A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor
on Sunday, August 17, 2014
Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
With two boys in our house, we have had a variety of family pets. Our golden retriever, Hercules, was so big and lovable that he was more popular than I could ever hope to be. He was not particular in the least. All living creatures: dogs, cats, lizards, moles, chipmunks and squirrels were on the receiving end of his genuine interest. No matter who you were, Hercules wanted to love you. He wanted to sniff you. He wanted to lick you. And regardless of his 120 pounds, he wanted to sit in your lap. But the day came when the Vet told us that his pancreas had torqued. There was nothing that could be done, and Hercules died. Heart broken, we stood beside his final resting place in our back yard to tell stories about Hercules. When it came to four year old Dannelly’s turn, the best he could muster was, “He was a dog.”
The contractor who renovated our home, discovered the container with Hercules’ ashes in it, and not knowing what it was, he put it in the back of his pick-up truck. After several weeks of driving around town, he thought to ask if its contents were important. When I told him that what he had was our dog’s cremains, he simply said, “He’s probably had a pretty good time riding around back there in my truck!” And then he carefully put the container back.
We distracted the boys with turtles and a multitude of hermit crabs over the next several years. But one Mother’s Day, with the determination that only red heads possess, Dannelly proceeded to announce that I was getting a puppy. And so we brought home some sort of terrier, Chihuahua, billy goat mix-up and named her Cleopatra. She immediately lived up to her name and established rule in our home. To this day, she sits enthroned on the back of our sofa in order to look out the kitchen window. Should anyone walk down the street, she goes into protection mode barking wildly, knocking off sofa pillows, and turning all the rugs askew. There are fireplace screens in several doorways to keep her out of the dining room which happens to be her favorite depository, if you know what I mean. If she is not ready to go outside (even though I am late for work), she will hide under our bed and refuse to come out.
While I am often frustrated by her behavior, Cleo does have some endearing qualities. I have caught her sitting in the hallway outside of the boys’ empty bedrooms. She looks from one to the other and then lays down in quiet resignation that her buddies are no longer in the house. And when Lloyd and I sit down for dinner, she hops into the chair normally occupied by David, to rest her head on the table while we talk about our day. So whether at the dinner table, under the bed or buried in the sofa cushions, I have started to allow Cleopatra the freedom to choose whatever space suits her at any given moment, rather than forcing her into particular places based on my preference, comfort or convenience.
Somehow I think that this is what church is supposed to be like, i.e., a place for anybody who needs one. I worry that the church is better at making others conform to a list of requirements rather than adapting space to meet individual spiritual need. Too often the church practices, “No shirt, no shoes, no spirituality.” When we are on the receiving end of this practice, it feels a little like living in the “which one doesn’t belong” portion of a kindergarten workbook. Given a picture of a pear, an apple, a banana, and a goat, which one are you sometimes singled out to be by the nice people of faith?
Episcopal priest William Miller writes about his childhood Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Mylie. (The Gospel According to Sam, p. 91) He describes her as a pedagogical dream for she was a serious teacher, well-prepared, and pious. He remembers, “We received a star each week for attendance, punctuality, participation, memory verse, and bringing visitors. We could also get credit for attendance even if we attended another church on a given Sunday. However, it wasn’t until she refused to give Bruce Briscoe a star because he had attended a Methodist church, and said, ‘We all know the Methodists are going to hell,’ that I realized just how sweet such narrow-minded intolerance could sound. ‘Nice’ people can sometimes be the carriers of the most deadly diseases.”
This is my struggle with today’s gospel reading. If ever there was a religious person we like to think of as “nice,” it is Jesus. Didn’t He welcome the children in His arms and give them a blessing? Isn’t He the one who waxes eloquently about the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air? Wasn’t Jesus the one that spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well and dared to eat with sinners so that the Pharisees and Sadducees accused Him of being a drunkard and a glutton? And yet, His response to the Canaanite woman exposes that even Jesus is a carrier of nice church people’s most deadly disease.
In His only trip outside of Israel’s borders in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples leave Galilee for Tyre and Sidon. (Exegesis from Cynthia Campbell, “Crumbs,” 8-18-02, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago) Tyre was a Roman port city and the gateway for trade that came to Damascus and beyond. This is foreign territory for Jesus and the disciples. They are outside their comfort zone. These are not His people. The accent isn’t right. The skin coloration is just enough different. The practices of culture are unfamiliar. Jesus doesn’t belong here. He is way out of His comfort zone, but instead of just trying to blend in, He takes a “holier than thou” attitude in an attempt to set this screaming Canaanite woman in her rightful place.
She “comes rushing out,” and like a bull dog on a bone, the Canaanite woman accosts Jesus with, “Have mercy on me. My daughter is possessed by a demon!” The scripture is clear that Jesus does not respond at all. He doesn’t answer her request. He doesn’t even acknowledge her presence. But she will not be silenced. She dogs Jesus and His followers with her cries. Her persistence is such that the disciples, careful watch dogs that they are, come to Jesus and beg Him to please send her away. And Jesus, in a rare moment of elitist pedigree, makes it abundantly clear, “I am only sent for the lost sheep of Israel.” She, apparently, is not worthy of His time or attention. Three times she approaches Jesus with requests for her daughter’s healing. Each time she is either ignored or belittled.
How embarrassing! Where is the Savior who marches to a different beat and breaks all the rules of the established order? Where is our Jesus who stands up for the weak and outcast? Where is the Jesus who willingly responds when others have uttered, “Lord, help me”? His social snub causes the woman to summon up her wit in order to match Jesus line for line as she kneels before Him in a position akin to that of a dog beaten into submission.
This makes me so uncomfortable that I want to immediately smooth over Jesus’s faux pox with a softer interpretation. I want to explain away Jesus’ rudeness by reminding us that the writer of Matthew’s gospel was intent on presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Remember that this gospel begins with a lineage that traces Jesus’ roots to King David. Only to Israel, God’s chosen people, has Jesus come. The good news that the gospel is open to include others will not come until the last verses of Matthew when followers are told to “make disciples of all nations,” and this is after the clear rejection by the Jews takes place in the crucifixion. So because Jesus (by all accounts a devout and faithful Jew) finds Himself in a foreign land and is accosted by an enemy of the Jewish faith who is also female, Jesus not only ignores and rebuffs her, He succumbs to all the cultural noise embedded in His humanness and calls her a “dog.”
I wish that there was some translation “trick” that I could use to appropriately interpret this offensive slur. Not one contemporary paraphrase that I read was willing to accurately translate it, but knowing your imaginations and extensive vocabularies, I will trust you to supply the horrific insult that Jesus hurls her way. A kneeling woman does not have far to fall after all, and by all rights this insult should have floored her on the spot. What choice does a desperate Canaanite woman have after such a slap but to slink off into the crowd, take her rightful place within a pack of flea-bitten, mangy mongrels, and go back to a daughter who is still in a demon’s grip? (“Dogging Jesus,” Peter Hawkins, Christian Century, 8-9-05)
But instead of tucking her tail, she begs for a tasty morsel. The irony that she begs for a crumb when Matthew places her story directly in-between two stories of Jesus miraculously feeding multitudes should capture our attention. Jesus will feed His people with abundant sufficiency, but He does not have a crumb to give this Canaanite woman. She doesn’t back away. Instead, she barks at the hand from which she wishes to be fed. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.” I wish she had also whispered, “checkmate.” It is the only place in scripture where someone engages Jesus in debate and wins. (Brett Younger, “Kicking down Walls,” 8-17-14, Lectionary Homiletics)
This story is so out of character…so shocking…that it leaves us to wonder why it is included. Maybe the writer could not erase it from his memory. Some interpreters say it is included to remind us that prayer has to be this persistent in order to get the Divine to perform the miraculous; or maybe Jesus is testing the disciples; or maybe He was tired and stressed; or maybe Jesus was kidding around making parodies with words. My friends, not a one of these explanations resonates with me. The truth is that Jesus has never been more politically incorrect in His life. Like Shirley McClain in “Terms of Endearment,” He is dealing with a distraught mother begging for her daughter’s relief. And to hear Jesus respond in such a racist chauvinistic manner, may make it the most disturbing story in all of the gospels. (Younger) Therefore, I believe that the story is included because it reminds us that the circle of God’s friends is constantly widening, and that Jesus, in all of His failed humanity, has to expand His perception of who He has come to save. It makes me wonder: of which then was God most pleased: the persistent faith of the woman or the Savior who finally opened His heart to the whole world?
John Bell, Scottish hymn writer and preacher, writes: “I don’t doubt that God’s love and mercy are unchanging in their intention and intensity, but I don’t believe that this precludes God’s mind from changing. Indeed, I believe that the Bible is the record of God’s mind changing with regard to human beings. It is the record of how God’s mind changes as to who will be the beneficiaries of God’s love, thereby gradually widening the circle of God’s friends.” We can follow this concept of God’s widening circle of friends beginning with Abraham to the 12 tribes of Israel to the recipients of the prophets’ proclamations. In particular, remember Jonah, and God changing God’s mind to spare the Ninevites and Jonah’s pouting anger in response. Think about the story of Joseph read earlier in our service and the vivid picture it paints of how we can widen the circle of God’s friends within our own lives even to those who have betrayed us, through forgiveness and mercy…and of Peter standing in the Centurion’s home pronouncing, “I perceive that God shows no partiality.”
Too often we listen to the voices of our upbringing and culture that fear there is not enough grace to go around, and so they say there are some who are not entitled to mercy. Thus, the ongoing debates of who receives the death penalty and who does not. Who gets medical care? Who gets mental health assistance? Who gets a job? Who gets a place to live or something to eat? When released from jail, who gets a chance to start a new life? We ask ourselves: are all Muslims terrorists? Are homosexuals predators? Are transgendered perverted? Are the poor all lazy? Are the 57,000 children from Central America who have illegally crossed into the U.S. refugees or criminals?
Who’s on your personal list? Oh, now, let’s be honest. We all have a list and while mine may be different from yours, about whom do we hold prejudicial elitist thoughts? Who do we actively work to keep under the table and not share even a crumb with? Who are the people we avoid? Who do we consider to be above us or beneath us, too poor or too rich, too young or too old? Who makes us uncomfortable? …a mother who nags, a father who yells, a child who won’t listen, the in-law you wish your sibling had not married, the person at work who slacks on their responsibilities? Who would we rather leave out? …People who aren’t funny, who are always angry, who waste our time, who talk about things we don’t care about, who don’t like us, who aren’t like us, who aren’t as smart? (Younger)
Jesus had a full load of reasons as to why His response to the Canaanite woman was acceptable, but something, somehow, finally moved inside of Jesus and His disciples as they listened to this heartsick mother’s anguished plea. I wonder, if at long last, they realized that God is bigger and better than their own personal theology and biases? (John Ortberg, “True Grit,” Christian Century, 8-23-03) Jesus says to the woman, “Great is your faith.” It can be translated as “You have MEGA-faith! A faith that is super-sized! You! You are a Super Faith Woman!” (“Faith like a Dog’s Breakfast,” The Listening Hermit, 8-9-11) And because of the mother’s faith, the daughter is healed, but even more, so is Jesus.
In rare moments of trust, Cleopatra will roll over on her back and beg us to rub her belly. It is quite a position of vulnerability and if we find the sweet spot, she will jiggle her back right leg in absolute delight. It seems that what Jesus learned that day with the Canaanite woman is that it takes a lot of courage to roll over on your back, stick your paws up in the air, and expose your vulnerable belly in hopes that you will get a rub, a pat, a crumb, some acknowledgement that you are accepted as a child of God’s even with your dirty side up.
I am discovering that most seekers are not overly concerned about what we believe. What they most want to know is that when they muster the courage to expose their belly in our presence that we can be trusted NOT to laugh, NOT to get nauseated, NOT to strike, NOT to demand a nutritious diet, but that, instead, we will lovingly, patiently, tenderly scratch and rub until their hind legs jiggle with the delight of the Lord. And if we can do that, my friends, not only will they be healed, but we will be healed too.
It is to this healing faith that we invite you this day…professions of faith, church membership or a Christian vocation…come as we stand and sing #392, “Stir Thy Church.”