Sometimes in life we find ourselves in places uncomfortable, places that don't feel like “home.” Living in Arizona was that for me. Here I was, a nice WASP-y boy who grew up in the Midwest, suddenly living in the Southwest – it was a rough transition. I had never imagined that there would be such economic disparity – that immigration could be such a divisive issue – that, and this was one of my favorite moments – you might need to make public service announcements to warn people not to shoot their guns in the air on New Years' Eve.
When I needed to flee the heat, or the culture shocks, or forget that I was a sojourner in a strange land, I would drive twenty minutes north, out from the chaos and bustle of one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, out from the triple degree heat, out from the suburban sprawl and the Scottsdale McMansions, out into the unadulterated desert, full of scrub and Saguaro cacti. I loved the silence and peace, but I also loved the drive because twenty minutes into it, the cacti suddenly were gone. It was like an invisible line drawn across the desert, a curtain beyond which those emblems of desert life could not go.
What happened was that driving north I had gently climbed up to the rim of the Valley of the Sun and the invisible line was the frost line, the thermocline, the temperature inversion line beyond which Arizona was not desert and cactus, but scrub and pinõn pines. Phoenix is in a large round valley, and all the heat and pollution collect in the valley, backing the hard earth, but when you come to the crest, you are no longer in the blast furnace of the desert, which means that the frosts come, and the cacti that are almost entirely water cannot survive freezing and thawing.
When I was in college I came across another thermocline when I was being certified as a scuba diver. The college thought that it would be a good idea to have us do the required ocean dives on May 1st, in the waters of the North Shore of Boston. I lived in Minnesota for many years and I can’t remember being as cold as I was that morning. The waters off Massachusetts are always cold, but because of variables which I don’t understand, the depth of the dives required us to spend most of our time under the thermocline, and even though the surface temperature of the water was a balmy forty-five degrees, forty or fifty feet down it was a uniform, mind-numbing thirty five degrees, all the way to the bottom of the ocean. There was a line in the water, a visible opaque shimmer of water, where in a sudden foot or two all the warmth drained away and it became unbelievably cold. [It was so cold that, when we came to one of the required skill sections where you have to remove your mask, replace it and clear it of water, when I took my mask off I got an instant ice cream headache from the sea water cooling whatever blood was still flowing to my head.
It is always disorienting to cross a thermocline. Suddenly to change thirty degrees, to change climate, to see all signs of the desert disappear, or suddenly to have the ocean stealing the warmth from your body until you shiver and shake. It is the sudden line of demarcation between comfort and discomfort, between intelligible and confused. Which is how I feel when I read Isaiah and the Gospel this morning. Isaiah has been in rare form these last few weeks, railing at the people Israel and skewering them for their idolatry, their lack of faith, and their failure to care for the widow and orphans. He has been equally unkind to the nations around Israel, excoriating them for their idolatry, their bloodthirstiness, their assaults upon God's chosen people. The picture he has been painting is a world in which everyone’s motives are dark, in which justice is dead and gone, and in which everyone takes whatever they can get, and keeps it by their own strength. It is the kind of world that I resonate with, that feels strangely similar to me, despite the thousands of miles and years separating our culture from Isaiah’s. We too fail to care for the widow and orphan, and prize the taking and holding by brute force or raw political strength. We too are cynical, jaded, with so few prophetic voices to rouse us to action and repentance. Isaiah has been playing the slightly cracked desert prophet, and suddenly he breaks into this hymn, this ode to God’s sudden, unexpected salvation: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
Which seems to me like coming to the crest of the valley, and looking out into a brave new world. Yes, our world is a dark, and often hopeless place, but, Isaiah is saying, something is coming, a moment of God’s total and complete in-breaking and action, which completely overthrows the current order and situation, and make of the desert a garden place. It is news of unforeseen hope, of justice for the dispossessed; God’s terrible coming will restore that which is wrong, and make the place we live now, the desert place of want into a garden of unexpected richness and greenness. When that salvation comes we will recognize God’s action because the lame will walk and the blind see.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus, the lame walk, the blind see, and the all are given a glimpse of the compassion of our God.
Which is where I’m tempted to end, to wrap up my sermon into a neat package with Jesus’ healing the deaf man, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, and inaugurating the reign of God’s justice: the Isaiah’s vision of God’s redemption, in the midst of his harangue against Israel, the thermocline, the radical demarcation glimpsed in prophecy but finally realized in Jesus. But as so often happens with the Scriptures, we have a nagging problem that prevents the neat homiletic windup: the story of the Syrophoenician woman. What are we to make of this little story? This, surely, is the Jesus who said, “Blessed are those who are not offended at me,” because he seems to be remarkably offensive in this story. He initially rejects the Gentile woman who comes to him begging for her child because his mission is first to Israel, and ultimately it is her witty riposte to his open insult that causes him to give in to her request. What is going on here? Is this the fully human part of Christ, fully inculturated, struggling to come to terms with the femaleness and Gentileness of this supplicant?
Unfortunately, I don’t think we can argue that, because we have many stories of Jesus interacting with lepers, Gentiles and women in the Scriptures. More importantly, I’m not sure that we want to go too far down the road of separating the human and the divine in Jesus: that way lies complexity and heresy.
So many of the stories in the Scriptures, especially the stories in the Gospels are preserved in their complexity as teaching moments, as riddles which need to be wrestled with before they will yield up their blessing. They are like Zen koans or the teachings of the Desert fathers and mothers, which one has to live with for years, or lifetimes. They cannot be mined instantly, or cracked with post-modern, post-structuralist, deconstruction of language. They are hard sayings that resist both our culture and our impatience.
I keep coming back to Isaiah and his vision of God’s redemption, the complete and utter change in climate and season that he prophesies to Israel.
The Syrophoenician woman, the Gentiles and women that Jesus speaks to and welcomes are proof of the absolute overabundance of the vision of God’s redemption that Isaiah sees. Jesus comes not to herald the replacement of the Jewish people as the chosen people, but symbolic of how extensive the redemption of God is: even the dogs gather the crumbs under the table, even the foreigners and women participate in God’s salvation, God’s redemption. Israel is the epicenter of explosive abounding grace, which overflows out even into the tribes around God’s chosen people.
Which is indeed a drastic climate change, a distant and unseen future beyond the vision or imagination even of Isaiah, who prophesied to the nations their destruction. The redemption of God even to the Gentiles is indeed racy stuff, like the desert become garden and the wilderness flowing with streams. And so we may say “even the dogs” and mean it, for the redemption of God, his fulfillment of his promises to Israel, his lawgiving and covenant is our now ours by dint of grace and God’s abundance. Even we who are Gentiles, foreigners, women and outcasts are fed by God’s grace and see, as if in the distance the thermocline God’s grace. For the desert of this current place, the desert of poverty, destitution, Machiavellian politics, brute force, economic disparity, that desert is not forever. Our God will come with terrible recompense, to save, to heal, to redeem. In that glorious moment, so extensive will God's salvation and redemption be that even the dogs will gather the crumbs of grace, the deserts explode with water, and all will know the salvation of our God.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
6 September 2009
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia