A Sermon for 20 August 2017
A reading from the gospel of Matthew 15:10-28. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Then Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13Jesus answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” 21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just 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.” 23But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Fifteen years ago, right after the beginning of the 21st Century, Charles Campbell – then preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary and now at Duke Divinity School – wrote these words: “The church is called intentionally and habitually to move out of the places of security and comfort into those ‘unclean’ places where Jesus suffers ‘outside the gate of the sacred compounds,’ whether those compounds are shaped by religion or class or race or culture. . . . Through dislocation, privileged Christians cross the boundaries that keep the privileged and oppressed apart and take a first step toward solidarity . . . which, in a consumer culture, is one way of radically contesting the Domination System” (Charles L. Campbell, The Word before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching, WJKP, 2002). . . . “The church,” he urged, “intentionally and habitually” is to move outside. Beyond itself. Beyond the gates of safety in the land of the known. Outside to where we will encounter the outsider. Not just for their benefit, but for the mutual benefit of us all.
What happens when we venture forth outside – outside the familiarity of our typical circle? Outside the comfort of being among people whom we perceive to be like us? Outside – beyond the boundaries we tend to keep between ourselves and those who are unknown? . . .
Look what happened with Jesus. . . . Before us today is a timely text. Religious leaders come from Jerusalem to Jesus in Galilee. They’re concerned he’s letting his disciples break the traditions of their elders. Stepping outside the norms of their people as they fail to wash their hands before they eat. Whether their violation has to do with the act of washing hands before the weekly Sabbath meal, or unclean hands passing out bread and fish to 5,000 men plus women and children at Tabgha; it’s clear. Tension is building over who does what to show all they are insiders and who does not.
I realize hand washing may seem minute to us today, but the traditions of the elders of Jesus’ people were in place for good reason. Such rituals were practiced as a part of their culture – the acts that defined them as a people, which was especially important to them when not everyone living around the land was Jewish. Beside them now were gentiles of Rome, soldiers and supporters who were not of their own kind. We know there were Samaritans smack dab between Galilee and Jerusalem with whom ancient feuds festered. And, as we learn in the story of Matthew before us today, not far from their beloved land still lived Canaanites, the original folks dwelling in the land whom their ancestors had driven out.
It’s interesting that the gospel of Matthew describes the woman Jesus soon will encounter as a Canaanite, whereas the gospel of Mark refers to the same woman as a Syrophoenician (Mark 7:26). You might remember that when God promised the land west of the Jordan River to the Israelites who had been forty years in the wilderness, the people were afraid. The spies of Israel came back to tell Moses and the people that the land of Canaan was abundant in luscious fruit. But the inhabitants of the land were fierce, large people. Not one Israelite had courage enough to enter the land of Canaan because they felt like insignificant “grasshoppers” next to such strong inhabitants (Numbers 13:23-33). Listeners to Matthew’s telling of the story likely were aware this son of the great King David would be up against a giant as fierce as the one David was up against in Goliath. A Canaanite woman who was not about to back down was coming after Jesus. Likely the encounter would not be easy – not even for our Lord.
He went their anyway. Intentionally. He dislocated himself and his disciples out of the safety of their known land of Galilee to Tyre and Sidon, where non-Israelites lived. Roman port cities on the eastern Mediterranean in Jesus’ day, Jesus may have known of the great spiritual hunger in the people of that land. According to the gospel of Mark (3:8) and the gospel of Luke (6:17); early in his ministry, people from Tyre and Sidon came to Jesus for healing. Traveling now to them, seemingly intentionally after friction between him and Jerusalem’s religious leaders; it could not have been possible that Jesus believed he’d go unnoticed. . . . Silence is his first response to the fierce mother calling out for her daughter’s life. His disciples definitely do not want to get involved. It’s hard to reconcile the racially charged exchanges here in this story. Though he’s intentionally traveled outside, Jesus tells his disciples he’s been sent only for those lost in the house of Israel (Mt. 15:24). Was he trying to set up a powerful object lesson for his listeners? Or was Jesus really not yet clear that there was food enough for those outside of their own house as well? The text never really clarifies. What we do learn is that encounter matters. When that momma, whose daughter has been tormented, throws herself at Jesus’ feet, her request cannot be denied. When she will not allow her need to go unnoticed, Jesus sees past any outward appearance into a heart that firmly trusts that grace is big enough to include her too. It is as if the encounter leaves all understanding that something deeper binds us. Pain is pain. Tears are tears. Furious mother love is furious mother love whoever you are. No matter the language you speak. The race with which you identify. Or the land from where you come. Something deeper binds us one to another. O for a world in which we all finally would see.
In a meditation taken from A New Way of Seeing, A New Way of Being: Jesus and Paul, Richard Rohr writes: “It is an openness to the other – as other – that frees us . . . It is always an encounter with otherness that changes me. If I am not open to the beyond-me, I’m in trouble. Without the other, we are all trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews. When there is the encounter with the other, when there is mutuality, when there is presence, when there is giving and receiving, and both are changed in that encounter; that is the moment when you can begin to move toward transformation . . . – to ‘change forms.’ When you allow other people or events to change you, you look back at life with new and different eyes. That is the only real meaning of human growth.” Rohr goes on by writing: “One could say that the central theme of the biblical revelation is to call people to encounters with otherness: the alien, the sinner, the Samaritan, the Gentile, the hidden and denied self, angels unaware. And all of these are perhaps in preparation and training for hopeful meetings with the Absolute Other (with God). We need practice in moving outside of our comfort zones. It is never a natural or easy response” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: “Intimate with Otherness;” from Center for Action & Contemplation; 14 August 2014).
It certainly doesn’t seem an easy encounter for Jesus and his disciples. It won’t always be for us either. And yet we go. We dis-locate ourselves outside ourselves to encounter whoever we might meet. We go, trusting the Absolute Other to bless us all.
In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2017 (all rights reserved.)