Saturday, August 19, 2017

Fierce, Unflagging, Freeing Faith

Faith Lutheran Church, Staples, MN
August 20, 2017/Pentecost 11
Matthew 15:21-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“I love you…but right now I don’t like you.”

Have you ever said that to someone?  Or:  has someone ever said that to you?

“I love you…but right now I don’t like you” seems, at first blush, like a contradiction.   How can anyone love someone but not like them?

But ponder that for a moment, and you’ll realize that that’s exactly how things work.

We are bound together--with deep bonds of affection and trust—we’re bound together with all sorts of folks who from time to time baffle us, frustrate us, confuse us or simply drive us batty.   So it seems quite natural to look them in the eye and say:  “I love you, but right now I sure don’t like you.”

And, it’s also natural to want to say that to Jesus here in this morning’s gospel reading.

“I love you, Jesus, and I know that you love me unconditionally, but right now I don’t like you…I don’t appreciate how you responded to this Gentile woman—not one bit.”

Jewish Jesus and his Jewish followers have temporarily veered out of the land of the Jews and into the land of the non-Jews, that is:  the Gentiles residing in “the district of Tyre and Sidon.”

As they’re taking this temporary detour, a woman with a deep ache in her heart shows up….begging Jesus for help:   “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

But rather than lending a sympathetic ear (as we might expect Jesus to do!) he simply ignores this woman.  And his disciples—acting as though she isn’t even present—his disciples beg Jesus to dismiss this loud, annoying woman.

Jesus responds, seemingly in agreement with his perturbed disciples:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Here Jesus simply echoes the same instructions he’d already given his twelve disciples five chapters earlier in Mathew:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles…but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6)

Jesus, faced with this needy, pleading Gentile mother, now repeats himself.  He has not come for “outsider” women like this one.  Jesus understands his mission to be with needy Jewish mothers, members of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the anxious woman is not deterred.  Neither Jesus’ stony silence, nor his disciples dismissiveness, nor Jesus’ restatement of his “Israel-only” mission holds her back.

This desperate Gentile mother can’t take “No” for an answer.  Kneeling before Jesus, assuming a posture of worship, she pleads “Lord, help me.”

…to which Jesus responds with a common Jewish slur against Gentiles, saying:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

You’d think that would have been the end of this episode.

But no!  Even in the face of such a stinging rebuke, this tenacious Gentile woman barrels ahead, relentlessly pleading her cause, daring even to take Jesus’ taunt and turn it to her favor:  “‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

It’s as if the woman is saying:  “OK, Jesus, you can regard me as just one more Gentile ‘dog.’  I’ll own that if I must, as long as I get to decide what kind of dog I am--not some filthy feral canine roaming the streets--but one of the house dogs, living with you Jewish chosen ones under our Master’s roof.   I don’t want any of the bread intended for your favored ones…but as a watchful puppy under the table, I will be there, ready to gobble up even the smallest crumb that might fall to the floor—and that—that crumb!--will be enough for me!”

Only in offering this astounding response to Jesus does the woman finally grab a hold of him in such a way that he cannot miss the fierceness of her daring trust: “’O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

[PAUSE]  I love Jesus, and I know you do, too….but it’s hard to like the Jesus we meet here, at least at first, in this gospel story…

And yet, in some way we don’t fully understand, Jesus initial ignorance of this woman….Jesus’ insistence that he has been sent to the Jews before the Gentiles….Jesus’ harsh words to this woman…..all the stuff we don’t like about Jesus here!—it all somehow sets the stage for this outsider to reveal just what great faith looks like.

How can that be?  

Most of the time in the gospels, when Jesus is among his Jewish insiders, his closest followers, they disappoint him.   They are slow to catch on.   They keep missing his point.   They display faith, but it’s too often a weak, tepid, puny faith….

But when Jesus ventures out into foreign territory, when he encounters someone not of his tribe, when he’s accosted by this one who simply will not take “No” for an answer….only here does Jesus uncover the great faith, the mega-faith that he prizes more than anything else.

It’s as if Jesus’ initial silence toward her, his disciples disdain for her, their fruitless efforts to silence her and make her go away….it’s as if all such opposition acts like a whetstone that only sharpens this woman’s faith to a razor’s edge, transforming it into such a faith so tenacious that it sniffs out and exploits even the tiniest opportunity.

Just a crumb—just a crumb—will be enough for this amazing mother and her demon-possessed child.   “O woman, great is your faith!”

There is something for us here, something we perhaps did not come to church expecting to receive this morning.

What’s here for us is a powerful, graphic, unforgettable testimony to the fact that faith shines brightest and surest when it’s most under attack.   As Martin Luther said:  it is in the nature of faith to “step gaily into the darkness.”[1]

We receive that astounding reality in this gospel story that is simultaneously deeply troubling and powerfully liberating.

And, just for good measure, we receive one more gift here:  a fresh, eye-opening awareness that no one—absolutely no one!—will be denied access to God’s life-rescuing, death-defying, future-opening freedom in Jesus Christ….freeing faith that stubbornly clings to God’s goodness in spite of whatever might call that goodness into question.  

I started out by confessing that I love Jesus but I don’t like how Jesus treats this woman here in Matthew 15…

….but by the end of this story, it seems as if this stranger somehow needled Jesus into seriously rethinking his mission in the world.  

This Gentile woman, with her nagging incessant pleading for a demon-ravaged daughter, this woman pried open Jesus’ own understanding of his mission, a mission that could no longer focus solely on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but that now encompassed a whole host of others:  indeed, anyone and everyone who might imagine that Jesus came into this world to save and bless us all.

And that, my dear friends, is another good gift our ears are hankering to hear this morning.

Jesus came into this world for everyone, PERIOD.  

Jesus, the man from Galilee, may have grown up absorbing all sorts of first century Jewish assumptions…..Jesus may have thought, at least at first, that the best way to pursue his mission was to focus on “the lost sheet of the house of Israel,”….

….but by the end of Matthew’s gospel (having learned from human encounters like the one with this tenacious Gentile mother!)…by the time we get to chapter 28 of Matthew, in the blazing light of the resurrection, it was crystal clear that no one—absolutely no one—lives outside the scope of God’s all-encompassing love in Christ….

…which is why Jesus’ final word in Matthew’s gospel is: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”

My dear friends, we need to be very clear about this—especially as we Americans wrestle with issues of race, ethnicity, and nationality in the light of the inexcusable ugliness that bubbled up a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In the community of Jesus Christ, there can be no room for prejudice or bigotry or hatred based on class or creed or color or any other category we use to wall ourselves off from one another.  

For we are the community of Jesus Christ, who “on the cross, opened his arms to all[2]…and in the power of his Resurrection commissions us all to make disciples of all nations.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen. 

[1] Roland Bainton, editor (1948), Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Augsburg Press, p. 51
[2] “Thanksgiving at the Table,” Form V, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 65.

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