Sunday, June 15, 2008


Here's today's homily. The readings are Genesis 18:1-15 and Matthew 9:35-10:8. Note that I'm not using the optional end of the Gospel, which is hard to square with Father's Day. I've preached on that text before, but elected not to this time.

Happy Father's Day to all!


Some of you may have seen the news story last week about the Father’s Day celebration at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. A weedy sea dragon -- an 18-inch creature with a long snout and a sea-horse body -- is pregnant for only the third time ever at a United States aquarium. Sea dragons are threatened, so this is great news, but what makes the story really unusual is that the sea dragon is one of only three species, along with sea horses and pipe fish, in which the male carries the eggs. The pregnant sea dragon is the dad, not the mom.

This is a useful cautionary tale, a reminder that just when we think we have God figured out, She throws us a curve ball. Through most of the animal kingdom, females give birth. We consider this right and natural. The weedy sea dragon teaches us that natural is whatever works.

Abraham and Sarah learn the same lesson in today’s reading from Genesis. They’re both very old: Abraham is one hundred, and Sarah is well past childbearing age. When God tells them that they’re going to have a son, Sarah laughs. This can’t be. It isn’t natural for a couple so old to have children. But sure enough, she goes on to give birth to Isaac. As God has so pointedly asked Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

The Bible is full of people who think they know the rules and then watch as God turns those rules upside down. This happens repeatedly both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. Old people don’t have babies. Surprise! God only loves and rewards people who follow very particular purity laws. Surprise! No one comes back from the dead. Surprise!

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus himself -- God’s biggest surprise -- is explaining the rules to his disciples. He’s teaching them how to care for his flock, how to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near. He tells them very specifically where to bring this good news. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The good news is for family only.

This morning’s lesson is from the ninth and tenth chapters of Matthew. Over the next two months, we’ll hear other lessons from Matthew in which Jesus shares prophecies, parables, and promises. In all of these stories, he’s the head of the family. Father and Son know best.

And then, on August 17, we’ll hear a lesson from the fifteenth chapter of Matthew. A Canaanite woman -- a Gentile and outsider -- comes to Jesus desperately seeking healing for her sick daughter. He tells her that she isn’t part of the family. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says, echoing today’s Gospel. When the distraught mother keeps begging for help, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

The mother shoots back, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.”

Jesus -- astonished, and probably a little abashed -- tells her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Her daughter is healed instantly.

Surprise! Jesus just broke his own rules. He included someone who wasn’t supposed to be part of the family. His definition of family has grown. The Canaanite woman is the only person in the Gospels who wins an argument with Jesus, and she’s one of my favorite Scripture characters. She teaches us that love trumps law, and that when we’re acting from love, it’s okay to argue with God about the rules. She teaches us that God can change his mind.

Over the past several decades, we’ve seen radical reinterpretations of family. The traditional extended family of three generations living under one roof gave way to the traditional nuclear family of two parents with two-point-five children. That version of tradition, in turn, has been transformed by a variety of practices, driven both by necessity and desire: single-parent families, blended families, families with two parents of the same gender. Medical advances have brought us situations that would surely make Sarah laugh: women giving birth past menopause, mothers with quintuplets, a grandmother acting as surrogate biological mother to her daughter’s twins. These changes have forced us to wrestle with legal, ethical, and religious dilemmas. What’s right? What’s fair? What’s natural? What does God want us to do?

Based on the well-established Biblical record of God changing the rules, it seems to me that we’re called to do what works. None of the families I’ve described, even the most “traditional” ones, look anything like the kinship structures described in Genesis. And it seems to me that the ultimate litmus test of true family, in the Bible and in our own day, is love.

At the hospital where I volunteer, there are strict rules against giving patient information to anyone except immediate family. Meanwhile, in my visits with patients and their loved ones, I’ve come up with my own rule of thumb. I never guess at relationships, because whenever I do, I’m invariably wrong. If I introduce myself to the sweet white-haired lady in the bed, and then say of the sweet white-haired man sitting next to her, “And this must be your husband?” she’ll tell me -- surprise! -- that he’s her brother, cousin, son, next-door neighbor, attorney, or parole officer. These goofs can be very embarrassing, so I’ve learned to let the patient fill in the blank. “And this is your . . . .?” In the process, I’ve met countless devoted companions who weren’t, legally, family. Patients arrive with neighbors, with former spouses, with their children’s former spouses, with roommates, with same-sex partners, with their children’s same-sex partners, with the same-sex partners of their former spouses, with pastors, and with a variety of caretakers, both paid and otherwise. This dizzying variety proves that, indeed, nothing is too wonderful for the LORD, and it’s taught me that family are the people who come to our bedsides when we’re sick. Love, not law, is the ultimate arbiter of kinship.

The medical staff knows this as well as I do, and we’ve all learned to bend certain rules. Some months ago, a desperately ill patient came into the ER. He was accompanied by a sobbing woman half his age. She was one of the aides at the nursing home where he lived; she loved him like a father, and couldn’t bear to let him come to the hospital alone. When I explained the situation to the nurse and asked if someone on the medical staff could speak to the aide, the nurse cleared his throat and said, “You mean his daughter, don’t you?”

During another shift, a female patient was frantic because she couldn’t reach her husband at home to let him know where she was. A nurse pulled me aside and said, “Actually, he’s a patient here too. He’s on the other side of the wall from her, but they aren’t legally married, so because of HIPAA, I can’t tell her that he’s here or give her any information.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. But then I realized that we weren’t that far from the woman’s bed, and that the nurse had been speaking quite loudly.

The female patient smiled at us. “Thank you. Please tell him I love him.”

The HIPAA rules are slowly adjusting to human reality. Doctors now ask their patients for lists of people, family or friends, who can be given medical information. Our laws always change to reflect our loves. I believe Jesus would approve. I know the Canaanite woman would.

So, this Father’s Day, please think of all the people who have fathered you, whatever their gender or relationship. Reflect on how they have shown you that nothing is too wonderful for the LORD. And then tell your fathers, whoever they may be, that you love them.



  1. Thanks for this moving sermon.

  2. KiwiCuz2:18 PM

    Thank you for posting this. I enjoy reading your homilies.

  3. Thank you both! I appreciate the kind words.

  4. Anonymous8:53 AM

    Dear Susan,

    I have loved all your sermons so far - but this one is particularly wonderful. I love the way you show the many faces of love. Thank you!


  5. The story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a lovely parable about expanding our "circles of compassion," an policy also advocated by the first-century Stoic Hierocles. I really needed to read it because I'd just had the misfortune of reading Richard Rorty's "Do we say these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow *Americans* --to insist that it is outrageous that an *American* should live without hope." Yikes.

  6. Thanks, everyone!

    And Josh: oh, brother. That's scary!


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