by Doug Marshall, Interim Pastor
In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live…. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead p197
Six Strikes and You're NOT Out!
Have you ever been there? I imagine most of us have had times when we felt as if we didn’t belong. We felt alienated and lonely. We feel like outsiders. This morning I want to look at a story of an outsider, and how Jesus responded to her.
Jesus had been with his disciples near the Sea of Galilee. He wanted to get away with them so he went up to the district of Tyre and Sidon. That was about 50 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, right along the Mediterranean coast. When he got up there a Canaanite woman came out to meet him. Her daughter was demon-possessed and she wanted Jesus to heal her. Right off the bat, this woman had three strikes against her. First, she was a woman. In that time and in that culture women were nothing. They had no rights and were nothing more than a possession. Second, she was a Canaanite, one of the ancient enemies of Israel. And third, her daughter was demon-possessed, which in that culture meant that her parents must be sinners. In spite of having three strikes against her, she didn’t give up. She came to Jesus and asked for help. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22b).
Jesus response to this woman is surprising. At first, he did absolutely nothing. Matthew says “He did not answer her at all” (Matthew 15:23a). Strike four. What do you do when God is silent? You cry out for God to heal someone you love, yet they die. You pray for guidance and still feel lost and confused. You call out for God to comfort you, yet your heart continues to be filled with grief or anxiety. The silence of God is one of the great challenges of the Christian life. Psalm 13 is probably the best expression of this silence. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). God, how long are you going to stay silent and ignore me? When God is silent what do you do? Do you give up? Do you turn away from God and look for someone or something else to fill your life? This Canaanite woman showed her faith by continuing to ask for Jesus’ help. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
The disciples got tired of her and told Jesus to send her away. “Heal her daughter so we can get rid of her. That is the only way she will leave us alone.” Jesus’ response is strike five. He still didn’t talk to the woman, but told the disciples that his ministry is not to the Gentiles but to the people of Israel. This woman was persistent. She fell on her knees and begged for Jesus help. “Lord, help me.”
Jesus' third response is the most surprising. The Bible has a pattern of three's. Problems are resolved after three events. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. A man is beat up and left along the road to die. The first man came along and walked right by. The second man walked right by. The third man who passed by, the Samaritan, helped the victim. As people read this story in Matthew they expect Jesus to help this woman in his third response. Instead, he insulted her. He called her a dog, which was the Jewish word used to describe heathens. Jesus told a parable about how it isn't fair to take food from the children and give it to the dogs. Strike six.
The woman still didn't give up. She came right back at Jesus and showed her faith and even a great sense of humor. “I may be a dog, but even dogs will eat the crumbs that fall off the table.” Finally, with six strikes against her, Jesus acknowledged her incredible faith and healed her daughter.
This story has always bothered me. It doesn't seem to fit Jesus’ character. Why would Jesus ignore and insult this woman? Interpreters have at least five different explanations. There may be other explanations, but in reading commentaries I found five. First, Jesus said what he did with a smile on his face. A large part of communication is not the words, but through facial expressions. Jesus wasn't being mean to this woman but was bantering with her. Jesus playfully dished it out to this woman and she gave it right back to him. The second possibility is that Jesus was testing this woman's faith. He waited to heal her daughter so that she would grow in her faith. Third, Jesus may be growing in his own understanding of his mission. This emphasizes his humanity. At the beginning of his life Jesus didn't realize that he was there to save not only Jews, but also the Gentiles. This passage shows him growing in his understanding of the scope of his ministry. Fourth, Jesus knew that his ministry was to the Gentiles, but the disciples didn't so Jesus had this interaction to help the disciples understand that the Gentiles are included in God's grace. Fifth, some scholars claim that Jesus didn't actually say this. It was an independent story that Matthew put into the story of the healing of this woman's daughter. It shows the struggle that the early church had with including the Gentiles.
All of these options have some truth to them. All of them also have some problems. You can pick which one you like best. I don't think it really matters, because the point of the story is the same. Jesus heals the daughter of this Canaanite woman, this outsider, to show that God’s grace is for all people. This woman had six strikes against her, but Jesus loved her and healed her daughter. Those who don’t belong, those who don’t fit in, people who are outsiders, are welcomed into God’s kingdom.
This is the same message Paul has in our passage from Ephesians. At one point in time all of us were outsiders. We were aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise. We were separated from God and had no hope. Yet now, in Jesus Christ, we have become God's children and citizens of the kingdom. We used to be outsiders but now we belong and have been brought near to God.
There may be some of you here this morning who feel like outsiders. If you are visiting Sharon Church this morning, new to this church or even new to the community, you might feel as if you don’t belong. That is very understandable. You may not know where the bathrooms are or how we do things here. You probably have no clue where the coffee and donuts are after church – it isn’t easy to find that room. I have talked with some of the members of Sharon who left during the conflict last year. Several of them have said that they are afraid to come back because they don’t feel as if they belong. They are afraid that they won’t be welcomed. Over the years I’ve been in the church I’ve seen couples get divorced and normally one or both of them leave the church because they don’t feel as if they have a place that they belong. There are countless reasons why you might feel like an outsider, reasons you don’t feel as if you belong, to the church or any place else.
I hope that all of you are able to hear the good news that God’s grace is given freely to you. It doesn’t matter how many strikes you have against you. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. God wants to draw you near. God wants to surround you with love. God wants to include you. In and through Jesus Christ we are no longer outsiders but we are God’s beloved children. You belong.
Every now and then things happen that can only be explained as the work of God. Coincidence is just God’s way of staying anonymous. In my devotions I have been reading a book by Eugene Peterson, called “Run with the Horses.” It’s about the prophet Jeremiah. I was reading a chapter about Jeremiah's word’s to the nations. There are six chapters at the end of Jeremiah in which he addresses various nations – Egypt, the Philistines, Damascus, and Babylon. The message of God to these countries is primarily one of judgement. However, there are hints of hope and salvation. Let me read you what caught my attention.
The anticipation of salvation is, in each instance, a single line… The fact that they are there at all shows that judgment is in the service of salvation, the salvation of the nations as well as of Israel. There is not one message for the insider and another for the outsider. Peterson, “Run with the Horses” p187-188.
That is a message that we all need to hear. Our passage from Matthew is a message of hope and comfort for those times when we feel as if we don’t belong, but we are also challenged to welcome the outsider. If Jesus welcomes outsiders and includes those who are left out, then as followers of Jesus, our job is to do the same thing. Just as Jesus offered grace to the Canaanite woman, you and I are called to welcome those who feel left out.
I’ve never heard a church say “We’re not a friendly place. We don’t want outsiders.” Every church describes itself as friendly. It’s easy to be friendly with your friends. How friendly are we with outsiders, with our guests who come to visit us? If you are going down to get a donut this morning why don’t you invite someone else, someone who has never come down, someone who may not know how to get to the donut room, to join you.
How do we treat those who are different from us? Why is it that Sharon Church has so few people of color, people of different nationalities, or social-economic background? Are we truly welcoming of outsiders?
We live in a world that likes to create outsiders. There is a natural tendency to create two categories – us and them, insiders and outsiders. It happens all the time in our government and in our communities. We have Republicans and Democrats, the White House versus Congress. Pitt versus Penn State. The Steelers versus the Browns, or in Chad’s case, the Lions. People point fingers and create outsiders. Us and them.
Let’s be honest. It happens in the church too. Within our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are a variety of hot-button issues. We spend so much time fighting over these issues that we end up missing our call to share the good news of Jesus Christ. The problem is that there are people on both sides of every issue who are more worried about being right than they are about being in a relationship. “We are right and the others, the outsiders, are wrong.” It is okay to disagree, to have differences. That is healthy. The challenge of the gospel is to argue without making outsiders, to welcome those with whom we disagree.
Friends, this morning I invite you to take an honest look at your life. And I invite us, as a church, to evaluate our life together. Are we holding others at arms distance and keeping them as outsiders, or are we reaching out to draw others into our own hearts and into the life of this church.
God welcomes all outsiders. It doesn’t matter how many strikes you have against you. Everyone is invited into the heart of God. Through the grace of Jesus Christ we are all included in God’s kingdom. Therefore we are called to offer grace to outsiders. We are called to be partners in Christ’s service. We are called to ministries of grace.