Archive for September, 2015

Belief and/or Trust: Or Does God Really Not Give Us More Than We Can Handle? Further Wanderings in the Weird World of Mark 9 (and just a little bit of Mark 10)

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Mark 9:38-50
September 27, 2015
Steve Hammond

If you were here last week, you remember, I hope, that we talked about that story in Mark 9 where the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus talked to them about the last being first and took this little girl and set her down in their midst and said whoever welcomes her welcomes Jesus and the one who sent him. Remember we got up and made lines that we turned into a circle and talked about what it feels like to be welcomed and unwelcomed. Well, we are going to keep looking at the 9th chapter of Mark this morning which is a weird, fascinating, gruesome chapter that seems kind of stream of consciousness, but I don’t think really is. If you don’t have your Bible or smartphone or tablet with you, there are probably Bibles nearby in the pews you can look at Mark 9 with me, if you want to.

Toward the end of the chapter there is this story that begins like this, “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” This, as they would say in some places, is rich. Just before the story about how the disciples argued about who among them was the greatest there is another argument. Here is how that story begins. “When the whole crowd saw Jesus, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with my disciples?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’”

So the disciples have this public and spectacular failure at ridding this child of his demon. Then right after that they come across this person who isn’t a part of the group who is able to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and they tell him or her to stop. Can you imagine them coming up to Jesus right after he has had to clean up their mess and tell him that they tried to stop this person from doing what they couldn’t do? That is rich. And it’s kind of funny and kind of sad.

And one of the reasons it is sad is because it comes right after the story where Jesus talked about welcoming the child. There is this person who is doing the work of Jesus, no less. Instead of welcoming him, instead of breaking out of the lines that Jesus had just challenged when he put that little child in their midst, the disciples reject that person. Whoever wrote the book of Mark was not hesitant to knock the disciples off the pedestals that they were being placed on in the early church.

The disciples got a much different response from Jesus that they were expecting. He did not perceive the threat to the brand that they did, and said it’s okay. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Do you hear what a welcoming statement that is? He may not be one of us, but he gets it. There he goes, Jesus turning lines into circles again.

The very next story in this chapter gets us back to the children. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,[ where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

I told you this chapter was gruesome, weird, and fascinating. It’s better being tossed into the sea with a weight around our neck, cutting off our arms and legs, or plucking out our eyeballs than putting a stumbling block in front of the little ones. What is that stumbling block?

Jesus calls them the little ones who believe in him. Remember how I keep saying that just about every time you see the word believe or belief in the New Testament you should substitute the word trust? The word is legitimately translated as belief, but the way we use the word belief has changed, and the word trust gets more to what that word really meant.

There is a difference between belief and trust. Have you ever helped a child jump or even take the steps down into a swimming pool when they didn’t want to do that? What they believe is they are going to drown. But when they jump from the side into your arms, or walk down the steps to you, they trust that they aren’t. And the trust is not that there is magic that prevents them from drowning, but that you won’t let that happen.

One of the things that really sets me off is those politicians and others who say they believe that every child needs a father and a mother. From the age of three, I was raised by my widowed grandmother. Here is the brief, sad summary of what I have been able to piece together of why that happened to me. Evidently, my mother did the best she could to spend all of my father’s paycheck on alcohol before he lost it all gambling. You may believe all you want that every child needs a mother and a father, but my mother and father could not be trusted to raise my brothers and me. They weren’t bad people, just not able to raise my brothers and me. But my grandmother and my larger family I could trust. Fortunately, those stumbling blocks that were put in front of me didn’t trip me up forever.

I think this is the stumbling block that Jesus was talking about. The little ones, the vulnerable ones are trusting us. They are willing to jump into that pool not because of what they believe, or what they have been told they are supposed to believe, but because of trust. Jesus is saying we need to go to extreme measures, “pluck your eyeballs out if you have to,” to make sure we don’t violate or sabotage their trust. We are called to be trusted, to make the church and the world more trustworthy. There are plenty of stumbling blocks along the way to challenge their trust, we don’t want to add to them. And this is not just about children, though they are the most vulnerable ones and, often, the most trusting ones. It’s about all the vulnerable ones in our lives and this world. And when we, when the church, welcomes the vulnerable ones we are honoring or rebuilding their trust. They feel the welcome of Jesus.

This is how chapter 9 ends. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” “Be at peace with one another.” That takes us right back to that story about the dispute about who is the greatest. This chapter, maybe, holds together a bit more than it appears. Maybe Jesus is saying one of the ways we can stop from putting stumbling blocks in front of the little ones is to live more peacefully, more graciously, with a more welcoming attitude with everyone. If we turn those lines into circles, where there is no first or last, nobody at the front or the back, and welcome everyone into the circle, the little ones will surely have more reasons to live in trust. What would it be like for the little ones, the vulnerable ones if the ‘adults’ decided the children are more important than our wars and ideologies, and our lines and borders? What if we made children and the vulnerable ones more important than our politics decided to welcome each other because it would make the world a more trusting place, a better place for the little ones?

That’s the end of Mark 9, but not the end of the story. Jesus has been talking to the disciples and showing them about welcoming the outsider and the vulnerable, turning our lines into circles, living in peace with everybody. Could somebody read Mark 10:13-16 for us? Do you understand why Jesus was so indignant, so frustrated and upset with the disciples? They had just gone over this. But, again, as we talked about last week it is so hard to turn those lines of exclusion and competition into circles of welcome and community.

I want to close with something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. At last Sunday’s ECO discussion, we talked about that age old question of if God is all loving and all powerful, why do so many people in this world experience so much crap in their lives. There’s obviously a lot to that question and the discussion was a good one. But one of the things we talked about was that thing you will often hear people say, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Now I understand why people say that and it does seem to be a way of saying that I am going to trust God no matter what.

But think about it. Why do we imagine these hard things are gifts from God? “I am going to give you the opportunity to be unemployed. Your job is going to be outsourced, and the day after your benefits end, I’m also going to give you a heart attack. That’s not a gift that’s too much for you, is it?” “And you. I am happy to give you the gift of a very ill child. That’s not too much is it?” “And you. I know I have a gift for a bunch of you. A war. And I will let you be a refugee. You also get a boat, well kind of a boat.” “And you. You’re 12 now. How about I give you this? You get to work in the sex industry. I can get a guy into town tonight who can set you up. That’s not too much for you is it?” And, frankly, there is no two year old with an mentally ill and alcoholic mother and a gambling addicted father for whom that’s not too much. I would not trust a God who gives us things like that, whether it’s too much or not.

Here’s another way to think about all of that. The Apostle Paul wrote some things that are just down right sketchy. But there are times where he really comes across for us and shows us a more excellent way. He had such an amazing trust in God. And instead of believing that God wouldn’t give him more than he could handle, he showed his trust in God when he wrote this at the end of Romans 8. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through The One who first loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That’s the kind of God I can trust. The God who gives us love and welcomes us, who gives us healing, and forgiveness, new life, and each other, and empowers us, and tears down walls that divide us, and turns lines into circles, and calls us to follow Jesus and seek God’s Realm, and, yes, trusts us. That’s the God Jesus was talking about in Mark 9; not the God Jesus believed in, but the God Jesus trusted all the way to an empty grave. Those little ones, the vulnerable ones. They don’t care what we believe about God. It’s what we trust about God that matters. How willing are we to jump into the pool?

Lines and Circles

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2015
Steve Hammond

[Have people line themselves up, facing the pulpit, alphabetically by first name]

Lots of life is about lines and finding our places in the line. We could have lined up using any of a number of criteria other than our names. But we would still have had to work at it and needed the assistance of others to find our place in the line, which is not an uncommon experience. There are all kinds of people and norms and expectations that will tell us exactly where our place in the line is.

What do you see as you stand here in the line? Everybody turn to the left. Now what do you see. Perhaps more than the head in front of you. You don’t have to work as hard to see something other than the head in front of you, but you are still in a line. And lines are isolating, they disconnect us from each other, except we have the shared experience of being in the line. Even though we are in the same line, sharing this same experience, most of you can’t see my very well, and I can’t see most of you.

This story from today’s gospel about who gets to be the most powerful of Jesus’ buddies is a story about lines. Most of us probably aren’t all that concerned about who gets to be next to the pulpit in our line, but in most of the lines we find ourselves in the goal for just about everybody is to get to the front of the line, or as close to it as we can get. Or if you find yourself not getting any closer, the goal becomes to try your hardest to make sure more folk don’t get in front of you. This was the linear thinking that was driving the disciples as they argued about who was the greatest among them, or who got to be at the front of the line. [Tell people they can sit down, but not to get too comfortable]

Jesus wanted to help them think in a new way. So he picked up a little girl who was standing nearby and said something that sounds so heartwarming to us. Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me. But when the people who were there heard Jesus say this, their blood began to run cold. It was awful. How could Jesus imagine such a ridiculous thing, much less say it out loud?

Here is how the lines worked in Jesus’ day. At the front of the line were the men of high status; wealthy men, the religious establishment, the social and political elite. All of them were fighting to be first in line. Behind them the men of lesser status would jockey for their positions in the line, the closer you could get to the front the better. You would never get to the front of the line, but maybe you could find ways to push others out of the way. Then came the women. Then the slaves. And after the slaves who brought up the end of the line? The children. But they weren’t even right behind the slaves. The farm animals actually were farther up the line than children. You could get more work out of a goat than a four year old child. And besides, goats usually lived longer. According to Micah Keil, who teaches theology at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, children weren’t even considered to be people until they could start working and make themselves more valuable than the animals. This was the established line up in Jesus’ world, and then he picks up this little child and all their chins drop.

[Tell folk to get back in line, but reverse order. Ask everyone to join hands. We need to get the first person in line holding hands with the last person in line. How are we going to do that? Form a circle.]

Now that we are in a circle, what do you see? Each other. We are no longer isolated. You see Jesus wants us to break out of our linear way of thinking and change to a circular model. That whole thing about the last being first doesn’t really mean anything if we cling to a linear way of thinking. The line is still there. People’s positions just change, though that’s better than it was, but it’s still a line. Who is first and last in this circle? See what Jesus was doing? Too much of the history and the life of the church indicates we believe that Jesus came to tweak the line, to make it better, maybe a little fairer. But, like the disciples, we still haven’t understood that Jesus wants us to get rid of the line and make the circle our paradigm. [Tell people they can sit down].

Jesus said whoever welcomes a little child, the little girl at the end of the line, welcomes him. What does it mean, what does it feel like to be welcomed?

This world is experiencing a refugee crisis. People from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, in particular, are fleeing their homes, looking for refuge. They are at the end of the line, and there are plenty of people who are trying to keep them there because they are afraid they will get ahead of them. Is the church able to help this world think about circles of welcome? I mentioned in study group the other night that I had heard an Eastern European Bishop say the refugees couldn’t be let into Europe because they would destroy the Christian heritage of Europe. What kind of Christian heritage is it that turns the little child away, the person at the end of the line? The person Jesus put in our midst? And it’s not just Christian leaders in Europe who are opposed to welcoming the little child. The politicians most vocal about their Christian faith in this country are adamant about building walls, keeping people out, and sending away any of the little children who have happened to make their way into our midst. We can’t stop thinking in linear ways, protecting that line at all costs.

At the beginning of today’s story Jesus says this amazing thing about being turned over to the authorities, being killed and rising again. But the disciples don’t ask him about it. Instead, their attention turned, rather quickly it seems, to who gets to be first, Jesus’ Chief of Staff, in whatever it is he was setting up. What a more fruitful discussion they would have had along the road if they just asked Jesus what on earth he was talking about. Here he is talking about betrayal, death, and resurrection and all they were trying to do was figure out where their place in the line was. The line that Jesus was turning into a circle.

How much do we miss because we are so concerned about the lines in our lives and our place in them? So concerned about getting closer to the front or, at least, keeping others from getting ahead of us? But when Jesus gets us thinking about circles rather than lines, than our thinking on lots of things can change. Instead of being preoccupied about the lines, maybe we can start asking about resurrection and trying to figure out stuff like how we turn our lines into circles.

A Special Kind of Presence

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

Job 2:11-13
September 13, 2015
Mary Hammond

September always feels like a “new beginning” to me. Leaves start falling, and the air starts changing. Children and youth are beginning school, meeting new teachers and making new friends. College students are arriving in Oberlin from all over the country and world, many encountering each other for the first time. This small town that attempts to hibernate in the summer is once again abuzz with activity and energy.

Even as we face these autumn transitions, thousands upon thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe—a veritable flood of humanity, the likes of which has not been seen since the end of World War II. They come, traumatized and hungry, bearing nothing but the clothes on their backs, and often children on their shoulders. These desperate human beings are pleading for help, hope, and somewhere that can become a new home. Meanwhile, government officials throughout the Eurozone are debating their national responses.

It is an important time to ponder the meaning of friendship, both here and around the world. There are surely many ways to explore this topic in scripture, but I am drawn to a few short verses in the Book of Job today.

This book quickly immerses us in MetaStory, a Big Story. Its main character, a man named Job, is beset by a series of cumulative catastrophes. The first chapter captures the intensity of these calamities with the repetitive phrase, “While he was yet speaking…,” as one messenger after another brings news of the next disaster. There is absolutely no breathing room for Job. The deep truth of this story is that such overwhelming suffering occurs every day throughout our world.

Job faces the loss of family, property, wealth, and health in a brief period of time. His former prominence and social status are rapidly reduced to nothing. Think again of all the times people must start over in some way when tragedy strikes. We can all relate to this story on some level, because we all have known loss.

Three of Job’s friends–Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad–hear about his sorrows and travel to the land of Uz to support him. The painful sores on Job’s body render him nearly unrecognizable. His friends are shocked by his appearance. In a pure and unforced manner, they respond with grief, lament, and solidarity. The tearing of their garments and dumping of dirt on their heads are outward symbols of their inward acts of mourning. They sit on the ground with Job, one with him in his suffering and loss.

It is uncomfortable sometimes to sit with another’s pain, because it quickly surfaces our own. It forces us to face our personal fragility and mortality, our personal trauma and loss. The answers we relied on in the past may not hold up in the face of this new reality. Faith crises may erupt. We are driven to ask harder questions and seek deeper wisdom. We are forced to acknowledge the inexplicable and confront the possibility of Mystery. In such times, we have to face our own discomfort and name it. Otherwise, we risk disengaging to protect our illusions of safety.

Job’s friends follow their best instincts at first. There are moments in life when words are woefully inadequate. For seven days and nights, these three sit beside Job in silence. If silence is about anything in such circumstances, it is about listening below the surface, beyond the words, deep into the heart of reality. It is about the profound power and comfort of Presence. Our human temptation is to fill such spaces with attempts to fix the sufferer, fix the situation, or explain the suffering.

Unfortunately, as the story progresses, Job’s friends break their silence in all the worst ways, sure they can fix Job’s situation by fixing Job. His circumstances do not fit their theology, so instead of rethinking their own views of God, they blame Job. The friendship sours, becoming argumentative and even abusive. But that is a topic for another time.

In this brief paragraph from the Book of Job, however, simple acts of friendship become a model of radical accompaniment. The suffering of our neighbor calls us to ask not only “What shall we do?” but also “Who shall we be?” We are given the opportunity to open up to one another in shared pain and shared hope. Even if hope is dashed, as in Job’s case, we are invited to share in that, too.

I received a wonderful e-mail from a former student who gave me permission to share these reflections about PCC. They speak so much about cultivating friendship amid joys and sorrows. They testify to the power and importance of an individual and communal ministry of presence. I quote:

“Sharing Time is one of my favorite parts of PCC worship. Although really, all of it is my favorite part. I remember a lot of times sitting, listening, or sharing, and just feeling my heart cry out. Cries for peace, healing, justice, freedom from my then undiagnosed depression. Collective pain and sorrow are so real, and after two years of counseling and acknowledging just how deeply I feel others’ pain, I feel much better able to bear it. Most importantly, I feel better able to address that side of me proactively.

“I will be holding Peace Church in my heart, especially those who are having Hard Times. It seems so important to me to have a church community that is able to share equally in sorrows and joys, especially in this culture of chasing happiness, where we can simply buy it or choose it and sadness is seen as a failure…There’s so much keeping people from sharing their authentic, messy, raw emotions with one another, or fully engaging with someone who is vulnerable. Which is exactly why being at PCC is always such a blessing.

“I spent my entire college life running away from and suppressing my depression, but without knowing it, it appeared during worship and was somehow lessened by the authenticity I found there. I think that was what I was getting to earlier. Peace Community is a community to Just Be, and Just Be with Jesus.”

Every day offers us new opportunities to give and receive friendship, to engage in compassion and solidarity, in listening and responding. May we celebrate the beauty, power, and potential of such relationship–extending it next door, across the pew, and throughout the planet. Our world is crying out for such radical love and genuine generosity of heart. Amen.

Brave Women, Brave Spaces

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

Mark 7:24-30
September 6, 3015
Steve Hammond

If you were here last week or read her sermon online, you know that Mary talked about that woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair. Mary asked us what our initial thoughts were about that story and the first thing that came to my mind was how incredibly brave that woman who had been unnamed was. What courage must it have taken for her to not only walk in that place where she was unwelcomed, but then to approach Jesus and do something so provocative. Simon the Pharisee could have thrown her out or turned her over to the authorities to be punished for violating several sections of the purity code. But, even worse, Jesus could have rejected and denounced her. And that is exactly what Simon was waiting for. He thought he had Jesus in a bind. If Jesus didn’t denounce her and demand her punishment then Simon had Jesus for being some kind of wishy-washy religious liberal. If he did denounce her then Jesus would lose all the credibility he had been gaining with the people.

Jesus did not walk innocently into traps, however. He did something very brave himself. He shifted the focus from the woman to Simon. And it was Simon he denounced, not the woman. And both Simon and Jesus knew that Simon had enough power to make Jesus pay for dressing down Simon in front of his guests. But like the woman, Jesus was willing to take the risk.

In today’s story we have another brave woman. This unnamed Syrophoenician woman, this Gentile had the ovaries to approach a Jewish Rabbi in the hopes he could save her daughter. And, as with the woman at Simon’s house, it turned out well for her. But this story leaves us feeling a whole lot different than with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet.

Some of us were talking at a meeting the other day about the importance of normalizing discomfort in the church, including this church. There is a lot about Jesus, a lot about figuring out what it means to be church together, what it means to be church in this society that should leave us feeling pretty discomforted. Think about the disciples. Their whole time with Jesus was discomfort normalized. Can you imagine what their stomachs felt like each day when they woke up? What’s he going to do or say today that gets him and/or us in trouble? What’s he going to do or say that leaves us totally baffled and him frustrated because we have no idea what he is doing or saying? Why is it his goal to leave no tenet of or our religious tradition unchallenged? Doesn’t he know that this can get us all killed?

So anyway this passage leaves us feeling some discomfort. Jesus seems kind of clueless, at best, or rude, at worst in his initial encounter with this woman. I mean he called her and her daughter Gentile dogs. So what do you do with this story? The woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her hair, at the end of that story we are all going Yay, Jesus! At the end of this one we are saying, “What was that?”

We are, though, normalizing discomfort so we are going to keep looking at this story. But, first, we need to look at the story right before this one in Mark’s gospel. It turns out that Jesus was having another dispute with the religious authorities. This time it’s not just with one Pharisee and the folk he had invited to his house. It’s with a whole group of the religious elite in a public setting. They were complaining that Jesus and his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. It’s not like they are somebody’s mother worried about dirty hands. By not washing their hands in the ritual ceremonies before they ate Jesus and the crew were challenging the validity of the purity codes. And the enemies of Jesus were not going to give him a pass on this.

I guess an analogy for what Jesus was doing there would kind of be what it was like when people first came along and suggested something like the creation stories in Genesis were not accurate to how the world was really created, and since they are poetry, were never meant to be taken literally, anyway. That still causes controversy today, but nothing nearly like when people started hearing such a thing back in the 1800’s. The religious leaders would have seen Jesus’ willingness to violate the purity codes as a deep threat to the core of their personal and societal religious underpinnings, just like folk did when Darwin and others started talking about evolution.

So the very next story, in effect, doubles down on that threat the establishment was feeling. Here came a Gentile woman asking Jesus to help her daughter. That was even a more courageous act than the woman who crashed Simon’s dinner party. But it’s not some Pharisee or other religious leader that Jesus challenged, but the woman herself. Why should he even care? He had more important things to do than deal with some little Gentile dog. His mission was different. The woman, though, stood her ground, not slinking off like some Pharisee who found himself in over his head with Jesus, but gave it right back to him. Mother love does make people crazy. “Go ahead and call me and my daughters dogs. I don’t really care. But I know that even you would allow the dogs to have, at least, the scraps from the table. And that’s all I’m asking for, just some scraps.”

It’s Jesus who seems taken aback by this whole encounter. Notice that in most healing stories, Jesus says something like your faith has made you well. What does he say to this Gentile woman? “Because of what you just said, you are going to go home and find your daughter delivered of her demons.” Can you imagine what it must have felt like for that woman? She had the courage to take Jesus on, and her daughter is well.

I think, though, this is another story where it is not just a woman who shows some bravery, but Jesus does too. I do have to say that one of the reasons this story becomes so tricky is that people get uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus needed some advice from this woman, or anyone. I used this story for a group on campus once and talked about what Jesus learned from this woman. Several students there took great offense at my suggestion that Jesus actually learned something new here. I’ve never been asked to speak for that group again.

But, there are a couple of brave responses I see from Jesus here. One is the bravery to let this woman’s arguments persuade him to do something he didn’t seem to think he needed to do. But he changed his mind, right there in public. And we’re talking about a Gentile woman, no less. Jesus didn’t care about losing face right there in public. She won the argument and he was more than willing to admit in front of all those people that she was right. Not many religious or political leaders are brave enough to do such a thing. The other thing this women’s bravery did was inspire Jesus to understand his ministry in a new and dangerous way. His openness and compassion to Gentiles would set him on a crash course with the religious authorities. But Jesus never looked back after the encounter with this Gentile woman, who put so much on the line for her daughter.

I can’t imagine anyone braver than Jesus. But these, and other stories, make it clear that Jesus knew that it is others who help us to be brave. Mary and I have been talking a lot this summer about the difference between safe spaces and brave spaces, something Rachael Weasley got us thinking about. We hear a lot about safe spaces, those places where people can go and feel like their needs and concerns will be honored and protected. Safe spaces are needed. But, you can’t guarantee that even designated safe spaces will be free from something being said are something happening that violates a person’s since of safety. And, as people are learning, safe spaces can become places where people are so careful about maintaining the safety of the space, that the conversations and interactions become hesitant and inauthentic. The safety erodes because people begin to fear they are going to say or do something that unknowingly violates someone else’s since of safety, or are misunderstood, even when the intentions are good.

Brave spaces offer a community where people can step up and try to build a more supportive community, even if there are some stumbles along the way. The women in both of these stories helped create brave spaces that Jesus stepped into. The bravery the women and Jesus showed are good models for the church. It’s worth noting that these stories were recalled in the life of the early church when there was much debate about the place of Gentiles and women in the life of the church. Maybe the writer’s intention was to help us understand about brave spaces than try to figure out why Jesus was so mean to that woman at first.

There are many metaphors for what it means to be church; the body of Christ, family, a spiritual temple, a community of faith. Another good metaphor seems to be the church as a brave space where together we are learning how and helping others to be brave in taking new steps toward faith, seeking God’s Realm, having our opinions and lives changed, being that light on the hill Jesus said we are. And notice in those stories that the women not only inspired Jesus to some brave actions, but they were drawn to Jesus because of the bravery they had already seen in him. That’s that idea of a virtuous circle where we are all drawn to and inspired by the bravery we see in each other, which only helps us to be braver. Of course, creating brave spaces, by definition, is normalizing discomfort. If it weren’t uncomfortable and scary, it wouldn’t be brave.

At the root of both of these stories, of course, is that question of how we learn to live with others who are different than we are. There were amazingly rigid boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, and men and women in Jesus’ culture. And there are plenty of rigid boundaries today. Part of creating brave spaces is the willingness to cross those boundaries and not be confused, or afraid, or so willing to let others manipulate our differences. Instead, as Lynn Powell said in that same meeting where we talked about normalizing discomfort, when we are creating brave spaces where we can cross those boundaries we get the opportunity to be curious about each other.

The fact is, that even though Jesus was so different than people were used to in his own culture, he had not had any meaningful or long term interactions with Gentiles and his interactions with women were roundly condemned for violating those rigid understandings about separation of the sexes. But this Syrophonecian women obviously ignited his imagination, sparked his curiosity. He didn’t just walk away from her as another Gentile dog, no matter what he initially said. She said something to him that he had either never really thought about before, or confirmed something that was starting to make sense but had not been called out of him. The safest thing for Jesus to do would have been to denounce that woman at the dinner party and walk away from that woman who wanted him to rescue her daughter. But, with those women, he chose instead to be brave enough to tear down some walls.

If you want to look at metaphors, Donald Trump is calling for a wall to be constructed along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico. And not to be eclipsed, Scott Walker, another Presidential candidate is calling for a wall between the U.S. and Canada. Those Pharisees and religious leaders feared the walls coming down. They wanted more and higher walls, just like Donald Trump and Scott Walker. You see, walls are what make people comfortable. But they don’t make us safe. Walled spaces should never be confused with safe spaces. Not only are those walls keeping things out that we really need on the inside, but they are keeping on the inside things we really don’t need there, or on the positive side gifts that could be shared with others. Walled spaces are the opposite of brave spaces. They are the places where we cower, so very afraid of what is on the other side of the wall.

It’s no accident, I believe, that the stories of these women and the impact they had on the life of Jesus and his own understanding of his ministry are included in the gospel stories. Then there was the Roman Centurion whose slave Jesus healed. These were the despised, the people kept outside by the walls that had been erected by Jesus’ own people. Jesus didn’t tear down those walls all by himself. They did it together and got great courage from each other.

These aren’t the only brave women Jesus encountered. Do you remember who some of the others were? Mary his mother. The Samaritan Woman. The bleeding woman. The woman who touched his garment. Mary who sat at his feet. Martha who confronted him when her brother Lazarus died. The women who stayed by the cross when the men fled, and came to the garden to tend to his body when that could have gotten them in so much trouble.

Never underestimate the bravery it takes for some people to walk into this building, or share something about their lives during our sharing and other times. We offer those treasures of our vulnerability, and needs, and joys, not because we are looking for our problems to be solved, but we are looking for places that will help us be brave. In one of Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas songs there is a line about this baby being born to release us from our sin and fear. Being released from our fears. Creating and occupying brave spaces together is our calling

The stories of these two brave women, especially the second, invite us to some discomfort. That’s so we can build brave spaces with each other. And if we build them right, the brave spaces will be the safe spaces.