Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Tyre and Sidon—Matthew 15:21-28

Proper 15 [20] A
August 17, 2014
A Worship Service by Daniel Schlorff
Sermon: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Tyre and Sidon”—Matthew 15:21-28
For First Congregational Church of Greenwich, CT

Click here for Audio File

I usually don’t like it when preachers give disclaimers before their sermons.
Well, today I’m beginning with a disclaimer.
This disclaimer is important, though.
What you’re about to hear is Biblical:
I’ve worked out the Greek manuscript.
I’ve checked the commentaries.
And I’ve prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
What you’re about to hear will be difficult accept, I think.
Often, preachers shy away from this material.
But I think there’s a deep lesson here that can be life-changing if we let it impact us.
What you’re about to hear may surprise you, as it surprised me when I first understood what was really happening.
There are no stories, no parables, no embellishments. Just an exploration of Matthew, Chapter 15.
I ask that you suspend your judgment for 15 minutes, and go along on this journey. I think you will have a deeper faith at the end of this sermon if you do.

Won’t you pray with me?

Spirit of God, who approaches us as foreigner and becomes an intimate friend… Heal us.
As we grapple with the humanness of Jesus, this day, help us also to see “the Christ,” who risked it all // so that we might be touched by the hand of the divine. Amen.

Sometimes, we can be so task-oriented that we lose sight of mission.
Sometimes, our humanness gets in the way of being like Christ… or “Christian.”
Sometimes, the values we uphold are challenged by rules and laws and traditions designed to exclude rather that include.
Even Jesus faced these challenges.
As we open up Matthew, Chapter 15, we learn that Jesus had an itinerary, and gosh darn it, He was going to stick to it.
After meeting the needs of one Jewish community in Genneseret (on the Sea of Galilee),
He and his Disciples will skip over the Canaanites, who live in the mountains of Phonecia…
Then minister to another needy Jewish community farther away in Tyre and Sidon.
You have heard stories about the miracles accomplished on these sorts of trips:
He fed 5,000 families with just a little bit of food.
He walked on water to catch up with the disciples.
He comforted and healed the multitudes who came to hear or touch him.
Jesus had been giving and giving and giving—doing good, putting out little fires, grieving over the loss of his cousin…
// Then comes along this Canaanite woman. //
When he encounters this Canaanite woman, Jesus’ humanness takes over.
We have to remember that the Gospel of Matthew is kinda like the C.S. Lewis of the gospel writers. He’s out to prove that Jesus is without a doubt the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
Well, the first verses of this passage is anything but… In fact,
We see such a human Jesus // that we wonder how he will redeem his divinity.
Verse 22—Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
So there they are, the woman and her daughter, Jesus, and the disciples.
Verse 23—But he did not answer her at all.
Did he not see this this Canaanite woman…?
Jesus made the wrong choice. He chose the Law, not grace.
Pharisees simply did not consort with Canaanites.
After doing so much good for so many people, Jesus ignored his earth-bound duty for this woman and her daughter.
He did not act according to his highest ideals.
“The Healer” fully intended to ditch this woman.
He is like a bad Samaritan, or the inverse of almost any of his parables.

But, he had to obey the Law, didn’t he?
His actions were certainly justifiable by Judaic law.
He was supposed to walk-by.
o Doing otherwise might render him ceremonially unclean, or an abomination according to Leviticus.
Very humanly, Jesus treats the Canaanite woman with the same kind of hostility that the Teachers of the law showed Jesus.
o first by not responding,
o then by pointing out that her culture was inferior to his,
o then by likening her to a dog.
// Wow, this inclusion thing must be really hard work if Jesus struggled with it!
/ So, what is this nearly-blasphemous passage telling us today?
That Jesus was not always kind?
// Christ-like.

To tell you the truth, when I started digging into this scripture and understanding what was really happening here, I became very angry at Jesus.

Everyone knows about Jesus struggling with the will of God the Father when he prayed in Gethsemane.
We even romanticize how wonderful it is / that Jesus chose to die and offer a blood sacrifice as required by Law for the atonement of all sin.
This passage in Matthew, however… We don’t really celebrate it.
In fact, we like to pretend Jesus was really being coy—
o hoping that he was trying to entice the woman to ratchet up her commitment,
o all the time fully intending to heal her daughter.
But, no. That is not Matthew’s account of what happened.

Matthew’s account depicts a Jesus who
ignores human need,
then dishes out prejudice,
then dehumanizes her by likening her to a domesticated—and probably incontinent—dog.
o Jews, by the way, did not have dogs, so this was also a cultural and racial (if not classist) remark.
// And he meant to do these things to her.
Even before the hand washing incident,
Jesus was already harshly criticized by the Teachers of the law and Scribes for associating with such a rag-tag group of Jews.
o Among his Disciples included a tax collector, stinky fishermen, a mamma’s boy, the list goes on—
o However, associating with unclean Jews would be more acceptable // than consorting with a Canaanite.
If Jesus even dared strike up a conversation with a woman, or a Gentile, or someone of lower status alone in the streets, or someone who said they had a demon-possessed child—he would lose any remaining credibility he had with his community.
Jesus encountered all of those restrictions in this one person, and he had a choice to make.

If Jesus chose to associate with this woman,
He would upset the social order for Jews, Canaanites, Romans… everyone in the region.
It might even be a reason for the all the people of the region to demand the death of Jesus.
The will of one person was good enough reason for the beheading of John the Baptist.
The upheaval of social order would certainly be just cause in the first century / for the execution of an insurrectionist.
Jesus counted the cost before he took any heroic action.

And herein lies the Gospel:
It was indeed extremely difficult for Jesus to transgress those boundaries toward inclusion // // // but he did it.

Verse 27—She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Verse 28—Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Jesus hesitated at first, but then he broke hundreds of years of tradition by speaking to a Canaanite—a person of the race of Delilah.
And he did something else that was unacceptable: he spoke to a woman, on her own, in broad daylight.
And he did something else: he addressed her using a word reserved for the highest honored, most distinguished women.
And he did something else… that was completely and utterly impure: he, being a Rabbi, said to this non-Jew, “Great is your faith.”
o the opposite of what he told Peter when he was frightened by the waves and sank into the water.

I hate to give away the ending, but many of us already know what followed.
A week or so following this incident…
Jesus continued the social upheaval by overturning the tables in the Temple.
His disciples abandoned him.
His intimate friend Judas betrayed him.
His most fierce defender, Peter, denied even knowing Jesus.
The Roman authorities and all people of the land hand-picked Jesus as being the social problem du jure, yelling, “Crucify him.”
Jesus is made foreigner. His boundless, sacrificial love seals his fate.
Jesus, in his reluctance to serve someone different than him, demonstrates how hard it truly is for us to live out our call
Are we loving?
Do we reach out to the people right in front of us—those Canaanites of society that we’re not supposed to love.
Maybe… even religious teachers have told us not to love certain people.
Or to judge other people.
But we are an Open and Affirming refuge to lesbians, gay men, bi and trans Christians who undoubtedly bear the mark of spiritual brokenness inflicted on them by their parents for being gay, and their friends for being Christian
We are a theologically inclusive church that, since its founding, has encouraged the free and responsible search for truth and meaning—which is heresy to people who are not a part of the UCC.
And Jesus might say, “Great is your faith!”

Theology need not stand in the way of our call to live in the manner of the crucified Jesus.
I encourage us to press forward, to cast new visions, and to dream new dreams.

On the other hand: Not only was it difficult for Jesus to associate with a female of a different race, culture, and creed. We must remember that she had to make the same compromises… to seek out Jesus.
Canaanites weren’t too keen on Jews, either. In fact, they hated each other. It was a lot like the Palestinians and Israelis.
If a rivalry had continued for hundreds of years, and you’re a Canaanite, then the last place you would want to turn for help… would be among Jews—who are foreigners that might be carrying weapons.
And so the other side of the Gospel—the Good News—is this:
It was probably very difficult for the woman to lower herself enough (in her mind) to associate with this Semitic man—or stop him on the side of the road
o Especially when the other Semitic men travelling with him were criticizing her.
What an awful position that put her in.
And culturally, for her to associate with men made her appear a “loose woman.”
Yet she needed help for her daughter.
o She had heard about this Jesus.
o And somehow, this woman was moved to break her own social conventions to seek the touch of Jesus.
And she called him Lord!
And she recognized him as a descendant of King David!

This Canaanite is one of the first Gentiles to come to Jesus;
In order to do so, she had to count the cost.
She had to become an outcast in her own society by going out in broad daylight and associate with 13 foreign men—Jesus and his Disciples.
She had to put the health of her daughter above her own pride.
o But I’m left with some questions:
Did the people of her town cast her out?
Did she start following Jesus along with the Disciples?
Did she have a husband, and was he jealous that she talked with men on the street?
If her husband was jealous, was she stoned to death? //
We do not know for certain, but it is important to note that all of these are possible outcomes for this woman.
Even before the curtain was torn on Good Friday, she becomes one of the first gentiles grafted to the tree of David—because of her risk.
What faith!
What sacrifice! //

This story invites readers to place themselves in the role of the Canaanite / and ultimately see “great faith” surrounding us.

I wonder if it is difficult for lesbian, gay, bi and trans individuals to enter the doors of this church, even though we boldly profess that we are an Open and Affirming congregation. What great faith they have in entering any church!

AND WE ARE CALLED TO LOVE ALL WOUNDED and HOLY CHILDREN OF GOD—these perfect creations of the divine will.
We are called to travel from Genesseret to Tyre and Sidon and to associate with everyone we meet along the way, outside these church walls.
That is our earth-bound duty.

I hope we make it easy for people to feel welcome here, and to graft onto the branch of our church / other under-represented groups and races that seek spiritual refuge here.
Families without access to necessities, such as housing and healthcare…
Single parents
People who struggle with addictions
The elderly and others with unreliable transportation
Rehabilitated ex-cons
People who cannot climb stairs
People who cannot read, or see, or hear
People who love to garden
People who enjoy life and have no complaints.
What great faith they have to come here and stay here!
We respond in the manner of Jesus:
Notice that Jesus had to travel from place to place in order to reach the unreachable people.
That is our earth-bound duty, and I call us to renew this covenant… everyday… as a lifestyle.

It will always be difficult to choose to walk in God’s way. Difficult for us // and certainly confusing for those who are not here yet.
As it is written in Isaiah:
“Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
For soon my salvation will come,
And my deliverance be revealed.”

Friends, now we know in part, but then, we shall know in full: the grace, which God is giving to us presently.

Isaiah continues:
“Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others… to them… besides those already gathered.”

What dreams or hopes do you have for your personal ministry?
How are you following the self-sacrificing, meaning-making leadership of Jesus?
What dreams or hopes do we have for our church’s ministry?
And what are we willing to surrender to God—that God might continue this extraordinary work?