It is truly amazing just how fast transitions can come. When I finished CPE, I had a week to move all of my stuff from Jackson, MS, up to Muskegon, MI, then travel back to Columbus, OH, get the rest of my stuff, and travel again to Muskegon in order to start my internship this weekend. That’s a lot of traveling! But I have survived, and am eager to get down to work (I even have my own office, a first!).
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
- Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
- Psalm 67
- Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
- Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
Preached at Nativity Lutheran Church, Brandon, MS, during my Clinical Pastoral Education in Jackson.
This may, or may not be hard to believe, but I was never a part of the “in” crowd in school. Sure, things got better later on, but those early years were spent being one of many outcasts in my class. My grade school covered grades K-8, and when you spend 9 years with the same 20 people, those class distinctions never really change.
So when I look at today’s readings, I have no trouble figuring out who I relate to. When Isaiah speaks of “foreigners” who will come and worship the Lord, the “outcasts of Israel” who will be gathered by God, that speaks to my experience. When the Canaanite woman begs with Jesus for healing, I empathize with her. And it’s NOT because of her faith—I relate to her because she is not one of the House of Israel, but a “dog.”
The separating of God’s chosen people from the rest of humanity goes all the way back to Genesis, with the calling of Abraham. From Abraham, down to Isaac, down to Jacob and to the 12 tribes of Israel, God chose a certain people to be the favorites. For the next few thousand years, the Israelites were the chosen favorites of God. That pretty much meant that the rest of the world were outcasts, you and me especially.
Of course, that didn’t mean that Israel had it easy either. The covenant relationship with God was always rocky, because as human beings, we aren’t particularly good at maintaining relationships. If we can’t relate to each other faithfully, how in the heck are we going to relate to God? Israel had a lot of expectations put on them. The covenant was very specific and required their utmost devotion. They had to be justified by their works and their deeds.
Human beings are TERRIBLE when we have to justify ourselves. How many of us today would feel comfortable going to God right now, this afternoon, and boasting about how we are a good person, how we’ve kept every single law, how we’ve never sinned?
We can’t follow God’s regulations no matter how hard we try. We couldn’t do it today, a thousand years ago, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, and on and on. What’s worse, is that we here today, we are the outcasts. At least God remained faithful to the chosen people. Now, that’s love—no matter how many times God was betrayed, God reestablished the covenant. Jesus spent almost all of his ministry among his own people, the Judeans, the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. What about us?
Isaiah’s words seem to offer some comfort. The foreigners and outcasts who follow the laws of the covenant will be gathered with the chosen people and treated the same way. I don’t think we always realize just how remarkable that is. Foreigners and outcasts, welcome at the altar of the Lord? That’s pretty significant, especially when we consider that these words were written thousands of years ago.
But on the other hand, the foreigners and outcasts must also be accountable for their works and deeds. Even though God has no covenant with them, they must still follow the covenant in order to be counted with the chosen people. Again, our works redeem us, and since we are incapable of redeeming ourselves through our works, we are set up again for failure.
So where is our hope? Well, if you ask a child a question in a children’s sermon, chances are the answer will be Jesus, and in THIS case, that just so happens to be true. Jesus.
The first thing Jesus does is get rid of any notion that the deeds of the covenant law have any affect on our righteousness. Food laws, purity laws, sacrificial laws—none of them matter. Thanks be to God!
Of course, what does matter is what is in our hearts. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s made our job harder, actually, if we are trying to redeem ourselves. Even our thoughts condemn us. Worse still, we are still outsiders, foreigners, no better than the Canaanite woman who could not get Jesus’ attention because she was not of the house of Israel.
Well that doesn’t sound much like hope. BUT! What does justify the Canaanite woman? Did she adhere to the covenant law, as the foreigners and outcasts of Isaiah do? Perhaps, perhaps not. The text doesn’t really say one way or the other.
But even if she did, is it her works, deeds, or renown that convince Jesus to heal her daughter? NO! It is her FAITH that puts her on equal footing with the chosen people in Jesus eyes, worthy of the same divine attention and care.
Where does this faith come from? Nothing less than by the mercy of God. We don’t deserve a single good word from God. God’s own CHOSEN PEOPLE don’t deserve a single good word from God. Our disobedience condemns us before we even have the chance to defend ourselves. Our guilt is painfully, painfully obvious.
Yet Jesus did not come into the world to condemn us for our guilt, but to save us FROM it. Do you think that God went through all of that–being incarnated, growing up, experiencing INTENSE suffering, dying—do you think God would have done that if it was only for a few chosen people? God doesn’t do anything half way. “For God has imprisoned ALL in disobedience so that he may be merciful to ALL.” No longer is the mercy of God reserved for the few, but for the many.
Jesus didn’t find himself in Canaanite lands by accident. He went there on purpose. The majority of his ministry was confined to Judea, but in this case, he went out of his way to meet a foreigner, an outcast, yet one who had faith. Because of Jesus, we are no longer separated from God’s love and mercy. The chosen people and the outcasts are examples to each other of the mercy and grace of God.
God’s plan would not be complete if it did not include everyone. As Paul asks, “Has God rejected his people? By no means!” God’s promises, God’s gifts, are irrevocable. Jesus once and for all secured the grace and mercy of God for all people—they will not be taken back.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost A
- Isaiah 55:10-13
- Psalm 65:9-13
- Romans 8:1-11
- Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Preached at Nativity Lutheran Church, Brandon, MS, while I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education in Jackson.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done something and immediately thought, “You know… that was dumb.”
You see, I’m what you’d call an “experiential learner.” You can tell me as many times as you want how or how NOT to do something, but I won’t really get it until I try it myself. How many “experiential learners” are here this morning? You know what I’m talking about, right?
Sometimes, this works really well. I wouldn’t have really known how to set up a tent or ride a bike if I didn’t DO it. I wouldn’t have been able to learn how to get the chapel at the seminary set up in 15 minutes flat if I hadn’t DONE it.
Of course, I have learned plenty of things NOT to do, because I have tried. I learned not to touch a hot pan after I tried it as a kid. I learned not to climb on the porch wall after I fell off of it on to my head. I learned lots of messy ways NOT to tap a keg when I worked at a neighborhood bar and restaurant. I learned not to wear flimsy shoes after I stepped on a nail at a construction site.
No matter how many times I’m told, sometimes, I just have to learn things for myself the hard way. And most of the time, I think to myself, “Well… that was dumb.” So it’s not too hard for me to identify and empathize with the crowds in today’s Gospel reading. They just don’t get it.
If you are confused right now, it’s because our story this morning is missing a piece, its middle. The part where Jesus explains why he speaks to the crowds in parables. In short, it’s because the crowds won’t get it anyway. The tragedy of Israel and Judah’s history is that God’s people had to learn the hard way what God wanted for them.
Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says,“For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart,” Turning to the disciples, he continues,“But blessed are YOUR eyes, for they see, and YOUR ears, for they hear.”
Now, I can’t help wondering if Jesus might be a liiiiiitle bit sarcastic here. Think about it–the disciples aren’t usually considered to be the brightest crayons in the box, after all, and THEY get it? Most of the time THEY are the ones who are asking him to explain his parables. This is actually the of the few times they DON’T ask Jesus for an explanation… sorta. I think their question, “Why do you speak to them in parables,” really means, “We don’t get it, but we don’t want YOU to know we don’t get it,… so we’ll pretend it’s just the crowds.” * wink wink *
And we know that later, when the time comes for the words of Jesus to come to their full meaning, in the crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples really blow it. They didn’t even get it when Jesus appeared to them in the upper room. They too had to learn the hard way.
Sound familiar? Last week we heard Paul lament: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
And let’s be honest, how many of us have left a church on Sunday thinking, “Hoo boy… what the heck was Pastor talking about?” This of course applies to ALL pastors, so don’t feel guilty about raising your hand.
Yes, sometimes, we too just don’t get it. We have to learn the hard way when it whallops us on the side of the head—when the weight of what he hear really comes pressing down on us.
We hear “Love your neighbor”, and curse the thief who breaks into our car.
We hear, “Do not lie,” and rationalize being not quite honest on our taxes.
We hear “Sell all that you have,” and instead go out and buy more.
We hear “Forgive each other”, and hate our spouse who has cheated on us.
The words that seem so simple and easy in church suddenly become… so impossible to live out. We hear them, and we want to understand and live them, but we can’t. Our ears are stopped, our eyes are shut. We are like seed snatched away by an adversary, or choked in the thorns or daily life, or without root, unable to maintain. We just don’t get it, and we’ll have to learn the hard way.
But, instead of being bad news, this is quite good news. If it were up to us, we’d never learn, no matter how many times we fell on our heads. Jesus’ followers were the same way. Maybe the disciples don’t get it. Okay. But what does Jesus do? He explains the parable anyway, without them really asking. He knows what they need, and he gives it freely.
Jesus didn’t leave his followers in the dark. Even when they had to learn the hard way, when they all fled in the Garden of Gethsemane and left him to die; when they hid themselves out of fear, and didn’t believe the good news told to them by the women from the tomb. For all of their failings, Jesus still carried them, lifted them up. And on that day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God came and dwelt in the disciples, and their followers, and their followers, all the way down to us. The Spirit of God who works forgiveness and redemption into all of creation.
As Paul says in our second reading today:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
You see, God is NEVER hopeless.
If we hear and see nothing else, we have that promise. Where there was once despair, now there is hope. Where there was once scorn, now there is compassion. We’ll get it eventually. We haven’t got a choice.
What did our first reading say? “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth… so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it SHALL ACCOMPLISH that which I purpose, and SUCCEED in the thing for which I sent it.”
We can’t stop God, even when we try, and boy, sometimes, do I try. God is stubborn. A LOT more stubborn than we are. Sometimes, we just have to learn the hard way that God will always bring us back.
And you know? I think that’s a lesson I could live with.