Eleventh Weekend after Pentecost
August 19-20, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Our Gospel today begins with Jesus’ teaching about cleanness and uncleanness. The law specified that eating certain foods could defile you and make you unclean. Hogwash! Jesus risks his reputation with the powerful Pharisees by calling them out and saying that it’s not what foods you eat that make you unclean, but what is coming out of your mouth, because your thoughts proceed from your heart. Morals have much more to do with how we love and hate than with our diet. As our nation is embroiled in a controversy about what racist beliefs one is allowed to utter, it is couched in language of free speech. What we say matters. Is what we say truthful, fair, kind, useful? Do we explain the actions of others in the kindest way, as the 8th Commandment teaches? Do we bully? Do we support victims of bullying? Do we speak up when we should? Jesus himself warns us that what comes out of our mouths can defile us. He warns us specifically against “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
In today’s Children’s Message, the children chose books. But some of the books on the inside were not what the book jacket said. You cannot judge a book by its cover. Look inside. Inside of people, our bodies are alike. God can also see what is in our hearts. When David wrote Psalm 51, he was sorry for his sins. He asked God to create a clean heart and a right spirit within him. Hearts are for loving, not hating.
Jesus’ teaching is tested and becomes more concrete, as Matthew recounts a story that tests our understandings about how we actually treat people. Entering a Gentile area, Tyre and Sidon, a boisterous woman sets upon Jesus and his followers. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And while she pleads for help for her daughter, she acclaims him as “Lord” and gives him a Messianic title, “Son of David.” She knows who he is. We don’t know how. Perhaps the demons afflicting her daughter know? The demons always seem to know who Jesus is and that he has power over them.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ genealogy. Rahab, Tamar, Ruth; foreign women listed in Jesus’ genealogy; were Canaanite women just like her. The Magi, foreign visitors far from here, follow a star to worship him as a toddler and they know who Jesus is. This Canaanite woman joins them in proclaiming Jesus. He has come to her region! She knows him, somehow, as the Master whose crumbs will be enough to satisfy her needs completely. Jesus has been teaching that God desires not sacrifice, but mercy. Her Kyrie Eleison, “Lord, have mercy” goes up while the disciples as a chorus give the counter cry, “Aww, send her away! Nobody wants to listen to her shouting! Why does she get to cry to us???” Their meaning is: She doesn’t deserve help. She’s not one of us. Today we live in a time and place that asks about which foreigners should be sent away and how? Who should be excluded? Her cry is the one that the church still raises in our Kyrie, not only for ourselves, but for all in need, especially those on the margins most in need of our advocacy.
Both Jesus’ silence and his words are insulting. Here is the horrible thing. We are meant to be on edge. We are meant to wonder: Is she abandoned? Is there no one who will care? Who will listen? Who will act? Is she alone, howling in pain for her daughter? Yet she persists. There is something most admirable about her behavior. And that is that she loves another and will not abandon her, even though her demonic behavior must have been stigmatizing for her and an affliction for both of them. Advocacy is not easy today either. As a person who lost a former foster son to his addiction and a sister to Alzheimer’s Disease, I can tell you, when someone is afflicted, the whole family suffers. To take on the need of another who is needy requires a persistence and a love that we sometimes do not have. Her shouting does not stop.
She is not stupid. She knows she’s the only woman in the room. She knows that women are supposed to be pleasing and attractive to men, useful if possible, polite, demure, quiet, submissive, and above all not to act like a shrew. She knows she is considered unclean because of her race, her faith, her background, her bloodline. Her home is infested with demons. Her own daughter is filled with them. Every bit of her history works against her, as she represents a people who are historic enemies of the Jews and she arouses their prejudice and hostility. The disciples and Jesus are giving her the cold shoulder. But she does not back down. In spite of the disciples’ entreaty to dismiss her, he does not do so. What he says next must have encouraged them in their assumptions about their superiority in God’s plan and about her rejection. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says. And the next insult is worse: ”It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” If I were to defend Jesus’ words applied to this woman, instead of his teaching, I would be guilty of saying that there was guilt on both sides. This is name calling of the worst kind! However, it occurs to me that Jesus has characterized the chosen ones, even his own disciples, as “lost sheep.” And while he has said to the woman, you and your daughter are not children in my family at my table, he has compared both sides to animals. He called his own people “lost sheep.” He called her “a dog.” And dogs do tricks. Sheep are incapable of anything like that. “All we like sheep have gone astray.”
So this female foreigner, whose name we do not know, comes and kneels. She wheedles. She sits up and begs. She is not ashamed to bring her need to Jesus. She is entirely willing to accept Jesus’s designation. But if she is a dog, not welcome at the table, she can confidently rest beneath the table and wait for crumbs to fall and she knows that even the crumbs will be the feast she needs. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Katie and Martin Luther fed their own children, orphans and many of Luther’s colleagues and students at their table. Luther’s students recorded his conversation and witticisms at table in a book called “Table Talk.” They tell of the night that Luther played with his dog at the table, tempting his beloved pet with a piece of meat. The dog fixed canine eyes of hope on this proffered treat, trembling and eager to receive it. Luther said, “If only we could all pray the way that Blockhead begs for meat!” (Was their dog a Pitbull, like the sweet doggy we used to have?)
She sees that Jesus is hope not just for Israel, but for the world. Jesus calls her faith “Great!” and grants her request. Her daughter was healed immediately. Here, once again, we see that the Kingdom of Heaven is entering new territory and breaking boundaries. National, racial, gender and other boundaries we make so much of here mean nothing to the Kingdom of Heaven. You see, we live simultaneously in two kingdoms. The heavenly kingdom begins not when we die, but in Baptism, when we know Jesus, when he is Lord of our lives. Citizenship in this kingdom is God’s gift and puts us to work as God’s hands and Christ’s ambassadors.
Jesus stuns his disciples and us! What kind of a story is this Gospel? And what kind of Lord? As the account begins, it looks bad. He begins as an establishment figure who can be trusted to defend the status quo against outsiders, protect the privileged, proclaim and celebrate the supremacy of the identity and history of the chosen few, while simultaneously shaming the minority poor and oppressed. He behaves dismissively. He ignores her plea. What might be expected of us? You mean we might have to love, share and show mercy? The disciples behave just as they did before the feeding of the 5,000 men (not to mention the women and children!) with the loaves and fishes. Send them away. Send her away! The crazy fixed pie idea reasserts itself. (We cannot give the children’s food to the dogs. That’s not fair. There will not be enough for the children. Send her away. If there are leftovers after we have feasted, maybe something for you. If not, too bad! This is my lunch and you cannot have it!) As she begs, as she asserts the abundance that she knows Christ has to give her and her daughter. Her faith and persistence shape the story. Jesus becomes her admirer, her advocate, and actually, her servant! As Master of the Table, he rules for her-- and her daughter is instantly freed of her demons.
Three weeks ago, we heard Jesus teach that faith as small as a grain of mustard seed has a deceptive amount of power and influence. Last week, after Jesus invited Peter to come to him walking in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, when he had to pluck his sinking disciple up, we heard him call Peter the “little faith one” and ask him, “Why did you doubt?” In chapter 16, Jesus will ask the disciples, “who do you say that I am?” and Peter will get it right, but will try to forbid Jesus’ crucifixion. A Jesus who will suffer and die to show how much God so loves the whole world—God forbid! A confession of faith is on Peter’s lips, yet, while Jesus is being interrogated and he himself is questioned, Peter will deny he knows Jesus. Yes, Jesus is, in fact, the one who cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” and like the Canaanite woman, his cry seems unanswered. Crucified between two bandits! It is here that the genius of the Kingdom of Heaven will break in. Jesus chooses the place with the unclean ones, the lowest of the low. And so, it will fall to the Executioner, the Centurion, the soldier in charge, to make the wonderful declaration that Jesus truly is the Son of God. Pay attention! God often puts messages for us in the hearts and mouths of people we might judge unworthy.
Where is this Gospel going? All of our comfortable boundaries are being broken, one after another. Jesus’ bloodline is not pure! To use a Harry Potter image, he is a mudblood mixed up with Canaanite women ancestors. We are not permitted our hatreds, our bigotry, our racism, our xenophobia, our prejudices, no matter what exceptions we have been accustomed to in our history. This, after all, is the story of a new kingdom in which we die to self and confess our sins, the kingdom of heaven that informs its citizens of a counter-cultural lifestyle of love and justice that reaches out to all people. This is the kingdom that gathers for a crumb of bread and a drip from the cup. It heals our souls and is enough for us and to share. Where is this gospel going? This is how it will conclude: The Great Commission is being prepared: Go therefore and make disciples of ALL NATIONS. I am with you always! Get out there, showing mercy, forgiving sins, sharing grace. Perhaps our gospel heroine has become a sheep dog. And of course, she has received not just a crumb, but a place with us at the table.
(The writing of every sermon begins with prayerful research. What is the Spirit saying to the church? Thanks to Mitzi J. Smith, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Ashland Theological Seminary, Detroit, MI, for the thoughts about Jesus’ Canaanite bloodline. Thanks to James Boyce, Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN for the image of two competing cries that resembled (at least to me) opposite sides of the demonstrations recently witnessed in Charlottesville-- one: a Kyrie Eleison from the Canaanite woman and one: the disciples cries that she should be sent away.)
Rev. Dr. Patricia S. Medley