A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 15:1-28
You are not going to be very happy with Jesus this morning, but hear him out. You hear the words read and you might see a racist Jesus. Calling a poor woman in need of a miracle a dog. He also takes the time to say that our tradition, the things we hold dear and important in the eyes of the god we have constructed are destined for the sewer. But he also takes the time to tell us that we are really good at judging unwashed hands and ethnic origins, but really suck at knowing how to give out mercy.
This past week, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the extreme sinfulness of humanity was put on display for a moment. The dirty laundry was aired, but like my brother in high school, instead of realizing the laundry needs washing, we just give it the smell test and try to find something that doesn’t smell as bad to replace the worst parts of us. It’s a guy thing, take a shirt out of the laundry hamper and smell it deeply, and as long as you remain conscious, it’s wearable.
The smell is easy enough for us to miss, because, unlike what the media wishes to tell you, Charlottesville is not America. Regardless of the doomsayers, regardless of what we are told to believe, taking fringe groups who see hate and violence as means to an end are not the reality for most of us. Here in Hubbard County, in Nevis and Akeley, white nationalism is not exactly a daily in-your-face experience. We have plenty of other sins confronting us each day, but the kind of display in Virginia is not one of them. At least I hope not.
But I say that knowing that I am a Pharisee. I am very good at judging how clean your hands are. I am very good at looking at my neighbor and discerning their value, their allegiance, their heart because of what I see rather than what I know. I am really good at setting aside the Gospel for the sake of the law because the law is easier. The world loves the law. The law says that we need to be nicer. If we could do better things, we would be better. If we could just feel really, really bad then things would be better. Try harder next time, we say. What I should do is step back and leave that there for you to discern in light of the Gospel reading for this morning. Whose “hands” have you been looking at lately? Whose “diet” have you been judging? Whose cleanliness are you more worried about than your own?
I could leave you with this hellfire, because I know the answers I would give. I have great eyes for dirt. A great nose for smelly hands. I am epic when it comes to noticing the failures of others while writing off my own. First sermon – I am a Pharisee.
But I also speak as one of the disciples. One who wishes to tow the party line. Who stands in the background hearing all the pleas for mercy and do nothing. Who sees the leaders telling me things and come to Jesus to try and change his mind. I wish to be comfortable in my own skin, in my own little territory, instead of having the whole arena of my life messed up because Jesus comes with something else. I like to be in the system, but also be able to say that the system is at fault. Saying that there is systemic racism is easier than saying people are racist. There is systemic injustice instead of saying that I am unjust. There is sin in the world is easier than saying I am a sinner. The chief sinner.
The disciples aren’t being worse than others, they are just being sinners in need of redeeming. Lambs in need of the Shepherd. They are doing as we do. Or at least I do. Knowing only what my heart does which is to look to me, myself and I, and not to Christ. Sermon two – I am the disciples.
But with all the talk of handwashing, of food, of defilement and being unwashed, here comes a new character. A new story. An encounter with Christ that has pissed people off for centuries. Jesus is on his way to Tyre and Sidon, or as Minnesotans call it – Wisconsin. As he goes, a resident of that region meets him before he even gets there. A Canaanite woman. One of the female gender who belongs to a tribe of people that Israel was supposed to have killed off centuries before. No love lost here. She would be a dog. She would be the lowest of the low in the eyes of Israel. Not part of the chosen people. A pagan, unwashed. Idolater. Get it? Her only response – Lord, Son of David, have mercy. Be merciful. Give that which I don’t deserve.
Being the Pharisee or disciple, I see Jesus’ response, and most of us are outraged, but I know deep down that is my response, and Christ knows it.
It is not a good thing to give the children’s bread to the dogs.
That is me. Faced with one who may come from a place of absolute opposite life as mine, that would be me. Mercy would not be my first response. Mercy would be outweighed by pride and a segregating heart. Mercy would be seen as handing her a couple of bucks and being on my way.
Yet, we see Christ here and we are confused. How dare he speak this way. How dare he take a woman at her lowest and insult her, going along with the thoughts of the day, and not bring liberation from this sin of bigotry. Unless we read this statement in light of all that has happened.
Pharisees wanting traditions of men to supersede the grace of God. Traditions that include saying who is in and who is out, but Christ’s response – Don’t be concerned with what goes in the mouth, what someone looks like, how they wash their hands, or carry themselves. Listen! Listen to them and you may just hear the voice of God speaking through them.
The disciples don’t like Christ’s first response. Probably because they thought of themselves as that person who replaces the honor of parents for the “greater good”. I had money and goods to use to care for my parents but I’ve left them to care for you Jesus. A more holy thing than the word and command of God. We’re doing the Lord’s work, you can hear them say. Because I can hear me say it. Instead of thinking that the Word of God is the work of God. The Word of God that brings mercy.
So imagine Jesus, not looking at the woman, but looking at the disciples. They looking at the ground, kicking some rocks with their feet, after wanting Jesus to be unmerciful, and he says those words.
Then we hear from the woman. A woman who should not know, yet she does. She should not know that Christ and mercy go hand in hand, but she does. She responds to Christ’s retort with the way Christ wanted his disciples to respond.
Even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the Lord’s table.
Third sermon – I am that woman. I am the Canaanite. I am the idolater. The outsider. The sinner. The unclean. I am one with unwashed hands. I am the puppy under the table eating of the crumbs.
It is said that Martin Luther’s dying words were – we are all beggars. This is true.
Beggars, dogs, under the table, waiting for the smallest piece of provision. But all it takes is a crumb. All it takes is a small little morsel from the hands of the Lord to effect in me and my heart the redemption I need. The Lord’s table, where we gather each Sunday isn’t a snackbar, or an interlude. It is the place where all the beggars come for bread to receive in their hands the mercy they need. No division or strife is allowed. No segregation. Everything that makes us think we are worthy is left in the pew as we come to this place for what it is Christ offers of his Gospel and grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.