Preached on 20 August 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
The eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A
For a long time I struggled with the psalms – I still do, truth be told – especially the ones that are angry, hateful, and violent, particularly when they’re used in our worship. The psalms are the prayer book, the hymnal, of the ancient communities that wrote them.
We include specific prayer requests from individuals in our weekly prayers of the people; prayers for guidance, healing, strength, for God’s presence. We don’t have a “smite my neighbor” section, though. That just doesn’t seem to be in keeping with Jesus teachings. Yet, we pray the psalms.
One day, when I was in seminary, one of the professors preached about the psalms at the daily Eucharist and it helped me see the psalms from a new perspective. These are the prayers of the voiceless and the powerless; whether powerless against human opponents or the forces of nature. The justice they seek, the judgement they call upon God to exact is beyond their reach, beyond their own ability to effect.
To silence the psalms would be to silence voices with legitimate grievances; including those in the world or at our doorstep who may have a grievance against us. We need to be willing to listen. When we pray a psalm of lament, even if it isn’t about our own experience, it is a prayer for someone’s experience. The psalms can remind us that when we come together on Sunday it’s not about us; we are here to pray for the world.
The psalms show us that if even God can be called to account for the world’s suffering, can there be anyone who is so magnificent or powerful or grandiose that they are beyond our reach. If we can challenge God, we can certainly challenge any earthly authority or power about the suffering and injustice in the world.
Today’s gospel is something like that. We heard two consecutive passages verses 10 to 20 and verses 21 to 28. In the first passage, we hear Jesus saying that it is what comes out of our mouths that has the potential to defile us. What comes out of our mouth comes from the heart. And what lies in the evil intentions of the heart? Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, slander. Obviously, it’s not just about words, but also the actions that come from our thoughts and words. I think we can all understand this. In fact, every Sunday, we begin our worship with prayer asking God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. It’s called the Collect for Purity; we’re asking God to purify our hearts, to remove any defilement.
In the other passage, we have this interesting story about Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Now, while these two passages occur together, geographically, they’re miles apart. In the first one, the last we heard, Jesus is at Gennesaret on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. The second passage begins with Jesus leaving that place and traveling to the region of Tyre and Sidon – way to the north of Galilee and over on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Now a local woman, whom Matthew describes as a Canaanite, comes to Jesus. She is a mother and she is desperate, fearing for her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Now first, at this time, there really are no Canaanites. In Mark’s gospel, she is described as a Syrophoenician woman. Perhaps Matthew is drawing a connection to the Canaanite women who were listed in Jesus’ genealogy at the beginning of the gospel?
In any case, at first, he ignores her. Then, when she persists, this comes out of his mouth – what to our ears sounds awful!
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And when she pleads again, he responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What? Really, Jesus? Did you really mean to say that?
Again, she persists. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” You’d almost think she was reminding him of what he had just said down in Gennesaret.
For the Canaanite mother, this was certainly not a “Thy will be done” moment. She will do whatever it takes to save her daughter – even challenge Jesus. “Great is your faith!” Jesus says to her. Faith is not passive. Faith is active, it challenges power in the pursuit of what is right and just and merciful.
For this faithful mother, the time of waiting is over. She is not going to get in line behind anyone. She recognizes the abundance of God’s grace. Healing her daughter would take nothing from anyone. There is no need to delay any longer.
God’s abundance and grace is all around us. And yet sometimes it seems that we try to mete it out in dribs and drabs and only to the most deserving, as if it were going to run out. Why do people go hungry when half of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in landfills? Housing, education, healthcare – we could choose not to ration them. But more important, justice, mercy, kindness, love, dignity, these are for everyone, not just a segment of the people. There is an unlimited supply, enough for all.
The gospel shows us that if even a desperate outsider, a Canaanite mother can challenge Jesus, there is no one whom we cannot challenge; no power that we cannot hold to account for injustice.
Make no mistake – what is going on in our country right now is not a case of “both sides” being equally guilty. Racism and antisemitism are sin. White supremacy is evil. In our baptismal covenant, we promise to persevere in resisting evil. Faith requires vigilance and persistence in actively resisting evil and establishing justice – with God’s help. Justice is not some nebulous, abstract concept. It is real, it is particular, it is tangible. It is life. Without it, there is death. For the Canaanite mother, justice is the healing of her daughter from a tormenting demon.
Sometimes, the tormentor that threatens the life and safety of God’s beloved daughters and sons, is human. With God’s help, they can be challenged and opposed.
Let us pray
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you, no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love our neighbor as ourselves. Give us courage and wisdom to challenge the evil-doer. Open our eyes and give us vigilance to see injustice. Give us faith and the will to persevere in resisting evil, that all the world may know that you are God and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord.
*Thank you to Karoline Lewis of WorkingPreacher.org for the idea for the Title and theme, and The Book of Common Prayer for the Baptismal Covenant and the Collect for Purity.