“’Shady is dead.” Shady had lived in a tank in the den of Martin Copenhaver for a year and-a-half, as close to family as a frog can be. Martin shared the following story in a devotion I read this past week. “How do we break the news to our daughter Alanna, just five years old at the time, who referred to herself as the frog’s “master,” who gave Shady her name, and even informed us that Shady was a girl, because there’s some way to tell? When Alanna woke up I told her, “I have some sad news. Shady died.” Alanna immediately responded, “How can you tell?” I had to suppress a smile because, in truth, the frog was the picture of death, lying belly-up with her webbed “hands” positioned as if to hold a lily. I said, “Come downstairs and see.” Alanna stared at Shady for a long time and said, “She’s dead,” then added matter-of-factly, “We should bury her.” Alanna knew the very spot to bury her. When the hole was deep enough, I slid Shady’s body into the ground and we covered her with a blanket of earth. “Let’s sing a song,” Alanna said. I asked if she had any suggestions. “Let’s sing ‘Silent Night.'” With the rain beginning to fall around us, seeming to water the seed we had planted in the earth, we sang a homely duet. Then Alanna said a prayer: “Dear God, thank you for Shady, who was a great frog. We hope she is all right. Please take care of her. Amen.” We placed a couple of evergreen boughs on the grave and then went inside for breakfast.[i]
The story of Shady’s demise is one perspective on faith, here’s another.
Many years ago, in Europe, between Austria and Italy specifically, there was an impossibly steep, very high part of the mountains. Now, these two nations wanted to connect Vienna and Venice, so they laid train tracks between the two cities across this steep part of the mountains. The rub was, however, that they built these tracks even before there was a train in existence that could make the trip. They built it because they knew some day, the train would come.”[ii]
These are two examples of how most of us, myself included, tend to view faith. We view faith as believing in (or acting upon) something without proof. Alana had faith that God would take care of Shady and the people of Vienna and Venice had faith that a train would someday cross the Alps. But is that the extent of faith? Is faith simply a belief in God that doesn’t require proof? Well, I’m going to challenge that definition today; not throw it away, but rather use it as a “jumping off point” to a deeper understanding of faith.
To accomplish this, we must first understand that faith is multifaceted. It’s wider and deeper and broader than we can ever imagine. But at the same time, faith is also small. It can be as tiny as a mustard seed. So, what does this tell us? I think it tells us that faith is as individualized as well as universal. Faith can be as individual as the woman in this story.
As I began to study this text for today, I started to worry that I might be tempted to view the Canaanite woman’s faith in an overly simplistic way. It would be easy to say, “have faith like this woman and you will experience healing too.” It would be like ordering faith with a side of healing off the Jesus menu. Do you see what I’m getting at here? I think Jesus wants us to understand that the Canaanite woman’s story represents a much deeper and complex faith; a faith that is as unique as it is broad.
With this in mind, let’s look at today’s narrative. Jesus says that the Canaanite woman’s faith is great. But why is her faith great? There’s that pesky “why” question again. Why is her faith great? Is it because she’s persistent? So, if I am more persistent will my faith be greater? Is her faith great because she names her plight, she’s honest, she names her need? Is her faith great because she asks for help? Is her faith great because she gets Jesus to change his mind? Is her faith great because she recognizes who Jesus is? Is her faith great because she thinks Jesus can do something to help her daughter? Is her faith great because she rebuts societies boundaries? The boundries separating the classes, races, religions, and genders. Or, is her faith great because of her willingness to transcend these boundaries? Is it some combination of these things or perhaps, all of them?[iii]
The point here is that faith is both unique and dynamic. It’s not a static statement of status quo confessions, or doctrines, or dogmas, but rather, faith lays claim on how we are in the world, how we choose to be, how we decide to live and love and reach-out beyond ourselves, in each specific moment of our lives.[iv]
And this is important to understand. It’s important because we need all the faith we can muster to face the state of our world today. We turn on the news and we see white supremacist groups like the KKK and Alt right mocking the gospel by openly spewing their hate-filled message in the streets resulting in a domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville Virginia. We see images of people lying motionless in a Spanish street, the result of yet another ISIS terror attack. We hear about shootings and violence in our inner-cities and we see very little prospect for change. We find ourselves bogged down in the Middle East, stuck in a war with seemingly no way out. And more recently, we find ourselves under a constant threat of missiles being launched from the Korean peninsula.
All these things challenge our faith.
But here’s where our text for today really speaks to us. In the narrative of the Canaanite Woman’s faith, we see the woman’s faith lead to healing. And like faith, healing is also multifaceted. Just as faith is individual and communal so is healing. Healing comes to us as individuals, as a congregation, as a nation, and as a global community in a countless variety of ways.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I’ve shared before that I went on a mission trip several years ago to North Carolina. Our job was to replace a leaky roof on a house. No small task with a group of unskilled high school kids by the way. But the roof is an aside here. The real story is the healing it brought to this family. A family that consisted of a great-grandmother, a grandmother, a mother, and two children. There were no jobs to be had, no child support coming in, and in our conversations the great-grandmother, clearly embarrassed, said that she had no choice but to accept food stamps. The grandmother quickly added that they sold apples and berries when they were in season. That was the extent of their means. I suddenly became aware that I had truly encountered poverty. As our conversation continued the great-grandmother said, “I just can’t believe ya’ll are doing this for us.” “I can’t believe ya’ll came all the way from Wisconsin to help us out.” “God bless ya.” We were only there for a week, additional teams followed us and in the end, they had a new roof, the mold was removed and the damage inside from the leaking was repaired.
As I sit here today and reflect on that trip however, I realize that healing came to that family because of the faith of those young people. Believe me, living in an elementary school in rural Appalachia, showering under a garden hose behind make-shift stalls made of tarps, was outside the comfort zone of a group of kids from a University town in Wisconsin. But they were led by their faith, their individual faith, to follow God’s calling to reach out beyond themselves and connect with some folks who were struggling. And through the relationships established during that week in July, healing, real healing took place.
My friends, this same kind of healing can still take place. Healing can take place when we demonstrate our faith by engaging the challenges of our lives and the world through things like serving our church by serving those in our community and across the globe who are struggling to make ends meet. We can participate in God’s healing by practicing civil discourse; by not demonizing those who different than ourselves; by listening to each other, really listening; and by living out the Great Commandment by loving God and neighbor as best we are able.
One final thought today. Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As we, as a people of faith, find ourselves amid troubling times, I think it’s important to hold onto these words. I don’t know. I think there’s a certain reassurance, a calm, a healing even, that comes from knowing that these challenges are but a blip on the radar of time. And that morality, like the attraction of steel to a magnet, always moves, bends, in the direction of justice. Maybe that’s the overall lesson of the Canaanite woman’s faith? Maybe our faith should transcend the mundane, and bend toward the knowledge that healing; real healing for individuals, for communities, for all nations; finally, comes from God.
May it be so.
[i] Martin Copenhaver. A Funeral for a Frog. (Still Speaking Daily Devotional) August 18, 2017
[iii] Karoline Lewis. “Getting” Great Faith (workingpreacher.org) 2014
[iv] Ibid. Lewis