On Breaking Boundaries, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 20, 2017

Proper 15

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

This week we continue our Pentecost tour through Genesis, Romans, and the parables and stories of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. We have two unsettling encounters: the meeting of Joseph and his brothers, and the meeting of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

The Genesis stories of our founding fathers and mothers are often perplexing. In the last weeks, we have heard Jacob steal his brother’s birthright, deceive his father Isaac, and flee from his brother’s anger. We have heard Laban deceive Jacob, substituting his daughter Leah for Rebecca in the bridal tent. We have heard Joseph’s brothers conspire to kill him and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Yet God has kept his promise to Abraham, and continued to bless the children of Israel. God’s love, we have learned, is unconditional.

The character of Joseph is as complicated as that of his father Jacob. Sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, he has risen to a position of power in the palace of Pharaoh through his skill as an interpreter of dreams and a political advisor. He has predicted a seven-year drought and helped Egypt prepare by storing a quantity of grain. Unaware of Joseph’s position, his brothers have come to Egypt from drought-stricken Canaan to buy some grain. They do not recognize Joseph, who sells them the food, but then practices some deception of his own. He secretly hides a silver cup in the sack of his younger brother Benjamin, so that it will appear that the brothers have stolen from him. In an act of supreme irony, he demands that the brothers leave Benjamin with him as his slave. At this point, brother Judah begs Joseph to let him stay in Benjamin’s place, because the loss of the child of his old age will surely kill their elderly father. This is where today’s reading begins.

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, who are understandably horrified and afraid at this turn of events. Joseph responds with this spin on their attempt to get rid of him: it wasn’t you who sent me to Egypt, but God, who sent me before you to preserve life. And indeed, if Joseph were not in Pharaoh’s house, the children of Israel would succumb to famine and die out. Once again, God has saved the children of Israel.

This passage is sometimes read as one of forgiveness and reconciliation, as Joseph forgives his brothers and the family is reunited. The fact that Joseph is revealed as a manipulator and deceptive character, setting his little brother Benjamin up for a charge of stealing, makes one wonder about this interpretation. As an individual, Joseph is hard to love. In this story, Joseph appears as a difficult character, playing a role in the larger story of God’s love for God’s people, Israel.

Today’s passage from Romans confirms that God never rejects God’s people. Paul points out that he is a member of the tribe of Benjamin. The passage might even be read as being addressed to Joseph by Benjamin. Even though you, Joseph, and the children of Israel have been disobedient, the gifts of God are not revoked. God is merciful, always, to everyone.

The story of the Canaanite woman’s faith has a problematic element as well. Jesus has crossed from Galilee into the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is gentile territory. A woman begs for mercy and healing for her afflicted daughter, recognizing Jesus as Lord and Son of David. Jesus, once he deigns to answer her, gives an unsettling reply: I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Not to an outsider, a woman, a Gentile. Even when she kneels before him, implying worship and a deep understanding of his divine status, he refers to her and her daughter as dogs. Yet she persists, again addressing Jesus as Lord, and insists that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table. Not only does she see clearly who Jesus is, but also she understands how great is his power to heal. God’s mercy is abundant; God’s healing and love overflow; there is enough for not only the children of Israel, but also for the entire world.

Let us assume that we are not dealing with grouchy Jesus in this passage, but rather with teaching Jesus. Jesus is illustrating for his disciples that true faith is persistent and open-eyed, and extends to a wider world beyond the Jewish community. Here it’s helpful to look back at his explanation of things that defile, which precedes the story of the Canaanite woman’s faith.

The Pharisees and scribes have challenged Jesus, asking why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. They imply that Jesus and his disciples are breaking the traditional purity laws. Jesus replies: It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out. What goes into the mouth is flushed out into the sewer; it is a passing, temporary uncleanliness, unimportant. What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Evil intentions such as murder, theft, and lies are what truly defile.

In today’s reading, Jesus has crossed the boundary between the land of Israel and gentile territory. He has redefined boundaries of what is clean and what is unclean, and he has redefined the boundaries of the kingdom of God, extending the kingdom beyond the borders of Israel. What comes from the heart of the Canaanite woman is faith: faith that God’s love and God’s mercy extend to all. In today’s passage from Genesis, Joseph’s brothers have crossed the boundary from their home in the land of Israel into Egypt to discover to what lengths God will go to preserve the house of Israel. Both stories remind us of the greatness of God’s love and mercy.

Reading these two stories during the season of Pentecost, when we celebrate the role of the Church in the work of God in the world, reminds us that God is constantly entering new territory and breaking boundaries. God’s work, and the work of the Church, is to meet outsiders and grant them a place at the table. It comes down to remembering that we are all God’s children, that God’s love is unconditional, and that God’s mercy extends beyond all boundaries. So perhaps reading today’s passage from Genesis as a story of reconciliation is not so far-fetched after all!

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she leads weekly Taizé prayer. She is writing a book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.

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Who are the chosen?, 10 Pentecost, Proper 15 (A) – 2014

August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 (or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67); Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

In today’s passages we encounter the prickly theme of “choseness.” Does God have favorites? Is there really a chosen nation, a chosen people? If God is the Creator of us all, how can this be? Not easy questions to confront or to answer. Not when we now know what terrible acts have been perpetrated by those who believe that God is on their side – and that includes both Christians and non-Christians.

In the extraordinary New Testament story we read this morning, we encounter a side of Jesus that affronts our modern sensibilities and certainly our political correctness. The words Jesus uses to argue with the Canaanite woman are not ones we expect from his mouth. What is going on here?

Let’s look at the story and its setting as Matthew describes it. Jesus has been teaching and walking across the country followed by large crowds. He heals the sick, forgives sins and challenges the established thinking on God. To everyone who thinks that God is satisfied with external piety he brings the enormous challenge of his spirit and his personal knowledge: God looks into the heart. God is not pleased with mere observances; God requires a new way of thinking, of praying, of being. And now tired and needing to escape the crowds, Jesus moves north out of Israel into what we know as Lebanon, the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Mark tells us that Jesus entered a home, probably belonging to friends, and asked them to keep his visit secret. In Matthew we see him entering the region, probably followed only by his disciples, and immediately a woman accosts him, not with a polite request, but with shouting.

There are many characteristics of this woman that fill us with admiration: She must have heard about him even before he entered her city because she is ready. What she heard about him, she believed. She is not a Jew, yet she is using language that is familiar only to Jews of the time. She calls him “Son of David.” She is absolutely certain that Jesus is who he says he is. Unlike his own people, who doubt him and try to trip him at every conversation, she takes it as a given that he alone has the power to heal her little daughter. And because she loves her daughter she will beg, ask and shout until his power gives her what she wants: the healing of her child.

In her pleading, her shouting, she asks first for mercy and then for healing. Apparently Jesus keeps on walking, but she follows. She doesn’t give up. Jesus, however, is silent. Even his disciples, embarrassed at her shouts, ask him to respond, to send her away. They, too, are certain that because she is not a Jew she doesn’t have the right to ask him for anything.

Now Jesus says something not to her or to them: It’s obvious that he is examining a question in his own mind: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This is his mission as he has known it up to this moment. And he has worked at it every moment of his days – to bring his people back to God.

The woman hears his words, but she is the kind who is not deterred by national and religious differences. She will not let them keep her from seeking help. Now Jesus uses language that separates those who think they are God’s chosen from those whom they consider outside God’s grace. The Israelites are the children, and the outsiders are the dogs. In our age and our culture this is heavy language. We don’t exactly know what it meant at that time and in that context, but we know it was not complimentary. The bread is the essence of life. It must be given to the children.

The mother, however, does not budge. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” This poor outsider understands that God’s mercy is so great that even the tiny bit that escapes from the chosen ones is enough for healing and for doing good.

This is what faith means. She knows who he is and she knows that only Jesus can heal her daughter. The rest does not matter: She is a supplicant. She is not proud; she is determined.

And Jesus responds to this faith instantly. In those few minutes, he recognizes that his mission has expanded. A poor woman has shown him this much: He did not come just for the children of Israel. His mercy extends to everyone. Full of admiration, he responds first to her great faith, and then to her wish for her daughter: “Your faith is great. Your daughter is well.”

Thus it is that we all benefit from that woman’s faith. An outcast becomes a catalyst. This is the wonder of the gospel stories. The Good News comes from unexpected places. A woman ignored and considered a nuisance becomes an object of admiration by Jesus himself. Instead of sending her away, he expands his mission from the limits of Judaea to the rest of the world. The encounter does not happen within the land of the chosen but outside it, in the pagan realm of Tyre and Sidon. Once again, God brings good out of what has seemed evil. The dogs enter the same realm as the children. They now eat from the table and not just of the crumbs that fall from it. We owe this woman a great deal. And the prophecy of Isaiah concerning foreigners is fulfilled: They, too, can minister to the Lord.

The Incarnation is vivid in this story, as is the theology of kenosis – the ‘self-emptying’ of our will to become receptive to God’s will. Jesus learns something from a humble woman and from a mother’s love. This is a story to be honored, to be proclaimed and to fill us with gratitude. “Lord have mercy on me,” she cries. And the Lord shows mercy to one considered an outcast.

God’s mercy covers all of us.

 

— Katerina Whitley, a retreat leader, is the author of “Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women” (Morehouse, 1998) and “Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus” (Morehouse, 2002). She lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

 

 

Great is your faith! Great is your love, Pentecost 9, Proper 15 – 2011

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133 (Track 2: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Psalm 67); Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Have you ever felt as desperate as the Caananite woman in today’s gospel? Emotions seem to explode from us when we’re desperate. We’ve all seen pictures on the television of women and men wailing with grief over their children slaughtered in a bomb attack in the Middle East. They often collapse in unbearable pain over the bodies of their precious children. We’ve also see almost desperate happiness. Again, emotions physically explode in tears and dancing when an almost hopeless situation turns out right. Remember the flood of joy and relief when the men trapped in the Chilean mine were rescued? It was so different from the desperate sadness of the families who heard their loved ones had died in the West Virginia mine.

Desperate situations seem to make an outward show of emotion acceptable. When we’re surprised by events – death, new life, rescue, fear – we let ourselves go. Usually others around us or those witnessing an event on TV understand why people are suddenly acting differently.

But isn’t it interesting that we often also feel uncomfortable with a show of emotion? How often have we heard the words, “You’ll get over it,” or “Keep a stiff upper lip,” or “Don’t cry, it was only a dog”?

Somehow, our Western culture especially has evolved to a place where keeping it all inside is best. We don’t want to make others uncomfortable, even when we’re being torn apart inside.

Listen to the disciples in today’s gospel reading: “Send her away for she keeps shouting at us!”

The Caananite woman had a very sick daughter. What loving mother can bear to see her child in any kind of pain? And this woman was desperate. She was desperate enough to break many of that culture’s rules concerning encounters between women and men. She shouted not only at a man, but at someone special. But she not only shouted, she threw herself at his feet when he ignored her. But she not only did that – she argued with Jesus. She put herself in danger of severe consequences. Her desperation overcame her fear. Her concern for her daughter made her emotional! It’s easy for us to say, “Yes, yes, good for her!” But what might we have wanted to say to her if we’d been there?

Jesus isn’t at his “good old helpful Jesus” best today. He’d just been teaching about how people relate to others. He was very cleverly sticking it to those Pharisees who commanded the people to keep every law fastidiously while they themselves were – remember Jesus saying this – “whitened sepulchers.” Some Pharisees were less than good examples to their people, leading fairly self-centered lives, while demanding other people live very controlled lives. So Jesus is saying, it’s much more important to consider how you use words, how you speak to others, how you praise God, than to think only about what you put into your mouth. What comes out of the mouth builds up or tears down.

And God bless Peter! “What do you mean?” he asks.

Jesus reminds him that what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. To the Jew, the heart is life. What we say can be life-giving or destructive. This isn’t news to us. So, we see Jesus being very frustrated in this passage. His followers don’t seem to understand. The Pharisees who were trying to trip him up were deliberately not getting it. And so, we’d imagine that when he got the chance to demonstrate, Jesus would immediately be helpful to this woman.

We’re surprised when he first ignores her, and then seems not only to ignore his own teaching, but he is rude to her. “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” What? Isn’t the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus said so himself.

Several things are going on here. We realize, first, that Jesus doesn’t seem bothered that the woman is shouting. It’s the disciples who are uncomfortable. They don’t want to be bothered by an emotional woman breaking the rules, demanding help. Jesus makes no comment about that at all. We certainly can’t presume ever to know what was going on in Jesus’ head at that moment in that time, but perhaps this is an example to us that her emotion and desperation were perfectly understandable and proper. What Jesus seems to point to is his own mission. He’s done this kind of thing before. Remember the wedding feast at Cana? His mother wants him to help out the wedding couple. “They have no wine,” she says. “What’s that to me, it’s not my time,” Jesus replies. Not quite the way we might expect him to answer his mother. But he reacts by expanding his ministry perhaps a little early.

Here, he is first mindful of his mission to the Jews, the first of God’s chosen people. This woman is pushing the boundaries. She’s a Caananite, not of the family. Like Jesus’ own mother, this woman knows he can help her. Jesus very well may have been impressed with her persistence, and he pushes just a bit. “It’s not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.” How typical of that time. The Caananites were considered less than respectable by the Jews. But is it typical only of that time? Here’s another lesson this passage teaches us. How have we considered the “other” in our own cultures? If we’re honest, there are those we consider less than dogs today.

But this Caananite woman is not only desperate, she’s fearless. “Even the dogs get the crumbs on the floor.” A Pharisee might have slapped her down for that remark, but Jesus seems finally to get by his own frustration and see her as a woman of faith. Once again he expands his mission and breaks down a barrier to accept and include a non-Jew. This is a big step for him. Matthew is showing us how Jesus’ mission and ministry is growing, tearing down centuries old boundaries, and opening up the culturally identified family of God to all God’s people. In both instances, Cana and the need of this woman, Jesus responds to the marginalized. In these cases, to women, but there will be many more – the blind, the crippled, children, outcasts of all kinds. Our first reaction to Jesus’ seeming rudeness is turned to an understanding of what he knows is happening. Jesus seems to enjoy fearless people who aren’t afraid to engage him on human levels of love and emotion.

So what can we learn about ourselves here? Several things come to mind. The obvious lesson is to ask ourselves, whom do we accept as our neighbor? Do we still harbor in our hearts signs of racism? Whom do we think of as less than dogs? Living in our current culture of fear is hard. We’re bombarded with images and words coming out of some of our own leaders’ mouths that put the fear of the “other” into our hearts. Jesus might remind us,“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Today we have a lot to think about when we consider this.

Another thing we might learn from today’s passage is a simple thing. Emotions are a gift to us from God. We might consider how we react when we’re faced with either our own or others’ expressions of emotion. Do our own cultural boundaries cause us to keep it all in or expect others to do the same? Can we imagine ourselves ever allowing someone to share a real depth of emotion with us, or are we too quick to shut them down too?

We’re missing something if we don’t allow ourselves to be free. The Dalai Lama offers this wonderful saying: “The more you are motivated by love, the more fearless and free your action will be.” This is exactly what Jesus shows us today.

Would that Jesus could say to each of us today, “Great is your faith! Great is your love.”

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Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz

The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Dare we be a channel of healing, Pentecost 14, Proper 15 – 2008

[RCL] Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133; or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Try as we may, we do not always find ourselves comfortable when we are among people we don’t know. Visiting a new church can be nerve wracking, unless we are among the extroverted class.

Even within our own country we find cultural and ethnic differences that may challenge the best of us. Traveling abroad may similarly pose challenges, particularly if we stray outside the usual tourist bubble and find ourselves lost among people whose language we don’t speak and who look different.

It is easy for us to be caring at a distance. Writing checks to help other people in need is a vital and good service, but it is perhaps made easier because we don’t have to rub shoulders with the people we are helping. If we volunteer in a thrift shop or help feed the needy, we may wonder what on earth we would say to such people if we had to be in their homes or on the street.

In the gospel today, Jesus has a discussion about the way we think. He points out that what we say, perhaps how we act toward others is much more indicative of how we think than keeping certain religious rules about what we eat or drink.

It seems his comments offended the pious. One is reminded of the story Jesus told of the pious person who went into the temple to pray. He stood there in the attitude of prayer and said, “Thank God I am not like other people.” It would be dreadfully offensive if we said, “Thank God I am not of another race or culture.” Yet we do find ourselves thinking such things as we watch the news or engage in heated conversations about those people who don’t agree with our politics or religion or social attitudes. It makes it worse when we are sure we are right and they are wrong.

Being bigoted against bigots is no virtue!

The gospel today goes on to tell a story about Jesus leaving his homeland and going into what we would now call Lebanon. There are only two recorded occasions when Jesus leaves Jewish territory.

There was a long-standing ethnic feud between the people of the Holy Land and the people of Lebanon. There still is. This might well be a contemporary story.

Jesus is approached by a local woman who wants him to heal her daughter. The Israelites called such people “dogs.” And remember that dogs didn’t enjoy the privileged place in society then as they do for many of us now.

It was obvious that the woman was desperate. She would have been brought up to despise Jews. She risked being rebuffed and insulted. There are moments of desperation in our lives when we are impelled to step out of our safety zone, our secure society. Our need overcomes fear and even prejudice.

Jesus tests the woman. He even uses the common racial slur. “We don’t give dogs human food.” Please note that Jesus is not merely saying that dogs shouldn’t beg at a table. He is using a dreadful slur to test the faith of the woman. We may find that shocking. Please note he is not being a racist. He is testing the boundaries that have been set. May they be crossed? The woman is desperate, but can she, is she able, to step through pride and prejudice and reach the point of acceptance and healing?

Yes, Jesus comes to us, but we also must make that step of faith toward him.

In the Rite 1 Eucharist there is a lovely prayer that begins with the words “We do not presume to come to this thy table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercy.” The prayer is built around the gospel lesson we are using today. Jesus is different. He isn’t a nice friendly American or a person we would meet at church. We have to admit our need as we approach him. “Our own righteousness” won’t hack it. By “righteousness,” we can mean pride, or confidence in our own culture, or learning, or intellect, or good taste, or manners. We might mean our own racial, or political, or national roots.

Jesus is for all; and because he is for all, he belongs to no one.

The woman replies with some good humor. She points out that even dogs get the scraps that fall from a table. Jesus tells her that her trust has made it possible for her daughter to be healed. The woman is being a conduit for another. There is an extraordinary reminder here that we may become “go-betweens” for others and be the means by which God’s gift of healing love may be extended to others.

All too often our prayers are safe. They are prayers at a distance. They cost us little. They trip off the tongue at bedtime or even in church when that long list of sick people is read during the Prayers of the People. We risk nothing when we say, “God bless Annie.”

When Jesus says that if we are to follow him we must be cross-bearers, he invites us into uncomfortable, painful, and hurting places where those who need our prayers live. He invites us out of our comfort zones. He invites us to experience the tragedy and hurt another one is suffering. He invites us to be with those who may be called “dogs,” or think of themselves as “dogs” – unclean, apart, perhaps at the bottom of the social or class ladder, or perhaps “apart” because of their lifestyle or habits.

The woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon came to Jesus where he was. He came to her. They met and exchanged barbed words, and another was healed. Here is an extraordinary example of reconciliation and grace.

It is clear that none of us has the strength to reach out beyond our comfort zones. Yet at the table spread each Sunday we step from our own world into the unknown place where Jesus is and he feeds us with more than crumbs or scraps. We receive him. We live in him and he lives in us. The question remains, For who is our encounter with the Lord intended? Is it intended for another, a person who may live in a place or have an experience outside the normal routine of our life, or whose habits or lifestyle may offend us greatly?

Perhaps in this holy place this day we can think of a group, or a person who cries out to be healed in one way or another. Dare we step out to the table at which the Lord sits and beg for his aid? Dare we be a channel of healing and love to that other person or group who, too, belongs to God and for whom Jesus died?

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Fr. Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery. His email address is anthony.clavier@gmail.com.