August 16, 2011

Proper 15A Sermon

I forgot to post this on Monday, sorry. I entitled this sermon "Jesus called her a dog - the moment that changed everything." You can listen to it here. Or, read on.

[It is always wonderful to stand in the center aisle, surrounded by cute, impressionable children while reading Matthew's account of Jesus calling a women, begging for his aid, a dog.] This is a tough lesson, easily top five toughest in the Gospels mixed in with Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, Jesus cursing the fig tree, and perhaps a few others. It shocks us to hear Jesus act this way. He begins by ignoring the woman's cries – the only time he ignores a cry for help – and then goes so far as to call her a slur, an epithet, a DOG! It offends us, and it should, but as Paul said to Timothy, “all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim 3:16). I'll come back to Paul's useful words to Timothy, but first, a classic Steve Pankey extended metaphor.
After vestry on Monday evening, Cassie and I loaded up the baby and the car to meet some friends way over on Florida's Atlantic coast. We arrived Tuesday evening, and by the time Wednesday afternoon rolled around, everybody was ready for relaxation. Eliza took a four hour nap (as did our friend Josh) and I sat down with the History Channel's special presentation on the wreck of the Britannic three miles off Greece's Kea Island in 1916. The Britannic was the younger sister of perhaps the greatest ship wreck in recorded history, the Titanic. Built after Titanic sunk, Britannic was fitted with several upgrades meant to keep her from joining her older sister in Davey Jones' Locker. All of her upgrades were for not, however, as she sank in what the History Channel called a record time for a ship of her size, a mere 55 minutes. The History Channel had sponsored a team of elite divers, charged with the task of finding out why Britannic sunk so quickly. An ironically long 55 minutes later, it was time for “The Dive.” On the second to last day, a team of divers was finally set to wind their way through the generator room to find out if a key door was open or shut. I watched as they entered the crack in her hull, made their way down the narrow corridor, through the craw space next to boiler number 5, only to find the lead diver's progress thwarted by a wheel barrow wedged in the middle of his path. The show went to commercial showing only cloud of silt and hearing only the radio transmission, “Topside to Dive Team One.... Topside to Dive Team One.”
Finally, the divers responded, “abort” and after four hours of decompression compressed into 10 seconds they arrived on the top disappointed, but safe. Luckily, there was still a day of diving left so they could try the longer route past boiler number 3. Except, the Greek antiquities observer on board says they've violated their permits, and there will be no last day of diving. The show ends with the team, regathered several months later, talking about how much they accomplished in finding that wheel barrow, but honestly, I find it a hallow victory for the hour of my life I invested in their program.
Finding a wheel barrow is not what I had in mind when I started the journey to Britannic. I wanted to know if her double skin filled with water. I wanted to see that door, still opened, spelling her demise. I wanted definitive answers in return for the lazy hour I spent on the couch, but all I got were more questions. As the team leader stared, amazed at the first-ever, 3D rendering of the boiler room, as he stared at another piece of his life work coming into focus, all I saw was a wheel barrow, but he saw the bigger picture.
That, finally, is what this story from Matthew's Gospel is like. If we see the bigger picture, if we recognize that all, A-L-L, all of scripture is inspired by God, then we can understand that this seemingly innocuous healing story, this silly example of Jesus' sometimes dirty humanity, this side note of a pericope has something to teach us. What we find in this story, shocking and ugly as it may be, is a turning point in salvation history, and one for which we, Gentile Christians should be exceedingly grateful.
Matthew describes the woman who seeks Jesus' attention as a Canaanite Woman, but Canaanite was an ethnicity that no longer existed by the time of Jesus. Sure, Joshua had left some folks behind after being ordered to enter the land of Canaan, and kill every man woman and child (a top five Old Testament doozy for those of you who are into such things), but they had become so mixed with other races and cultures that Canaanites proper no longer existed in first century Palestine. Matthew chooses not to follow Mark in calling her Syro-Phonecian and in doing so, he evokes in the minds of his hearers the whole range of salvation history – From the First Adam to the Second Adam, the Re-Creator of all things, Jesus of Nazareth. This woman stands as a caricature of everything Israel believed. They, as God's chosen people, were in, and the Gentiles – of all sorts – including Canaanite women, and you and me, were out.
Jesus, as a first-century Jewish Rabbi was ingrained in that culture, in that teaching, in that understanding of the Kingdom, and so, true to who he is and what he came to do, he's focused on the lost sheep of Israel – the Pharisees among many others – who were so lost in the rules, who wasted so much time washing their hands, feet, pots, and pans, who focused on themselves more than others and more than God. He had a lot of work to do to get their attention.
And the Canaanite woman had a lot of work to do to get his. “Have mercy on me! Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me! Kyrie Elison. Kryie! Elison!” She shouts and cries and shouts some more, until, exasperated, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Shut her up! Send her away! Apolyson!” But she is undaunted, until she gets what she wants, until her daughter is healed of her demon, she will not leave, she will not be quiet, she will not be ignored. “Kryie Elison! Have mercy on me, Lord!”
As if he hadn't heard her at all, Jesus only responds to his disciples, “I was sent for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Suddenly, she sees her way in, as she rushes up to him, and takes on the traditional posture of worship, down on her knees, begging, pleading, worshiping, and hoping that Jesus will hear her cry and be merciful. His response, is filled with thousands of years of hurt feelings, theological squabble, and all out warfare. “It isn't fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman, still undeterred, has heard it all before. She's been called worse, but worse people, for sure. “Yep, dog, that's me, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the master's table.”
And in an instant, in the bigger picture, everything changes. The walls of Jericho come tumbling down, and everyone – even this Canaanite woman, emblematic of every stereotype, ignorance, and hatred that ever separated any person from another – everyone comes within the reach of God's saving embrace.
“Woman, great is your faith,” is all Jesus can muster, “let it be done for you as you wish.” Her persistence pays off, thanks be to God, and even the Son of God has an Epiphany. In God's Kingdom there is no box, no in or out, just love, grace, and mercy, and that, my friends, changes everything. The Canaanite Woman trusted in that truth, but do we, do I, do you? Do we trust enough to know we've been forgiven? Do we realize that we are loved? Do we accept the grace that we don't deserve, confident in the Master's love?
During the dust bowl of the early 1930s, a preacher scheduled a special prayer service to pray for rain. The church was packed with people from far and wide as the preacher stepped into the pulpit. He scanned the assembled congregation, and told everyone, “Y'all can head on home. This service is over.” The people protested, “But we've not prayed for rain!” “Won't do a lick of good,” the preacher replied, “ain't none of you brought your umbrella!”
The Canaanite Woman brought her umbrella. She believed, fully and surely, despite hundreds of years of history to the contrary, that Jesus would heal her daughter, and because of her great faith, in the great scheme of things, the gates of Kingdom of God were flung wide to include you, me, and every Canaanite Woman in history.
Can you see the bigger picture?
Is it coming into focus?
Have you brought your umbrella?
Do you believe in what God can do?
I do. I believe God has a role for each one of us as the story unfolds. I believe that God has equipped each of you specially for the tasks he has prepared for you. I'm praying for big things. I'm praying for walls to crumble. I'm praying for small things to forever alter the bigger picture. I've got my umbrella. Do you?

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