| Matthew 15:21-28
|Sun, August 15, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|"Jesus", reports the Vancouver Sun, "is getting a facelift for the new millennium.. The National Catholic Reporter, a weekly newsmagazine in the U.S., has launched a contest to come up with a contemporary image of Christ" ... an image "that will capture the imaginations and hopes of a hankering humanity as we begin another thousand years". There is a $2000 US first prize for the artist whose image is selected as the winner. Wouldn't Bill Taylor be in his glory with such a story? Bill's huge collection of images of Jesus is just down the hall in the VST Library. In collecting those slides Bill learned that such images tell the viewer as much about the time and place of the artist as they do about Jesus! How could it be otherwise ... we all see Jesus through our own cultural filters. A meek and mild Jesus, perhaps. Or a revolutionary Jesus. A loving, caring teacher ...or a mystic and a healer.
But imagine that the facelift that Jesus receives for the new millennium is found in today's gospel lesson! On first glance it is one more in the stories of Jesus the healer ... here healing a girl who is tormented with a demon. What kind of a demon ... and what type of torment ... we are not told. It is what we are told that captures our attention. This is a highly unexpected ... highly unusual ... Jesus. Not the kind of Jesus that we are used to seeing. Yet here he is ... smack dab in the middle of Matthew's gospel. Travelling in the area of Tyre and Sidon (think the coast of Lebanon) Jesus is confronted by an inhabitant - a Canaanite woman. She is a non-Jew. This is not that surprising since Jesus is travelling in non-Jewish territory. What is surprising is that she says "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon". Surprising because this Canaanite woman is the first person in the entire story so far (notice that we are already at chapter fifteen) to name Jesus as 'Lord, Son of David". She sees what others have yet to see. She sees who Jesus is.
Well, you would think that Jesus would be gratified ... that he would honour such wisdom in an outsider. This is, after all, the picture of Jesus that we have been taught to paint: one who welcomes the outsider. Instead Matthew tells us that Jesus "did not answer her at all". He simply ignores her. He pretends she does not exist. The disciples run up to Jesus with their predictable response: "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us". Surely now Jesus will give the expected reply. We've seen it before ... 'let the children come to me '... 'Zaccheus get down out of the tree' ... 'bring blind Bartimaeus here'. Now is the time for Jesus to shock his disciples with his openness to the cry of a Canaanite woman. But no. Jesus instead shocks us, saying "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel". In other words, my mission ends at the borders of Israel ... it does not extend beyond the Jewish culture. The line is drawn here. I don't heal outsiders.
But she won't let him be. She kneels at his feet: "Kyrie eleison" she pleads. "Lord, have mercy ... Lord, help me". Now Jesus? Surely you will help her now! Nope. Jesus answers: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs". It is not right to take the healing that is meant for Jews and give it to non-Jews ... to Gentiles ... to Canaanite dogs like you. We are flabbergasted by such a Jesus. How can our kind and loving Jesus say such a thing? And if, on a particularly exhausting and bad day, our very human Jesus does act in such an 'unChristian' way why, for heaven's sake, does Matthew bother to write the episode down? It would be much happier for all around if our childhood images of Jesus didn't have to move aside to make room for this very difficult Lord.
Of course, the story does not end there. The persistent foreigner simply will not take 'no' for an answer. In the end she 'out-rabbis' the Rabbi himself! "Yes Lord", she says (her mind as quick as a trap), "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." And with that she wins. She wins Jesus over. To be sure there are many who would argue that Jesus is waiting for her to 'prove' her faith ... that Jesus is testing her and his disciples all along. Perhaps they are right. I don't know. But on this one occasion at least, it sounds as if Jesus is the one doing the repenting ... the turning ... the mind-changing ... when we are expect it to be the other way around. "Woman", answers Jesus, "great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish".
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I read this summer of a church in the American mid-west that had new carpeting installed in its sanctuary. It seems that through some combination of the building's peculiar dryness and the new carpet's own qualities, that the rug built up a tremendous charge of static electricity. On the first Sunday on the new rug, the pastor intoned the words of blessing, lifted the chalice to the lips of the worship elder ... and saw the elder knocked flat on his back by a sudden electrical discharge. In fact, parishioners were so consistently shocked that it became customary to serve one of the communion servers first, so that he or she could absorb the initial and most charged jolt. The servers, in turn, would draw straws before the service to assign this unusual duty!1
That's one way to learn to take the sacraments seriously. Come expecting to be shocked. Which is how we should probably approach the Bible when we open its covers. Imagine the lectors on Sunday morning, jumping back from the electric shock of the pages before them. We have for so long imagined that the Bible was the common sense wisdom on which our society is based that we have forgotten how shocking it really is. We are so accustomed to portraying Jesus in ways that suit us that we are hardly prepared for the shock of meeting a Jesus that we do not recognize ... a Jesus that is found right here, in the shocking pages of scripture.
And they are shocking pages today. The electricity is here in Matthew's gospel ... and it is also to be found in Paul's letter to the Romans. Both deal with the central shock wave that lies at the heart of the New Testament. Both wrestle with the surprising and unexpected development of Christianity crossing cultural boundaries. Don't forget, Matthew's gospel is written in Greek. It is not written in the Hebrew of the Israelites ... nor is it written in Jesus' mother tongue of Aramaic. Like all of the New Testament, Matthew's gospel is written in the language of Gentiles ... that is, of non-Jews. So the irony of Jesus' claim that he "was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" can not be lost on any 1st Century reader who is reading the story precisely because they have been found by Jesus in spite of the fact that they can make no claim to being a lost sheep of Israel! It is not until the very last verses of the very last chapter of Matthew that the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples out beyond the boundaries of Jewish culture with good news of great joy for all the nations of the earth. Underlying the entire story is the shock of a gospel which crosses cultures. Remember the magi ... the foreigners ... who read the signs in the stars and bring gifts to the child? They foreshadow the great gift that the child is, in return, going to bring to the nations. But, today, this surprising twist in the story seems to come as a shock even to the now grown child himself! Imagine those 1st Century readers smiling to themselves. After all, if Jesus could be shocked to discover just how far God's healing was to spread maybe it wasn't so surprising that they and their contemporaries were also reeling in amazement!
And not Jesus only. Paul's life is literally turned upside down when, one day, he suddenly understands the cross-cultural implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Talk about shocked. He is knocked to the ground and blinded by the revelation that the God of the Jews is, in Jesus, now reaching out to all the peoples of the world. And Paul finds others as shocked by this turn of events. If Matthew's story portrays Jews as aghast at the thought that a Canaanite might be included in the sweep of the gospel notice that in Romans the shoe is on the other foot. Here Paul is writing to Gentiles who can't imagine that the Jews who have rejected Jesus have a place any longer in God's saving work in the world. Paul is blunt in his critique of such anti-semitism: "I ask, then, has God rejected his people (the Jews)? By no means! ... God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew." The New Testament portrays the gospel as shocking news. God is at work on both sides of the fence ... in Jewish and in non-Jewish cultures. God does not play favourites. Nor is God restricted by the circles we close or the borders we devise. The New Testament is charged by this dangerously high voltage. Any one who opens its pages is at risk of being electrified by the news.
Yet, by now, all these years later the voltage has seemingly dwindled. It all seems so old hat by now. Cross-cultural exchanges and multi-cultural government ministries are all the rage. 'Inclusivity' is a buzz word in the church. Where's the shock in that anymore?
Well, perhaps you were at dinner here a few weeks back when we played host to the Native Ministries Consortium and served up something more than 130 plates of dinner. Or maybe you have been hearing about it. Talk about electricity. We began at 5:30 ... and finished some four hours later. In between we ate ... and prayed ... and sang ... and testified. It was a night of shared tears and of much hilarity. It was a step ... a small step but not an insignificant step ... towards reconciliation between cultures. It was a night in which the people of the northwest coast brought the good news of God's grace to us. But it was also a night in which the people of University Hill, through the simple act of hospitality, testified to the gospel which crosses cultural boundaries. My colleagues in the Doctor of Ministry program, visiting from all over the United States were stunned. It was the high point ... the Kingdom moment ... of the week for them as it was for us.
Then I told them ... I told them that in British Columbia such events are essentially unheard of. I told them that in the United Church dinners like this one are rare ... rare indeed. In town after town our congregations do not know how to begin a conversation with the people on 'The Reserve'. In the cities we imagine that there is place or even reason to try. So we keep the gospel to ourselves ... and imagine that its hospitality is not to be shared with those beyond the bounds of our familiar culture. Others arrive in the neighbourhood from every point on the globe. We do not think to invite them to eat with us ... or to begin the journey towards reconciliation with us. We abide by the cultural demarcations of the world ... and ignore the shocking news that the Kingdom of God knows no cultural boundaries but is intended by God for all people.
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Of late, to my surprise, I have heard others in the church describe me as 'orthodox'. I'm not sure what to make of such a label. For a long time the tag 'orthodox' has referred to those who know the right way to think and to live as Christians ... and who are out to 'save' those who don't think or act the 'right way'. It is as an 'orthodox church' would be one in which every member believes, thinks and acts in unison ... in which all are of one mind. Lately I have come to prefer a different understanding of what it means to be orthodox Christians. In parts of the Eastern Orthodox church it is understood that the more diverse the community that gathers to worship and to celebrate the sacraments, the more orthodox the church. That is, the more differences that exist between the people in a given congregation ... the more cultures and subcultures represented there ... the closer that congregation resembles the reconciling work of Jesus Christ in the world. Imagine, for example, if this congregation looked this morning around this Table the way it looked on that July evening around the dinner tables downstairs. Imagine the attention that such an odd and unusual gathering would draw from our neighbours ... and on campus ... and, eventually, in the media. A United Church made up of natives and non-natives ... former students of Residential Schools worshipping and living alongside former supporters of Residential Schools. Imagine the one word sermon that we could preach when asked for an explanation: "Kingdom", we would say, "The Kingdom of God has come near".
Dare we dream of allowing the Holy Spirit to shape us into such a shocking people? Can we call ourselves a 'Gospel People' and dream of anything else?
1. from Rodney Clapp, "A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society" (InterVaristy Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1996), pp. 111-112.