Monday, August 15

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

(Please note that I delivered this sermon out of my head, without anything written down beforehand; so what you see below is a reconstruction, and will be different than what the congregation heard. Fleshed out better in spots, maybe... anyway, this is the gist.)

Proper 15A
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

I will begin today with a confession: I've never been comfortable with the bit of scripture that is our Gospel today. It seems to stand in such stark contrast with so many of the other stories we read of Jesus' interaction with people. In other places, he's portayed as gentle, and compassionate, and approachable; eating with sinners, and healing...

Not here. To my 20th/21st century ears, he sounds harsh, and flatly rude in this story. First he ignores the woman's pleas; then he says his work is not intended for folks like her (non-Jews); then he equates her with dogs under the dinner table!

Now, I've heard several explanations for Jesus' behavior over the years. Some have said that he was responding out of the wholly human side of his nature. He was a good Jew, remember, and this was a woman from a pagan culture-- someone that pious Jews would have termed unclean. His comment in that context would have been taken as no more than a statement of fact; indeed, not nearly as insulting as others might have been.

Others hold that he was using this as an opportunity to teach the disciples a lesson about how to teach people. He responds first in the expected manner, and then turns the tables, showing them that faith is more important than pedigree.

Or maybe it's a case of not having all the information. We only read the text, after all-- we can't hear the tone of Jesus' voice, nor see his face as he speaks to her. Those factors can make all the difference.

All those, and others, are certainly liegitimate possibilities... but I find I'm not entirely satisfied with any of them. I still come back to those words, and I cringe. I just don't understand.

However, when I look at the woman's behavior in the story, there's much that I can understand in her. And I think there's a lesson to be learned in her behavior, and her response to the way she is treated.

She's a mother, with a daughter who is very ill-- by her description, posessed by a demon. I expect anyone with a loved one who has been really sick, or badly injured, can comprehend the way she behaves. She's willing to do anything in her power to make her daughter better, to heal the sickness and have her be healthy.

I heard a phrase this week that applies here. As you know, my family and I were on vacation for the last two weeks. We took a trip westward, through South Dakota and Wyoming, and into Montana. And while we were driving through Wyoming, I heard it over and over again: "Cowboy up." It's an expression that comes out of the rodeo circuit and ranching; it means to keep trying, to not give up. If you fall off the horse, get back on. If you get hurt, you tough it out. Don't quit.

And that's what the Canaanite woman was doing. She asked for help, and Jesus ignored her. She kept pleading, until the disciples were sick of her, and asked him to make her leave. He dismissed her, so she knelt right in front of him-- got right in his face. And even when he delivers that line comparing her to the dogs under the table, (that raises my hackles, and might well send me crawling away), she remains calm, and responds in a way that causes Jesus not only to praise her faith, but to give in and heal her daughter. Her persisistence-- her determination to "cowboy up" in the face of consistent denial-- was effective.

And there's the lesson, brothers and sisters. There's a lot about this world, and the work of God in it, that I don't understand. Sometimes I don't see God at work; and sometimes I wonder if God isn't making some mistakes in what I do see. I don't understand a violent, murderous rampage, or the idea of capitol punishment as a Christian response. I don't understand the actions of September 11, nor the war we are making in response. I don't understand how a loving savior could not only tolerate, but die for the millions of petty ways we mistreat one another, every day.

But here's the good news: I do believe, and this Gospel teaches, that we are not only permitted, but encouraged to "cowboy up." To not quit-- to go to God with our confusion, and misunderstanding, and anger, over, and over, and over again. Even when we don't hear an answer... and even when we don't like the answer we do hear. Maybe most especially then. God loves us enough to take all of it. And God will answer, in his own time, and own way, and out of a love that is beyond our understanding as well.

So we needn't hesitate, brothers and sisters. Cowboy up.