Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let's not be afraid to receive each day's surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy it will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity. — Henry Nouwen
The city skylines in many old European cities is often dominated by a singular, enormous cathedral. The small medieval town of Rothenburg are no exception. It have a cathedral that occupies several city blocks just in its building.
The building holds a surprise for those who would visit. Behind the organ in the balcony of St. Jacob at Rothenburg, a Lutheran parish, stands an altar dedicated to the last supper. In its extensive carved reardence is a cross with a glass ball at the center of the arms. In it is a relic: A bloody piece of the cross of Jesus. Yes, a reliquary is being quietly maintained by a Lutheran Church. The same Cathedral also houses two elaborate altars on the main floor. Both are dedicated to St. Mary and show carvings of paintings of the life of Mary. The only hint that this congregation is Lutheran is a small plaque at the entrance proclaiming it such. The building suggests that it be Roman Catholic
At the rear of the nave between two pillars is a canoe shaped sculpture, a gift from the congregation’s sister church in Africa. It is a Christmas boat. The baby Jesus lies asleep in the bow being delivered to the world. It is beautifully carved from a whole log of ebony and measures about fifteen feet.
When Jesus send the disciples to preach, heal, and teach in chapter 10, he intentionally instructs them: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 10:5-6) Now, he himself is in Gentile territory.
She calls him “Lord.” and “Son of David.” She appeals to the obligation of mercy that is common in her culture — mercy is a debt one owes to God to whom one is oneself indebted — but is only extended to ones own kind where it is an obligation.
She pleas with him: “Lord, help me!” She is willing to take the least of the places at table: The place of the dog waiting for scraps. Nothing will stand in the way of her plea for help. Out of her mouth proceeds the anguish of a mother’s heart. (15:18)
All these are surprises. Her address of Jesus. Her acknowledgement of David’s line. Her humility in pleading. Her faith, if you will, which is true, she trusts that he can “help” her and her plea is faithful. The depth of the heart has spoken and revealed itself as caring for others honestly. She seeks no sign. She seeks salvation for her child.
The church learned to be surprised early in her life. The Gentiles were indeed flocking in to see her and somehow were not going to be discouraged or turned away. They wanted this faith, this Lord, this cross, this resurrection, this God.
We may learn something from wandering through the houses of faith today. Most of the ones known to us in America speak fairly clearly of exactly what they do and what the congregation gathered is about. All that distracts is likely to have been removed. I marvel at the little surprises found in medieval cathedrals in German. Why maintain a piety in the heart of the congregation that the theological movement you are part of once disavowed? Maybe because the damage done to faith by destruction of these symbols from other places outweighed the need to be “right.” Maybe being hospitable to a piece of African art that clearly does not “fit” is more important than to maintain the architectural and artistic continuity of the building. Maybe Faith just rejoices with Faith when the meeting occurs in a meeting of humility and mercy just as Jesus and this Gentile woman.