Monthly Archives: August 2011

A Human, Imperfect Jesus

a sermon on Matthew 15:21-28 for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on August 14, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Back in Sunday school, I learned a lot of fun and interesting stories about Jesus healing the sick, but I don’t think we ever studied today’s gospel reading from Matthew. In all those great stories from my childhood, Jesus seemed to welcome anyone and everyone who needed to be healed. He was glad when some folks cut a hole in the roof and lowered down a man on a cot to get through the crowd that had mobbed the house. He stopped everything to offer healing when an unclean woman in the crowd crept up to him and touched his cloak, even though it meant that a more powerful man who sought healing for his daughter would see his daughter die during the delay before Jesus arrived at his house. Jesus even stopped on the side of the road to heal a blind man who didn’t even ask for it.

The stories of Sunday school stuck with me to this day. Over and over again, Jesus reached out to unexpected people who were simply in his path and seemed to be in need to offer them his healing power and touch and to invite them to be a part of the new way of life he was bringing into the world.

So amidst all these wonderful stories I learned in Sunday school, today’s reading sounds quite different, making me wonder if we’re even talking about the same Jesus. Here, when a Canaanite woman meets Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter, he ignores her. It’s almost like he was walking the sidewalks of New York City or something – he doesn’t even acknowledge her and keeps on walking! But she keeps following him and pestering the disciples, so much so that they come and ask Jesus to do something about her: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus encourages their narrow-mindedness, remarking loudly in hopes that the woman would hear, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Still, this Gentile woman does not leave them alone. She finally throws herself at the feet of Jesus, echoing the cries of the psalms: “Lord, help me.” But Jesus has nothing to do with her and instead offers her what sounds to me like an insult to her and her status: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But this persistent woman just doesn’t give up. She spars with Jesus one more time: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus gives in. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter is healed instantly.

It makes sense to me why we don’t teach this story in Sunday school – Jesus doesn’t look all that good here. In my view, he comes off as something close to a real jerk. First, Jesus tries to completely ignore someone in need who seeks him out. While countless others have been welcomed to his healing grace, and some have even received it without asking for it or giving permission, here Jesus chooses not to care about the woman. He seems to be too busy – the healer is not in, so too bad if you showed up today expecting something from him. That doesn’t seem to be the norm for Jesus, but it’s what this story makes clear.

But if that’s not enough, Jesus picks and chooses who he will help here based on race and culture and maybe gender too. This woman is not an Israelite, so she’s just not important enough to demand his attention today. But Jesus has healed Gentiles before, so if you ask me, Jesus is just being mean.

And at least to my ears, Jesus seems incredibly disrespectful. You just don’t respond to someone’s plea for help by suggesting that helping her would be like throwing good food to the dogs. For the savior of the whole world to behave in this way toward a woman who just wanted her daughter to be well just doesn’t seem right.

Too often, we try to explain all this away. Several commentators on this story suggest that Jesus is just trying to keep focused on his main mission that he declared from the very beginning – a ministry in and among and toward the people of Israel, a grounding that then gives him the ability to reach beyond this initial group and do something more. Other commentators insist that this story would mean something different to its first hearers, that they wouldn’t be offended by Jesus calling this woman a dog or that his seeming insult to our ears was not quite that bad after all.

But even considering all this, even if there are good theological and narrative reasons for Jesus’ actions in this story, I’m not entirely comfortable with a savior who lives out his mission first by ignoring someone crying out in need and then by comparing her to a dog. Instead, I think our last hymn speaks more truthfully about the way God in Christ responds to the cry of the poor and needy:

Heaven shall not wait for the poor to lose their patience…
Jesus is Lord; he has championed the unwanted;
in him injustice confronts its timely end.

– John L. Bell and Graham Maule

But even if this image of a savior is problematic for us, even if we don’t see Jesus acting at his best here, I think we can still get a little hope from Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Here we get a little glimpse of a very human Jesus who is a little more like us. Here Jesus is so focused on the big picture that even he misses out on the small details that matter too. Here Jesus responds to the pressures of his friends and falls short of the kind of interaction with this woman even he would expect. Here Jesus is open to being challenged and called out to embrace new and different perspectives even by people who he tried to shoo off. And here Jesus goes beyond his original assumptions to think about things differently when the old way doesn’t show the fullness of life for all people.

Now this doesn’t mean that we have to like the Jesus we hear about today, and we don’t have to start teaching about him in Sunday school, either, but nonetheless he remains one and the same savior. He remains fully human and fully God. He responds to our pleas for help whether it is the first time or the hundredth time. He heals our every ill and makes us whole as only he can do. He offers up his life on our behalf in his death, and he opens up a new way of hope for us today and every day in his resurrection.

And it is this same Jesus who calls us out of his own experience not to act as he did with this Canaanite woman but to deal generously with all those in need, to embody compassion and hope in every encounter, to share from our abundance and give up our privilege of place and power, to show the new life we have in Christ as we respond to the need of the world, and to join in God’s work of remaking even this world, acting “in our present imperfection” to show that Jesus is Lord even now and steps in to transform all things into the new creation that God intends.

So may we for once not act as Jesus does but instead show the fullness of his love and compassion for all people from the very beginning and cry out in faith and action until all things are made new through the new life we have in him.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Stepping Out of the Boat

a sermon on Matthew 14:22-33 for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on August 7, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

It was not a good night for the disciples to be out on the lake alone. They were expert boaters, many of them – after all, Jesus had called several of them to put aside their nets while fishing – but in this storm, they needed every set of hands they could get, including Jesus. But on this night, Jesus had sent them on ahead to the other side of the lake, planning to meet up with them the next morning after a little private retreat for prayer on the mountain, leaving them alone to struggle against the elements on the lake. The wind was against them, the waves were strong from the storm, the boat was taking a beating, and everything looked bleak. An extra set of hands would have helped, not to mention Jesus’ generally calming presence, but when they called out for him, he wasn’t even on the boat but rather off on his own praying.

Does all this sound familiar? I’m not talking about how this was the first text I ever preached on for the congregation here exactly six years ago today – I’m talking about how it sure seems pretty common for us to suffer through similar storms. The storms of life are rough – the waves batter us, the wind pushes us farther out from the land that we know, and sky keeps getting darker and darker. But like the disciples we could probably handle things if it were just the storms battering us. We not only face the wind and the waves – we seem to be so alone as we face them. Right when we need help the most, people don’t seem to show up. When times are tough, no one answers the phone or responds to our emails. Just when we are looking to others to fill in some of the gaps, we find that they are off on vacation or taking care of something that they have deemed more important or even off praying!

In the middle of the storm, just when things seemed to be at their worst, Jesus finished his time of prayer and decided to meet up with the disciples on the boat. He took the easiest and simplest route to join them – he walked out to the boat on the lake. This did absolutely nothing to ease the disciples’ fears and uncertainties amidst the storm – in fact, they just freaked out all the more because it just isn’t normal to see a man walking on water! When he saw all this, Jesus tried to calm their fears with simple words: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Still, Peter needed more proof that it was actually him, so he asked Jesus to have him come out on the water to meet him. So at Jesus’ instruction, Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water – the water that only minutes before had been the source of all their fear and uncertainty was now supporting Peter’s full weight, and he had no reason to be afraid. But then he realized what was going on. He thought about exactly what was happening. This lifelong fisherman was walking on water in the middle of a storm that had him and his friends scared to death, and the wind and the waves finally overwhelmed his sense of Jesus’ presence. Peter began to sink and cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Jesus scooped him up like a divine lifeguard, then chided him for losing his footing: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Then as Jesus got into the boat with Peter, the wind and the waves calmed down, and they could do nothing but watch in amazement and worship Jesus because of his amazing signs and wonders beyond their understanding.

Just as happened with the disciples, Jesus often shows up unexpectedly in the midst of the storms of our lives, too. When things get weird and uncertain, something happens to ease our minds and open our hearts to a new way. When need a way out of a time that just seems to be getting worse and worse, something or someone unexpected shows up to change it all for the better. When the wind and the waves batter us and we just need a break, an unexpected visitor comes to calm things down a bit – even if we end up a bit scared of it all at first. But we also get overconfident and overzealous sometimes, wanting to show off what we have learned, hoping to get assurance that this new way that God opens for us will be safe and good and permanent, desiring to feel God’s presence a little more closely than is healthy for us. We end up back out amidst the wind and the waves again, feeling unsafe and uncertain all the more, questioning and doubting what we were up to in the first place, sinking amidst the storms of life, looking for God’s comfort and presence all over again. Still Jesus picks us up and helps us into the boat – then joins us there himself. We might get asked a little about what we were thinking, but that’s only out of the greatest imaginable love – not a critical, dismissive question rooted in fearfulness but an honest query of wonder about how we could ever doubt God’s amazing care and love for us.

So just when the disciples least expected it – and just when they needed it most – Jesus showed up, transforming their uncertainty into hope, their fear into new life, their doubt into confidence, and their despair into joy. May Jesus show up for us, too, today and always. Amen.

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