8/17/2014 Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The text for today’s sermon is Matthew 15:21-28
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout human history, from our earliest day to this very hour, people everywhere have struggled with how to treat people who are strangers. Strangers are different. They are unpredictable. They are seen as being potentially dangerous. So, we teach our children to be wary of them and to avoid them all together. We all know the rules – you don’t take candy from stranger, and if a stranger offers you a ride, you don’t take it. In fact, you’re not even supposed to talk to a stranger, for strangers can’t be trusted.
Now these are good rules, especially in today’s world where there are so many predators around who target the unwary, but I must admit that I haven’t always been good about obeying these rules. During my college years, I hitch hiked and took rides from people I never saw again. I have taken things that strangers have offered me, even though I was told that I was never to do such a thing. As a child, on Halloween, I went out trick-or-treating with my friends, and I certainly didn’t know all the people in all the houses I visited. In my life time, I have given help to strangers who have asked for it and I have taken help from strangers when I have been in need. I have invited strangers into my home to repair appliances. I have sought out strangers to repair broken bones and fix flat tires. And whenever I have moved, I have reached out to people whom I do not know…for a person who is a stranger can become your best friend, if given a chance. Maybe I’ve just been lucky that nothing bad ever happened to me, or maybe most strangers are not as scary as they have been painted to be.
In Jesus’ time there were just as many if not more rules applying to strangers…those laws told you who should be considered to be enemy and who could become friend, who you could talk with and who you had to ignore, who you would cross the street to avoid and who could be welcomed into your home, who you could touch and who would make you unclean. Unlike many of our rules which applied to us only as children, these rules applied to adults as well and applied most strictly to priests and rabbis, the religious elite of the day.
So, it is no wonder that Jesus, a teacher of Israel, was less than kind when a Gentile woman from Canaan, a land of enemies, approached him. This woman was a stranger to the Lord, a stranger who by culture was not one of the people earmarked for salvation. Yet, she was a stranger who was in need of help, and in her desperation she breathlessly approached Jesus, on behalf of her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Hearing her request for healing, Jesus said nothing to her. He tried to ignore her in the same way we try to ignore a pesky mosquito that keeps buzzing around our heads. Jesus continued on his way, as if she were not present. But, his disciples wanted to make sure that Jesus understood who this woman was and they warned Jesus that she should be sent away empty as their limited resources were to be expended on the right people.
But, the woman would not go away quietly. Having nothing to lose, the woman kept on requesting, “Lord, help me!” Finally, Jesus answered her and in a rather insulting tone, he informed her that there was limited spiritual food and it should only be given to those he was sent to serve and she was not part of that group.
Now, probably, most of us would have been crushed by the words spoken by Jesus and would have left in despair, but, not this woman. She was not going to go away. She would not be silenced. She would not sit back passively and shed tears of failure. In faith and desperation, she would not be ignored and she would not stop asking until Jesus helped. So, she pointed out to the Lord that even the dogs eat the crumbs of food which fall from the master’s table. All that she was asking for was to feast on these crumbs, these morsels of mercy, which fall on the floor – for she was convinced that even this smidgen was enough to bring wholeness to the life of her daughter.
My friends, this woman was right. It only takes a morsel, only a tad of grace from the Lord to bring wholeness to human life. This stranger, this woman, without Jewish heritage, understood this as she knew what Jesus did not – that the Messiah, the one sent from God, was sent to bring salvation to ALL people. Although Jesus professed to the woman that his mission was limited to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, this stranger, this woman, knew that the power and the compassion of the God of Israel was without limitation.
This was a teaching moment…one in which a stranger, a Canaanite woman became a rabbi to the rabbi. Through her persistence and her use of the language of worship, she opened Jesus’ eyes to the inclusive nature of his mission. It was an “ah-ha” moment for Jesus and Jesus commended her for her great faith. Her trust in the Lord was not in vain and the Lord did not send her away empty handed. Jesus did as she wished.
Now, there are many stories about people who put their trust in the Lord to save them, but whose faith is passive, devoid of any action. One of the stories is about a man who was driving in the backwoods of Oregon in 1994 when his pick-up truck got stuck in a snowbank. As he considered what to do, he decided to put his trust in God, that God would send someone to rescue him. So day after day he sat in the cab of his truck, writing letters, waiting for the God-appointed person to arrive and save him. Nine weeks later, a passing motorist discovered him dead, having frozen to death. The most tragic part of that story is that if he would have gotten out of his truck and walked a few hundred yards, he would have come to a clear road where cars had been passing every day.
The Canaanite woman was not so foolish as to sit idle. She took the initiative and went out in faith – seeking the Lord, confronting him with her needs and persisting in the face of rejection. In spite of the harsh reception she knew that she had come to the right place, to the one who would save her child. And the Lord answered her plea and her child lived. BUT, the disciples? They would have sent her away empty handed. They would have closed the door on hope and salvation to her simply because she was a stranger from a different land
We still tend to close the door to strangers and not just as children. Perhaps it is that we fear that the stranger will take by force what is ours and that what we lose is irreplaceable. Perhaps it is that we believe that all things are finite, including the unconditional love of a God who creates us, redeems us, and blesses us with more than we can ever use in our life time. Perhaps it is that the stranger holds up a mirror to us, showing us the facts we do not want to see, like our potential neediness or our outsider status. But whatever the reason, in our fear, we turn people away, people who could use our help, people under the umbrella of God’s care, brothers and sisters in Christ who may teach us and show us what it is to live by faith.
I’m sure that the disciples learned something about themselves that day when they encountered the stranger in need. I’m sure that they learned something about their fear and their faith. And, I’m also sure that they learned something about the faithfulness of their Lord who listened to the worship and prayer of the outsider and who granted her petition for the health of another.
May we be as persistent in our faith as the Canaanite woman who would not be deterred from her belief in the compassion God. May we be as persistent in our faith as the Canaanite woman who took the initiative to seek the Lord in her need. And may we take the example of our Lord’s response to heart…may we listen; may we learn; may we embrace what the stranger has to offer; and may we compassionately serve those in need. And may the peace of Lord, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.