a sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15A)
By Jewish custom and tradition, Jesus was right – his mission and ministry was originally intended only for the children of Israel. The Canaanite woman was out of bounds. Fortunately for us, she persisted.
Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about words, especially the words that you entrust me to say during this very privileged time of the week, this sermon time. I want you to know that I take my preaching responsibility very seriously because I truly believe that my purpose here is sacred – to proclaim the Gospel to the best of my ability in a way that illuminates the presence of God in our lives through the person of Jesus Christ. I know that some of you agree with some of what I say some of the time, and some of you wish that I would speak about some things and not others, or that I say things differently. But you can rest assured that the words I say here come from my heart, as Jesus would say, and they come only after lots of prayer and struggle with the scriptures.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus, the divine Word, has a lot to say about the words we use every day. To set the scene we need to go back a few verses. Jesus was in Jerusalem with his disciples when the Pharisees confronted him and asked, “why don’t your disciples follow our traditions and wash their hands before they eat?” As we think about it today, this sounds like a pretty innocent question. After all, didn’t our mothers all teach us to wash before eating? But in this case the Pharisees were saying one thing, but thinking another. Their words sounded reasonable – “why not wash your hands?” – but what they were really thinking was that these disciples of Jesus were unclean, no better than animals, because they did not follow their customs to the letter. As Isaiah put it, the Pharisees honored God with their lips, but their hearts were set on other things.
What’s interesting is how Jesus responds. He didn’t trade insults with the Pharisees; he didn’t respond in kind. He responded in a third way, by teaching them how their own words have the power to defile them, because they reveal the evil in their hearts. Jesus was teaching them a new way of being a Jew, that by opening up their customs and traditions, new generations could be brought into relationship with God. And in so doing, Jesus turned their insult into a blessing.
Several days later, Jesus was again confronted, this time by an uncomfortable woman. She came out of nowhere, screaming about her daughter, “Have mercy upon me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” Tears were running down her face and she acted like a crazy woman herself. The disciples didn’t want to have anything to do with her and neither did Jesus. At first, he tried to ignore her, but she just kept shouting. Then he tried to reason with her, explaining that his ministry was really wasn’t intended for her – he was only there to serve his own people. But the woman knelt down and begged him even more. That’s when he snapped:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
For a long while, nobody said a thing. Jesus’ words just hung in the air. The woman just stayed there, kneeling in front of him. Maybe she was thinking about her sick daughter. Maybe she was thinking about his insult. Maybe she was thinking about all the times she had been disappointed by good and decent people. Maybe she was thinking that this man, this Jesus, had to be different.
After a long while, the woman spoke. She didn’t trade insults with Jesus; she didn’t respond in kind. Instead she responded in a third way, showing how his own words were unworthy of him. Then she said something amazing, something that further enlarged Jesus’ ministry to the world. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” With this painful, even pitiable, yet faithful plea, the Canaanite woman asked to be seen and heard, recognized as another child of God. And through her person and her plea, she taught Jesus something about himself and his mission that was crucial for him to learn. And in so doing, she turned his insult into a blessing for us all.
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Over the past week, we’ve heard a lot of words from a lot of people. We’ve heard the words of hateful people – those who call themselves Neo-nazis, Neo-confederates and White Supremacists. There isn’t any question that their words are evil. Nothing they say justifies their actions. We must speak out against all forms of hard and soft racism and antisemitism. Jesus would expect nothing less from us.
We’ve also heard the softer and more polished words of our politicians, words that perhaps sound more reasonable, like those of the Pharisees. Why can’t those people be more like us? Why can’t they follow our customs and traditions? These are gentle words, soothing words. But which words carry a blessing and which defile us? How should we respond to them?
Let’s be honest: it’s far too easy for us to assume that God is on our side, looks like us, favors our positions, and endorses our views. Call it sinful, call it human, but the fact is that it’s really easy for us to imagine that God is one of us. After all, that’s the whole point of the Incarnation – God became one of us – and allows us to imagine being in relationship with God. The problem comes when we imagine God is only like us – as in, not like anyone else.
When we use thoughtless words, when we pay more attention to traditionalism and customs than to the needs our neighbors, when we draw lines between our neighbors and ourselves, when we deny the humanity of the person right in front of us, we end up destroying their humanity and defiling ourselves. And when we use loving words, words intended to build up the spirit, words that transcend our divisions and recognize that the person next to us is also a child of God, worthy of all the dignity and love that implies regardless of their race, gender, sexuality or national origin, we bless them and ourselves and we enlarge the kingdom of God.
By Jewish custom and tradition, Jesus was right – his mission and ministry was originally intended only for the children of Israel. The Canaanite woman was out of bounds. She was considered unclean, just like the disciples who ate without washing their hands. But if the story had ended there, none of us would be here now because Jesus mission would have stopped at the borders of Israel. Fortunately for us, she persisted. She chose to believe that his insult had nothing to do with who she was. She chose to believe that God had a larger vision than even Jesus imagined, a vision of a community of the beloved in which all of us live together in God’s abundant love and grace, regardless of who we are. When she replied, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” she turned Jesus’ insulting words into a blessing and helped him realize that he was sent to bring the whole world into relationship with God and one another.
Today, we are bombarded by more words than at any time in human history. Through books, movies, the news and social media, we hear more words that tear down our spirit than ever before. There is no question that much of what we hear is hateful and we need to speak out against that in clear and unmistakeable terms. At the same time, we need to remember that our larger mission is to bring all people into relationship with God and each other through Jesus Christ. That is why he came to us. That is why he died for us and rose again. In the end, Jesus isn’t concerned so much about what’s written on our the base of our statues as what’s written on our hearts. We are called to respond to evil words with love, and turn their insults into blessings for all the people of the world.
How do we do this? I have to admit, I certainly don’t know. But I do know that it is only when we are willing to speak openly and honestly, without fear or anger, setting aside our bitterness for previous injuries of the heart, that we will be able to begin. We don’t need to march with guns or torches or pepper spray. We simply need to listen to one another. And maybe, like the Canaanite woman, by the grace of God, we will be able to transform our insults into blessings.
Thanks be to God.