August 14, 2011

The following sermon was written and preached by Marie-Louise Ternier Gommers at St. Andrew’s on Sunday, August 14, 2011.

Marie-Louise is a Roman Catholic lay woman who studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon. She is an active leader in the ecumenical community of Saskatoon and area, including the Women in Ministry group of which Rev. Amanda is a participant. Marie-Louise serves as a Pastoral Associate at St. Augustine’s Parish in Humboldt, SK.

Matthew 15:21-28

There is tension in the Gospel today. Who is Jesus’ ministry for? Do foreigners and outcasts have a right to lay claim to God’s grace and healing? Just like in our time, there were strong cultural opinions in Jesus’ time about who was acceptable and who was not: clean and unclean people, they called them back then. So it is no wonder that even Jesus hesitates to grant the Canaanite woman her request. The Canaanites were deeply despised by the Israelites, especially because fertility rites were part of their religious practices. Jesus experiences tension and the reality of human limitations.

This foreign woman approaches a Jewish man, does him homage and begs a favour she has no right to. She bursts into Jesus’ space and pleads with him: “Lord, son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon.” Jesus refuses …he refuses to give in to the disciples’ pleading to remove this nuisance from their midst. Instead, he directs himself to the woman and leads the discussion in a such way that she should accept his hesitation to cure. He says quite forcefully: “I am a stranger here; I should not interfere.” Is this out of character, or is Jesus merely testing her? Or in the worst case, is he just profoundly rude, insensitive, and harsh? “Help me!” the woman insists. Jesus’ next words seem excessively harsh: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs!”

“Dogs” was a term used for outsiders who encroach upon another’s holy place. It is an insult, a metaphor that sees others not as human beings, but as animals eating leftovers. We have every good reason to be troubled and even scandalized at Jesus’ terrible rudeness to this needy woman.

Jesus left the place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Both Jesus and the woman are outside of their native territories. Both are looking for something, both are in need, both are strangers to the area and to one another. They are different in race, nationality, gender, religion, and probably in politics, economics and spirituality as well. The disciples view her intervention as a problem; they do not wish to be caught up in something that has nothing to do with them or with Jesus.

The Canaanite woman issues a bold challenge: even if Jesus’ mission is initially meant for the Jews,is he nevertheless willing to respond to genuine faith no matter whose faith it is? But then again … who knows what this woman is about…Better safe than sorry; better not throw the message of God’s kingdom to the dogs.

We’re disturbed that Jesus would act this way, but let’s be honest … how often do WE act in this way? We’d rather be safe than sorry ourselves. Most of us have made up our minds about what is important in our lives and who counts in the grand scheme of things (and who doesn’t count). We are diligent in living our faith and church commitment. We stick to our priorities with honourable loyalty and a principled sense of duty. So principled and so loyal are we that nothing can divert us from our goal to serve God. Until someone rattles our cage, like the Canaanite woman does today…

Several years ago my friend Bob was asked by a social worker to become a buddy to a man suffering from AIDS. Bob started to visit Jerry regularly, and the two men, similar in age, became friends. Bob learnt about Jerry’s struggle with his homosexuality, about his failed marriage ending in divorce, and about his feeling ousted and rejected by the church. Yet, despite feeling judged and not wanted, Jerry had maintained an unfailing trust in God. Now, in the final stages of the disease, Jerry had come home to his family to die. Bob contacted the pastor of Jerry’s church to request a reconnecting and a reconciliation.

The pastor was afraid to visit Jerry. Even when he did come, months later, he remained too fearful to make it past the hospital-room door. Meanwhile, Jerry and Bob talked about everything, and prayed about everything. When Bob offered to bring Jerry Holy Communion, Jerry replied: “The church has made it clear that I am not wanted. But thank you anyway.” When Jerry died just after Easter, the pastor came to the funeral…Better safe than sorry…

Sure, Jesus’ mission is intended for God’s chosen people. But who are God’s chosen people? My friend’s experience reflects today’s Gospel. Both accounts hold up the mirror. We see ourselves. We are the disciples who tell Jesus to send the woman away, for she keeps shouting at us. We are the pastor, afraid to enter into relationship with the gay man dying of HIV/AIDS.

The Syro-Phoenician woman calls Jesus Lord, refers to him as master, and humbly says that she, like dogs at the table in the household, will gladly take the leftovers of his mission and power. It is no coincidence that Matthew placed this story right smack between the two miraculous feeding of the multitudes: in the previous chapter 5,000 men, besides women and children were fed and twelve baskets of leftovers were collected. Immediately following this encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman another 4,000 men, besides women and children, are fed and seven baskets of leftovers were collected. Ever wondered what happened with all those leftovers?

While the crowds were adequately provided for, it is the Syro-Phoenician woman who seeks what Jesus’ own people will not accept. And Jesus is astounded at her faith (28). A woman, an outcast, stopped Jesus in his divine tracks and forced him to rethink his whole mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Together they broke down the barriers between them.

Leaving the beaten track to respond to a cry for help always, always upsets routines, goals and priorities. Jesus feels that, and we feel that most of the time. We fear engaging with Canaanite women, with contemporary outcasts. In many parts of Europe – as we saw so brutally in Norway last month – Muslims are the new undesirables. And as the US approaches the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there are already bumper stickers that read: “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.” Really?

When we engage with the least desirable among us, we come face to face with ourselves. How many times, Lord, have we not recognized you because we were too busy with our own private interests and have long ago set limits to whom we love? We can all be outraged when we hear news reports of rioting in England, suicide bombers, or illegal immigrants smuggled onto our Canadian shores. “Punish them, lock them up” “Send them back,” many shout. But our outrage is cheap and hollow. For we are the ones who have everything at the expense of people who are oppressed and exploited. We all help perpetuate the unjust distribution of the earth’s wealth, a wealth given by God to be shared with all people. Is it any surprise that England’s riots are taking place in the poorest of neighbourhoods where the prospects of a decent living are next to nil? With the disciples we say — if not out loud, surely in our hearts — “Tell them to go away, for they keep shouting at us.”

Sure, Jesus’ mission is intended for God’s chosen people. But as Jesus himself discovers, God invites the Canaanite woman, invites the gay man dying of AIDS, invites the smuggled immigrants and all people of good will, to be part of God’s chosen people. Even though we are limited by time and space, God’s love has no limits and accepts no boundaries.

Immediately following this Gospel scene, Jesus crosses over to the other side of the lake and feeds the crowds once again. But now his mission is to the world – to all peoples of the earth and all the lost children of God. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence, Jesus gains new insights into universalism, love and service and extends his mission past his own people, his own religion, his own nation.

Any encounter with and understanding of the Word of God changes us – our way of seeing God, of relating to him and to others. Who knows what will happen to us when we open ourselves up to God and allow his Word to work within us? We will meet strangers and outsiders who interrupt our lives, stop us in our tracks, and force us to ask deeper questions. We may end up, like Jesus, praising the still greater faith in strangers and outsiders.

On this side of death, we are all saved and unsaved, saint and sinner, both at the same time. We all bear the status of “foreigner” in God’s kingdom. We are really not that different from the Canaanite woman, the gay man with HIV/AIDS, the suicide-bomber, the smuggled and suffering illegal immigrants. We may not experience their particular illness, social rejection or utter destitution. But we all know times when we feel rejected, unloved, ignored, denied, attacked and judged. None of us goes through life without collecting the deep scars that sin and evil inflict. Engaging with someone who cries out for justice and healing is always unsettling, will lead us to the scars in our own heart. Only when we let this happen can compassion be born and healing occur. In the end, we all stand together, hungry and thirsty before our God as God’s chosen people. Only then, boundaries and distinctions will fall away.

With the Canaanite woman, we too can lay claim to God’s grace and healing, no matter who we are. We do not have to belong to the right church, nor follow the right rules and obligations. She didn’t, yet great was her faith. Sometimes established religious institutions can become the obstacle instead of the vehicle for the Gospel.

It is that glorious freedom of the Gospel, filled with the boundless grace of God, which makes Jesus exclaim in surprise: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish.” Despite Jesus’ initial reluctance, never once does he rebuke the woman, never does he silence her, and never does he send her away. Instead, Jesus engages her in dialogue. Jesus enters a relationship with her, binding both her and himself in dialogue. God’s inclusiveness has nothing to do with cheap grace without demands or expectations. But it has everything to do with human dignity and the cost of entering into relationship.

In and through Jesus Christ, God entered into relationship with all humanity. For God, there is no turning back, and neither is there for us. Like the Canaanite woman’s faith, our faith in God’s unfailing grace will bring healing and lead us to God. Even if we feel like the dogs under the master’s table, we are still entitled to the scraps which fall from that table.

The courageous heroine of today’s story could not accept the premise that salvation did not include all people. It is she – the woman, the outcast, the despised one – who teaches Jesus that God’s grace and mercy are intended for all who believe regardless of origin or social condition. It is she who proclaims that God’s love knows no bounds. Which outsider in our time is teaching us this same truth?

Standing before God with bold faith, we can indeed claim God’s grace and healing, no matter who we are and no matter what church we belong to, if any. We cannot limit God nor trivialize what God can do. To those of us who hang on to rules and regulations, Jesus says: “Risk dialogue and relationship, leave the beaten track, and be open to find faith in unexpected places.” To those of us who downplay rules and commitment, Jesus says: “Put a face and a name on the one in need, enter into the demands of relationship, for your sake and for the sake of the other.” And to all of us Jesus says: “Always remember both your own need for healing as well as your calling to bring God’s healing to the world.”

And so, the tension in today’s Gospel is not resolved. Rather, we live the tension fully in the day-to-day challenges and encounters. For we are wounded healers, saint and sinner. As wounded healers God calls us in the service of the Gospel. Without limiting God, and without trivializing God’s healing love, we are the hands and feet, and the heart, of Christ. “We” are all God has on this earth.   Amen.