"Rewards For The Unworthy"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/17/1997

Ruth 2:1-13; Mark 7:24-300

     Most of us have been raised in a society that has taught us how to assign various degrees of worth to people. We all engage in evaluating each other from time to time. In fact, sometimes gaining the approval of others is often the single most important driving force behind a lot of our decisions. All of us have known those moments when we sensed that we are either being evaluated or we are doing the evaluating.

     Some of you may remember when your daughter brought her first serious boyfriend home for the weekend. There are those moments of awkwardness prior to his arrival. You trust that she has made a much better choice than she did with several other suitors whose initial impressions made you question the soundness of her judgment.

     Your hope, of course, is that he will not arrive at the house on a Harley-Davidson with her sitting on the back. You trust that he bathes regularly and that he comes from a good family background. You also think to yourself that a little Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford and Robert Redford in him wouldn't hurt his cause any. You want him to have a warm, loving personality, his sights set on lofty career goals and his mind possessing a firm grasp on sound principles of money management.

     Isn't it interesting how easily we do to others what we most fear others will do to us? But, "This is our daughter!" we say, "and for her we want nothing but the best." Can any of us grasp the stature of the mature oak tree by our first impressions of it as a sapling? Many of us think we can.

     Have you ever been invited to a Christmas party at a home in East Parkwood Estates overlooking an expansive water front? No one builds anything in East Parkwood under three and a half million dollars. This invitation is your opportunity to get to know a number of people who live on an economic level several zeros above your own.

     We find ourselves giving more scrutiny to our selection of ties. We wonder if one of our "two for $299" suits from Today's Man will hold up under the watchful eye of someone wearing one manufactured by Hicky Freeman. We may even find ourselves wanting to borrow our daughter's new Lexus. Our 1985 Cutlass Supreme may create an awkward moment between ourselves and the hired parking attendant. The door on the driver's side hangs up just a bit and one needs to know the right combination to get out of the car.

     Isn't it interesting how impressing others can temporarily mold how we want to portray ourselves? We develop opinions about people without really knowing what their experiences have been, where their lives have taken them, or who they might eventually turn out to be. While we know better, many of us still judge books by their covers. Others do the same to us.

     When Lois and I first came among you two years ago, someone pointed out that I was short. Another mentioned that I had a mustache. People wanted to know not only what Lois looked like but if she were my original wife. And some of you confessed that you didn't know how to treat a minister's wife because it had been a long time since St. Matthew's had one. These are all natural questions and observations, I suppose. Coming to a new church is always challenging for both a congregation and the minister because we each hang a lot on making first impressions.

     Isn't it amazing how caution comes before acceptance? Isn't it interesting how we occasionally feel the need to demonstrate or prove something before love just flows freely from and to us? This area of living is one of the prime areas where our common humanity shines the clearest.

     With this as a background, our lesson today opens with Jesus engaged in a drama where he used words that were very uncharacteristic for him. Jesus had traveled to a village located near the city of Tyre, clearly in Gentile territory. More than likely he was exhausted and wanted a place to rest where he would not be recognized.

     Almost immediately, however, Jesus was approached by a Gentile woman who asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus challenged her request. He pointed out that he first needed to take care of his own people. "It isn't right" he said, "to take food that was meant for my people and throw it to the dogs." Well, so much for first impressions!

     The Jews used the word "dogs" to communicate contempt for anyone who was not a Hebrew. The woman did not appear to be insulted by these words. She obviously knew about Jesus, what he taught and what he could do or she would not have come to him. Having this knowledge, she knew he was testing her. The woman's response was brilliant. She said, "Sir, even the dogs under the table are permitted to eat the scraps that are left over." Jesus responded, "Because of that answer, go back home where you will find your daughter well."

     There was another occasion where Jesus was approached by a Roman Centurion. The Roman officer made a similar request for healing as did the Syrian woman. Jesus indicated his willingness to go to his home immediately. The Centurion said, "I do not deserve to have you come into my house. Just give the word and my servant will get well. I too have soldiers under me. I order this one "Go!" and he goes; and I order that one, "Come!" and he comes." When Jesus heard this he said something quite extraordinary. He said, "I have never found anyone in Israel with faith like this." (Matt. 8:5-10)

     What was the common denominator between these two? Each came to Jesus seeking what only he could give. In order to do that, they first had to recognize they had no power of their own to heal an area of life that had become consuming. Both of them had to approach Jesus believing that he could make a difference.

     The experience of the Syrian woman dovetails right into the spiritual principles that Jesus taught, "Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened." Before our thirst can be satisfied, we have to admit to ourselves that we are thirsty. When we get lost while traveling, we have to stop and ask for directions. Very little new information will come our way about anything until we decide that we want it. There is no great mystery about this.

     Yet look around in our culture! Why is there so much medicine, drug and alcohol consumption when we have access to satisfying nearly every physical desire that we have? Perhaps we cannot bring ourselves to admit that our greatest longing cannot be satisfied by merely acquiring more of what the world offers. Our hope that it can and our pride in our abilities may only make us run faster.

     Pride is like stubbornness in most of us. Pride gives us that sense of superiority that we can manage life by ourselves. Pride insists that we need to surround ourselves with all the idols of our existence, even though not one of them is capable of giving us anything substantive. Pride will not allow us to look honestly at the spirit by which we live. Pride could have easily prevented the Syrian woman from coming to Jesus. It did not.

     It is easy to point our finger at our stubbornness and say, "As always we are our own worst enemy." Yet, suppose for some people the core of their difficulties with life runs much deeper. Perhaps many people have lost the sense of their spiritual identity and they don't know where to go to satisfy their longing, or even know what questions to ask, or to whom such questions should be addressed.

     Jim Logan, the professor who taught my class at Wesley Seminary this summer, told us an interesting experience he had when he moved into his residence in Reston. Word had circulated among some of the neighbors that "a religion professor" was moving into their complex of condominiums. Jim learned after his move that there had been considerable concern. Few residents wanted an evangelical type in their midst who might try to challenge their lives with some message of faith. "After all" they thought, "religion is a personal thing."

     One winter morning when people were shoveling sidewalks, a woman said to Jim, "I guess my family really should to be going to church somewhere, but you know, there are so many good causes and so little time to fit all of them into our lives."

     That is the way many people today characterize religious faith. They know very little about it. Parents may have neglected their responsibilities with respect to teaching anything about their spiritual heritage. As a result their children have become part of a population that has no idea how or where to find what nourishes the very core of who they are. Had this Syrian woman not known anything about Jesus, she would not have been motivated to come to him.

     When people experience unworthiness, emptiness, loneliness, unhappiness, and a lack of fulfillment, all such attitudes are tied directly to the side of themselves that for years has been unrecognized or ignored. Christians who only participate in forms that represent faithfulness can actually experience the same thing. The way they think and behave may not be an extension of the beliefs they verbally claim.

     What made this Syrian woman so attractive to Jesus was the sincerity and authenticity of her faith. She simply came and said, "If I can't have very much because in your eyes I am an unworthy Gentile, may I have the leftover scraps?" We love people who have no pretense and who are not concerned about being anyone other than who they are. We equally love people who are gracious and accepting of us just as we come. The strength of this Syrian woman was that she knew she was unworthy in the eyes of a Jew, but she came anyway. Why? She knew Jesus of Nazareth. Because of her faith and trust, healing came.

     This is the way God is with each one of us. We first have to be aware that God awaits our invitation. We have to give up the notion that we have to "clean up our lives" before we ask. We have to be willing to let God determine how our particular drama will unfold. When life appears unfair, we need to remind ourselves that appearances can be deceiving. It is such trust that keeps us from believing that life experiences have the power to injure us.

     Most of us remember the song with the chorus, "What's the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile; so pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and Smile, Smile, Smile." Felix Powell wrote those words. He sang them for the last time in 1942. When he had finished singing his creation, he walked into his bedroom that evening, took out a revolver and ended his life. He knew how to sing about the importance of smiling, but he had never learned how to reframe his experiences so they would enhance his life.

     Is it pride? Is it stubbornness? Is it simply that people do not know how to reach out to God? I don't know the answer to that. The Syrian woman may have had no hope until she saw Jesus walking into her community. Knowing all the barriers that existed between Jew and Gentile, she went to him anyway and made her desire known.

    Each one of us has that opportunity every day we live. The only barrier that prevents us from approaching God are the thoughts we have created about doing so. The Syrian woman found an opportunity presenting itself and so she went. So can we.