invitations to openness that God is continuously offering us. We are always on the journey of opening our hearts and minds wider and wider. This might mean discovering the spirituality in religious traditions and not dismissing them that easily. This may mean not getting too comfortable with where we have arrived because God will be calling us to move further and further along on our journey.
Hugh and I are so excited to be living here and grateful of the leadership of Emmanuel to have called me to be your new priest and pastor.
In the process to discern whom to call next as your rector, the congregation did a survey and expressed, in its parish profile, the concern that the “church is viewed by fellow islanders as: rich, stuffy, old, and traditional”. To be able to identify and see this, and to express it, is very bold and courageous.
You discerned then that you were called:
- to make old stories and symbols relevant to the present,
- to focus more on outreach to the community,
- to embrace diversity of age, race, class and perspectives
- to discern with flexibility and adaptability,
- to be open to questions,
- and express your spirituality in a variety of liturgies, including experimental and innovative ones.
- You wanted a priest that could think outside the box, appreciates multiple spiritual paths, and is aware of the trends in a changing world.
Do you see in all of this, an echo of the Gospel of today?
Emmanuel has taken a new risk, it has chosen a path of openness, of questioning, of holding on to dear traditions while willing to examine those that impede the good news of God’s love in Jesus. Many have expressed surprise at the election of a Latino Gay man as your rector, this is a bold move and it says a lot of you as a community of faith.
I would like to end by sharing a very personal story. As many of you know I was a Roman Catholic priest and missionary for 23 years. I loved the church but at the same time beliefs and traditions started to become an obstacle in my spiritual life. I could not reconcile the message of Jesus with attitudes around women’s role in the church, lay participation, inter-religious dialogue, sexual morality, etc. I would question myself and wonder if these questionings were a calling from God or not.
I decided to attend a month long silent retreat. In this retreat I was invited to put myself in various scenarios from the life of Jesus. One of these was a traditional Catholic belief, that Jesus appeared to Mary, his mother, first after the resurrection. When I started this meditation, something like a movie started in my head.
I saw myself on the day after the death of Jesus, it was Saturday evening. All the disciples were present as well as Mary the mother of Jesus. There was a very sober and sad mood. We were finishing dinner and Mary asks me to help her do the dishes. While we are cleaning Mary starts to tell me she does not believe it can end like this, she has hope that her son might be alive. I think she is in denial and try to convince her to accept that this is it, there is nothing more. Suddenly she looks at me sharply and tells me: “You are just like Joseph my husband! He would be making a table and would yell from the shop that the table had come out crooked. I would tell him: “Joseph, its not the table, it’s the floor; just move the table to a better place.” I looked at Mary puzzled. What in the world is she talking about?
I continue in this inner movie and I see then myself at night, everyone asleep and I hear some noise. I get up to check, I see Mary’s room where the door is ajar. I see Mary and Jesus talking. I feel embarrassed to be a witness of this encounter, I move to go away and Jesus turns and looks to me straight in the eye and opens up his arms. I wave of guilt and doubt pass over me. I see Jesus eyes in the most tender way, looking directly at my heart and I hear these words: “Berto, its not the table, its the floor”.
This experience was the final push I needed to make the decision to move from my religious ground into the Episcopal Church.
I believe that Jesus’ story reminds us that we need over and over again to adjust ourselves, to find the place where we are spirituality fed, to constantly be ready to renew our religious traditions to respond to the Spirit of God’s invitations, so that they are reflection of God’s love, like Jesus did with the Canaanite woman.
Let us pray. Holy One of Israel, covenant-keeper, you restore what is lost, heal what is wounded, and gather in those who have been rejected. Give us the faith to speak as steadfastly as did the Canaanite woman, that the outcast may be welcomed and all people may be blessed. Amen.