A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on August 20, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Ps 67; Matthew 15:21-28
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
August 19, 2017—Proper 15A
Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Ps 67; Matthew 15:21-28
“Let your ways be known upon earth, O God, your saving health among all nations!” (Ps. 67:2). These are the words of the psalmist, and it’s a pretty fine way to sum it all up: our calling is to live in such a way as to make the ways of God—the saving, healing ways of God—more visible in this world. To live them out. To bear witness to the dream of God.
Let God’s ways be known upon earth; God’s saving health among all nations! Alleluia, and let the praise be to God, who is doing this marvelous thing! But lest we forget: God is bringing it about, but we are called to participate. God has already accomplished it, and yet the work is ongoing and will not be completed until the very end of time. In the meantime, in the right NOW, Isaiah reminds us that our job is to “maintain justice.”
To maintain justice: to keep it, to guard it. At this point in Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to a people rebuilding after devastation. God has brought the Jewish people back to Judah (to their homeland) from exile in Babylon, but they are still faced with the task of how to put things back together, how to shield against future devastation. Which is why the prophet emphasizes that God’s justice is not simply a “one and done” kind of thing. They can’t just write the appropriate laws and then they’re all good. They have to do the work.
Participating in God’s justice takes continual work. It requires maintenance; it requires guarding; it requires that we remember how precious and saving and healing it truly is and act accordingly.[i]
As Christians, we look to the Gospels to see what acting accordingly might look like. Today, we hear the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman (in Mark she’s called the Syro-Phoenician woman … in any case, she is from a neighboring tribe and religion with whom the Jews were forbidden contact). And we’re told this story right after Jesus has re-focused the purity laws by reminding his disciples that we have less to worry from outside contamination (whether that be from food, unclean substances, or foreigners) than we do from our own contaminated hearts and minds.
To bring home just HOW significant this point is, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman uses Jesus as the example of what happens when we allow our hearts to be so contaminated. For here we have a woman whose child lives in torment, who brings her fear and her need and her wounded child and lays them at the feet of Jesus. And what does he say? She’s not worth saving. Or, at best: she’s not my problem. Any problems this woman has, she and her community need to fix it themselves.
But a mother’s love and a child’s need are far more powerful than such a dismissal. She persists; she forces Jesus to face into what has brought him to such a callous refusal. Though she is even willing to accept his categorizing her people as dogs, if he will just meet their needs for one crucial moment.
And maybe that’s what breaks him. That level of desperation, that ability to hold her head high and pay whatever price is necessary to push through to healing and wholeness. So he looks again, and somehow he sees it: he has been held hostage to the bias and the insularity in which he was raised. Jesus the man, Jesus the good Jewish boy, Jesus the member of a very human culture, had been sure that God’s favor rested with his people. He had internalized the idea that they were chosen, that they bore greater responsibility and thus greater blessing. It was in the air. It was in the Bible. It was in him!
Until this mother’s desperate need smacked him upside the head, and he was willing to see. Willing to be convicted. Willing, then, to begin acting in ways to undo all those assumptions his upbringing had instilled in him. Willing to begin seeing a larger vision, a more God-like vision of the saving health that is destined for ALL nations.
Even Jesus. Even Jesus had this inherent bias, this inborn impulse to look first to those who are closest to us, who are most like us in appearance, in custom and belief. And even Jesus pushed back against the idea that he needed to face into those impulses and question them. Even Jesus had to do the work in order to be able to reach the stage where he was capable of maintaining God’s justice, of holding it and keeping it.
So there’s no point pretending we don’t have to do the work too.
It’s hard. It’s a natural, universal human tendency to allow our affection and concern to diffuse, the farther it gets from us, from our family, from those we most closely associate with. We all do it. Which means we all face that moment Jesus faces, when we are smacked in the face with the question: are you really willing to allow a child, any child, to suffer because of it? Are you really willing to hoard God’s favor, to claim exclusive right to God’s blessing, perhaps to the very image of God within you?
You might be. Some are. But you would be wrong. They are wrong. In this story, face to face with this woman and her child, Jesus recognized this: that we were all created in God’s image. That God’s saving health is for all nations, or it is NOT God’s salvation after all. That separating people from people is not and never will be the “Ways of God” that we are called to make known upon the earth.
God’s ways will be the health and salvation of all nations, including this one. Bear witness to those ways, in whatever manner feels right for you. For some that might be marching and writing and proclaiming publicly; for some that might be the conversations that can be had with people in our daily lives and around our dinner tables. But for all of us, it will be most clearly manifest in how we live with each other.
Because it begins with us being grounded in the love of Christ. Begins with us recognizing that we are bound together not by our similarities, or our affections, or any kind of common interest, but rather, we are united in Christ: man with woman, black with white, culture with culture, friend with enemy. In a world that seems increasingly polarized, in Christ we are offered a vision in which we are equally united to the ones we consider our brothers and sisters in the struggle, and the ones we are tempted to see as our opponents. This is the challenge for us. This is the confounding paradox that just might be able to stand in that breach. This is how the beloved community just might help heal the world.
We catch a glimpse of this reality in our Prayers each week. This is the great gift our beloved deacon has given us: to invite us, to open our hearts to our own needs and those of others, to nurture our compassion and awareness. We pray. We admit our own hurts, our wants, and place them alongside the hurts and wants of others. The greater and the lesser, resting together. We all hurt, and do not need to compete with each other’s suffering. And the joys and thanksgivings come alongside, and we learn not to begrudge that either. Instead, we get a greater sense of the complexity and beauty that is life.
We lay our prayers out there together, because this is what will make us one: to be able to hold all of that, together, at the same time. I have joy; I also have pain. Those closest to me, most like me, they have joy. They also have pain. And those I do not know: they too have joy and strength and blessing. And they have pain. In this, we are united.
Deacon Johnson, we give you thanks for the way in which you have brought this vision of the heart of God so clearly into our midst. We thank you for having taught us this truth about the saving health of God, and strengthened our ability to live it out in our lives and in this world. May it grow in us, and may you carry this truth with you to all those with whom you minister. May it be so, Amen.
[i] Michael Ruffin, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3370