Crossing the Lines to Mercy: Sermon for 17 August, 2014

Matthew 15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 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.”

15:23 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.”

15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

15:26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

15:27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.


The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH
The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

There’s an old saying that I’ve heard many times: “Christians should live with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other”. Through the years I’ve heard it over and over, and there’s some debate about who said it originally. My Lutheran friends tell me it was Martin Luther. My Methodist friends say John Wesley. And my Presbyterian and UCC friends claim it was Karl Barth. A while back I heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury said it, which even gives our Episcopalian friends a claim.

I don’t have the correct answer to give to you today. I have my suspicions, but I don’t know. But what I do know is this, whomever said it, they were right.

On Sunday mornings some of us do two things. We come to church, and we buy our Sunday paper. We pick up the Times or the Globe or Union Leader or Herald, because we care about what is happening in the world. And even if we don’t read a newspaper, we turn on the evening news, or flip to CNN, or go online and read about it.

And we should. We all should know what is happening in the world around us. It’s our civic responsibility. But more than that, for those of us who are Christians, it’s an act of faith.

This week there has been so much in the news. The shooting of a young man in Ferguson, Missouri, and the aftermath. The death of Robin Williams, and the subsequent, and very important, discussion of mental health. The continued fighting in Gaza, and what it means for peace in the Middle East. These are the moments that whomever first said that line about the Bible and newspapers was talking about.

So maybe, as you come to worship today, and as you come to the Bible, those news stories are on your mind. And maybe you are wondering how they fit with, and what good news can come from, the actions of a man 2,000 years ago. What does Jesus have to say to people in Israel, or Missouri, or to people who struggle with depression or addiction? That’s a hard question, but that’s the question that we as Christians should be asking ourselves everyday.

And it’s a question to ask as we hear this text. A woman comes to Jesus and says, “Have mercy on me, my daughter has a demon.” And Jesus does always seem to do the unexpected, but this time he does something unimaginable: he ignores her.

As he does his disciples start to get upset with her, and they tell Jesus to get rid of her. Because this woman isn’t like the others in the crowd who were following Jesus. She’s a Canaanite. She isn’t Jewish, like Jesus and the disciples. She isn’t one of them. And she won’t go away. And so finally Jesus turns to her and says, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel.”

And what he’s really saying is, “I’m not here for you. You don’t get any of what I have.”

That’s shocking for us. We think of Jesus as someone who is full of love and full of healing. Someone with enough mercy to go around.

I think the woman knew that. Because she refused to take “no” for an answer. She kneels and begs him to help her. But then Jesus says something even worse. He says, “it’s not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs”.

But despite how harsh that sounds, she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. And only then does Jesus say, “your faith has made you well”, and he heals her daughter.

Now if you’re like me, you’re glad she got the healing she needed, but you’re not that happy with Jesus. Because this Jesus feels very different from the one that you and I believe in, or want to anyway. And that’s why I think that maybe Jesus had something bigger up his sleeve here.

Jesus was a teacher. And he wasn’t the kind of teacher who just gives his students the answers. He’s the kind of teacher who really helped them to learn and understand and experience things in new ways. And in the Gospel, right before this passage Jesus is teaching his disciples an important lesson. He’s telling them about how everything they have believed about what makes someone faithful is up for debate. He’s tells them saying the right things, and performing the right rituals, might make someone seem faithful, but that in the end it’s what a person really believes and what their intentions are that matters.

So when this woman, a woman for starters, comes to him, and she is a Canaanite, someone who is so looked down upon, Jesus has what we might call a “teachable moment”. And he takes it. The disciples are saying “send her away”, and clearly not getting it, and so he teaches them. And he humbles himself enough to let this Canaanite woman, this most unexpected of teachers, teach them all.

And what she teaches is this: mercy is for everyone. We don’t get to choose who receives God’s grace. And sometimes we are going to see it going to the most unlikely of recipients.

When I lived in Nashville I often went to an Episcopal Church for worship. And this church had a ministry called the Magdalene House. The women who entered the program had to meet two qualifications. First, they had to be battling addiction, and wanting to get clean and sober. And second, they had to have a history of prostitution.

Maybe that would make most churches uncomfortable. But this church embraced these women who had spent years, sometimes from the time they were 11 or 12 years old, on the streets being trafficked, arrested, and worst. I remember one woman spoke and talked about how she had been arrested ninety times. Ninety! And they thought world had given up on them. Many thought they would never be welcomed into a church, let alone loved, and given new life.

And yet, they are. These women live in a house together, they get sober, and they break away from their lives on the streets. And together they have started a business called Thistle Farms where they sell the candles and bath and body products they make. And they manage this business entirely by themselves, developing the skills they need to earn a living and thrive in life. And in the end, why would we not want to tell a story of redemption like that in our churches?

Because in the end those women do one more thing. They teach. They teach those of us in the church about the value their lives hold. They teach the church the assumptions we make and why they’re wrong. And, just as the Canaanite woman did, they teach us all about God’s mercy, and God’s grace, and how we don’t get to decide who deserves it, and who receives it. And thanks be to God for that.

Thanks be to God especially when we read the news, and we hear about situations that could use a little mercy now. Especially when talking heads debate about who deserves what kind of understanding. Especially when judgement is often far too quick. Especially when we are talking about a town in Missouri, about children of God who are dying in conflicts adults have perpetuated in the Middle East, or even about famous men who in the darkest of hours just couldn’t find a little bit of hope to go on.

It’s easy to stand in judgement with a paper in one hand and think we know the facts. And it’s so much harder to step back, pick up the Gospel in our other, and remember those teachable moments that Christ gave us for times like this. It’s harder, but it’s worth it. Because knowing that grace and mercy are not ours to control or dole out to only those we deem deserving is a powerful lesson. And, in the end, it might even be one that liberates us.

Because sometimes we are slow to wish God’s mercy for others, maybe because sometimes we think there’s not enough to go around. But every once in a while we get it right, and we find mercy and healing in the most unlikely of places.

Yesterday one of you shared with me that today in Portsmouth there will be a consecration of a burial ground. It’s not a new one. It’s one that dates from the early 1700’s. It was once a well-known and recognized part of the city, where burials took place for decades. But then, in the 1800’s, it was gradually forgotten about, built over, and used for other things.

Some two hundred years later, in 2003, those graves were found again. And what makes this burying ground particularly interesting is that DNA testing revealed that those buried there were of African descent. It’s unknown how many were slaves, and how many were freedmen, but it’s clear that buried in that ground was an important part of our larger community’s story, including, some of our not-so-finest hours.

And so today, people will gather. And they will name what needs a little mercy. And they will consecrate this ground once again as a sacred space. A space where those who often found little respect and grace in life will now once more find it in death. A space where we are honest about how we’ve sometimes fallen short, and where we find that there is mercy enough to go around.

It is never too late for mercy. It is never too late for healing. And it is never too late to do the right thing. That’s the good news of Christ’s grace, and that is also the challenge. As we read the news, as we watch it on TV, as we click our way through it online, no one is beyond God’s mercy. And no one is beyond the responsibility of being an agent of that healing.

With a newspaper in one hand, and a Bible in the other, may we always remember that sometimes our job is not to judge the news. Sometimes our job is to pray the news, and to know in our hearts that God’s mercy is wide enough for us all, and that mercy will tell us what to do next.

Amen.

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