Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 18, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28
Sermon: "A Broader Definition of Faith"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
A Broader Definition of Faith
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost - August 18, 2002
This morning's Gospel is about faith. The surface conclusion of the story seems to be that faith is something that we have or we don't have. In other words, we are in an all or none situation. If we have great faith, God will respond to our requests. If we have little or no faith, God will not answer our prayers or requests. There are two problems with this concept. The first one is that God becomes a ruler whom we have to please in order to have our needs met. The second one is that the reception of God's grace is dependent not on God but on us.
If we define faith as constant belief in a God we have to please where would we begin? We could start with promising to follow all of the commandments. We would love our neighbors every moment of every day. We would care for all the sick, the blind, the needy and those in prison. We would never lie, cheat or steal. We would never look at a gorgeous woman or handsome man and think anything improper. In addition, we would constantly keep our heart, soul, mind, and strength on God every second of every day. Just to give us an idea of what that endeavor looks like I did the math. We would keep our thoughts on God sixty seconds of every minute, 3,600 seconds of every hour, 86,400 seconds of every day, and 31,536,000 seconds of every year, Can any of us accomplish this task? Even if we wanted to we could not please God continually. We are sinful people. We cannot do everything right all the time. We cannot believe fully in the grace of God with all of our heart and soul and mind continually. If God is a ruler whom we have to please with great faith in order to have our needs met we are truly lost.
Obviously, the second problem is closely tied to the first. If we receive God's grace due to our actions then grace becomes petty. What happens when we our actions are good? Bill was good today so I'll give him a little bit of grace. I'll help him with his finances tomorrow. Jane was real good yesterday, so I'll grant her good health for the next week. What happens when our actions are bad? James wasn't so good today I won't stop him from getting that cold. Deborah was really bad today, so I won't answer her prayers for healing for her sister who is dying of cancer. In this model God becomes a harsh ruler dispensing justice on an incredibly harsh scale. God is then the author of all the good that happens in the world and for all the evil that occurs in the world.
When faith is defined strictly as constant belief in God these two problems exist. This poor definition of faith does exist today. Some examples. I heard a minister tell a family at the death of their child, "This was God's will." A man was dying of cancer. The cancer he had was very painful. A visitor turned to a friend of the family and said, "He must be paying for some horrible sins to suffer so." I have heard various talks on money from people. In many of these talks I have heard the words, "If you live right and give an appropriate amount of money to the church, God will bless you." The implication of course is that if we don't live right and give appropriately we will not be blessed by God. If we define faith as constant, unwavering belief in God, then we are place ourselves on a very slippery slope indeed.
So, how do we define faith? Looking at the Canaanite woman in the Gospel this morning may provide a clue. In the story, Jesus has just left the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were arguing with Jesus over eating food with unclean hands. The disciples had broken one of the laws the religious leaders attributed to having faith in God. Now as Jesus is walking away from that confrontation, this woman appears. She is not Jewish. She is a Canaanite, a gentile by definition. Yet, she approaches Jesus using words of ancient Jewish prayer. "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David, my daughter is tormented by a demon." The disciples want her sent away, and Jesus tells her that she was sent to the Jewish people. He calls the people "lost". The reason he calls them lost is because of the religious leaders. The religious leaders' rules of faithfulness hold the people in that poor definition of trying to please God by our actions.
The woman is not deterred. She comes and kneels before Jesus. She says the simplest of prayers, "Lord, help me." Jesus tells her it is not right to throw the children's food to the dogs." This comment sounds hard and harsh. We could spend a great deal of time on it. However, the woman's response is where we need to go. She claims even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall on the floor as the family dines. The woman is not to be deterred. Jesus grants her request proclaiming she has great faith. She did not try to do any act to gain Jesus' favor. She did not attempt to please Jesus to gain her request.
She came to Jesus in what the commentary calls "worshipful struggle". She came to Jesus praying with her request. She came to Jesus and knelt at his feet. She refused to take no for an answer, and kept praying, asking and hoping. She wasn't living by the Jewish religious laws. She wasn't trying to impress upon Jesus her devotion to God. She was willing to engage Jesus. She was willing to ask God to take action in her life. She was willing to struggle with God. She even told Jesus exactly how she felt about his answers. The definition of faith is not just believing. Faith is also being willing to engage and struggle with God. Faith is filled not only with belief but with doubt. The scriptures are full of people of faith who questioned and struggled with God. When God told Abraham and Sarah they were going to have a child did they believe? No. They laughed. When God told Moses to get the people out of Egypt did Moses say, "Yes Lord"? No. He said, "You talking to me?" When Jesus tells Peter he would deny him three times, Peter said never, not me. Then he denied Jesus three times. Yet, he was also one of the first to see the empty tomb.
Faith is not easy. Faith is not simply believing. Faith is a daily journey with a loving and caring God. As all journeys go it has ups and downs. There are hills, valleys, and smooth places. In just a few moments we are going to welcome Abbey on the first step of her journey. We will welcome her into the faith of the church and into a relationship with the living God. As she is baptized we might pray for her to be bold, to be courageous, to be persistent. These characteristics would aid her well in her journey of faith. They would aid her in a worshipful struggle with God. Faith is not simply believing. Faith is engaging God and asking God to continually be a part of our lives.