"Truth Jesus Could Not Refute"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 17, 2008
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Lois is my hit man. She answers the telephone most evenings and her technique is most effective. Her responses are simple and to the point, “No thank you. I am not interested” and she hangs up. When they come to the door, she says the same thing before they open their mouths. She is just the best. When those self-assertiveness classes were happening in the 1980s, I was always too busy to take them.
I am one of those that feel guilty walking by the person standing outside a grocery store on a blustery winter day during Christmas time ringing the bell for the Salvation Army kettle. I am overcome by a creeping dread while sitting at an intersection with a long traffic light and there stands an unkempt individual carrying a cardboard sign indicating that he has not eaten in weeks and has 8 starving children.
No doubt we have all been in these situations. As a result, we are familiar with the attitude of the disciples in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus and his faithful followers decided to get away. They traveled to a place where they were not as well known. The Phoenician port cities of Tyre and Sidon are northwest of Cana, Nazareth and Galilee. Both cities are on the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus and the boys headed for the surf and sand possibly for a vacation.
Their little group, however, was spotted by a woman who recognized Jesus. She joined them as they journeyed on foot and she became quite persistent. In fact, she became irritating. Finally, the disciples begged Jesus, “Please get rid of this woman! She is following us and is relentless in her non-stop yacking.” They were like me asking Lois to answer the door when I see someone approaching the house carrying a clipboard.
The woman by-passed the disciples and threw herself at the feet of Jesus. She called out, “Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is gravely ill and I know that you can heal her. Please, please, I need your help.”
Jesus made a big deal of her request, probably to get the attention of his disciples. At first he reinforced their prejudiced responses to this woman by saying, “It is not right to take the food for the children of Israel and throw it to the dogs.” The disciples may have thought to themselves, “That should shut her up.” The woman, however, responded, “That is true, sir, but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus chose that moment to teach his disciples another lesson. He responded, “You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you.” At that precise moment, her daughter’s health was restored.
Jesus discovered a truth that he could not deny.His disciples had become so irritated and annoyed by this concerned mother that they wanted Jesus to send her away. He learned that their love had strings, that their love had limitations, and most of all, their responses were probably exaggerated because she was a Canaanite, a heathen, who knew little or nothing about God.
Jesus saw how distraught she was and could not dismiss her. She evoked his compassion and again Jesus modeled the same universal pattern of love as he did when he told his listeners the parable about the Good Samaritan. The disciples were judging the worthiness of this woman to be loved. Many times we find ourselves sitting in the same judgment seat.
For several years I volunteered as a director for wilderness camping experiences. Each year we gathered at Manidokan, one of our Conference camps, and I would take 15 to 18 teens on a 26 mile, five-day hike on the Appalachian Trail. Many of them had never hiked in the forest, never slept in a tent, never cooked a meal on an open fire and never learned how to get along without running water. The kids had spent most of their lives either in the city or the suburbs.
One year the excursion was quite memorable. Eight in the group were used to taking two showers a day. Two of the white boys had never spoken to an African American and we had six in the group. A number of their backpacks were filled with many non-essentials that they refused to leave behind. Many of them had purchased new hiking shoes or boots so I knew that blisters could become a problem.
We were well into our second day and one of the African American girls began to complain. She kept requesting that we stop and rest. One of the older white boys came up to me and said, “She is going to be a problem. She is overweight, lazy and lacks motivation. They are all like that. Why do they go backpacking and then whine about being in the woods? What did she expect?” I listened to his thoughts and then reminded him that everyone brings to a hike only the skills they have learned.
At the end of the day, we had just finished supper when a greater truth emerged. She took off her shoes and displayed an enormous blister that had become very serious. It was the size of a quarter and had penetrated several layers of her skin. She had not told anyone about it because she did not want to slow down the group.
The same young man who had complained about her took one look at her wound and something happened to him. He was our Eagle Scout and knew a great deal about blister management. He sat down in front of her and placed her foot in his lap. He dressed the wound beautifully. It was remarkable to observe the transformation of his spirit.
She was a very loving spirit and was most appreciative of his caring for her. They talked and talked and talked. During the group discussion that evening, he confessed that she was the first black person he had ever talked to. She had a highly energized look as she responded, “Well, how was it?” Everyone laughed nervously. All he did was smile and said, “Today, I learned something about myself. You are one okay girl.”
In the morning, his compassion became even more visible. He lashed her backpack to the large one he carried and the two walked beside each other for the rest of the trip. He dressed her wound several times each day. The two laughed and talked as though they had known each other for all eternity. And who knows, perhaps they had.
Up until that point, he had been prevented from seeing her. He had guarded and protected his attitudes about African Americans for most of his young life. As he rose above his own internal blister, a thought pattern that had been festering within him for years, he became healed when he allowed himself to see through the barrier he had built. He found a wonderful, high spirited, lovely girl whose skin was darker than his. But more importantly, he had found a new friend.
I remember back at the main camp something interesting happened. Parents were picking up their teenagers and there was a lot of excited chatter. The Eagle Scout’s dad came to pick him up. Before he left, he and the girl gave each other a long, sustaining hug. They parted with smiles on their faces. A bridge had been built. As the young man was getting into the car, I heard his father ask, “What was all that about?” I don’t know how he responded but he had a very revealing story to tell.
Jesus wanted his disciples to peel the onion of their prejudices, perceptions and attitudes and replace them with ones that made love and understanding more visible. Probably most of us need to do more work in this area within ourselves. We forget how often we consciously or unconsciously generalize about people. We speculate about what people’s clothing may be saying about them. We wonder about the security needs of people who wear highly visible body piercing jewelry and tattoos.
We forget that everyone is beyond any definition that others may have about them. No one who has lived or who will live in the future can ever be like us. We are all one-of-a-kind. Each one of us, however, is capable of giving and receiving love. Jesus said to the woman, “You are a woman of great faith! What you have asked will be done for you.” Perhaps the disciples found healing in that moment as well.
Many of us looked forward to seeing the Olympics. China has done everything humanly possible to be a gracious host to the world of nations. The opening ceremony was a work of art. In spite of Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals and our Redeem basketball team going undefeated at the moment, something much greater is happening. The young people of our world are discovering each other in a setting that throws the world’s cultures together.
Most of us know that China is atheistic in its thought patterns. Perhaps the Chinese government fears religion, yet how fascinating that their art and many of their themes during the opening ceremonies captured the essence of Taoism, Buddhism and the essence of Confucius’ teachings. These very ancient thought systems are obviously alive and well in China. Many of us will come away from watching the games with hope in our hearts that working together for common goals is a way that world community will become visible. We cannot afford to do and be anything less.
A remarkable characteristic in our lesson today comes to us because of Jesus’ response to a woman who remains nameless. She was a Canaanite, a heathen, not a Jew and certainly not a Christian and yet Jesus said, “You are a woman of great faith.” What are we to think of Jesus’ words?
She had none of our beliefs, none of our theology, she probably never went to a worship center and yet Jesus’ loved her just as she was. Think of how quickly the world’s wounds would heal if Christians everywhere in the world could develop the same attitude toward others as did the one we follow! Who we are is visible every day.
We cannot drive anywhere these days without realizing how the horn of our cars often reflects the attitude of the one driving. Sometimes we are driving and we encounter three lanes that suddenly become two. The trapped driver wants to merge and we hear the friendly beep that says, “Okay, come on over.” We also recognize the long sustained beep that communicates, “Don’t even think of coming into my lane.”
Everyday we can communicate to our immediate world that we have learned this lesson of compassion because we remember how Jesus responded to a woman who was irritating everyone else.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and ever-present God, all of us need to stand before the mirror of your truth in order to review the quality of our lives. We thank you that truth is truth. We thank you that truth stands in our midst like a sentinel that our best reasoning cannot defeat. We thank you that truth needs no defense for it to remain what it is. We thank you that truth judges us as well as it instills hope and encouragement when incorporated into our lives. We know how easy it is to set love aside when we are wronged or betrayed. We thank you that the results of doing so occur instantly. The unhappiness, pain and disappointment we experience, O God, are voices that are actually calling us back to become the being you created us to be. Enable us to awaken to this awareness if we have forgotten it. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you God, for the fragile moments in life that teach us that we do not have to know the reasons why anything happens before we take that leap of faith into our next adventure. Thank you for the challenges that make us stretch beyond our known capabilities. Thank you for the times when all our symbols of security dissolve around us, and, once again, our thoughts must find peace with you as the unexpected unfolds.
Why is it, O God, that so often we quickly respond with frustration when your will may be fashioning our destiny? Why is it that we find detours so unattractive? Why is it that so often we conclude that something is a waste of our time? What is more important than reflecting your likeness in everything we experience?
As we reflect on our lives thus far, who could have known ahead of time the jobs we have, the partner with whom we enjoy a relationship, the children born to us whose personalities that are still forming? What an adventure life has been! We confess it has been an adventure because of hindsight. As we anticipate tomorrow, help each of us to stand forth with faith and trust, knowing that our future will be as fascinating as our past. May we radiate unwavering confidence by accepting every moment as our opportunity to mirror your nature to an audience of onlookers whom we may not know is being attentive to what we do. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .