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Sermon for 11th Sunday after Pentecost 2020

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 Psalms 67 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28 Proper 15

I offer the “Senility Prayer”, God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do like and the eyesight to know the difference. Reinhold Niebuhr is the author of the famous Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.” This Senility Prayer may be a prayer spoken by us as we age. A prayer that we might be able to divide the world into the liked and the unliked. Although this is a completely understandable prayer, the Gospel invites us to learn how to like those we find hard to like.

Matthew takes from Mark’s Gospel about the food laws and their being faithful to the tradition. But his emphasis has shifted. The point is simple. Remember the human propensity for wickedness comes from deep inside. To be healed, we all need the transformative grace of God. Then, we have puzzling narrative of the Canaanite woman. This is a learning moment for Jesus. It is as if Jesus needs this encounter with the other to discover that his ministry needs to shift. No longer is the mission just to the Jewish people, it needs to reach beyond and touch the lives of all people everywhere. Finally, in our relationship with God, the ending reiterates an important truth – our trust in God - our faith in God – is commended. Trusting God is all important.

Matthew is writing to his church of the day, a church that is becoming a blend of Jews and Gentiles. He knows that some who were raised in the Jewish oral and written tradition and some were excluded on the same basis. These new Christians were finding their way. They were sorting through what needs to be left behind and what needs to go with them forward into this new tradition. Jesus is saying that purity and religious faithfulness to God is not about worshiping tradition uncritically. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

The Pharisees and teachers of the law came from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish authority, to scrutinize Jesus’ activities. Over the centuries since the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity, hundreds of religious traditions had been added to God’s laws. The Pharisees and teachers of the law considered them all equally important. We can’t assume that because our traditions are practiced for years they should be elevated to a sacred standing. God’s principles never change, and God’s law doesn’t need additions. Traditions should help us understand God’s laws better, not become laws themselves.

The Pharisees knew a lot about God, but they didn’t know God. It is not enough to study about religion or even to study the Bible. We must respond to God himself. We must open our hearts and invite God in. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Jesus was referring to the Jewish regulations concerning food and drink, but too a whole lot more. This verse could be paraphrased: “You aren’t made unclean by eating nonkosher food! It is what you say and think that makes it unclean!” This statement offended the Pharisees. Following the Holiness Code was how the Pharisees lived their lives. But Jesus knew that purity and faithfulness are shown by how, we, the church speaks and lives out the radical hospitality and love of Christ.

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Three years ago, I read about the

Charlottesville Clergy Collective and I wanted to see if it was still active. The Charlottesville Clergy Collective is a group of clergy and interested lay persons who gather regularly to discuss and address the challenge of race relations in the Charlottesville and surrounding regions of Virginia. This group is the brainchild of Rev. Dr. Alvin Edwards, Pastor of Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville. After the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dr. Edwards wondered if the pastors in Charlottesville knew and trusted each other enough to organize a quick and coordinated response if such an event took place in Charlottesville. He had to admit that the answer was no. Dr. Edwards then contacted clergy and lay leaders serving both black and white churches to gather for a breakfast. Out of that meeting, participants decided to meet regularly to befriend each other as well as lead their churches to address systemic racial challenges in the Charlottesville. Their vision: The Charlottesville Clergy Collective seeks to be a God-centered faith community of prayer, solidarity, and impact within the Charlottesville and Central Virginia. Part of their mission is to meeting regularly to foster mutual trust and open communication. They strive to engage in group events to highlight issues of racial and social justice in our community. They want to get to know each other…so they see the person and not “the other.” Their mission is to establish, develop, and promote racial unity within the faith leadership of the Charlottesville through fellowship, collaborative partnership, relationship-building and public witness. They are determined to continue to play a role, as people of God, in saying there is some reconciliation that needs to happen and can happen with the power of God.” It is all about love and acceptance. Acceptance in allowing others to express their beliefs without judgment, violence or hatred. Their mission continues.

Jesus told his disciples to leave the Pharisees alone, because the Pharisees were blind to God’s truth. Anyone who listened to their teaching would risk spiritual blindness as well. Not all religious leaders clearly see God’s truth. For us, we need to listen to and learn from those with good spiritual eyesight –so that we teach and follow the principles of Scripture.

For the rest of us, most of us work hard to keep our outward appearance attractive. We exercise, we try to eat right, we buy the latest beauty products to work miracles against age and gravity. But what is truly important is what is in our hearts. The way we are deep down (where only God can see) matters more to God. What are we like on the inside? Do we spend as much time and attention delving into our hearts and souls and minds as we do our exterior? When we become Christians, God makes us different on the inside. God will continue the process of change inside us if we only ask and allow God’s hand to touch those places. God wants us to be healthy, through and through, not just with healthy food and exercise.

Then the passage continues. The story of the Canaanite woman is my least favorite of Jesus’ encounters. I think of Jesus as a hero, my hero, your hero and he just doesn’t act like a hero in the beginning of this story. Jesus is our example of compassion and mercy and they seem to be in short supply in this story. He seems rude and uninterested in the woman’s plight. But another aspect of being a hero is to be touched by another’s plight and to grow in character and knowledge. This woman touched Jesus’ heart and he learned of her faith by opening up to her needs. Jesus learned…Jesus responded….Jesus stretched….Jesus grew. That is what we are called to do in trying to follow Jesus – in living our lives – in responding to others who may differ from us.

This woman with her persistence and lack of pretense performs a ministry for Jesus. She becomes the spokesperson to him to bring about the release of divine grace in a dramatic event of healing. She becomes the model voice from beyond the boundaries. She is the one who stakes her claim on the mercy and generosity of God. Just as others minister to Jesus by providing food and housing, she ministers by facilitating movement across ethnic borders, an action that anticipates the wider mission to the world.

The disciples asked Jesus to get rid of the woman because she was bothering them with her persistent nagging. Initially, Jesus and the disciples show no compassion for her or sensitivity to her needs. It is possible to become so occupied with spiritual matters that we miss real needs right around us. This is especially likely if we are prejudiced against needy people or if they cause us inconvenience. Instead of being bothered, what if we become more aware of the opportunities that surround us. Sue Monk Kidd tells a story of being moved to tears when a photograph appeared on the television showing the plight of some refugees. She was touched, she wrote a check and sent it. Two weeks later, when she was walking in New York City, she stepped over a homeless man lying on the street and didn’t give it a second thought until later. God calls us to be open to the beauty of God’s message for all people, and make an effort not to shut out those who are different from us.

Jesus said, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel.” His words don’t contradict the truth of God’s message to all people. After all, when Jesus said these words, he was in Gentile territory on a mission to Gentile people. He ministered to Gentiles on many occasions. Jesus was simply telling the woman that Jews were to have the first opportunity to accept him as the Messiah, because God wanted them to present the message of salvation to the rest of the world. Jesus was not rejecting the Canaanite woman. He may have wanted to test her faith, he may be testing the waters, or he may have wanted to use the situation as another opportunity to teach that faith is available to all people.

I am a “dog person”. I know and love “cat people”, but I am a “dog person.” But in this reading, the term dog grates on me. It helps to know that in the culture of Jesus’ time, dog was a term that Jews commonly used for Gentiles, because the Jews considered these pagan people no more likely than dogs to receive God’s blessing. It is hard for us to see that Jesus was not degrading the woman by using this term; he was reflecting the Jews’ attitude so as to contrast his own. But is the attitude right? The woman didn’t argue. She understood where Jesus was coming from, perhaps better that Jesus understood her. Instead, using Jesus’ choice of words, she agreed to be considered a dog as long as she could receive God’s blessing for her daughter. Ironically, many Jews would lose God’s blessing and salvation because they rejected Jesus. Many Gentiles would find salvation because they recognized and accepted him.

We see Jesus’ response, his reaction to her pleas for help. Whatever it is that the Canaanite woman brings to the encounter, Jesus declares it to be faith. In the very least, she brings desperation, but it could also be a mixture of desperation, superstition, hearsay, love and/or terror. She persuades Jesus that there is enough mercy to go around. Could it be that the unnamed Canaanite woman stirs something in the Son of God? Is such an idea any more bazaar than our own asking for healing or mercy or forgiveness, over and over again? Perhaps, it is a lesson for all of us to be open to meeting people where they are, not where we want them to be, or when it is convenient, meeting people where they are and responding in love. Jesus takes all that we bring and declares it faithful. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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