In the Spotlight of Your Attention

by | May 20, 2023

May I speak to you in the name of God, Creator, Liberator, and Spirit. Amen. Please be seated.

How many people do you think fit in this main section of the Cathedral? 500? 600? Think again, it’s more like 8 or 900. Add the transepts and we’re at well over 1,000 people. That’s a lot of people. Now imagine all of those people are teenagers. Imagine what 1,000+ teens sound like – voices raised in song or laughter. Imagine the energy vibrating around you. We’re going to experience that this summer when the Episcopal Youth Event, or as it’s more commonly called, EYE comes to the Diocese of Washington! EYE is a gathering of over 1,000 high school aged Episcopalians that happens every three years. The event location rotates. This summer, the event will take place here at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Over the past nine months, I’ve been part of the EYE planning team. We have met regularly, both in-person and online, to prepare for those 1,000+ teens. At the conclusion of each of our in-person meetings, we worship together and share Holy Communion.

At our last meeting, the priest leading the worship service did something a little different. When it came time for Communion, rather than recite one of the Euchairstic prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, she did something a little more freeform and participatory. She reminded us that when he shared the Last Supper with his friends, Jesus asked them to remember him whenever they ate or drank together. Then, during the Communion prayer, the priest asked us what it was that we remembered and loved about Jesus.

There was silence for a little bit, but slowly and steadily, folks shared. “He cared about outcasts,” someone called out. “He was merciful,” another person said. “He listened,” another shared. He healed the sick. He forgave. At that point, the floodgates opened and people freely shared their remembrances of Jesus. “He showed us how to live. He taught us about God. He cried at the grave of his friend. People were devoted to him. He loved deeply.

That’s just some of what was shared in that circle. It was one of the most powerful Eucharistic experiences I’ve ever had because it recalled who Jesus was, and is, in a palpable way that made him feel somehow more present with us in that moment. So in the spirit of remembering Jesus and feeling his presence, as you take this next step in your faith journey today, I want to ask you, what do you remember about Jesus? What is something that you hold dear about him?

Perhaps another way to ask this question is, what is one of your favorite stories about Jesus? One of my favorite Jesus stories is the Gospel text we just heard proclaimed about Jesus and his encounter with a Canaanite woman. It’s one of my favorites because it depicts Jesus changing his mind. Just like us, he learns and grows and changes in his understanding of God’s call.

The text presents us with an image of Jesus traveling the countryside, as he so often did. Then suddenly, a Canaanite woman interrupts his progress and begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. The fact that this woman is from Canaan alerts us that she is a Gentile. A Gentile woman asking something of a Jewish male teacher would have been uncommon in Jesus’ society. And Jesus’ response is less than charitable. He ignores her. He stays silent to her cries. The disciples want her gone and Jesus obliges. He dismisses the Canaanite woman and insults her, calling her a dog. Now when you hear “dog” in this context, don’t think of our modern dogs like bichons or labradoodles named Fluffy. In Jesus’ context, dogs weren’t house pets. They were dirty, street scavengers, hunting for scraps. For Jesus to dismiss this woman and call her a dog, well, it doesn’t seem very Jesus-like.

However, we ought not be surprised at ethnic tension in a text from early Christianity. We also should not be surprised to see problematic gender dynamics emerging from an ancient patriarchal culture. Yet, even given these tensions, Jesus’ response feels askew. He essentially refuses to heal this woman’s daughter because she is not Jewish. Some biblical scholars argue this is because at this point in the gospel, Jesus understood his mission as a ministry only to the Jews to the exclusion of non-Jewish people, hence Jesus’ insulting behavior.
The woman however turns Jesus’ insult into a teaching moment for him. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This logic resonated with Jesus. “Great is your faith,” Jesus tells her and he heals her daughter.

This encounter in the gospel is a turning point for Jesus. Before meeting the Canaanite woman, it is fair to say that Jesus understood his ministry to be limited to his fellow Jews. After this encounter, Jesus’ understanding of God’s mission expanded to include all people. In Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, we see him move from insulting to embracing, from refusing to consenting, and from withholding to healing.

This episode reveals that even our Lord could learn, change and grow. That is something that I love and remember about him. The God who ordered the cosmos was also capable of change. I love that. It gives me great hope because it allows me permission to also change and grow in my understanding of God, in fact it even encourages it. I love that about Jesus.

What do you love about Jesus? What stories do you treasure and why? What do you remember about him? At the Last Supper Jesus asked his followers to remember him. We do that in a very ritualistic way every time we come together for Communion. And it is important to do so. Because the act of remembering is more than just recalling a fact or distant memory. In Hebrew the word “remember” means to bring to mind, or (and I love this phrase) to hold in the spotlight of your attention. To remember means to hold in the spotlight of your attention.

Jesus didn’t ask his followers to remember him simply out of some sense of nostalgia. He didn’t ask them, or us, to remember him for funsies. He asks us to remember him, so that in remembering – in holding him in the spotlight of our attention – we find strength in and through him to live our lives in a similar way to how he lived his. Those things which we remember about Jesus – his love, compassion, his ability to grow, to show mercy and promote healing, to proclaim the Good News – these are all things that WE strive to live out today in our lives as his followers. It is the work that God calls us to. It is the work that you are signing onto and committing to anew today. And it is work that Jesus will equip you and empower you to do.

In just a few minutes, you will come up here. You will stand before your bishops, your family and friends, and before God, you will claim and affirm your faith. When you do that, I invite you to do it, holding Jesus in the spotlight of your attention. Those things that you remember about him – those things that you love – may he instill them in you, and grow them in you, so that you may be more like him. Growing into the fullness of his grace this day and always. Amen.

The Rev. Amanda A. Akes-Cardwell, Missioner for Faith Formation of Development

Sermon delivered at the Diocesan Service of Confirmation at Washington National Cathedral on Saturday, May 20, 2023.
Watch a recording of the service (sermon begins at 30:05 in the video)