This sermon comes from Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman and their exchange is…unsettling.
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You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Its good to be back with you after being gone for a couple weeks. As many of you know, last week I traveled out to southern Colorado with Emily and the kids to attend family camp in the Sangre de Cristo mountains at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Bible Camp near Canon City.
This is a wonderful experience for us each and every year…a chance for renewal and rest…a chance to see old friends and colleagues…and a chance to spend quality time as a family. (pause) Now each year when we head out to Colorado I have a little different plan in mind for what I want to do. Sometimes its ambitious with a lot of hikes and various physical challenges and activities. Other years its more lowkey…with high hopes of sitting on the deck of the main lodge looking out over the valley at the mountains beyond…calmly resting in the beauty of God’s creation.
This year, I planned on the later…its been a crazy year…and a crazy summer…and I was ready to kick back and take it easy. (pause) Now how many of you think I actually managed to pull that off? Needless to say…my plans for a calm week with my feet up were dashed pretty quickly as I participated in various activities including, but not limited to…white water rafting, a very vigorous spot of dancing at the yearly ho-down, a 4 mile hike up and down a very…VERY rough, rocky road, and last but certainly not least…a trip through the camp’s brand new extreme high ropes course alongside of Emily and another couple that travels to camp with us every year.
The high ropes course included multiple elements, some of which we accomplished individually…for instance I had to cover a 25 foot gap using nothing but hanging ropes with small loops in the end for my feet…and others that we accomplished together. Now some of these elements were quite simple…and others were pretty difficult.
Though the most physically demanding element I accomplished was the hanging ropes…the most uncomfortable one involved crossing two wires in pairs…with nothing to hold onto except one another. Now Emily and our friend Christina went first…and if either set had it easier it was them…as their wires were parallel the entire way across. I partnered with Eric, Christina’s husband…and we had the challenge of wires that gradually got farther apart.
Further adding to the difficulty of this challenge is the fact that Eric is about 4 inches taller than me…and he outweighs me by a pretty large margin. To set the scene, we faced each other, and braced ourselves against one another by grasping hands and leaning in so that our weight counterbalanced…and then we fearfully stepped out onto half inch steel cable…suspended about 35 feet in the air.
Gradually, we slid ourselves sideways across that very thin cable…trying not to put too much of our weight on the other…and yet trying to hold each other up at the very same time. Our legs were shaking…the cable right along with us…and we…were nervous. It took us about half the distance across the gap to actually figure out a good system…but eventually we made it across to where Emily and Christina were waiting…and as we sat there for a moment catching our breath…Christina made a comment about how I had been breathing the whole way across…focused…teeth clenched…and practically hyperventilating. I didn’t even know I was doing it…but apparently it sounded like this (example of breathing). Needless to say…I found this whole experience to be very…very uncomfortable and I was extremely relieved a few minutes later when I found both feet safely back on the ground.
Now I share this story with you today, because it has two things in common with today’s gospel lesson. First off…Jesus seems to be vacation…having traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon…two Mediterranean sea ports to the northwest of Galilee and Israel…and while there were likely Jewish people present…he and his disciples would have been surrounded by Gentiles…including the Canaanite woman that recognizes Jesus and approaches him. We don’t know just what it is that makes Jesus decide to head off in this odd direction in the midst of his three year ministry…yet here he is…and in the midst of his time away…whether he was actually vacationing or not…Jesus encounters a ministry-type situation. (pause)
HAVE MERCY ON ME LORD, SON OF DAVID. MY DAUGHTER IS TORMENTED BY A DEMON. (pause) Nothing new for Jesus after all. He’s constantly encountering people in need of healing from various illnesses or who are possessed by demons. We’ve seen him heal them all countless times…right up until now.
And here’s the second point of interaction between my story and this story…this is where things get really uncomfortable for me as a believer in Christ. (pause) Jesus hears the woman cry out to him…begging him to have mercy on her daughter…she clearly recognizes him for who he is…calling him both Lord and Son of David…and he…flat out…ignores her. (pause)
HE DOES NOTHING!!!! HE DOESN’T EVEN ENGAGE WITH HER!!!! What? That’s not the Jesus we know…he always engages…he always recognizes the person before him. Certainly, this is strange…and so we begin to the ask the question of just what is really going on here…of why Jesus ignores her and just walks on by.
Now the woman, bless her heart…she doesn’t give up does she? She just keep on shouting after Jesus and the disciples…and the disciples…well…they get annoyed…and perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us…they do have that tendency within scripture…and so they approach Jesus saying “Send her away…for she keeps shouting at us.” (pause) Now an interesting point here is another one of those translation issues that I’m fond of. The Greek word for Send her away can also mean…release her…or…set her free. And so with that, we begin to wonder who the disciples are talking about. Are they saying “send the woman away?” Or are telling Jesus “release the daughter?” And here’s the kicker…WE DON’T KNOW! AHHH. Scripture…sometimes you are maddening.
But with this ambiguity in the language of the disciples we are faced with another question…were they simply annoyed, or was Jesus deliberately testing them to see how THEY would respond to this foreign woman’s request…and we…don’t know. Unsettling? A little uncomfortable? Well hold onto your seats…its about to get worse.
Because regardless of the motivation of the disciples with their request of Jesus…he responds with this little diddy…I was sent ONLY to the lost sheep of Israel. (pause) Hmm…come on Jesus…you’ve crossed cultural boundaries before…you’ve engaged with Samaritans…and with women…you’ve healed lepers…all without batting an eye…so what’s different this time around? (pause)
And you know what? It get’s worse. When the woman, undeterred approaches him yet again…begging him on her knees before him. LORD HELP ME…he verbally smacks her by saying “It is not fair to take the food from the children to throw it to the dogs.” (long pause) Is it just me…or did Jesus just call this woman a dog? He did right? Even if he’s being metaphorical…that’s downright shocking…the Jesus that we know and love from scripture…is coming across in this moment as a flat out jerk…and I don’t know about you but that makes me really uncomfortable.
In this moment, we so no trace of love…or compassion…we hear no hint of the kingdom of heaven being offered to all. In short…Jesus comes across as a racist…and I have always struggled with this passage because of it.
But what happens next strikes me as equally unsettling…makes me squirm in my seat just a little. Because the woman…bearing no shame what so ever…acknowledges what Jesus says. She doesn’t get cranky or offended saying “Don’t call me a dog.” Rather…she smacks him right back by saying “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the scraps from the master’s table.” In short…she is accepting and confirming that which the society has dictated about her. She is a woman without rights…she is a Gentile, and not only that a Canaanite…descendent from Cain who killed his brother Able…ancient enemies of the Jews who has no right to ask Jesus, a Jewish man…for anything. She doesn’t deny any of that….in fact, she seems to embrace it and yet despite all that…and despite the harsh reaction that she has already received, she still has faith that He can accomplish what she asks. And it is this faith which is rewarded…it is this faith which Jesus sees and heeds when he heals her daughter in that moment.
But here’s the odd thing about that. Since we don’t know the motivation behind Jesus’ response to the women, we must ask the question…did she change his mind? (pause) Did she…teach him something?
We tend to think of Jesus as perfect…without sin…and all knowing…because while he’s fully human…he’s also fully God right….and if he’s fully God then he should automatically feel and display love and compassion for all of God’s children…but he doesn’t do it…And likewise, he should know that salvation through his own coming sacrifice on the cross is for all people…and yet he claims to only be there for Israelites…and if that’s all the case…then she…SETS HIM STRAIGHT.
I don’t know about you…but I find that troubling…that Jesus might have learn something during his time on Earth…that Jesus, might not be all knowing in this moment…but you know…the Apostle Paul writes that Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited but that he emptied himself…and so maybe…just maybe…this woman truly did open his eyes to the realization that his mission went far beyond even his initial…human…expectations…and I will admit to you this…that if, in fact, this is the case…and I’m not saying it, but I’m not saying its not…but if this is truly what was happening in this exchange between Jesus and the woman…then I don’t know what to make of it…and I don’t suppose to tell you what you should make of it either.
But what I do know is this, even in the midst of confusion within the scriptures…which is a reality when we attempt to interpret it…we are given an example of what faith really means. The woman embraces the label given to her. Jesus insinuates that she’s a dog…and she says. YES I AM.
I recently heard an explanation of faith from a Lutheran perspective. Faith is acknowledging that I am without worth…and then hearing God say no…you have great worth…and I believe it to be true, simply because God said it…Faith is believing that God will do what he says he will do. Believing that God can do anything that He choses to do.
Even believing that God in human form would have mercy on someone that has no business asking for it…and would speak a word that would heal her daughter…and we cling to the hope that God in human form has mercy on us…even though we too are worthless…and that God, by raising his Son from the dead, overcomes our death as well…creating new life out of death…and declaring that You…my child…are of great worth…so that in the midst of our discomfort, his promise will grant us peace. Amen.