August 17, 2014, Pentecost 10 – Behold, How Good and Pleasant It Is
Unfortunately, due to dead batteries, there is no recording of this sermon.
This has been a week of unrest in our world. In particular, in St. Louis Missouri, just a few blocks from where my sister lives, an 18-year-old man, unarmed, was shot and killed by a police officer, leading to a lot of anger and suspicion, accusations and some very violent rioting in the streets. The news reports were so bad that my sister’s neighbor got a call from a relative in Israel, asking if she was alright. Closer to home, two little Amish girls were taken from their family’s roadside stand – and please God they have been found safe and well before I give this sermon. The clash between black and white in St. Louis, between Jew and Arab in Palestine, between the innocent and the very ill – the human family doesn’t seem very near to dwelling in that good, pleasant unity that we read about in the psalm today.
Particularly in the light of all these conflicts, I think the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a hard one for us to read, because it is one of those rare stories where Jesus seems not to act like the Jesus we like to think we know, the gentle, kind, peaceful Jesus who never offends anyone except maybe those arrogant Pharisees. This story makes us squirm a little, at least if we are honestly listening to it. And that is generally a good thing, because it is always best for us to be shaken out of our assumptions.
But first, there’s a back story that we have to understand, and it goes way back, back to the covenant God made with Abraham before there were any Jews and Gentiles at all. The plan being, that God was choosing this one family, Abraham’s family, from out of all mankind, and that through the one family he was going to reach out and bless all of humanity.
That was God’s end game, his grand plan from the very beginning, to bring blessing and healing to the whole world, which was badly in need of both. And he chose to do it through Abraham’s descendants, the Jews, and from the very beginning, God committed himself to bringing it off. Through the centuries, despite his people’s stubbornness or stupidness or rebelliousness, it was his sure plan to bless and heal the whole world through his love for this special family.
And Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes how this worked out for us, that our salvation came about through God’s relationship with the children of Abraham, and lest we be arrogant about it, he reminds us that our acceptance flowed out of Israel’s disobedience, and that furthermore, Israel’s acceptance would surely come about, no matter what, because they had been the specially chosen people of God from the first, and God would certainly be faithful to them, just as he was faithful to reach out to us through them. Because it is the mystery of God that he rewards us all, not for our great righteousness or valour or love, but out of his own great righteousness and valour and love.
And so back to this uncomfortable gospel story. This interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, as harsh and ungracious and even racist as it seems on the surface, actually serves to reveal the outworking of God’s gracious and loving plan – the course of salvation that was designed from the beginning to flow through the little human family descended from Abraham of Ur – through them, and then out to all of mankind, including the Canaanites, including this poor woman and her critically ill daughter.
There is so much going on in the story, on a purely human level. First of all, this woman was a Canaanite – and you have to realize, a good Jew wouldn’t so much as brush against a Canaanite in the marketplace without having to go home and take a shower – and she was a Canaanite woman, no less, because women in that place and at that time were barely above the level of cows and donkeys – for a Canaanite woman to make a public outcry, demanding Jesus’ attention and help, was an act of either arrogance – or just plain desperation. And it shocks me, every time I read this, that Jesus seems to respond to her with such un-grace. But there is that back story, that centuries-old back story, that illuminates what is going on, and if we read with understanding, Jesus’s response to the woman is not what it seems.
“I have been sent, to go first to the children of Israel.” Jesus told the woman. “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” “Dogs” was a derogatory term that the Jews used to refer to the Gentiles, because dogs were unclean animals. But the thing is that Jesus didn’t use the contemptuous word for “dog” that Jews used for insulting Gentiles – he used a different word, a term people used for a little pet dog – almost an affectionate term. And we can see how the woman took heart at Jesus’ words. She recognized the enormous difference between plain speaking and contempt, and so she made her wonderfully bold and faith-filled reply. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “You’re right, but even those little dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
In some way, in that moment, the woman understood that although God’s calling went out first to his chosen people, his grace and blessing were never intended to stop there, but to flow out to every family and every race. And she was right. And Jesus, delighted by the woman’s faith and understanding, healed her daughter right then and there.
Prejudice and racism, the barrier of hatred between Jews and Gentiles, between Arabs and Israelis, between Black and White Americans, between Sunni Muslims and Shiah Muslims – all hatred and distrust and bitterness, these are symptoms of a world that is ravaged by sin. It is every bit as painful and horrific as the Ebola virus, and every bit as deadly.
Oh, how good and how pleasant it is, the psalm says longingly, when brothers live together in unity. Like the Canaanite woman’s daughter, our world, our whole world, all of mankind, are desperately in need of healing. But God’s healing, what we call salvation, doesn’t come about with a blanket cure-all – it comes about with the relationship of brother to brother, of person to person. God’s plan of salvation began with God calling one man, Abraham, to follow him into the wilderness; God’s plan of salvation continued with Jesus stopping to listen to the cry of a desperate mother. It’s the way God works, it’s the reason he became a man, because it was not his will to zap mankind into goodness and health like a pest-control company fumigating an infested house. It was his will to love our world into goodness and health one relationship at a time, until, brother living together with brother in unity, all would be healed.
And what is needed is the very thing we read about in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Oh, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity. The healing of the disease of sin can only come about through the healing between brother and brother: first, the chains of guilt and shame and death were broken by Jesus, who came as our brother, on the cross, and then, from there, salvation spread like ripples in the breaking of chains from person to person to person to person through the grace of forgiveness and compassion.
You can see the grace so clearly in the story of Joseph. He had a real grievance against his brothers; they had hated him, had conspired to kill him, had chosen to sell him into slavery instead because it meant a greater profit to them. And yet, when they came to him in their need he was able to break free of the chains of bitterness and hurt and hatred, to forgive his brothers and so to release them and to release himself as well, from the very real sin of the past. He wept, so loudly that the whole household heard him; he was washed clean, and they were able to make a new beginning.
Salvation works through people, in the relationship of brother to brother, or sister to sister, and the healing of the world comes about not through a catastrophic flood, not by a terrifying flash of divine power, but by the touch of one human being to another: first of all by the touch of Jesus, the God who reached out in mercy to a Canaanite mother and the man who gave up his life for his friends. It is a work of salvation that Joseph forgave his brothers. It is an outworking of salvation when we have compassion for someone we have seen as an enemy; it is an outworking of salvation when we forgive someone for the injury they have done us, even if it is just for today, even if we will have to work up the courage to forgive all over again tomorrow.
At the center of it all is Jesus, who became man so that he could bring the work of salvation to all of mankind, and salvation radiates out from him in every direction in all times and places, in every act of love, in every act of forgiveness, in every act of compassion. The salvation he accomplished bears fruit in our lives as we live in unity and compassion, as we offer kindness, as we offer forgiveness, as we look for the hurt within the one who hurts. It might seem a uselessly small thing that we do in the face of the world’s violence and pain and hatred and suffering, but in the kingdom of God sizes are not what they seem. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to work miracles, and the love of even one person for another is the fruit of salvation. Even to offer a cup of cold water to a brother or sister in need is the glorious fruit of salvation. Because the end game of God is the drawing of all mankind into one family, in the perfection of his love. His will will certainly be done. It is being done. And it is being done through us.
Oh, how good and pleasant it is, *
when brethren live together in unity!
It is like the dew of Hermon *
that falls upon the hills of Zion.
For there the LORD has ordained the blessing: *
life for evermore.
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