Matthew 15: 10-28
“Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
The Gospel lesson this morning starts out just a bit cryptic what with all that talk of what defiles a person. And yet, it seems to fit right now what with all the talk about who was right and who wrong in Charlottesville last week. In asking us to really think about what it means to live as though we value all of God’s human creation that moment in our history calls us to reassess our priorities. We are reminded how easy it is to put human tradition ahead of God’s call to us. For those of Jesus’ day it was those traditions of ritual purity. For us it’s that issue of who is welcome and who is not. Jesus reminds us that when we push others away we are acting in ways that negate God’s presence. We are challenged with the notion of what it means to offer God’s presence if we understand ourselves to be followers of Christ. But what about that story of the Canaanite woman and her interactions with Jesus? How does that fit? Let’s look at the action of the story. It begins with the woman shouting, pleading that Jesus have mercy enough to heal her daughter. And her story is a heart breaking one indeed. What happens? First Jesus just ignores that Canaanite woman. Then the disciples ask him to run her off. Next Jesus explains that she is not entitled to his healing services. She is of less worth than a dog. Now, on one hand, it helps to know a little bit about the cultural realities of Jesus’ day. Jews simply didn’t associate with Gentiles. They were considered to be “unclean”. Further, Jesus had been interrupted, again and again, by all the people seeking healing and by the religious authorities who challenged his interpretations of the Law. He was still trying to get away into a relatively deserted region when he met up with this Canaanite woman. To interact with her would mean pausing yet again to complete the purity rituals. I don’t recall another time when Jesus seems so impatient, even rude. On the surface, the story doesn’t show Jesus in the best light, does it? I want to suggest another way of seeing the story. Maybe in this uncomfortable story, where we seem to see Jesus at something less than what we like to think is his best, we really are catching him at his very best, experiencing a kind of AHA moment, a burst of realization and growth. By now Jesus has been doubted and questioned by many. And still everywhere he turns he finds need and more need, people crying out to him, begging for his help, but, at the same time, blind to who he really is. Then he meets this persistent Canaanite woman. He is pretty clear in saying he has nothing to offer the likes of her but she names him: “Lord, Son of David”. She is a pagan, someone he has been taught to avoid all his life, and yet, she of all people, recognizes him for who he is. And her faith allows Jesus to see something new in himself. Here is the thing that is most wonderful to me in this story. We see a critical change in Jesus and in his understanding of his own mission. In the midst of his verbal duel with this woman Jesus suddenly realizes, he is not just a Messiah for the lost sheep of Israel, he is more. He is the Messiah for the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus expands his own boundaries to include this new vision of himself. Then he reaches out beyond those categories of clean and unclean, of who’s in and who’s out, to draw in this foreign woman, an outcast by all reasonable standards. And, in that moment of new understanding he offers God’s healing, God’s acceptance, God’s welcome to her. He offers God’s presence. It’s a powerful thing to see Jesus growing into the person God called him to be. But doesn’t it also offer a challenge to us as well? Have you ever struggled to make some change in yourself? I can testify that it is not an easy process. Minor changes in behavior, say how we exercise or the kinds of things we eat are hard. Changes in our view of ourselves and who we are in the world are more difficult. Changes in our view of other people, in how we approach others, in who we trust and admit into our circle of friends are the most difficult of all. Usually we resist opening ourselves. We resist becoming vulnerable It is easier, and more natural, to simply exclude those that we regard as different, strangers. Do we make outcasts of others because we fear what might happen? Do we fear losing something important to us or simply losing control? Those are powerful fears for most of us. I wonder what it felt like for Jesus when he saw that there was no more controlling his ministry? When he found himself opening his arms to embrace the whole world? Jesus saw that he was called to something much bigger than what he had envisioned for himself. Don’t we hear the same challenging message throughout scripture that Jesus heard? God continually seems to call us to outgrow our own self-restricting boundaries, to be open to lost causes, to include even those people we regard as outcasts. And surely there is someone or some group we each consider as outcast. Who is it for you? As always, I am pushed to ask; How do we need to change in order to stay faithful to our baptismal calling? Is there some way in which our attitudes or prejudices have limited how we make Christ’s presence known in our world? Being human it is so easy to limit ourselves through fear. This gospel challenges that self-limitation. Certainly we can hear that when we are called by God we are always being drawn into new territory. The Gospel points to change that makes a noticeable difference, the difference between pulling protectively back from others, rehearsing all the reasons we cannot change and putting ourselves in the path of strangers, extending a hand in welcome, trying new things and changing our minds. That is painful sometimes of course, and maybe we will lose life as we have known it. At the same time though don’t we also already know the great blessing of God’s mercy? After all, it is because Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah for the whole world and opened his arms on the cross for us that we now live within that guarantee of new life in Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.