Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: August 16, 2020
Year A, Proper 15: Psalm 133, 16-22, 45b; Genesis 45:1-15, 12-28; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
I had a difficult time deciding which lesson to choose to preach about this morning. The story from Genesis about Joseph reuniting with his brothers was heart-wrenching for me as I thought about the emotional pain and loneliness and guilt they all must have endured for the years after they sold Joseph into bondage. No family is perfect, and I’m sure we have all had deep conflicts and cut-offs in some part of our families that only God can heal.
Then there’s the gospel which has two seemingly very different stories in it. Most of the time people who write about the gospels separate them when they write about them.
Yet, I think there’s a connectedness to be understood when we look closely at what is being said.
Jesus is telling a parable in the first part. He saying that what matters in our relationship with God is the keeping of commandments, not the purity laws that some would like him to focus on.
In the second half of the Gospel, there is a story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman, which is certainly the more recognized part of the Gospel. This story certainly has a lot to say to us about us as a human family in relationship with one another.
I also find it one of the most painful stories in scripture.
Again, remember where this passage sits in the arc of Jesus’ story: he’s just had another theological go-around with the Pharisees, and the tensions are growing ever higher between him and the established religious authorities. So, he gets out of town, so far out of town that he is in an area that is disputed land between the Canaanite territory and Israel. It’s a dangerous place, but for the moment it’s safer than where Jesus was before.
We should also understand that up to this moment, he’s been clear about his mission. It’s to his people, the Jewish people. It’s been about reclaiming and reframing the relationship with God that I spoke about.
She approaches him, begging for help. What does Jesus do? He treats her abominably.
Honestly, there’s no other way to describe what he does. When she begs for mercy and healing for tormented daughter, Jesus initially ignores her totally. He remains silent and does not respond to her pleas.
The disciples, still disturbed by what happened earlier in Galilee with the Pharisees, where they were called out for not following the law precisely enough, want Jesus to send her away. Jesus seems to be listening to their advice rather than to her cries for help.
“You’re not my problem”. You’re not my problem. That’s what Jesus is saying. How often do we say or think that?
Then Jesus did what most of us think is unthinkable; he insulted her, calling her a dog. It’s a moment that seems completely alien to us. “Not my Jesus” some of us would say.
But the woman pushes back again.
“Even dogs get the crumbs under the table.” With a painful but persistent plea, the Canaanite woman asks, no demands to be seen and heard as another child of God. And through her plea, she teaches Jesus something about himself and his mission that is crucial for him to learn.
This Canaanite woman challenged Jesus and the focus of his mission was broken open by her persistence and faith and, especially, the audacity to ask for what she needs.
Maybe we have always believed Jesus knew everything there was to know about his ministry when he just started out when he stepped out of the Jordan River after his baptism. I assure you he didn’t.
For my women friends out there, you can’t help but be a bit amused, even a bit proud, that the only time Jesus seems to have been bested in a theological wrestling match was by the Canaanite woman. This Caananite woman. Crying out, indeed, demanding help for her daughter.
As a result, Jesus’ concept of his ministry here on earth was expanded, really blown open, and we hear this change expressed at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …” (Mt 28:19)
So, that is the story. But what makes it so timely for us right now?
Our responsibility in these painful times is to make other peoples’ problems our problems. Not because we have particular wisdom or skill, but because we are part of the human family, we are part of God’s family. Because Jesus sees us and love us.
I think it is easy for us to assume God is on our side, that God looks like us, agrees with our positions on controversial issues, and, furthermore, God endorses our views of the world. It may be sinful or just being human, but it’s really, really easy for us to imagine God is just like us.
The problem comes when we distort this idea and imagine God is only like us – as in like us and not like any others. And, just as the Canaanite woman teaches Jesus that God’s mission and vision of compassion and mercy are bigger than what he may have initially imagined, so might the Canaanite woman also teach us the same at a time when illness, racism, poverty, and fear seem to overwhelm us.
But here’s the hard part. Just knowing God loves all people is not enough, not when groups assert their superiority over other races and ethnicities and claim God backs their view.
It is not enough to live as a law-abiding citizen. It’s a start, but what we need to do is change people’s hearts. What we need to do is proclaim the Gospel with words and our deeds. For it is in the Gospel we find Jesus’ cross and resurrection and God’s total love. We discover that God’s love is for all and that God is working in us and through us to make the world a more just and equitable place.
When we learn of God’s love, we come to trust that God will grant us courage and grace to meet the challenges of the day. When we summon the courage to stand with those who suffer or are persecuted, we encounter God again and again in a powerful and palpable way. Because, the amazing thing about the Gospel is that, unlike instruction or good advice, it creates in us the ability to do what God would have us do and to be the persons God calls us to be.
It takes a transformation and cleansing of our hearts to live the life of God’s compassion. We revere God by accepting God’s mercy, by living from God’s generosity – seeking the good of others, welcoming those who have not been welcomed, healing the broken hearts of those who suffer or who have been rejected. It takes courage to be with Jesus in this way, because he won’t necessarily let us off the hook, settling into the comfort of our own self-righteousness, or into the isolation of our hearts.
Ultimately, the Canaanite woman calls us to recognize the truth that God loves all people and bids us stand against those who deny human rights and dignity to anyone.
Before the Covid-19 caused us to cancel services inside our churches, the sermons were usually recorded at St. Andrew’s and uploaded by Kemp Miller, for whose ministry we are all grateful. To access the entire library of audio files for past sermons, CLICK HERE.