Anchored in Jesus- Sermon for August 16, 2020 from Pastor John

Sermon for August 16, 2020


     A man came to me with an invitation: he belonged to an organization with the name of Fellowship of Christian Businessmen and they were having a breakfast on the coming Saturday. He enjoyed the fellowship of this organization and he wanted me to share time with this Christian group. He told me the time and location and I said I would come. On the day of the breakfast I arrived at the place and saw a man at the entry. He must be the greeter and he greeted me all right. Instead of a friendly hello or ‘good morning’ he asked with a stern voice “Do you have a reservation?” I was completely taken aback. I could have told him “I have an invitation from a man of your organization” but all I said was ‘no’. I don’t remember what was said but I do remember leaving. I was stunned thinking that this was a specifically Christian fellowship function, and that all would be welcome, like coming to church. I was stung by the demand for a reservation which meant the possibility of rejection. Pardon the pun but I wonder how many people today have reservations about the church because they fear they do not belong because they do not meet certain standards or some kind of pre-approval from those in charge.

We have a puzzling gospel lesson today. We heard Jesus initially ignore the plea of a desperate mother for her daughter’s healing because she did not have a reservation, the right criteria, since she was not Jewish but a Canaanite. At the time the term ‘Canaanite” represented a long history of hostility with the people of Israel. It meant the woman was a Gentile or non-Jewish and for some this meant she represented people Jesus and faithful Jewish people were best to avoid. There were traditions about how contact with Gentiles could mess with your purity. Jesus and his disciples entered a region where many Gentiles or Canaanites lived. We were given no reason why Jesus traveled there. Jesus had just finished teaching the disciples about what purity meant. Purity did not mean following outward rituals. Purity did not mean eating the right foods or kosher food. As we heard Jesus said it is not what you eat that defiles you: food follows the digestive tract of the body. Jesus said what defiles you, makes you unclean, is what comes out of your mouth. Jesus said “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart….for out of the heart come evil intentions.” Jesus would not be impressed with people’s religious rituals; Jesus was concerned about what was in the heart. Jesus would agree with the warning of the prophets who all too often found people who honored God with their lips, but yet their hearts were far from the will of God.

Earlier in Matthew we read of Jesus’ compassion for the people because of their need for healing and also for his concern that the poor have food to eat. So we would not think that coming into an area of many Gentiles would bother Jesus since his heart was filled with compassion. Jesus would not have reservations about a person’s ethnic background. But all this seemed to backfire in the reading today.

A woman showed up and started shouting: “Have mercy on me, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon”. Think of any parent today worried about a child tormented by forces that cause destructive-self or on others-behaviors and you can imagine how desperate this woman in the text is. If this woman was not Jewish she sure sounded like a daughter of Israel calling Jesus “Son of David” and “Lord”. But the surprise is Jesus ignored her: he did not answer her a word. He did not say ‘no’ nor did he say ‘yes’, he just kept walking. If Jesus hoped she would just go away the strategy did not work. She kept up with him shouting, pleading for mercy. She was perceived as a pest and she annoyed the disciples who urged strongly for Jesus to be stern and send her away. Jesus was silent, and seemed to ignore her, but he did not send her away with a forceful demand. Unlike his disciples he did not seem annoyed. When Jesus did speak it was to his disciples saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus was consistent: earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus sent out his disciples on a mission to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to heal the sick, telling them to restrict their activities only to the people of Israel and go nowhere among the non-Jews or Gentiles.

Jesus, the shepherd, saw many of his own people harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and he had compassion for them. This did not mean he was without compassion for people other than those of Israel, but he had plenty to do among the lost sheep of his own countrymen and women. As Jesus was speaking to his disciples the distressed woman caught up to Jesus and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” How could Jesus, the compassionate one, refuse now? She knelt before him, a posture of worship and prayed the most fundamental of prayers: “HELP!” Author Ann Lamott has written a book about her daily prayers, three of them. When she wakes her first prayer is “Help” as in Jesus help me through the day. Her next prayer is “Wow” as she discerns the presence of God in her day. And her final prayer of the day is “Thank you.”

If we have found Jesus’ silence with the woman troubling, what comes next in the text is even more puzzling . He told her “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” How do Jesus’ words make any sense? We may ask ourselves why healing a daughter tormented by a demon is not fair, right, or proper? Jesus even sounded a racial slur, referring to the woman’s people, her nationality, as ‘dogs’. Now the word translated that way actually refers to little dogs or pets, not the feral dogs that roam the streets. But the word is still derogatory. It is disturbing to ponder if Jesus held any such prejudice in his heart. On top of all this trouble, there was a common prejudice of the time that felt women were in an inferior position. You could say with some justification that this was not Jesus’ finest hour. Jesus was inconsistent: earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus was approached by a Roman soldier, a Centurion, an officer, who appealed for Jesus to heal a desperately ill servant. Did Jesus say “Sorry, I was sent only the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? No, Jesus told him, a Gentile, “I will come and cure him.” The Centurion said “no bother, just give the command for “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, only speak the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus marveled at his faith even saying “in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Now Jesus was about to be impressed again: the woman told Jesus “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Wow! She turned Jesus’ own words on him and got him good! She stubbornly held to her heartfelt conviction that Jesus’ compassion would rule the day. Jesus indeed marveled saying, “Women, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Thank you!

After this we read in Matthew that Jesus he returned to his home country along the Sea of Galilee. Crowds came before him with many saying “HELP!”. The sick were put at Jesus’ feet and he cured them. WOW! The people were amazed. And they said “Thank you” because the mute were now speaking, the maimed were made whole, the lame were walking, the blind were now seeing, and the people praised God.

In this time of pandemic and worry about sickness and death, the scripture texts really speak to our time. Many people wonder if Jesus is silent or has chosen to ignore their heartfelt prayers for help. There is so much grief in the land. There is anger and frustration as well as people can be tempted to tout their own liberty over love for neighbor. It is good to get down on our knees and worship. Worship need not be anything fancy, but come to Jesus with the concerns of the heart and pray like the woman in the text: “Lord, help me.’ Then look to the cross of Jesus and see his great faithfulness. By his cross and resurrection we are loved beyond measure, and blessed with the triumph of God’s kingdom, the rule of grace, the rule of love, the rule of life. Sins are forgiven, and even though we die, yet shall we live. At the end of the gospel of Matthew Jesus no longer instructed his disciples to have reservations, but to go out into the world and make disciples of all, baptizing people and instructing them of the love of God, instruction with both word and deed.

This month marked the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The New York Times featured a story about a survivor of the bomb on Hiroshima which killed over 150,000 people. Her name is Setsuko. She now lives in Toronto and a few years ago shared the Nobel Peace Prize with several others who have been advocating for the ban of nuclear weapons. She was a child when the atomic bomb was dropped. She was pulled from the rubble by a soldier who kept telling her not to give up. When she returned to school is it was a Christian school operated by the Methodist Church. For quite some time she questioned the God worshiped by so many Americans. She had seen so much destruction and the loss of family members. But through her doubts and unbelief she was surrounded by Christian adults who supported her emotionally. She said “Because of them, I was able to deal with that crisis and came out of that trauma.” Three years after the bomb-drop on Hiroshima Setsuko converted to Christianity.

Can we be supportive of people today who may question the goodness of God because of the pandemic? May our hearts be firmly anchored with Jesus, and his compassion, guiding us to be people of compassion in this time of grief, anger, and fear.