“The New Community of Christ”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 & Matthew 15:21-28
David Lose is President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and he is someone I engage with regularly as I prepare to preach each Sunday. This week, he made the comment that the Scripture lessons for today are some of the most painful and timely in all of the Bible.
But before we dig more into the passages we’ve just heard, I want us all to remember today that we follow the Revised Common Lectionary in this congregation. The lectionary is a three-year schedule of readings from the Old and New Testaments. Each week it gives one Old Testament story, one lesson from the prophets, one psalm, one Gospel reading, and one reading from Paul’s letters. Every Monday morning, from these five passages I pick two or three to be the focus our worship on the coming Sunday. When we follow the lectionary for three years we encounter almost the entire Biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation. The Revised Common Lectionary was last published in 1994; the 1994 publication was an update of the 1983 version; the 1983 publication was update of the 1974 version; and the 1974 publication was an update of the first lectionary which was printed in 1969 after the Second Vatican Council.
This means that all the way back in 1969, a council with representatives from every mainline protestant denomination in the world chose the Scripture lessons for this very day. I want us all to remember this today because it would be easy to imagine that the lessons we’ve read today are trying to make some partisan statement. The lessons we heard today are nothing short of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work in these passages, bringing into the consciousness of our worship some very real pain and suffering that is going on outside of these walls. The Spirit is urging us to stop pretending that we can forget the world when we come in here or forget what we do in here when we go back out there. The Spirit is offering comfort, too, that issues like race, ethnicity, and religion have been complex issues since the very beginning of time. Our most faithful response is to listen, with open ears and open hearts, to what the Spirit is saying in the Bible lessons today, even if what we hear is something we don’t want to hear.
First, lets listen to the pain we hear, particularly in Matthew’s account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus treats her horribly. When the woman begs Jesus for mercy for the sake of her demon-possessed daughter, Jesus ignores her and remains completely silent. Then he seems to give in to some peer pressure from the disciples who urge him to send her away. When the woman refuses to be ignored and pleads her case once more, Jesus insults her and her daughter by calling them dogs. This whole episode feels really awful and it is not something we have come to expect from Jesus.
The most traditional interpretation of this incident is that Jesus isn’t really being mean to the woman, he is just testing her. By putting up a barrier constructed on the basis of the woman’s race, and the fact that she is not a part of the nation of Israel, Jesus is really just seeing if she has the strength and gumption to overcome. And then, when she passes the test with her persistence, Jesus gives her an ‘A’ by healing her daughter. As you might imagine, I don’t buy it—and not many others buy this interpretation either. This interaction runs contrary to almost every other story of Jesus we have in the gospels. So if Jesus isn’t testing the woman’s faith or persistence, what is really happening here?
With the help of some preachers and teachers who are far wiser than I ever will be, I’ve come believe that this is the moment when the mission of Jesus opens up and becomes much more broad. Jesus had a very specific focus for his mission on earth—he was the long-awaited Messiah of chosen Israelite people. But the Canaanite woman breaks that specific focus wide open and broadens the scope of Jesus’ mission. Jesus says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” To this, the woman replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” With this painful and pitiable and faithful response, the Canaanite woman does not just ask to be seen and heard…she demands it. She demands that Jesus recognize her as a child of God even though she is racially and ethnically outside the chosen people of Israel. The Canaanite woman won’t back down until she is truly seen and heard, and in doing so she teaches Jesus that the God of his mission is a God of love for all people—Israel and every other nation on earth.
In some ways I am uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus learning—maybe that makes you uncomfortable, too. John’s gospel begins with this long hymn about how Jesus was the creating wisdom behind all things in the beginning, entirely one with God. This does not sound like someone who needs to or has to learn anything. Yet, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples and sends them into the world to make disciples. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That ‘all’ is significant—that ‘all’ carries the same weight as ‘everyone’ when Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The Jesus who called the Canaanite woman a dog and the Jesus who commissioned the disciples are very different, and it very may well be that the change in Jesus came by way of the Canaanite woman.
Now, let’s listen to why this matters and is so timely. If we think and speak truthfully, it is way too easy for us to assume that God is on our side, looks like us, favors our positions, and endorses our views. Call it sinful, call it human weakness, call it something learned that is nearly impossible to unlearn, but let’s be honest: it is really, really easy for us to imagine that God is like us. On one level, the ability to imagine that God is like us is absolutely crucial for our formation as God’s people. That is the whole message of Christmas—God came down and took on our flesh and breathed the air we breath…God became one of us. On another level, though, we commit a great sin when we imagine that God is only like us—as in, God is like us and not like anyone else.
The Canaanite woman teaches Jesus that God’s mission and vision and compassion and mercy are bigger than what he may have initially imagined, and she teaches us the same. The Canaanite woman teaches exactly what the prophet Isaiah said on God’s behalf: ‘for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.’ It is of some comfort to know that we are not the first of God’s people to struggle with the wideness of God’s mission. The Israelites worked longer and harder at keeping folks out of the temple than they did welcoming them in. God gave them a lot of laws to follow and rituals to carry out, but the Israelites piled even more laws and rituals onto those. Worthiness to enter the temple, to worship God in the temple, was limited to one race, one nationality, and one’s ability to follow every law to the very letter. God desires otherwise—God desires for these houses we build to be a place for all people and not just some.
That’s a timely message, isn’t it? All the way from six centuries before Christ and from the time he roamed the earth, we have this message of God’s wide and broad and all-encompassing grace, mercy, and love. As terrorists are driving their cars through crowds of people, and Neo-Nazis are marching on American soil, and every group and organization is trying to draw lines between who is in and who is out, the Scriptures, and the God they testify to, is drawing us into an entirely different way of life. In the economy of God’s kingdom there is no ‘in’ and ‘out,’ no one group who is more valuable than another, no race, ethnicity, or gender that can claim to have a greater portion of God’s grace, mercy, and love. Any person who makes this claim, or any group that makes this claim, I believe will sadly see that the God who came to life in Jesus Christ is not with them, but with those who have been called dogs and greeted with complete silence.
I believe—and I’m 99.9% sure—that all of us here today know this. I’m almost entirely sure that all of know that Paul is right when he said to the Romans, “God shows no partiality.” But we are human; we are fallen; we live in a fallen world. It is easy to forget that God does not show partiality. None of us are immune to a mob mentality, and right now this world is filled with mobs of every brand and kind. Our responsibility as Christ’s followers is to resist the influence of these mobs and live deeply into the new community of Christ. The new community of Christ sows love where there is hatred. The new community of Christ gives pardon where there is injury. The new community of Christ holds on to faith when there is doubt. The new community of Christ lives out hope where there is despair. The new community of Christ shines an unwavering light into all darkness. The new community of Christ is joyful, shedding away all sadness. And the new community of Christ understands and then takes on the broad and ever-broadening mission of God in the world.
This is our calling today: to be the new community of Christ that learns from the Canaanite woman, that flings wide the doors of the church and our very hearts to be a place of welcome, prayer, peace, and acceptance for all of God’s people. This calling does not come with any caveats, either. The love of God—the love that came to life in Jesus and died and rose again—is for all people. God is working in us and with us and through us to make this world, this community, this very congregation a more just and equitable place. God is giving us courage and grace that is sufficient to meet the challenges of the day. God is beckoning us to come and stand with and for those who suffer and are persecuted. God is begging us to have open ears and hearts and minds to the pleas of those who seek a better world, a better life, a better place to call home. Our choices are many, but only one is best: to answer God’s call, to embrace the good news of the Gospel and the cross, and do the things God wants us to do and be the people God wants us to be: loving, merciful, compassionate, generous, forgiving, bold, and graceful. With God’s help, and together with each other and our siblings in faith all across the globe, may it be so. Amen.