Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Calling out our faith. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 18B, preached on Sunday, September 9, 2018.

    This is a text that makes us all uncomfortable.  It is not because we identify with the Syrophoenician woman.  We do not.  She is not our kind of people.  What makes us uneasy is not that we like her or identify with her but that it seems that Jesus is being rude to her, or, worse, that He is being mean to her.  That is a problem because if Jesus is being mean to her, He could be mean to us.  And, in fact, that is the soft underbelly of Christians.  We live in fear that God really does not like us or that He will not do for us all that He has promised.  That is why we panic every time our prayers are left unanswered or answered not as we desire.  That is why we use our prayers to argue our cause before the Lord, unsure if God’s mercy can be counted upon.  That is why we look for short cuts to God.  We want Him to like us because we want Him to do for us what we want.

    We have cell phones so that we can get a hold of everyone we want to talk to but we retain the right to ignore the calls of people we don’t want to talk to.  Does God do this?  St. Mark tells us that Jesus entered a house and did not want the people to know where He was because He sought some quiet time.  Yet St. Mark also records that Jesus could not be hidden. This Gentile woman who had heard of Jesus and the miraculous works He had done found Him and fell down at His feet begging Him to cast the demon from her daughter.

    St. Matthew tells us that the disciples were very uncomfortable with her presence.  They begged Jesus instead to send her away.  She was not like them.  She was a Gentile.  She was unclean.  Her daughter had a demon.  The demonic makes us all uncomfortable.  So Jesus says.  “I was not sent here for you but for the children of Israel.  I must feed the children first for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  That should have been enough but it was not.  Instead it only drew out this woman’s faith.  “So feed them first,” she said, “but give to the dogs the crumbs that fall from the table.”  “For this faith, go,” said Jesus, “the demon no longer afflicts your daughter.”

    Jesus is not being rude or cruel to this pitiful woman in her desperate plight.  Instead, our Lord sees her faith and draws it out until it speaks clearly and powerfully.  She calls Him Lord and from faith she confesses she will be content with whatever crumbs of mercy He casts her way.  Jesus marvels here at such a faith.  He did not find it in the scribes or elders or rulers of the Temple, not in the Pharisees who were the guardians of the Law, and not even in His own disciples – whose faith had to be nurtured gently over years of instruction.  But this woman was drawn out of herself to speak boldly to her Lord and God.  And so Jesus sends her on her way; her daughter no longer suffers the demon.

    We say our faith is strong but the littlest things in life rattle our cages.  We go crazy second guessing the promises of Christ.  We ignore the unmistakable sign of the cross and the resurrection and ask God over and over again for little signs just to know He is with us.
We confess that we are saved by grace but we think that generally we are likeable enough and God gives us the things of His mercy because we are good people, we go to church, we pray, and we even put money in the offering plate.  We figure that we have given up enough fun stuff in this life that God owes us a little something now and again.  It costs us something to be good, even to try and be good, and so God should answer our calls when we call on Him.

    But that is the problem.  How easy it is to make grace small and cheap and to inflate the value of who we are and what we have done.  Our Lord is not cruel.  He does not abandon us in our hour of need.  He does not leave us hanging because He is preoccupied with other things.  He does not offend us.  But He does allow the troubles and trials of this mortal life to strengthen and confirm us in the faith.  He uses them to draw out our faith so that we are made stronger in this faith.  He asks us to wait upon His timing, to trust when we cannot see a way out, and to be confident even as the pillars of our lives appear to be collapsing.  He uses the troubles of this mortal life to draw out our faith and build us up in Him.

    The woman here is patient.  The reproaches of the Lord do not turn her away nor do they diminish her pleas.  She accepts the crosses He has called her to bear.  She does not give up when she does not see the answer to her prayers.  She perseveres in faith and persists in her prayers.  She is willing to be a dog.  In other words, she does not presume that God answers her because she has earned it or deserves it or even because He likes her.  She is content to trust in His mercy alone.  Being a dog means being utterly dependent upon the mercy of your master.  This she does because she is contrite and because she believes in the Lord and not in herself.  Whom do you trust?

    Those who are saved are all the wrong kind of people.  They are sinners.  You are sinners.  They are dogs.  You are dogs.  But the message of hope is not that we are not as bad as we thought even though we are probably worse than we think.  No, the massage of hope here is that God loves sinners.  That He loves sinners enough not to leave them in their sins but to deliver them from their demons, to open the ears of those who are deaf, and to open the mouths of those who cannot speak.  When we in humility confess our sins and our unworthiness, we are not pushed away but find mercy beyond measure and grace sufficient for our every need.

    The posture of faith is humility, contrition, and repentance.  We spend too much time trying to prove that everything is okay, that nothing is really wrong, and that sin is not as bad as you think.  God speaks to us and we think Him rude because He insists upon pointing out our sins.  God works in us to call forth our faith and we deem Him cruel because we did not get what we want, when we wanted it.  But God is not our enemy; He is our Redeemer.  He calls forth our sin to forgive it and He confronts us with the aimless path of this life and its end in death so that we might see Christ the way to everlasting life.

    We are all dogs.  God owes us nothing but graciously gives us all things in Christ.  This is the fulcrum on which faith balances.  God has not given us what our sins deserve but more than we dared to ask.  He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love to those who come confessing they are dogs and He is Lord.  But those who come, do not leave empty handed.  The woman went home to find the demon gone and her daughter sleeping peacefully in her bed.  A man deaf and unable to speak is brought to Jesus and his ears are opened and his tongue released.  Jesus has done all things well, more than we deserve and more than we ever expected.  He saves us sinners with His own blood and pays the price of our ransom His own suffering and dies in our place our death on the cross.  All of this freely and lovingly to save us most especially from ourselves and from thinking too highly of ourselves and not highly enough of Him.

    And what should be our response to mercy shown even to dogs?  James tells us bluntly.  If God does not discriminate between rich and poor, the right people and the wrong, you should not.  If God has called you His neighbor and loved you with the everlasting love to forgive your sins and cover you with His righteousness, should you not also love your neighbor as yourself?  If you claim to have faith but ignore the people who come to you like dogs begging for mercy, then you are not repentant for you consider yourself better than them. Show me your faith by the works that do for others as God has done for you.

    We spend too much time in the realm of feelings.  Faith is not a feeling.  It is the conviction of the Holy Spirit in response to the Word of God.  God does not deal with us according to His feelings or ours.  It does not matter whether or not you feel it, you are blessed to be called the children of God as a gracious declaration and gift you neither earned nor merited.  It does not matter whether or not you feel it, you are chosen by God, elected to be His own children and set apart for the vocation of your daily life of worship, witness, prayer, service, and sacrificial giving.  It does not matter whether or not you feel it, you are placed by God in this generation, in this time, and in this place for a holy purpose and the goal of your life is to fulfill that holy purpose by faith and faithful living.  Every day we struggle to believe that we are blessed, chosen, now in this generation, and that even a crumb of His mercy is great enough for our all our needs and ever for everlasting life.

    These are hard words.  Only the Spirit can help us receive them.  Only the Spirit can help us believe them.  Only the Spirit can help us live them.  These are astonishing words.  God loves sinners and saves them.  God’s people love sinners and speaks to them the saving Word and serves them with the redeeming love of Jesus.  God help us to do just that.  Amen.


John Joseph Flanagan said...

Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

This text is one of the very few times Jesus speaks directly to the gentiles, and to a woman, no less! This should be extremely important and encouraging to us, as gentiles, because it shows that we too are included in God's mercy through Christ.