Morning Worship: Poets and preachers break open language for new meaning

“This is one of those passages I assign my seminarians who are a little uptight about their Christology,” said the Rev. Anna Carter Florence at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday service of worship and sermon in the Amphitheater. “They love Jesus, and they love his message, and they sign up to be his personal bodyguard.

“They think if they question Jesus, if they take issue with his actions, if he is photographed in a less-than-flattering way, it will hurt his public image, cause him emotional pain and jeopardize the whole Kingdom of God project.”

Her sermon title was “A Poet at the Table” and the Scripture was Matthew 15:21-28.

In the Scripture lesson, Jesus was talking with a Canaanite woman whose daughter was sick; she had come to Jesus to ask for healing. Jesus told her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He said this to her after he had ignored her pleas and after he had told her he had only been sent to the people of Israel.

The words were hard, and it is hard to explain why Jesus would say them, Florence said.

“Jesus does what every other Jewish boy of his day did and called her a dog, a racial slur, an unprintable word,” she said. “This is on the lips of the Prince of Peace. He needs to work on his metaphors. This is the kind of speech his disciples should have taken him aside for and said, like his mother would have, ‘You were not raised to use such words.’ ”

Preachers, she said, try to spin it right and protect Jesus from his own story. She gave real-life examples of ways the story had been spun: Jesus was just joking. Jesus was just engaged in Middle Eastern banter. Jesus was testing the woman to see if she really had faith. It is just a literary device. Jesus was just clarifying his boundaries. The Jews were first in line this time. There was only one of him. He was not in healing mode. The woman was badgering him.

“Every one of these is plausible,” she said. “We believe it is really important to save Jesus from his own story, that he might need a bodyguard when the wrath comes down. But if Jesus can really save the world without our help, there are other ways to hear this story. Let’s try something else.”

Poets believe language is powerful and, if we think like them, we realize that language does things. It creates the world in Genesis but it can also wound and it can mend.

“Jesus takes language seriously,” she said. “What if we look at this story from a poet’s perspective?”

Florence cited poet Mary Oliver’s book A Poetry Handbook as a place to start.

“Oliver tells how a poem is built, read and understood; she might be taking about sermons,” she said.

Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman, to not take food for children and throw it to the dogs, is offensive but so unoriginal, Florence said. Everyone in Israel knew the Canaanites were dogs. They thought it was an accurate description of people they considered unclean, unevolved and descendents of Ishmael, the “illegitimate” son of Abraham. Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, children of Isaac, the “legitimate” son, “not those fleabitten dogs who would not recognize a word of God if they tripped over.”

This is a cliché, and Florence quoted Oliver, saying they don’t work in poems.

“They don’t take us anywhere we have not already been,” she said.

This was not the first time the Canaanite woman heard these words but they would hurt her nonetheless. They may be nothing new but the poet makes us look twice to rethink what is going on. The woman had lots of ways to respond — she could endure it and silently depart; she could refute it or she could return it in kind “until the words turned into fists and fists turned into guns and guns into fights and fights into wars,” Florence said.

She said the Canaanite woman’s answer was “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table.”

“Where does that power come from?” Florence said. “She did not refute it or throw it back at Jesus. She picked up the word dog and broke it open into something new. That is what poets do, take tired old language and break it open so we can see what is behind it.”

The Canaanite woman showed Jesus that if dogs patiently wait until the end of the meal, they can eat the crumbs and be satisfied, grateful and healed. She urged Jesus to go ahead and break his bread; she would wait for the crumbs.

“I don’t think the Canaanite woman would have become a poet if she did not have a daughter who needed healing,” said Florence. “Jesus saw that, eventually, and told her that her faith was great. Her daughter was healed instantly.

“I think Jesus remembered this day every time he took bread in his hands,” she said. “Jesus recognized a good confession and a good poet. Don’t be fooled into thinking that to be a poet you have to have something fancy or brilliant. If you have bread or rhymes or the blues, or grief, or rage, be a poet. Make the crumbs in front of you into words that will make the world sit up and look twice.”

“Maybe this is our work: to offer the bread of life and as Mary Oliver would say, the cup of astonishment. Break on word at a time, just one,” Florence said.

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., director of the Department of Religion and Chautauqua’s pastor, presided. The Rev. Robert Hagel, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Jamestown, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, conducted the Chautauqua Choir. The choir served as cantor for Responsorial Psalm 90, “Restless is the Heart” with a setting by Bernadette Farrell. Debbie Grohman provided clarinet accompaniment. The anthem was “Samba de las Escrituras (A Scriptural Samba)” by Ken Berg. It was sung by the women of the Chautauqua Choir. The choral response after morning prayers was “Yih’yu L’ratzon (May the Words of My Mouth)” by Paul Goldstaub. The offertory anthem was Psalm 23 by Michael Hennagin. The organ postlude was “God Among Us” from La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen. The Dr. William N. Jackson Religious Initiative Fund and the John William Tyrell Endowment for Religion provide support of this week’s services.