Sermon August 16, 2020

My younger granddaughter, Alyssa, is two years old.  She loves to do things on her own.  She is learning to be independent and that includes eating.  She likes to cut her own food and refuses to have anyone help her eat anything.  As it turns out, when she eats, some of the food ends up on the chair or the floor or even on her.  I think of this as all part of growing up. 

The dog, Lava, keeps a close eye on Alyssa.  She hovers by her chair during mealtime and is always ready to scoop up any food that falls from the table.  Lava’s actions are considered helpful.  She is often called upon to clean the floors when there is a spill.  But sometimes Lava’s actions are not appreciated.  She will follow Alyssa around the room when Alyssa is carrying some food.  Alyssa will hold her hand up high in the air to keep the food from Lava.  But sometimes Lava is able to snatch food right from Alyssa’s hand.  What I admire about the dog, Lava, is her persistence.  She just never gives up getting some people food.  And she continues to search for this kind of food even though she has been admonished.   

Today’s gospel is the story of a woman whose daughter is healed through the woman’s persistence.  This reading is quite difficult. The response of Jesus to her request seems surprising and uncomfortable even harsh.  I always think of Jesus as compassionate but this story doesn’t lend itself to that understanding. 

Jesus and his disciples first ignored the woman and her pleading.  The disciples told Jesus to send her away. Then Jesus tells her outright that he didn’t come to help her kind of people. Jesus finally says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.  How do we understand the actions of Jesus?  Did Jesus come only for the people of Israel?  

We might want to explain away the harshness, the rejection of this woman by Jesus.  He was testing her we might say or Jesus wanted her to show humility.  I prefer to accept it as is and not try to explain it away.  It certainly is one of the hard sayings of Jesus.  One commentator even suggested this encounter with the woman caused Jesus to expand his ministry to the Gentiles.  We all fall into the trap of thinking that the stranger, the foreigner, is not unworthy, certainly not acceptable, not good enough.  Jesus listened and responded to the woman, the Gentile. 

In her words and actions she showed that she believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David;” she said.  When she described him as the son of David, she was saying that he was the Messiah.  She came and knelt before him another sign of her belief in his Kingship.  But perhaps it was her quick-witted response to his words about the dogs that convinced him of her faith.  Even the dogs deserve some scraps from the table.  She may have first appeared to Jesus as a Canaanite woman but her words described her as a believer.  She accepted Jesus as the Messiah when many of his own people did not. 

Professor Willam Boyce summarized it this way, “this story offers that wondrously-strange and persistent faith that stands its ground against all opposition. This woman is not to be put off, and against all the signs of apparent hopelessness, doggedly stands her ground, persistently seeking the Lord's help, even if it is only to be in those meager crumbs that might fall from the "master's" table. And in the wonderful surprise that is the miracle of faith, she meets the gracious healing power of God.” 

Theologian John Kavanaugh suggested that the Canaanite woman embodies the constant and universal quality that every human heart—Jew or Gentile, woman or man, slave or free—possesses. It was her and our own willingness to call out in faith.  It is a power we have. Kavanaugh would say that we share a power with Sarah and Abraham with Mary and Joseph, from Romans to rabbis, Africans to Indians.  Let us call upon God in faith.  Our faith is a power that unites us with others and unites us with God.

Similar words can be found in the reading from Romans.  Paul described himself as a follower of Jesus and yet he connected his faith to the faith of the Jewish people.  God has not given up on the Jews, he wrote. After all, God promised that he would care for the Jewish people and he continues to do so even today. 

Jesus often tested the Jewish rules and laws.  He was clearly uncomfortable with the purification rites and rules for eating.  Here is another time for testing boundaries.  As New testament professor Carla Works writes, "Her words demonstrate that the boundary separating her from the house of Israel must be reconsidered. The encounter with the Canaanite woman prepares the reader for Jesus’ great commission to go and to make disciples of all the nations”.

I have been thinking recently about the plight of outsiders.  We have many examples in our world today.  I have been reflecting on the challenge faced by women as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women receiving the vote in the United States.  Some like to say women were given the right to vote but I think it more correct to say that they demanded the right to vote.  It took 72 years of continual rejection and persistence before the vote was finally made in favor of women.

In a two-part PBS series, I learned actions started in 1848 when women first started to protest, to actively go into the streets for the right to vote.  There were many difficult issues that the suffragettes had to face.  How would they relate to the desire for black men and women to vote as well?  Would their protests be calm and civil or radical and demanding?  Should they start at the state level or request a constitutional amendment?  As they worked, people said and wrote awful things about what would happen if women voted and about the women suffragettes.  Progress for the women was painful and slow with many defeats.  Near the end, women protested outside the White House and were arrested and struggled physically in jails.    The outcome was never certain and did not occur until 3/4 of the states approved the amendment.  Tennessee was the last chance for woman suffrage.  The state approved and it passed by only one vote.  The suffragette movement showed that persistence matters.  The women never gave up.  They were similar to the woman in our gospel who withstood rejection and just kept asking.  

I appreciated the sermon given by Philip Stowell last week.  He spoke about how you and I are not always heard and seen the way we intend to be heard and seen. How do you see yourself? How do you imagine that others see you? Do you sometimes want to say to people, “Oh, that is not what I meant at all! You do not understand what I am saying.”   We are all different and we sometimes feel rejected, we can even sense that we are not good enough to be accepted by God. It is just those times that I ask you to have hope.  I ask you to be persistent in faith, especially as you reach out to God. 

Matthew gave us these words of Jesus. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

So let us pray to Jesus in faith and with persistence.  Let us pray that Jesus will keep us safe and healthy from the Covid-19 virus.  Let us pray that humans will be healed of their divisions and united as one family. Let us never stop asking God for what we need. 

I encourage you to follow one of the prayers found in our prayer book called the prayer for quiet confidence. 

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us be persistent like the woman in today’s lesson.  Sometimes a derogatory term used about a group of people becomes a source of pride.  I suggest that we be proud of the fact that as Gentiles we were once referred to as dogs and realize that dogs like our own Lava can be persistent in a way that gets us some really good food.  The Gentile dogs have become the ones who ask Jesus to feed us and he has responded over and over.  May you be quietly confident that Jesus hears your prayers, that Jesus is thankful for your faith and will forever listen to your needs.  Amen. 


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