There is opportunity throughout this sermon for the congregation to respond.
"Oh, how good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in unity." says the Psalmist. That is God's dream, isn't it, that all people live together in unity and love. Let's keep those words in our minds as we approach our Gospel story.
Just previous to the beginning of our Gospel, Jesus has been involved in a heated debate with the Pharisees and religious scholars. They are harshly criticizing the disciples for not washing their hands before eating, thus breaking the traditions of the elders. Jesus snaps right back with a question. "Why do you break the commandment of God with actions that fail to honor your father and your mother?" "You hypocrites", he says, then quotes from Isaiah. "This people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me."
Next he called the crowd to him and said, "Listen and understand, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth." Then Jesus told a parable which they didn't understand as often happens and Peter requests an explanation. Jesus answered with irritation in his voice, "Are you still without understanding?"
Jesus restates his point and sums it up with, as the Message translation says, "Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands--that's neither here nor there."
The laws of ritual purification could be a heavy burden on many people--large quantities of water were required, there was a waiting period of days or even months, as well as making a sacrificial offering and a visit to the priest.
Jesus would have observed these cleanliness laws, being raised in a Jewish community, but now he goes beyond the outward, physical requirements and speaks of the importance of the inward and spiritual. "What comes from the heart is truly the important thing."
Change didn't come easily in Jesus' time; it doesn't always come easily in our time either. We honor and respect our Anglican traditions yet with the passing of time we are called to sort out what really matters. Many in this diocese still have no idea what Total Common Ministry means or how it works. Twenty some years ago we could not conceive of a process of honoring all gifts of ministry, calling and ordaining from within this community of worshippers and being a self sustaining small church focused on outreach.
There's the old joke--How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Five is the answer. One to change the bulb, four to talk about how good the old light bulb was. We might add those four would have talked about it for a very, long time!
Only a few years ago could we have imagined our altar being moved down to this location and it actually being a table?
As we remember our history we can be empathetic with the Scribes and Pharisees as they hung on for dear life to their laws and traditions. And we can sympathize with Jesus as again he confounds his own disciples with parables and they still don't get it. Previously in Matthew's story, Jesus has received news of the beheading of his cousin, John the Baptist, fed the 5000, walked on water and faced off against the Pharisees. Everywhere Jesus turns he finds needs and people who want what he can do for them. He is all used up, frayed, at the end of his rope and just plain weary.
And now he meets the Canaanite woman.
I'll give some background to this powerful story and then we'll search for the way in which it speaks to us today, we can all be theologians together.
Listen to the story again - Mt.15 :21-28.
It doesn't tell us why Jesus went north into the foreign Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. The Canaanites were considered a sinful race, they worshipped strange gods and cleanliness laws were unknown there. If Jesus responded to this pushy, shockingly assertive woman, he himself would be considered unclean.
So how do you react to the way Jesus treats this woman? He's actually quite rude, isn't he? Under the circumstances do you think his words and actions were justified?
Is this somehow different from the times Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners and tax collectors?
How about the way the disciples reacted to her? Remember, in the feeding miracle Jesus instructs the disciples to feed the crowd. Why is this different?
Still the woman presses on, she pleads and begs. She kneels at Jesus' feet. "Lord, help me." Jesus uses the insulting term dogs, when he answers her. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dog's" and she snaps right back, "Even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their master's table."
This is an amazing woman, she is like a mama bear defending her cubs. She'll do anything for her daughter. Have you ever needed to fight for your child or any family member to see that their needs were met? Have you been an advocate for another?
Years ago, my mother was transported to the ER after taking a nasty fall. Even though x-rays didn't reveal broken bones she was in a great deal of pain. They were going to release her and I protested. "She can't go home, she's not one to complain and she can hardly move because of the pain she's experiencing." And they finally agreed to admit her.
The Canaanite woman will not budge, she stands her ground, then something in Jesus changes. He looked at her, he saw her and said, "Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. I wonder what caused Jesus to suddenly change course. What do you think?
I was changed after hearing Sarah speak to us of the hardships endured by the undocumented immigrants right here in Grays Harbor County. She gave a face to those in this area who live in fear as they desperately try to provide for their children. In our legal system they have no power, no voice. Rarely does anyone advocate for them, they live on the fringes of our communities.
Jesus was changed by this encounter. He chose to listen to someone most would ignore. He opened his heart and listened with compassion, knowing by so doing it could cost him his honor in the eyes of many. Jesus response is a radical step of reconciliation with the Gentile enemies of Israel. He pays attention to what is in their heart. He set aside and went beyond the historical laws and traditions to listen to and serve a woman with much more than crumbs under the table. He gave her what she desperately pleaded for, the healing of her daughter.
In the book of Genesis there's a great story of Abraham as he persuaded God to change his mind thus saving an entire city. As the story goes--Abraham intercedes for Sodom, a wicked city which God intended to destroy. Abraham pleads that the innocent not be swept away with the wicked. Abraham first offered the proposal that if fifty innocent persons were found the city would be saved. The Lord agreed if fifty could be found he would pardon the entire city. Well then said Abraham, how about forty five good men? The Lord agreed, Abraham suggested forty, then thirty, then twenty, and finally ten. "For the sake of the ten, I shall not destroy it," said the Lord. When the Lord had finished talking to Abraham, he went away, and Abraham returned home. God listened to Abraham, he listened with his heart and lives were saved, good and bad alike.
We have changed here at St. Mark's; we will need to keep changing. Let us see and listen to others, let us search for that which is truly important while always speaking from the heart. "Oh, how good and pleasant it is when all brethren live together in unity." AMEN