A Sermon by the Rev. Janet L. Abel
Preached on Sunday, August 17, 2014


Fighting Clerical Frump

Today’s sermon, “Bravery,” is Part II of the sermon I preached last week, which was entitled “Fear.”  It was all about fear, and now the flip side is “Bravery.”  Wearing the denim stole I have on this morning represents an act of bravery according to a blog I used to read on line.  It was devoted to urging ministers to dress better.  The writer, a woman minister, was fighting clerical frump, as she called it, because our profession is not known to dress well.  In fact, when I became a minister, I decided then and there to throw out my heels because I could get away with wearing flats, and no one would care since my shoes barely peeked out from under my robe.

“Hooray,” I thought.  I’m wearing sneakers right now because I have to, but one of the author’s blog columns was about this denim stole, made by an artist who sells her wares on-line on Etsy.  It’s a great site, and it has all kinds of artists who sell all kinds of things, from clothing to jewelry.  You name it.  If you’re looking for something handmade, you can go to Etsy, and you might be able to find it.  Some of the prices are outrageous, and for some of them you can get a bargain.

That’s where I found the artist, who was mentioned by the antifrump clerical lady decrying the observation that no one would ever wear a denim stole.  Oh, I would!  Especially here at our church.  I think it’s great.  Denim is the stuff of life, and we all wear jeans nowadays.  I’ve come a long way.  There was a time when I would not wear pants in the pulpit.  It was brave, the lady minister said.

The Violent Factor in Bravery

We can define “bravery” in many ways, can’t we?  Who and what is brave in this life?  Now you know I love movies.  Arlene and I talk about the movies every week.  Was it worth our time?  Movies on line.  Movies on TV.  Movies in the theater.  A lot of movies are about bravery.  About righting a wrong.  About doing the right thing.  And often, unfortunately, violence is a major part of that theme, isn’t it?  Maybe this influence derives from video games.

Movies, especially action movies, are becoming more and more frenetic, faster-paced, with lots of violence.  You might be misled into thinking that what is brave must be violent, in the movies at least.  Must one throw a punch to be brave, as characters so often do?  Is it in fact braver to walk away from combat, to choose your battles, as you do in daily life?  When is it brave to throw a punch?  When is it brave to grab an Uzi, like Sylvestor Stallone, and to  have a helicopter and all the necessary accoutrements of an inexpendable hero?

We’re so used to it that sometimes I have to stop and think, this movie is so violent it’s numbing, and what is it about, really?  What is really brave?  Bravery isn’t always violent.  In fact, it often isn’t.

Defining Bravery with Witchcraft and Wizardry

I’m a great lover of all kinds of movies.  I like adult films too, but I love “Harry Potter.”  One of that series was on TV last night.  I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it, I’d watch it again.  It takes me away for three hours in that magical world, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  I have made the trip to Harry Potter World in Florida and had a great time.  It was very crowded, but I didn’t mind because I took that amazing ride through the castle.

The end of the story was quite something.  It became more adult in focus, and it certainly had some violence.  As they were fighting, the students and Harry arrayed themselves against the ultimate evil in the person of Lord Voldemort.  The story makes plain that evil does exist, but it also makes plain that good is greater than evil.  Why is Harry Potter brave?  It isn’t just the fighting, right?

Near the end of the story, Harry has sacrificed himself.  Part of him must die because he’s got part of Lord Voldemort in him, and he has to die in the final confrontation with that person.  He ends up in a kind of heavenly way station, a train station that looks kind of like heaven.  Dumbledore was there for those who had died previously, and he tells Harry that he is a brave man.  What makes Harry brave?  He’s standing up and doing the right thing, even in the face of incredible evil.  Evil so scary you couldn’t name the name.

Hiccup Finds Bravery in Refusing to Kill Toothless

A more-recent movie that I loved is “How to Train Your Dragon.”  I talked a resident into watching this with me over at St. Louise, and there’s something about cartoons and old people.  They just can’t get into them.  There’s a certain level of distance between them.  It’s like, “Oh, it’s a cartoon.  I don’t like ….  That’s kid stuff.”  The oldsters grew up.  When they were younger, cartoons were for kids.  But there’s a kid in all of us.  Cartoons today are much more sophisticated and beautiful, and the story lines go deeper.

So I highly recommend “How to Train Your Dragon” as a really good film.  It’s has two major themes as I see them, number one being the bond between humans and their animals, which is really profound.  We have the responsibility to take good care of our animals.  The second major theme concerns the Vikings, who are depicted very loosely in this village.  They’re killing dragons because that’s what they know.  The dragons are evil and have to be stopped, and the Vikings feel duty-bound to kill them.

But along comes a young man called Hiccup.  What makes him great?  Well, he’s the hero of the story, and it’s important to know this because it dovetails with our Bible story, which follows.  Hiccup is his own person; he’s not the usual Viking at all.  He is the runt of the litter.  He’s meek; he’s not big and brawny.  He doesn’t want to kill things.  And when it comes time for him to catch the dragon that he names Toothless, he bravely opposes tribal tradition, opining, “I can’t kill it.”  He looks into Toothless’ eyes and says, “I saw that he was as scared as I was.  You know he’s a living creature, and I can’t do it.”  So the dragon becomes Hiccup’s pet.  And Toothless couldn’t be more charming or funny.  Truly, this movie is worth your time.

Authenticity is important in bravery.  Hiccup finally claims his place in the tribe as a dragon whisperer, and eventually he will become the chief.  He is doing the right thing.  He’s also doing the right thing by being himself.  That’s totally against the customs of the rest of his tribe, including his dad, and that is the sign of his bravery.

Jesus’ Mettle Challenged by a Canaanite Woman

Our scripture lesson today is from Matthew 15: 21-28, and it’s repeated in Mark.  This lesson is unusual, as you might have noticed, in that it is a lectionary passage for the Protestant church, but it is not included in the Roman Catholic lectionary.  The RC skips it.  You might wonder why.  Well, let’s review it a little because it’s completely unique.

Jesus and his disciples have gone to the other side of the lake known as the Sea of Galilee.  Last week’s sermon was about fear because, as the disciples were crossing the lake by boat, they ran into a terrible storm.  Jesus met them by walking on the water, and the storm died down after Jesus and Peter, who tried but failed to duplicate Jesus’ miracle, both got back in the boat.  Then they all sailed to the other side, which is biblical code for the Canaanite side, the Gentile side, the non-Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee.

There, they ran into somebody called a Canaanite woman.  Being a Canaanite, you know from your Bible that, all the way back to the time of Moses, this was the enemy.  But she seemed to know right away who Jesus was.  She implored Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  The woman is a foreigner.  She is non-Jewish.  On all levels, she is not supposed to talk to Jesus or his disciples.  She is not supposed to go anywhere near them, yet she braved all of that because her daughter was ill.

And how did Jesus and his disciples react?  Jesus had just been preaching that what defiles a person is not what you put into your mouth, speaking of kosher rules, but what comes out of it – deceit, envy, fear – comes from the heart.  Here, Jesus is being totally racist.  It’s the one story, really, where he appears not only as human but also as a disagreeable human.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And the disciples are going, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  Screaming in our ear, we don’t know her.  But she perseveres.  She kneels in front of Jesus, “Lord, help me.”  And what does Jesus say to her?  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Kneeling, She Wins the Face-Off

Some commentators have tried to soften that up.  “Jesus would never call anyone a dog.”  That’s been kind of an epithet forever, right?  I love dogs, but when you call a person a dog, it’s not a good thing.  Some commentators have said Jesus meant puppy, like a term of endearment.  That is not so.  He is not saying, “Oh, you little puppy.”  He is saying, “Dog.”  He is saying, “You are lower than a Jewish human being.  I will have nothing to do with you.”  Jesus is saying this.

You might understand why the Roman Catholics try not to bother with this passage.  It is, as scholars say, problematic, although it is showing Jesus at his most human.  But even Jesus had his bigoted moments.  He needs correction here, and he gets it from her when she says, “Yes, lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”  Wow!  That’s something!  She is great!  She’s not giving up.  She’s totally authentic.  She’s breaking every societal rule and she turns the argument on its head.  She’s besting Jesus in polemics.  How often does that happen?  No Pharisee, no scribe, no leader of the Jerusalem temple can do this and does not do so in all the gospels.

Yet a Canaanite woman does it.  She wins the war of words.  “Woman, great is your faith!”  “And her daughter was healed instantly.”  So this story has quite a bit to say, but we don’t know her name, just her nationality.  She was incredibly brave.  She was herself, and she pushed until she earned healing for her daughter.  And Jesus said, How “great is your faith!”  He doesn’t say that often with the disciples.  He more likely says to them, “You’re not getting it yet?”  “O you of little faith,” he has just told Peter, who sank in the water.  To the Canaanite woman, he said, How “great is your faith!”

Bravery in Real Life

Just a couple days ago, there was an article in the paper about a woman reporter in Ukraine writing about the government, but what was really going on was that she was writing about Russia.  Talk about bravery.  I wanted to bring this up because all of us, I’m sure, have been affected on some level by the death of Robin Williams this week.  Often celebrities die and it doesn’t affect me directly.  Lauren Bacall was agreat actress and a beauty, and I noticed her passing.  But Robin Williams committing suicide at 63 was heartbreaking.  Like many of you, I grew up with him and loved him without really knowing him.  So I feel really bad, all the more so because I’ve experienced a suicide in my own family.  I know what Williams’ kids went through.

It takes bravery to age serenely.  Maybe especially in America, where the emphasis is on being young.  However, I work with people, all kinds of people, including my residents at the homes.  Day in and day out, they face aging, and some of them have a very rough road.  Facing that road is true bravery.

I don’t know if everyone can look upon what Robin Williams did as bravery.  Some do, and in my opinion that act was brave.  Yet I think that accepting a diagnosis like Parkinson’s and trying to go on is much more brave.  For the sake of his family and for his own sake, I’m truly sorry about Williams’ suicide.  I do wish him peace, finally, but I think he wasn’t at peace with himself in life.

People in the mental health field have done studies indicating that serious clinical depression has been linked to Parkinson’s as well as to Type 2 Diabetes, and there are other serious diseases that go hand-in-hand with depression.  It’s real.  Sometimes it ends as Williams did.  It’s brave to admit depression, and it’s brave to admit you need help.

Happiness Found in Dark Times

There’s a young woman whom I read about who spoke at her family’s funeral.  Maybe you’ve heard of her, Cassidy S.  She was 15, and she lived in Spring, Texas.  Unfortunately, her aunt got divorced, and her ex-husband, Ronald Lee Haskell, was very angry about that, so angry he snapped.  He took a gun and went to Cassidy’s house, where he killed her father and mother and her four younger siblings on July 9th.  Cassidy herself was shot, but she lived and played dead.  Haskell left the house, and she realized that he was going to her grandparent’s house, so she called them and got them out of the house.  Then Cassidy called the police and told them who had committed the murders.

A horrible thing to live through, yet she was incredibly brave.  At the funeral, Cassidy quoted Dumbledore, of all people, the head of Hogwarts in the film “Harry Potter.”  She said, as Dumbledore had said in the face of great evil, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”  Cassidy then gave the symbol for love.  J.K. Rowling heard of her remarks and sent the girl a letter and a package just the other day.

Sometimes in life, we know that extraordinary bravery is required.  Like Cassidy.  Like a firefighter or a police officer on the job.  Or the doctor or nurse in the ER.  Like a relief worker in Nigeria right now, not leaving his or her post in spite of the dangers of Ebola.  Like a reporter covering stories that he or she knows could lead to their deaths.  Like a whistle-blower at a company.

You and I may never face anything like these stories, but bravery is required in our lives also.  To light that light in the darkness.  To speak up when it’s hard.  To confront a friend who’s going down the wrong path.  To be ourselves, totally and completely in a judgmental world.

One must remember to keep the light on.