Proper 15 – August 17, 2014
Romans 11: 1-2A, 29-32
The Rev. Deacon Rebecca Goldberg
Whose Community is It?
Imagine the experience of the Canaanite woman. Her daughter is suffering horribly, tormented by a demon. The mother is wracked with grief and fear. Those of you who are parents know the helplessness, the fear, the pain we experience when we can’t do anything for a suffering child. She doesn’t know where to turn, and then she hears that Jesus is in the area. She knows he is blessed of God and has the power to deliver people from all kinds of ills. She gathers her cloak around her and runs through the dusty streets, dodging throngs of people to get to where he is. Now she can see him, so surely he will turn and help her. But then- nothing. He does not look at her or answer. Her heart begins to feel cold. She can see his disciples impatiently tugging at his sleeve, impatient to move on, urging him to just send her away, like she is a nuisance. Then he answers” I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Of course this is a Jewish man, why would he even associate with a foreign woman? Yet, out of love for her daughter and implicit faith in Jesus, she kneels before him, and implores,’Lord, help me.” How can he not be moved by her plight and her faith? Yet then he tells her that it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. How her hope for help must have been dashed then! Yet somehow she refuses to be denied and with nothing left to lose, she says, yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” What stubborn irrepressible faith! This gets Jesus’ attention and he marvels at her faith and assures her of her daughter’s healing. What joy she must have known as she flew back home to gather her restored daughter in her arms!
What a rich story! There is disappointment, despair, hope, faith, crossing of boundaries of gender and religion, a glimpse of a radical new vision of community. I admit that on my first reading of this story, I was angry at Jesus and horrified at what he said to her, even though her daughter was healed in the end. I thought he insulted her. Was Jesus acting out of character or is there more going on here? Again, it helps to look at the context in which the story was told.
At the time this Gospel was written, Matthew’s community was trying to find its identity as a church that was made up of both Jewish and non-Jewish believers. There was disagreement over whether the mission of the followers of Jesus was to preach the good news primarily to the people of Israel or whether incorporation into the community of faith should be open to all, Jew and Gentile alike. The Gospel writer suggests that Jesus himself, in his humanity, grew in his understanding of his mission and came to proclaim the, reign of God as a beloved community in which all were welcome. Rather than looking at Jesus’ words to the woman as a report of an eyewitness account, it is perhaps more helpful to understand this encounter as a reflection of the young church’s struggle to grow into the call to break down divisions and unite people in Christ, and of the triumph of grace and faith over narrow taboos and tribal divisions.
The second thing that strikes me about this story is the deep, personal, and bold faith of the Canaanite woman. We don’t know if she had ever actually seen Jesus before, or heard him speak, but she had certainly heard of his reputation and it seems that she had faith in him as the Holy One of God. She doesn’t merely say, “I need you to heal my daughter.” She falls down on her knees before him and calls him Lord. She didn’t believe he could heal her daughter because he was a great teacher, or even because of the signs and miracles that were attributed to him, but because of an inner knowing, an assurance, a hope that in him life and abundance were to be found. Her faith was extravagant, wholehearted, and risked everything. Even when Jesus seems to reject her plea to heal, she still follows her heart and claims that even the crumbs that fall from the table are full of the abundance of God. This is the type of faith that Jesus praised throughout all four Gospels, and it is in stark contrast to that of the disciples, who at times were too busy jockeying for position or trying to “manage” Jesus’mission to really understand what he was all about.
Have you known people with faith like this woman? The record of Scripture is full of them. We have Mary’s beautiful surrender to God’s will in her words ‘Let it be to me according to your word.” Simeon praises God that his eyes have finally seen the Savior. The woman with the issue of blood strains to touch Jesus’ garment, knowing she will be healed. People of tremendous faith have encouraged and built up the Body of Christ through the ages. I have known saints of faith, ordinary folks. I remember my mother, who despite battling failing health and grieving the loss of my father, encouraged and nurtured me as I began to discern a call to ordained ministry. I am reminded of a friend, Diane, on the vestry of my former parish who suffered from a very painful form of stomach cancer. In the midst of this, she continued to serve the parish to laugh, to love, and minister to others until the very end of her life. Ordinary folks, extraordinary faith, the saints of God. I’m sure you can tell your own stories of people of faith who have touched you.
Finally, this story holds up a glimpse of what living in community in the kingdom of God is supposed to be like. We are called to be the Body of Christ, a community of forgiven sinners where loving, supporting and encouraging each other in our life in the Spirit overcomes all boundaries. We are called to move beyond tribalism, beyond caring primarily for those in our own family groupings, our own culture, and to seek unity and reconciliation freely with all people. Though Jesus initially seems reluctant to cross ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries in this story, in the end, he does, and in fact his entire ministry is dedicated to breaking down barriers that come between people and God and to build a spirit of shalom among the nations. He moves as comfortably among sinners and tax collectors as he does among religious leaders and people in the synagogue. He embraces children and treats women with dignity and respect. Everywhere he goes, he lives out the vision of life in the reign of God, where all people are welcomed to the table of feasting and fellowship. St. Paul got this vision when he wrote in the letter to the Galatians that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” St. Francis got caught up in this vision when he embraced lepers, turned away from the Crusades and instead sought to build a bridge of reconciliation and understanding between Christians and Muslims. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated this hope of communion and fellowship when he spoke of a time when the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” In a troubled world where the currency is often distrust and hostility, the church of Jesus Christ is called to break down barriers and sow seeds of reconciliation between people everywhere.
Are we living out this radical hospitality of the Kingdom of God here at Holy Child St. Martin? Are we seeking to live more and more as a beloved community of people who try to live in peace and reconciliation with all? Are we moving beyond the comfortable bounds of tribalism to widen the circle to include all kinds of people, the rich, the poor, the homeless, the hungry, people of every color and nationality, and creed, and sexual orientation? It is not easy to be church in this way. There will be growing pains. We may run up against some rough edges. There can be conflict. It is not comfortable. It will be messy, chaotic, and also wonderful! I know for me, it is easier to worship in a familiar environment with people who look like me, think like me, and share the same social status But God is calling me, and us, to something better, something higher. God is calling us to live in authentic community with all kinds of people. That, you see, is how God opens our hearts and teaches us to love, to really “see” people and appreciate them as children of God.
This opening ourselves to all kinds of people reminds me of a story that saddens me. The daughter of a friend of mine was telling me that she had recently stopped going to church. This young woman has been going through problems with substance abuse, she lost a job, and made some bad choices. She is seeking restoration in her life now. She told me why she stopped going to her neighborhood church. She said she felt judged, and she didn’t feel comfortable going there unless she “had her act together”, because she felt she wouldn’t be welcome. She said she didn’t feel safe being there when things were falling part, as they wouldn’t understand. How sad. What is the church for if it is not a safe place to be loved at your best and your worst?
I am convinced that we are not called to invite people into our church to change or “fix” them. I will say that again. We are not called to invite people to church to change them, but that together we will be transformed by God’s grace and that together we will support each other as we all grow into the full stature of Christ. The church is not an exclusive club to which others can gain admission if they believe the right things or behave in the right ways. It is a living Body of the followers of Christ who are connected to each other by the love of the Crucified one and who seek to be his compassionate heart, voice and hands in the world. That is our mission, to be the heart, voice, and hands of Christ in the world! May we all live out the grace and hospitality of Jesus in our liturgy, in our workplaces, and in the world that God loves so dearly. Amen.