Sermon at Grace Church
August 14, 2011
Pentecost 9 – Proper 15
by the Rev. Constance Jones
A priest friend of mine says you should always preach on the hardest lectionary text.
Not hard to figure that out today, is it?
The Gospel reading from Matthew
where Jesus first ignores a woman begging him to heal her daughter.
Then, when she persists, he calls her a dog.
Don’t you know I’ve come for the sake of the redemption of Israel, he says?
And you – you Canaanite dog – you expect the blessing to come to you?
Geez. This is one of those embarrassing passages in the Bible
that we cringe to hear read aloud.
This woman, not a Jew, nevertheless calls Jesus a Son of David.
She also acknowledges him as Lord,
which most of Jesus’ own people don’t.
She knows he can give her what she needs.
Being insulted is not going to deter her.
Nor is the ban on a woman speaking to a man or a Gentile to a Jew.
The woman is both inappropriate and a big pest.
But she has the nerve to present her deepest need before the throne of God’s mercy. Don’t just walk away from me! she insists.
DO this for me! Yes YOU do this
I know it’s what I need, and a crumb from your table would suffice.
There’s something about this woman we can’t help but admire.
Her love for her child, her persistence, her spunk.
And more still – this lowly woman sees that Jesus is Lord of the universe –
he’s the one that can do what only God can do.
And she has the chutzpah to force God to be God.
A very strange story this is,
filled with mysteries and conundrums the church had to deal with.
Is salvation for the Jews alone, or are the Gentiles included?
Was Jesus divine or human or both?
And another intriguing question:
how aware was Jesus himself of his own identity, his mission, and God’s plan?
In the Gospel of John,
Jesus seems always to know everything and its meaning from the beginning.
Everything is part of God’s Big Plain, and Jesus knows it.
But in this Matthew story,
we see the Canaanite woman sort of arguing Jesus into who he is,
persuading him to universalize the gift of salvation God has put in his hands.
In causing him to change his mind, it is though she ministers to him.
Then he ministers to her.
And another thing: the woman insists on Jesus actually facing her,
seeing her completely and three-dimensionally.
She pulls him into a direct, unmediated relationship
bypassing conventions, taboos, evasions or
any barrier to authentic relationship.
She insists on what Jewish mystic Martin Buber calls an I-Thou relationship,
not an I-It one.
And Jesus gives it to her.
I confess I can’t answer all the questions this passage raises.
But there is a raw genuineness to it,
and I think it’s very important.
So here’s a kind of speculation, just sort of from where Connie is this week,
offered to where you are this week on your own journey.
We know that Jesus was fully human.
The church says so, and the evidence seems solid.
He had hands and feet, he ate supper like you and I do,
and I’m sure he went to sleep at night.
Now, part of the church’s tradition says that Jesus was fully divine –
not just from his miraculous birth,
but in John’s view, from before all creation –
so one was he with the Father, the Maker of all things.
And, an art-history aside here.
Artists’ renditions of Jesus as a baby have quite a range, don’t they?
Some depict Jesus as a little bitty garden-variety baby.
But others give him a very wise and mature face,
or put an orb, a symbol of kingly power, in his hand.
Or he’s raising his right hand in blessing –
as if he were the Savior from day one.
That’s a very Gospel-of-John sort of view of Jesus.
Anyway – what if instead, during the course of his lifetime,
through those adolescent years that the Bible is so silent about,
through those forty days in the wilderness,
what if Jesus was in some sort of a process
growing into all that his Father made him to be,
into the messiah, the Christ, the full embodiment of who God is?
And what if part of this process of growth
was not just in prayer with God and being ministered to by angels –
but what if part of it was in Jesus’ interaction with people?
His disciples of course: the twelve,
his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus,
and the other men and women followers –
the named ones like Mary Magdalene and the ones the Bible doesn’t name.
And strangers as well, people he met on the road –
the ones the Bible carefully tells us about, and the others it doesn’t.
What if Jesus discovered, in a sense,
the Christliness God planted in him
even through interactions with Pharisees and their arguments?
What if that Christliness grew in him until it reached its zenith
in his crucifixion and resurrection –
but that all along it required relationships?
Relationships in which God inhabited the space between Jesus and other people
shaping and sanctifying all that was said, all that was done,
for God’s own purpose?
What if Jesus, in a sense, grew into God?
If that is true,
I figure it helps teach us about our lives.
Because although I know I encounter God when I am alone,
I can testify equally to encountering God in relationships,
and in the way my own story (in connection with other people’s) unfolds.
I’ll tell you one odd little story
in which I detect this sort of holy unfolding of things.
In about 2009 Grace Church learned of a legacy from the O’Hara family.
We inherited the deed to a small parcel of land on Route 17,
to be used to create a scholarship at Christopher Newport University.
The vestry duly sold the property, consulted with with the university, s
and et up a scholarship for a commuter student who kept up his or her grades.
CNU’s financial aid people would choose the student. So, we’d faithfully done our job.
Just this past month,
we received a letter from this year’s scholarship student, Maja Mastilovic,
a native of Bosnia who grew up in a war zone
before she migrated with her parents to the United States.
It was a very gracious thank-you letter,
filled with idealistic ambition to change the world, promote peace and justice,
and use her education well.
Dick Swift read the letter to the vestry, and we were deeply moved.
The next day, somebody suggested to me that we invite Maja to be our
at our September Celtic Eucharist.
It’ll be on the evening of 9/11, that 10th anniversary, and our theme is peace
I invited her, and she’s coming. Bringing her mother too.
I’ve asked the chaplain at CNU to bring some students.
You won’t be surprised if I say this:
I don’t know how the evening will unfold exactly,
but that I’m expecting the Holy Spirit to be there.
I think if you “put on the mind of Christ” as Paul puts it,
these sorts of things happen.
It’s the task of our lives to grow into God,
to open our eyes to see God in the spaces between people.
And it makes the responsibilities of being a Christian –
feeding the hungry, praying for our enemies, forgiving 770 times,
giving our money away –
it makes these things joyous and almost automatic.
And it leaves very little time to decide who the dogs are.
Because with this mind of Christ
nothing seems to be excluded.
Not people, not circumstances, not even broken things.
It’s all part of the unity of holiness.
Whether we’re young or old, limping or running,
successful or struggling,
we’re all located in God’s story.
And every one of us is invited at every moment
to live with a full heart into all God created us to be as his beloved,
in his company, and in each other’s.
Every body and every thing in the created order is included in this.
Everybody’s chosen, and nobody’s a dog under the table.
There comes to be even no dividing line between the living and the dead.
The Canaanite woman got it.
She insisted on a face-to-face with Jesus,
and he granted the deepest desire of her heart.
He will not do one molecule less for you and me.
But hold onto your hat.
The ride you go on will take you to places of glory
you can’t possibly ever imagine, in this world or the next. Amen.