September 9-10, 2017: God’s Love Extends Beyond the Chosen

Sermon A Pentecost L.20 2017                   King of Kings, New Windsor                                  September 9-10, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

This summer our week of “Arts Bible Camp”, nicknamed “ABC”, was patterned after a traditional Vacation Bible School, with a variety of activities:  music, drama, yoga, crafts, a meal, and, of course, a Bible story.  We started at 3:00 pm, since adolescents love to sleep in!  We did yoga with Marcia and had delicious meals and snacks, thanks to Lari-Sue, Jeanne, Marcia, Miriam, Carole, and Michelle, and designed banners with help from Mariann and Megan.  We practiced the play which Steven wrote and directed, and we sang with Laura Wurster and created an orchestra with Jeff.

And each evening, over ABC supper, we had Bible conversations.  One of the elements of the grant was to involve the youth in planning the program, so we met twice before we began our week together.  I offered some suggestions for Bible Stories, like:  stories on a theme, such as water stories; a series of stories about a character, such as Miriam or Mary or Peter or Paul; or difficult stories in the Bible, what some would call “Tough Topics” or “Texts of Terror”.  The youth chose the difficult texts.  One of these was the story that Steven chose to use as the springboard for his play, the story in today’s gospel lesson.

For me, this story is the most difficult of all the stories in the gospels, because Jesus’ words and actions don’t match the image that we have of him.  We think of Jesus as kind and thoughtful and gracious and generous, but, in this story, he is anything but.  To me, in his encounter with this Canaanite woman, this Gentile woman, Jesus sounds disrespectful, judgmental, and superior.

Scholars who study this text offer different explanations about why Jesus treated the Canaanite woman as he did.  Some say that, although he intended to heal the woman’s daughter, he first gave her an opportunity to proclaim her faith.  Others agree that Jesus intended to heal the daughter but disagree about the reason; they say that he initially refused her request to test the disciples.  Some say that the repartee about the dog was really about a beloved puppy, so Jesus’ response wasn’t really as bad as it sounds to us.  Still others think that Jesus was just tired or crabby or ornery that day.  Each of these interpretations, as I see it, is an attempt to diminish the offense of Jesus’ words and actions.

For me, it’s important to retain the offense, to pay attention to it and not to whitewash this story.  For me, Jesus really did think, up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, that he was sent only to the Hebrew people.  Raised as a Jew in ancient Israel, he was naturally enculturated to think of himself and his people as God’s “Chosen People”.  This encounter was significant in Jesus’ life, because he had to confront his own cultural limitations, his own prejudice, his own ethnocentrism.  From this time on, he came to understand that, although the Jews were the first to receive God’s blessings, they were not the only ones chosen by God.

To say it another way, Jesus couldn’t escape his human identity.  This story gives us one of several up-close views we get of Jesus as human.  What are the others?  His birth as a human baby; his tension with his parents during his adolescence, when he got separated from them; his exhaustion when “power went out from him”; his turning over the tables in the temple; his tears over the city of Jerusalem and the death of his friend Lazarus; and his desire to avoid suffering on the cross.  Jesus, like you and like me, was human.  He laughed, he cried, he got angry, he got excited.  And he was limited by his culture.  To fulfill God’s mission, he had to grow beyond that culture, to step outside of it, to cross the boundaries between his people and the others whom he encountered, the foreigners, whom the “Chosen People” labelled “Gentiles”.

In Japanese, the word for “foreigner” is made up of two Chinese characters.  The first character means “outside”, and the second means “person”.  It’s pronounced “gai-jin”, and it means “the person outside”, the person who is different, the person who does not belong.  Living in Japan for five years, I experienced that foreignness.  I was a “gaijin”.  I could never be mistaken for a Japanese person.  As an island country, Japan spent most of its history isolated from the rest of the world, so someone who is not Japanese is considered an outsider, a foreigner, a “gaijin”, no matter how long he—or his ancestors—has lived there.

The woman in today’s story was a “gai-jin” to Jesus.  She was different from him.  She was a foreigner.  She didn’t belong.  And so Jesus refused to hear her plea.  He denied her request for healing for her daughter.  And when she engaged him further, he was rude to her.  The woman took this in stride.  She was persistent, because she didn’t care so much about Jesus’ opinion of her as she cared about finding healing for her daughter.  Believing that Jesus could heal, she bore his rudeness for the sake of her daughter’s health.

And, somehow, in that encounter with the woman, Jesus began to see that God’s love extended beyond the Jews to this Canaanite woman.  Eventually, after his resurrection, he proclaimed that God’s love extended to “all nations”, when he told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”, but  Jesus’ journey toward including “all nations” began with his encounter with the Canaanite woman.

Sometimes, on my journey, when I meet a “Canaanite woman”, when I judge or categorize or ostracize someone, I am reminded that God’s love extends beyond me. For example, sometimes when I’ve been on hold or talking to a customer service representative on the phone, I can hear myself sounding disrespectful. I catch myself judging someone I haven’t even met, someone who is a “Canaanite woman” for me.

Who are the “Canaanite women” in your life?  Who are the people who are not in your “tribe”?  Perhaps those who are not white—or not college-educated or not middle-class or not straight.  Maybe your “Canaanite woman” is someone who is younger than you—or older than you.  Someone who has more than you—or less than you.  Someone who speaks a language you don’t understand—or who doesn’t understand your language.

Our nation is in a tough time in our history, just now.  More and more we are separated into “tribes”, based on our economic situations, our educational backgrounds, our ethnic heritage, our political affiliation.  It is very easy for us to act as though someone who is different from us is a “Canaanite woman” and to respond with an attitude of disrespect and judgment and superiority.

Last week, Gary Hill, a store manager in Orange County, Texas, which took some of the brunt of Hurricane Harvey, opened his parking lot as command central for flood relief for his neighbors.  He wasn’t disrespectful or judgmental or superior.  When people showed up for help, he didn’t ask for their economic status or educational level or country of origin or religion, because here’s what he believes:  “It’s about working together as a team.  Cause you know what?  We’re all the same in the eyes of God.”

Hmmm, we’re all the same in the eyes of God, aren’t we?  Chinese, German, Egyptian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Togolese.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, straight.  High school dropout, college graduate, doctor of philosophy.  Hindu, Buddhist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Jew, Muslim.  The one who owns a home and a vacation home and a boat, as well as the one struggling to pay a mortgage and make home repairs—and the one short of this month’s rent—and the one living under the bridge or in a tent in the woods.  All of us.  Every one of us.  Gary Hill is right:  “We’re all the same in the eyes of God.”

We could spend all day discussing why Jesus refused the Canaanite woman’s request.  But the thing that matters, in the end, is not so much Jesus’ words or attitudes but his actions, actions that revealed his belief that he and the disciples and the woman were “the same in the eyes of God”.  In the end, regardless of Jesus’ initial response and the reason for it, he did choose to act on behalf of the woman and her daughter.  Whether he was testing the disciples—or giving the woman an opportunity to confess her faith—or just acting like the first century Jew he was—is not as important as his actions; without noticing her ethnic background or sexual identity or orientation or faith community or economics, Jesus treated the woman as one beloved in the eyes of God.

In a moment/tomorrow, we will gather at the baptismal font to welcome Noah Michael into the family of God, because Noah, like the Canaanite woman and the disciples, and like you and me, is beloved in the eyes of God.  We will hear, once again, God’s redeeming word, for Noah and for all people.  We will see, once again, that Noah and all of God’s people of every color and continent and custom are “the same in the eyes of God”.  We will know, without a shadow of a doubt, that God’s love extends, beyond God’s Chosen People, to us; and, through us, to Noah; and beyond us, to “all nations”. AMEN

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