Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
August 14, 2011
The following is a sermon I gave in 2008. This gospel text is probably the most challenging in the Gospels and it's one that I like to tackle.
During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was on the cross country team. I enjoyed distance running, but I wasn’t the best at it. God might have graced me with perserverance, but God didn’t give me the gift of swiftness. In many of the smaller meets, I was usually bringing up the rear.
One day during my freshman year, we my high school had a meeting with another high school in the suburbs. We went out to a local golf course to run the race. As usual, I was in last place, steady running along the rolling hills of the golf course.
At some point, I started hearing voices. At first I think I thought it was someone cheering me on, despite being last. But the voices weren’t friendly, instead they were very menacing voices. At the edge of a cul de sac were several youths, maybe at the most a few years old than I was. They were hurling racial slurs at me, calling me names that I can’t say in a family setting.
I was shocked by the slurs, but kept on running. It made no sense to let them get to me, so I kept the legs pumping, while they kept heaping insult upon insult. At some point, another member of my high school’s cross country team, who also was African American, ran to my aid. He had already finished the race and swiftly ran to confront the teens. From what I was told, all he did was simply look at them, which must have been enough to call off their racial slurs.
After I finished the race, many of the parents who were there watching the race, were shocked at what had happened and asked if I was okay. I was, but I had been rudely reminded of my parent’s admonition that there would be people who might not like me simply because of my color. My father, having grown up in Jim Crow Louisiana was well aware of this. I learned that day, that even though we have come a long way as a nation in race relations, there were always going to be people who would treat others horribly simply because of how the appear.
Today’s gospel reading is difficult, if not confusing to hear. We are used to a Jesus that is welcoming of everyone and yet here we see a Jesus that is not very nice, not very nice at all. Jesus seems to look like a hypocrite and a bigot all in one.
The passage begins with Jesus talking about his nemesis, the Pharisees. He tells the crowds that it is not what someone puts in their mouths that defiles, but what is in that person’s heart that makes someone unclean. He takes direct aim at the religious leaders, telling them that it is not following rules that makes a person righteous, but their heart, their intentions, that matter. This is all classical Jesus, sticking it to the self-righteous among him that cared more for following the law, than they did in helping their brother or sister.
And yet, all this seems forgotten in the next part of the passage. He is in region of Tyre, when a woman, who was not Jewish, came up to him frantically. She is desparate to have Jesus heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon. What was Jesus’ reaction? Well, at first he ignored her. Then the disciples told him to send her away.
Jesus responds, but it seems that he is still not paying any mind to this woman. “I have come only for the lost sheep of Israel,” he responds. No Gentiles need apply.
The woman pushes further and gets in front of Jesus and drops to the ground. “Lord, help me,” she says. She seems to know that this Jesus could heal her daughter and knew this was her only hope.
Jesus finally speaks to her and says, “It isn’t right to take the food meant for the children and give it to dogs.”
Ouch. Now, some scholars think that the term “dogs” here meant a more playful term, like “Puppies.” But it would seem rather callous for Jesus to be playing with the woman, when her daughter was gravely ill. Other scholars say that calling someone a dog was a derogatory term, in the same way that another word referring to a female dog is used as a derogatory term today.
So here we have Jesus, the Son of God, the one who broke barriers to welcome everyone, showing a sense of prejudice to a fellow human being.
No one would blame the woman for walking away, but instead of doing that, she pushes back with a witty response worthy of Shakesphere. “Yes, but even the dogs get what is left by the children at the table.”
For some reason, this shocks Jesus and he realized the woman’s faith. She was no longer a foreigner, but a woman of great faith. The woman came home to find her daughter healed.
So what is this story ultimately about? Is it about race? Is it about inclusion? Well, on one level it is about that, but there is another undercurrent going on here. It’s all about faith and placing our faith in God even when it seems that God has no faith in us.
The Pharisees placed their faith in their correct following of religious practice. But Jesus exposes that as a sham, because someone can be good at practicing the faith and still be a rotten person. During the time of slavery and later Jim Crow, there were many white Christians who were stead churchgoers and took their faith seriously and still treated their black sisters and brothers like dirt.
The Gentile woman, on the other hand, placed her faith in God. For all we know, she may have not worshipped the God of Israel, but she knew that this God could heal her daughter and that this man, Jesus would heal her daughter. So, she was bold in asking and never took no for an answer.
What does this all have to do with this faith community here in the early 21st century?
Like the Pharisees, we can place our hope in things other than God. We can place our hope in our traditions, in our bank accounts and in our buildings. Or, we can be like the woman, who had faith even when the road seemed dark and with out hope. The woman’s faith was bold, daring, audacious, willing to break boundaries. She believed in a God that would heal her daughter and knew, knew, that Jesus would heal her loved one.
This sermon could have been one where I simply said that we should be more welcoming to people who are different. It would have been a perfect “After School Special” kind of sermon. But I don’t think we are simply asked to be nice to others, but to live in faith and open up the doors, welcoming others regardless of who they are, not because it’s the nice thing to do, but because it is we believe, with our whole hearts, that the Jesus who healed the Cannanite woman’s daughter, is one that welcomes someone regardless of the race or sexual orientation.
But there is even another message that we need to hear. The fact is, we are the dogs. We are not part of the children of Israel. We are outsiders. And yet, we can come boldly before God in faith because even the dogs receive God’s blessings.
I’m not much of a dog person. I’ve always loved cats and I’m the proud servant of two cats. (If you have cats, you understand why I said I’m a servant.) Some of my friends do have dogs. What I’ve noticed is how faithful dogs are to their companions and to others that they meet. I remember one day when I met up with two of my friends. Along with them, was one of their dogs, a large Rottweiler. Now these dogs have a reputation for being big, scary dogs, but this dog was incredibly friendly and decided to lick me.... a lot. This dog showed love and acceptance. Not unlike the woman who was once called a dog.
We will face a world where we will be shut out for whatever reason. But we have faith in a God that knows no boundaries and is with us, to the end of the age. Amen.