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Proper 18/ Pentecost 15                                                                                                                            The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
Isaiah 35:4-7a + Mark 7:24-37                                                                                                                September 5, 2021

Throughout the last year, a good friend of mine from seminary kept raving about this show called “Ted Lasso.” He swore it was just so fun, upbeat, and feel good. Then our two other friends from seminary started watching and I was hearing it from all three—just how good this show is. So finally, when I got a new phone with a free year’s subscription to AppleTV, Kai and I started watching.

The show is about this man, Ted Lasso, who is hired to coach a soccer team in England, or as it is called there, a football team. Prior to this, Lasso has only coached American football, and as it turns out, he knows nearly nothing about soccer. It’s actually a set up for him to fail and the team to lose, but as it turns out, the man is such a good coach, such a good human, that even when his team loses, we can see how he creates an amazing, supportive, healthy team. I cannot but believe that the work he is doing in helping form his players as healthy, confident young men, will pay off in the end in terms of actually winning more games.

The other night I watched the final episode of the first season. In it, Lasso’s team faces relegation, which I have learned means that if they lose this game, they will be moved from their current league down to a lower one. The players are tense, the owner of the team is anxious, the fans are on edge at the local pub—and Lasso keeps hearing this phrase from them all. They say, “It’s the hope that kills you.” They hold out hope that they won’t be demoted. And yet, they feel it’s the hope, having that hope crushed, that kills you.

In his pep-talk to the team before the game starts, Lasso declares that he disagrees, “I think it’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you.”

Right now, at this point in the pandemic, I feel like we are living this dichotomy of being unsure which is worse—hope or hopelessness.  Is it the hope that kills us—the hope that it will end? The hope that we’ll be able to live again more as we used to, like we did for a hot minute in June? The hope that we’ll be able to travel, and see loved ones, and safely send our kids to school, and stand in the same room and not worry we’ll spread a virus that might make our too children too young for vaccinations or one another dreadfully sick, or worse.

Or is it the lack of hope that’s killing us? That we got a taste of that improvement for about a month this summer? That it seemed like we might be climbing our way out to a better place only to have the rug snatched out from under us and crash back into restrictions, full ICUs, and weekly death counts? After that, are we afraid to hope again? Does hope feel foolish?    

In our first reading today, the Prophet Isaiah speaks to a people in exile, a people who have no hope. He says, 

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.’

He plants in them, images of salvation. Salvation looks like transformation.

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;

We can, unfortunately, identify all too well with this second image of transformation—waters breaking forth, streams running once again, springs of water in our thirsty ground. This type of transformation, from such desperation and dryness to such abundance and life is what God’s salvation looks like. These were the words of hope Isaiah spoke to his hopeless people. These are the words of hope Isaiah speaks to us. Professor Juliana Claassens describes this description of salvation as, “the dramatic transformation that speaks of new life in places where death until now has reigned supreme.”

 In her August 11th post, Nadia Boltz-Webber, Lutheran pastor of public witness, recalls how 15 months ago, in the early stages of the pandemic, she wrote a piece about how at the beginning, she was fine staying home to flatten the curve, because she was sure in a few weeks she’d be preaching on Pentecost (that was May of 2020). Pentecost 2020 came and went. Next she hung her hopes on another event, which came and went as well. In that piece 15 months ago now, she wrote, “I had hooked my hope on something in the future and as each hope dissolved, I’d find another hook. Until finally, reality sunk in.”

How do we hang onto hope in this reality? How did the Israelites hold onto the hope of salvation, of dramatic life-giving transformation, in the midst of living in forced exile in a foreign land?

Bolz-Webber goes on to describe a concept called “the Stockdale Paradox.” It comes from an admiral in the US Navy, James Stockdale, who survived 8 years as a prisoner of war in a North Vietnamese prison camp. When asked who of his fellow prisoners made it out alive, he replied,

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart….”

The “Stockdale Paradox” is the ability to hold two opposing but equally true things at once. You must have faith that you will prevail in the end and at the same time you must confront the brutal facts of your current reality. We are challenged to hold hope for the future, while remaining rooted and honest about our current reality.

Bolz-Webber writes,

So yeah…we can grieve this shit show. We can grieve our dead. We can lament, and fight and struggle. We can register our complaints. But let it all be based in a relationship with actual reality.

Because actual reality is also the only place where actual joy is to be found. If joy is delayed until a preferred future comes about, we set ourselves up for despair. But if there is hope in THIS day. Joy in THIS reality. This life. This body. This heart, then certainly we can prevail.

I would argue that in our Gospel today, the Syrophoenician woman helps Jesus come to understand more about his reality, more about his life and ministry. The woman’s daughter had an unclean spirit. She heard about Jesus and sought him out, begging him to cast out the spirit. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Many people try to explain away this passage. Both how Jesus could have compared a people to dogs and that Jesus could have had his mind changed, his view enlarged. I vividly recall a classmate in seminary arguing with our New Testament professor, desperate to interpret the ancient Greek in such a way that Jesus’ actions and words could remain above reproach. But I have to be honest with you, I kind of love this passage. I love that we get to watch our human-God learn, learn that there is more than even he imagined, learn from this woman his people consider less-than, learn and change his ways to accept and incorporate what he has learned. May we learn from him.

So what is happening in this story? The woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus replies that the children need to be fed first as it is not fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs. Jesus understood himself to be sent first to the children of Israel. The woman is a Gentile. His initial answer is not “no” but “not yet,” “You have to wait,” he says. 

The woman responds that even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs. Her argument is that there is enough, enough power and grace to spare. There is no need to wait. All the feeding work Jesus is doing, such as feeding of the five thousand in the chapter prior, creates leftovers, creates more.  The woman helps Jesus realize the possibility and potential for his ministry, for his life. She helps him understand just how far his ministry will go and just how far it needs to go. (Sermon Brainwave Podcast)

And with this Jesus’ ministry is accelerated and literally re-routed. He does not return to Capernaum or Galilee (Jewish lands) but instead heads north and then down to Decapolis which is Gentile territory.

Jesus did not realize the potential and possibility of his ministry, of his reality. I find hope for us in this, that we in this day do not fully realize the potential and possibility of our reality, of our ministry potential.

We are not sure what church and worship attendance are going to look like moving forward. Across the country, I am hearing that church attendance is significantly down. Perhaps folks are anxious about the risk of gathering? Perhaps they found they prefer a slow Sunday morning with coffee and the newspaper or a hike? Perhaps they like tuning in online in their jammies? Perhaps they’ve simply fallen out of the habit?

This week I read in The Guardian that the Church of England’s, “declining and ageing congregations have prompted debate about its future for some time, but the Covid pandemic has accelerated the leadership’s push for a new strategy. A sharp fall in parish and diocese income, combined with the surprising success of online worship, during lockdown has led some to question the need for money-draining old buildings and professional, salaried clergy.”

We are not alone in the trends we are seeing in this country. And this is scary and sad and difficult to hear but I believe that if Jesus underestimated the potential and possibility of his ministry, just maybe, there’s a chance we are too. 

The Church of England has made a commitment to set up 10,000 new Christian communities over the next 10 years, many led by lay people and based in village halls, cafes, warehouses, empty shops, cinemas, and other unconventional venues.

At St. Stephen’s, we’re dreaming of a café on our land next to the play area we just built. We’re dreaming not of turning our back on our current holy spaces and tradition but of adding on, of creating more space for the sacred, for connection and community, for deep conversation, and joint spiritual journeying. In a time when we might be solely focused on scarcity—on the budget deficit we’ve projected for this year, on worrying over whether our Sunday attendance will return to what it was pre-pandemic—we are instead moving forward in belief that there is more potential and possibility for God’s work on this earth than we are able to imagine or perceive.

The Syrophoenician woman reminds Jesus, and us, that there is enough, enough power and grace to spare. That Jesus’ work creates leftovers, creates more.

During these days we are living, we are challenged to keep our feet grounded in this reality. To find hope and joy, glimpses of light, in this day, this life… trusting, believing, knowing, that there is more potential and possibility for us, for our church, and for our world than we can possibly imagine.