Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 14, 2005
The Gospel: Matthew 15: 21-28
Sermon: "Entering into the Struggle with God and with Ourselves"
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.
Matthew 15: 21-28
Entering into the Struggle with God and with Ourselves
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost - August 14, 2005
The spiritual theme of this year's mission trip was about sanctuary. In preparing for the trip I did some study on the word. At one time in human history, the church was seen as a place of sanctuary. If someone had committed a crime or was accused of a crime, they could enter a church and claim sanctuary. They would be safe until a trial could be arranged. No one could harm them. As I reflected I also remembered the movie "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" where I first saw this term used in this way. I also remembered that Disney had done a cartoon version of the old story.
So I found the film and watched it. While the meaning of the word sanctuary was very present, there was another scene and song that really stood out. In the scene, Esmerelda has asked for sanctuary from the person pursuing her. She is safe but she is also unable to leave the church. If she leaves the church she will be arrested immediately. Now, she is wandering around the cathedral looking at the statues of Mary and Jesus and seeing the beautiful stained glass windows. In addition to Esmerelda, there are others walking around too. Staying away from the others, she begins to pray. She prays not for herself, but for the gypsies, the people like her, that are unprotected from this evil man. He is after all the gypsies. He wants them all destroyed because they are different. As Esmeralda is praying, we get to hear the prayers of the town’s people as well. They are praying for riches. They are praying for power. They are praying for possessions. Yet, all the while Esmerelda continuously prays for the outcasts, the gypsies. She believes if God is indeed God, then God is God of the outcast too. At the end of the film, we will see her belief was correct.
In some respects it may seem odd, to some coincidental, but here we are this Sunday, hearing a similar tale in Matthew's Gospel. Only this time, the woman is a Gentile and Jesus appears to be turning her away. If we take this story simply at face value, then we would see this lesson as being really hard to swallow. If we take a closer look at this story we see hope beyond belief. The hope is found in Matthew's understanding of God's saving history and in the meaning of human faith.
In Matthew's Gospel, God is coming to save humanity. Salvation is sure. However, Matthew also believes that Jesus has come to the Hebrew people first. This time is during Jesus' ministry. The Gentiles will be included in this saving history fully after the resurrection. This story then becomes a window of what is to be. The kingdom of God is to come in the future. We still wait for it to come in its fullness today. Yet, even though we wait for its fullness, the kingdom of God breaks into the present. Even though Matthew fully believes the Jewish people will be first, the Gentiles will receive the blessing of God. God can not be held back by any person's or group's ideology or theology.
We still have the same idea present among people today. We have Christians who believe that their denomination will be chosen first when Christ comes again. We have people who think that if they believe strongly enough, nothing bad will happen and God will save them from the end times. We have some groups who believe that there are only 144,000 slots in heaven. Only those who believe like they do will get past the gate. Thank God, God does not act by our beliefs, but by God's will. God is full of compassion and God does respond to the needs of God's children. Salvation will be offered to all and God will decide what will happen when the time comes. Our hope is in the compassionate embrace of the true and living God.
But I hear this question. If God will decide, what difference does it make what we do? It makes a great deal of difference what we do. We are called to be faithful servants of God. We are called to trust in God no matter what comes our way. Like Job, we keep our faith even in adversity. Like the woman in this story, we worshipfully struggle with God. Some people believe if we struggle or get upset with God then that shows a lack of faith. Quite the contrary, struggling with God shows great faith. We don't struggle with something we don't believe in. We only struggle when we have great belief and are passionate about something. Think about friendship. Two friends may have an argument. If it is a strong relationship, the two will work hard and struggle through, to restore the friendship. If they don't really care about one another, if they don't believe in one another, the friendship would be over.
The woman shows us the depth of how we should worshipfully struggle with God. She doesn't let up. She pursues Jesus with her questions. She struggles with the one she knows can answer her needs. We are encouraged to do the same. We are called to struggle with the one who can hear our questions and answer our prayers as is best for us. In some respects struggling with God is almost a necessity. For the more we struggle, the better we understand. The better we understand, the deeper our faith becomes. The deeper our faith becomes, the more we depend on God. The more we depend on God, the more we worshipfully struggle, because we have more questions and we desire to know the answers. The only one who can answer those questions is God.
Here again, we have to be careful. Just because we are willing to struggle with God does not mean we are better than anyone else. The woman in the story was a Gentile. We have to be careful not to put labels on people. All people have the ability to struggle with God. All people are called into relationship with God the Father and no one is turned away. We sometimes tend to think that because we come to church or sing in the choir, or preach that we have great faith. We tend to think that those who don't act like us or believe like us are outsiders, the others, the outcasts. This story challenges us to broaden our understanding of human faith. Human faith is something we all might have. Some will have more and some will have less. It is not our right to decide for others where they are in their relationship to God. For the moment we do, we are trying to do one and only one thing. We are trying to make sure there is a spot for us in heaven. If someone is below us, we think then we have a better shot of salvation than they do. At that point, our faith in God is really at its lowest.
This woman in our story from Matthew had great faith. She wasn't Hebrew. She may not have even known anything about the Messiah. However, she knew Jesus could help her daughter. For her, that was all that mattered. She had faith that Christ could save the life of her daughter.
For Jesus, that faith was enough. Jesus had compassion on this woman and saved her child even though his time was for the chosen people of God. We are called to respond to those around us who may not know one thing about God. They might be looking for something and we might begin to help them see. To do that takes great humility on our part. For we have to place the other first. In essence, we are saying, "Here, take my place. You enter first."
So we are challenged by this Gospel reading. We are challenged to struggle with God. We are called to struggle in order to increase our faith. We are also called to struggle with our preconceived notions of others. These stories call us to put our own selves in the shoes of the other and see where they are. We will find we are not so removed from them. We are actually closer to them than we think. The struggle becomes breaking down the preconceived ideas and welcoming them into our lives as we all struggle to increase our faith in God.
And all God's people say, AMEN