From Anguish to Alleluia!

August 17, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

Proper 15 – RCL Year A
Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Mt 15:21-28)

I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been overwhelmed by the onslaught of tragic stories in the news. For the last several months there has been an increase of unrest, or at least that’s the way it feels. At first this seemed to be concentrated in the usual areas far away – the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Ukraine to name a few.

We’ve been hearing more and more about about the escalating attacks and death-counts in Gaza. Then, on July 17th we were stunned to learn that a commercial jetliner had been shot down over Ukraine, killing almost three hundred innocent victims. And all the while the Ebola virus has been spreading deeper and deeper across West Africa.

Immigration protesters on both sides of the debate staged rallies at a California Border Patrol station last week, in response to the child migrant crisis. Photo: Sandy Huffaker /Getty

And lest we think all the hardships are in far-off lands, we have our own issues to deal with. There are constant reminders of the young children seeking refuge in the U.S., fleeing their homeland due to violence and danger. This crisis has been met with mixed feelings and angry voices on both sides of the issue. Add to that the random shootings in offices and shopping malls, not to mention the endless bickering of a divided Congress, where finger-pointing rules the day.

Finding myself completely overwhelmed by this endless barrage of turmoil, and not knowing what to make of it all, I decided to take a break from the news media for a few days. In today’s hyper-technology atmosphere, that isn’t an easy thing to do, but I tried, nonetheless.

So last weekend I looked at Facebook and Twitter less, and picked up a book instead. And on Saturday afternoon, Alice and I even made time to go see an “escape and relax” kind of movie: “The One-Hundred Foot Journey.” It was a much needed break, but short-lived, to say the least.

Justice For Michael Brown(Photo : Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Justice For Michael Brown(Photo : Scott Olson/Getty Images)

By Monday morning I started hearing about riots on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, just north of St. Louis. During my brief news-hiatus I had missed reports from the Friday before telling us that a police officer had shot an unarmed, college-bound, black man named Michael Brown. Seeing the turmoil and outrage this caused, it was deflating and frustrating. To think, 50 years after the civil rights marches of the 1960’s, there remains a pervading fear of otherness, dictated by the color of one’s skin. One can’t deny that we are treated differently based on this simple genetic difference. It makes me sad, angry and confused about what to do.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough to grapple with, on Monday night, Facebook lit up with the news of the death of genius actor and comedian Robin Williams. Here was a successful man – someone who was gifted beyond words; able to make people laugh and even cry through the characters he played. And even in real life, the personal stories told about him revealed his gift for making others feel like they were the most important person in the room. It seems he had a very generous spirit.

robin_williams_r620x349

Actor Robin Williams. — EFE/Archivo

Yet, in the days that followed his death, we learned that this man, who battled drug addiction during his life, was actually sober when he died. Yet, his other demon was that of depression.

This was his life-threatening condition, and for reasons we can’t understand, Robin Williams was overcome by the effects of this condition and it cost him his life. Depression affects so many people, yet it’s still such a mystery, and continues to be stigmatized, so much so that it often goes undiagnosed or untreated. That, also, saddens and concerns me.

An in the midst of all this bombardment of tragedy and conflict from the outside world, we have our own lives to live. The stresses of work; rearranging the household routine at the start of a new school year; strained family relationships that can creep in. Or, some of you may be dealing with the anticipation of the void that comes when your teen heads off to college for the first time. For others, you may have feelings of inadequacy because your life doesn’t look like you thought it would – or it doesn’t match the image the advertisers’ paint of the “perfect life.”

Let me assure you, there’s no such thing as a “perfect life.” Not in our human state, at least. And I contend, at the risk of making folks a little uncomfortable, that if we are going to affirm that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, the human side of Jesus would have faced imperfect moments, too.

Now, for those who were in the class on John’s Gospel last Spring, we talked about how John’s gospel shows a very real Jesus – someone who wept; who got tired; who became frustrated. Well, in a different way, perhaps we see a human side of Jesus from Matthew as well – particularly in today’s reading.

The reading begins by telling us that Jesus is getting away from it all. He’s been walking around the countryside teaching in parables; he fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish; he’s done the walking-on-water thing, and now, he’s ready to rest – to get away for some R&R.

We are told that he goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is north of Galilee. It isn’t his “home turf” so perhaps he was hoping for a little break. Surely the people there wouldn’t be looking for him. He could go undetected for a little while. Relax a bit with his disciples, his bros.

Then all of the sudden, this Canaanite woman starts following them. She’s shouting to Jesus, “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” We aren’t told how she knows who Jesus is, but as a Canaanite, we know that her beliefs are different than the Jewish people – and historic enemy, no less. And as a woman, her presence among men, especially a rabbi, would have been improper.

We are told that Jesus doesn’t answer her AT ALL – so, he just ignores her. That’s a pretty human trait. Act like she’s not there! Maybe she’ll go away.

The disciples urge Jesus to send the woman away. This isn’t new. Remember they did the same thing when it was getting late and there wasn’t food for the crowds of people. So the disciples encouraged Jesus to send them away. But, in that story, Jesus turned to the disciples and told them to get some food for the people. This time we see a very different response.

Jesus says, presumably to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So, although Jesus is now talking to the woman, he says in effect, “I’ve got nothing for you, you aren’t the right kind of person, so I can’t help you.” That’s pretty human behavior, too.

Yet, the woman persists. She goes so far as to get on her knees and plead with Jesus, saying, “Lord, help me!” And Jesus responds once again in a very human way, by belittling this woman. He asks her if it’s fair that the food that belongs to the children should instead by thrown to the dogs. In effect saying, this gift of healing is reserved for God’s chosen people of Israel, not for her.

Jesus has tried to ignore the woman, then deflects her request, and now insults, even persecutes her. This definitely doesn’t sound like the Jesus we’re used to, does it? We like hearing about the healing and compassionate Jesus; the Divine Jesus. This Jesus is way too human for me; way too much like I can be when I’m not at my best.

But the woman doesn’t care about these rebuffs. She’s distressed about her daughter who’s suffering, and she’s willing to try anything, even claiming the lowly position of a dog, if that’s what it takes, arguing that even dogs gather the crumbs under the master’s table.

324With these words, she is not claiming worthiness or entitlement. Instead, she is making herself fully vulnerable, borne out of a place of desperate need. She sees something in Jesus that assures her that he has the power to intercede on her behalf and heal her daughter. And in this vulnerable state, GOD breaks in!

God does not care about the background of this woman. God does not care that she is not one of the lost sheep of Israel. God is love and God shows mercy. And through the empowerment of the fully divine Jesus, God heals the woman’s daughter.

It is the overpowering love of God that compels Jesus to do what seems to be an “about-face” regarding this woman. Now, instead of insults, Jesus affirms the woman’s strong and persistent faith, and then he tells her that God has acted on her behalf and her daughter is healed.

And, while it’s a relief that the story ended well for the woman, and her daughter, it’s still a story to grapple with. Matthew’s gospel is filled with parables, and this story, in some ways, has very parable-like qualities. Like many of Matthew’s parables, it may actually be provided to convey something that is actually happening in the life of this early Christian community.

As the disciples and followers of Jesus, they must begin to enter into new territories themselves, no longer preaching only to the lost sheep of Israel, but venturing out to regions beyond their comfort zone; beyond their home-turf. Our human nature may cause us to ignore those who are different than us. To decide who is and isn’t worthy of hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, or to receive the healing love and mercy of God. We may even insult or persecute those who we think are “lesser-than” or unworthy. The disciples and all followers of Jesus must resist these all-too-human tendencies and be transformed.

We must actually be like the woman in the story, instead. When those who spread the good news are ignored, deflected and persecuted, we must remain steadfast and persistent. We are to the sow the seeds of God’s message everywhere and trust that God’s love will break through in the end.

We must remember that God’s love is available to ALL people. We are all God’s children – no matter what we believe; the color of our skin; the language we speak; how we dress; who we love – we are ALL children of God, made if God’s image.

And, as Christians, we assert in our Baptismal vows that:

  • We will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
  • We will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self
  • And we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

While that may seem like a lot to ask, we are not expected to do it alone. God is with us. God loves us and empowers us to do these things.

And even on those days when we aren’t feeling too divine, when we are overwhelmed by the worries and struggles of our time, even when our personal, all-too-real demons plague us, cling to this truth:

That NOTHING can separate you from the love of God.

Photo: Jody Greenwood

Photo: Jody Greenwood

 

 

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