In 1970, Larry and Judy Davis moved to a little town in the middle of the Southern Utah desert. The town is Boulder, Utah. That’s a perfect name for it because that’s pretty much all that is there. As you might guess, not many people actually move to Boulder. The reason the Davis family did is that Larry’s an archaeologist. He was hired to work at the local state park. He ended up being the manager of Anasazi State Park for 30 years.
It’s never easy to move into a new community, but it’s especially difficult for outsiders to come into a rural community out in the desert. Judi did manage to fit in. She became the postmaster. She also became the town clerk, a position she held for over 46 years. However, Larry was a different story. He was friendly and soft spoken, but he was so passionate about one thing: archaeology. He would talk on and on about stone tools, charcoal pits and ancient corn cobs. His new neighbors didn’t know what to make of him. Boulder’s a town of less than 200 people. Most of them are ranchers. To them the past is buried out there in the sand. It’s not relevant to the hard work of their day to day lives; so people mostly just kept their distance from Larry and his digging in the ground.
Now, in addition to being an archaeologist, Larry’s also a poet. He’s actually a very good poet. His soul is so full of words about the past that they just spill out onto paper. He even likes to include his own drawings of symbols from ancient petroglyphs he’s found.
One day Larry decided to start burying some of his poems in the desert on small sheets of paper. That sounds like something a poet would do, doesn’t it? As an archaeologist, he figured some time in the future someone in his own profession would unearth them, read them and ponder over his words about ancient desert peoples.
That’s when something strange and unexpected started happening. Local ranchers and farmers started finding these poems while their cattle were out grazing. Their eyes are trained to spot anything unusual in the contours of the land, even a sheet of paper half uncovered by the desert wind. People started sharing news about these poems with their neighbors. People who never read poetry before started calling and reading these poems to each other.
There was speculation that they were love poems left by Native Americans. Others imagined they were written by early famous explorers passing through the area; maybe even by John Wesley Powell himself. Some people started to believe they were personal messages left especially for them by their deceased family members. That’s how they came to be known there locally as “the ghost poems.”
No one knew where these “ghost poems” were coming from or how many might be buried out there in the desert. People would offer to buy them their friends, but the finders refused to sell them. If you were lucky enough to find one yourself, you treasured it. The town people started seeking Larry out with questions about the past and the people who had lived in the desert before them.
Larry refused to speculate about the poems. He never implied they were ancient or anything other than just interesting poems. But he would seize the opportunity to educate his neighbors about the lives of people who worked that same land for many centuries before they did. They shared a kinship with people who knew what it meant to work very hard just to survive in that environment.
The writer, Terry Tempest Williams, put it this way: “It just may be that the man who buries poems in the desert has turned the whole...town into archaeologists. The next thing we’ll hear is that the locals want to preserve the wilderness for its poetry.”
Those buried poems gave people the joy of personal discovery, but they also gave them something else even more vital and life-giving. They offered one of the greatest gifts a person can ever receive: questions.
People who had spent their entire lives in that desert suddenly started to look around and be curious about the place they called home. Before those poems started showing up, all that was out there was just sand and rocks. The poems caused them to actually take a second look at what was right in front of them. Their questions brought everything to life.
My sisters and brothers, perhaps somewhere along the way you were taught that questions are bad or dangerous. Maybe you grew up in a tradition where everything is settled and asking questions is discouraged. Maybe you’ve been led to believe that wrestling with questions is incompatible with a life of faith.
If that’s the case, please let me offer you a different perspective. It turns out that questions are holy and redemptive. God uses them to help us take a deeper look at things we’ve grown so comfortable with that we barely notice anymore.
Questions invite us to see more than can currently see. Wrestling with questions places us in good company because that’s exactly where we find Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.
● Jesus is literally stopped in his tracks by a woman who refuses to go away because she wants her daughter to be well.
● She’s a Canaanite woman and that means she’s an outsider, or at least outside the scope of what Jesus understood to be his mission.
● Jesus initially responds by staying strictly focused on his mandate to go first to the House of Israel. Basically: “Let the Canaanites worry about the Canaanites. I have a very specific group of people I’m supposed to be concerned about.”
● This woman’s sincere faith and her persistence causes him to have to take another look at who should be included within the scope of his ministry.
● And Jesus changes his mind.
Jesus changed his mind! It really is that simple.There’s no need to bend this story like a pretzel in order to make it say something else. There’s no reason to not take this story at face value.
Having to sometimes reevaluate things which you thought were settled and sure doesn’t mean you are a failure. It means you’re on the path of Jesus. It means you are following his example on the journey of faith.
Given all that the early church proclaimed about who Jesus is, I believe it’s very significant that this story is included in the Gospel exactly the way it is. It begs the question: If Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, had to wrestle with questions and change his mind about things, then why can’t we? Why can’t we?
Perhaps it’s because we already know the direction the Spirit is leading when God drops questions like this into our lives. That direction is always expansive. It’s always generous. It’s never in the direction of being more stingy.
Questions cause us to see more, not less. This encounter caused Jesus to redraw the circle to include more people, not fewer people. That’s the direction God’s Spirit is moving throughout history. That's the direction in which this story unfolds. That’s the direction God calls us to go.
Something shifts inside of Jesus and you can hear it in his tone. Instead of talking about people in categories of division and prioritizing one group over another—keeping the food for children instead of dogs—Jesus addresses her in terms of shared humanity: “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “You can almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.”
That line between races and religions has evaporated from his lips because the line between Jesus and this woman has disappeared. She’s no longer first and foremost a Canaanite woman. In his words, she is simply, “Woman.”
My sisters and brothers, that’s how change happens. It’s easy to exclude people when we reduce them to something distant and other than us. It’s much harder to dismiss a face-to face encounter with another flesh and blood person in whose life we recognize our own.
We all know this woman because at some point or another, we all have had a loved one who was suffering and for whom we do anything to help get better. That’s universal across all human boundaries. I recognize it. You recognize it and Jesus recognized it too and that’s when everything shifted.
When I talk to people whose hearts have been expanded to be more inclusive, I don’t hear stories of intellectual debates or arguments that persuaded them to change their minds.
Instead, I always hear about living, breathing people who were somewhere at the center of it all. It usually goes something like this: “I got to know this person and over time I really had to reexamine some of my long held assumptions.”
This is what I know:
● God is at work whenever the lives of other people become just as real and important to us as our own.
● God is at work wherever people start to matter more than abstract ideas or systems of thought.
● God is at work when we finally get it that people matter to God; more than politics, more than theology—people matter!
That’s the heart of this story. That’s also the great challenge of this story.
● What would it be like to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and be present long enough in the presence of others to start to see more than our differences?
● What would it be like to stop moving long enough to take a second look?
● What if our questions cause us to discover that there is more to people and situations than what we have always seen?
My sisters and brothers, my prayer for us is that God blesses us with surprise encounters that stop us in our tracks and trouble us enough to make us wrestle with hard questions. And then just about the time we’re patting ourselves on the back over how we finally have it all figured out, may God bless us again and again with more questions that cause us to take another look.
Through our questions may we come to see the face of God in others who are different from us. May we discover the beauty of God all around us—like poems hidden in the desert.