Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunday Sermon from Tallinn 2

If you haven't yet read Mimi's post below, go there first.

Psalm 138
Romans 12
Matthew 16

August 17th
As Lutherans we know a lot about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and “not through good works lest any man should boast.” (That is not to dismiss good works, merely to recognise that they are marks of obedient discipleship.) What we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to that grace: a question echoing through time – and even haunting the Scripture itself.

In the Old Testament, with Abraham, the grace of God became identified with a particular people and a defining way of life and worship. Even so there was always an awareness that God’s grace could reach far beyond such narrow confines. The Psalm of the Day is clear that God can be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” The Psalmist talks of “your salvation among all nations.” And the prophet speaking in the First Lesson for today insists there will be “foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him………for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Then in today’s Epistle: Paul is frustrated because the Jews have failed to recognize the Messiah. In today’s reading he changes course. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” says Paul. But, of course, Paul was writing with the benefit of hindsight and we are getting ahead of ourselves. I outline these simply to show that our supporting readings point to what we discover in the Gospel.

In his Gospel Matthew stresses that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” but in today’s Gospel reading a non-Jewish supplicant, a Canaanite, draws him to a more universalistic vision. This supplicant, as the pronoun makes clear, is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though, she nags him, she makes a public scene around him.

This woman comes alone to Jesus, begging for healing for her daughter. “Have pity (“mercy”) on me Lord, Son of David.” a term which would hardly have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning suggesting a degree of understanding of Jesus that he and the Disciples should have taken more notice of.

Jesus meets her request with stony silence and this peculiar initial unresponsiveness to her appeal is very strange. This is the same man who responded so willingly to another Gentile, a centurion who pleaded for the welfare of a sick servant, only a few chapters earlier. There was no reluctance or hesitancy then. Why should there be so now? Is it because she is a woman? Is it because she is a Canaanite and the centurion was a Roman? He doesn’t explain: there is only this strange, surprising silence. Not so from the disciples who demand, “Get rid of her, for she keeps yelling at us.” Maybe she’d been nagging them before she got to Jesus, and they have had enough. She certainly seems to have got under their skins. Still Jesus remains unmoved and again he rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly. He claims to have a clear goal, a fixation – an all-consuming passion in fact – on where he is to direct his attention and his energies. The woman is not in that vision, because she is a foreigner.

But she seizes on this immediately! His silence had been terrifying, but now he is in conversation with her and she’s not going to let the opportunity pass by so she presses her case with force. The poor woman has been reduced to desperation, to be sure, but she will not give up now. She hangs on for all she is worth and disadvantaged as she is by being an outsider - a Gentile and a woman who is alone in public, she challenges this rebuff by “worshiping” Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection). She started with the plea, “Have mercy on me,” but now she kneels before him in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me,” she says. “You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down, for you are the only One to whom I can look.” She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her rights or merit: only a plea for mercy, and undeserved help. She has nothing to bring with which to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing other than the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter.

How does he respond? Not as we would expect. This merciful One, this man filled with grace, this Prince of Peace, speaks in terms that sound harshly rude, and no matter how one wants to put a positive interpretation on it, Jesus is speaking as an Israelite spoke of Gentiles. “It is not right to take the food of children (Jews) and give it to dogs” (Gentiles). They were “dogs,” and there is no way to change that offensive sense. Yet the woman grabs hold of even this rejection and turns it into a response against which Jesus can no longer argue! “Yes, Lord,” she says. “I know! I am not of the house and lineage of those from whom you come. Nor am I worthy to approach you as I have. Even so I still make bold to say that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. You are correct that it would not be right or proper to take the bread of the children and give it to dogs like me. Yet I, as a dog, ask only that you let me have the crumbs that fall from your table.”

It is this statement which finally breaks through the barriers that stood in her way.

You can almost imagine the frisson of shock rippling through the crowd. And after a pause that must have seemed like a lifetime, in a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Her daughter is healed at that moment. He who has fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who will feed another four thousand only a short time later grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” He who feeds Israel has given an “appetizer,” as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the master’s table.”

The feeding of the five and the four thousand serve as great bookends to this story. What we need to understand here, too, is that the second multitude Jesus goes on to feed is a Gentile crowd: the feeding takes place in a Gentile area called the Decapolis, not by the sea of Galilee, a Jewish area where the first feeding took place. Between the two feedings, it would seem that Jesus has re-evaluated his mission: a feeding miracle for the Jews and then one for the Gentiles. What led to that rethink? Perhaps in this story today we have the answer: a desperate and persistent Canaanite woman. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of the full implications of his mission. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come.

Well, isn’t that a nice story? But unless we take on board the practical and personal implications and challenges, it will remain just that, a nice story: an interesting piece of religious story telling. No. It must have the power to do more than interest us: it must touch us.

This story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing should still challenge the church today. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been subtle and other times it has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. But we keep wanting to establish limits on God’s grace and God keeps pushing on them. We like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn. Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.

The great faith of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time. She wouldn’t accept the idea that Jesus was only sent for certain people. Her faith melted that barrier. It calls all of us to receive what Jesus has to offer and to push the limits and boundaries ourselves as we present that same Jesus and what he offers to others. We need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”

We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few other Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter their understanding of Christianity. As I mentioned last week, I am a great fan of the English writer C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a perceptive theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory: in “The Last Battle”, which is an eschatological story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan the Lion, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash, who is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement. In this allegory of the Christian story Lewis is suggesting that God’s grace is, indeed, extended beyond the limits we might expect. But that is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to set limits on God’s grace. We do not know the mind of God.

Emeth says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

I think many of us would do well to ponder on that idea as we consider who the outsider, the marginalised and the disenfranchised are in our societies. Who is the “other” today, those that we reject because they don’t fit into our self imposed pigeonholes of who God accepts?