Sermons That Work

From Isaiah to the Psalms…, Proper 15 (A) – 2005

August 14, 2005

From Isaiah to the Psalms, to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in Matthew’s Gospel we hear the offering of mercy to God’s children.

John Wesley, always an Anglican, whose evangelical preaching led to the founding of the Methodist Church, emphasized that Christians should show their actions in word and deed. He was emphatic that believers needed to experience the mercy of God—the forgiveness of their sins, the healing of their bodies, and of their minds and spirits—as they were building their faithfulness. Wesley believed that Christians are on a journey of growing in God’s grace. Our lessons echo for us that same journey of faith building: our faith in God and the love for Christ Jesus.

The Isaiah lesson is the beginning of what is known as the “third Isaiah.” In it the Lord challenges his listeners to “maintain justice, to do what is right.” The Lord went on to say, “soon my salvation will come, I will bring (some) to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” We are called to be vessels of God’s justice. We are called to feel the struggles that cause conflict; to sense the need of reconciliation between those who have wronged each other. As people of faith we need the vision to understand the Lord when we hear him in the depths of our soul saying, “do what is right.”

The Psalmist says, “May God be merciful to us and bless us”: A beautiful Psalm from the heart of David. It is a song of praise, an expression of great joy, a prayer of thanksgiving. The worst sinner and the best saint can merit God’s merciful blessing. The church universal begs for a blessing from God. Bless us, we pray in our quest for acceptance. When we bless God our words do little, but when God blesses us he enriches our lives, he fills our hearts with compassion for others; he opens us to see the goodness to which we had been blinded. The Psalmist, in closing, asks that “God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.”

In the Scripture from Romans just preceding today’s reading, Paul is frustrated because the Jews have failed to recognize the Messiah. In our lesson he changes course. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” says Paul. He is even bold enough to give himself a title, “apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul is not bashful about his zeal for Jesus! He chides the Gentiles about being presumptuous because they have accepted Christ and the Israelites have not. As a Jew, but one who sees Jesus as his Messiah, Paul says, I glory in my ministry “in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.” Israel’s rejection of the Gospel, as Paul declares it, has led to the reconciliation of the Gentiles and beyond them to the whole world, as they knew it. Paul sees the acceptance of Jesus through baptism as the reality of finding new life after death: they die with Christ but rise again with him.

Paul finds that the disobedience to God the Gentiles earlier declared, and the disbelief of the Jews, are changed through the mercy and calling of God. God through God’s grace, touches the hearts of those who rebel and battle against God. God can do the same for us when we lose sight of God’s call. Jacob Krieger wrote a wonderful contemporary song that has as its first line, “I heard the Lord call my name, listen close you’ll hear the same.” Indeed we will! God is always there; but do we have listening ears?

The poor Canaanite woman! She’s an outcast, not only from the Jews, but even from the Gentiles. At first, even Jesus resists her boldness. This little quirk of Scripture shows even the humanness of Jesus. Was he tired from moving from city to city and did not want to be bothered? Did he have more important things on his mind like knowing the agony of death he would soon face? Who knows, but him.

All the Canaanite woman was asking was to receive “the gifts of God for the people of God.” She persisted and at last Jesus praises her for her great faith and heals her daughter. The dialogue between the woman and Jesus reflects our own self-inflicted spiritual dialogue when we jump ahead of what God’s Holy Spirit often says to us. We need to have ears that hear, not ears that itch! Jesus said to her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But ignoring his remarks she says, “Lord help me?” After Jesus comments about throwing food to the dogs, the determined woman challenges him once again. Then Jesus answers her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Scripture says, “and her daughter was healed immediately.”

Why is it that the poor and the outcast are so often the ones who recognize Jesus? The vast majority of our ancestors—slaves or free—that landed on the shores of an uncertain land, were either poor or outcasts, yet they brought with them a personal faith. They sensed the grace of God that guided them across stormy seas and gave them stamina to withstand the brutality of chains and unruly ship captains. It has been said that, “If they had less to lose in the eyes of others, then Jesus’ message of acceptance was a welcome mat for hope in the future.” The Canaanite women would not 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. Our collect for today says, “Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.” His redeeming work is poured out for the likes of us: warts and all.

The Sunday before this homily was written, the Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church in St. Louis, began closing more than 20 parishes because of the lack of priests and the changes in demographics of where parishioners lived. In St. Boniface parish the priest placed a small clay pot with one white flower in it on the altar rail. As he concluded reminiscing on the life of the 140-year-old congregation, he picked up the potted flower, followed a crucifer down the center aisle to the church doors, and made the sign of the cross, before he slammed the pot to the floor as an overflow crowd looked in astonishment. The priest then scooped up the sod, placed it in another pot with the little white flower, handed it to a small girl and said, “Follow her and the flower she carries. They reflect the life of this parish. It is still alive! God is a healer and He will heal your hurt that you feel today, the anger that you carry and the uncertainty that has anchored your faith through generations in this place.” The standing room only communicants for the last time met at the Lord’s table, broke bread, and fed each in his name. To the people of this parish their pain was every bit as much as the Canaanite woman’s pain. Yet, they will be healed as God calls them to new ministries.

Many of our Episcopal congregations are struggling for a variety of reasons. Change is difficult. Theology, social issues, economics, and demographics haunt our parishes. We must not lose sight of what Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy regarding the need to be in the presence of Christ Jesus, “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage…do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” (2 Timothy 4:1-2, 8) We need to steady the course, to look outside the front doors of our parishes and see the people who do not have a church home—or may never have been introduced to Jesus—and invite them in. Be a good neighbor: share the faith. We are the seeds of that faith. God will provide the richness of God’s Holy Spirit to guide us if we but show our actions in word and deed.

When we are in need of God’s grace, cry out to God! Listen close. God will call your name. Be ready to respond. Be prepared for a miracle. Remember to meet Jesus at the altar and to feel the presence of being in a house of prayer for all peoples…the Jew, the Gentile, the Canaanite woman, and you and me. Take “the gifts of God for the people of God.” Touch lives with the mercy given by God.

His mercy is great! May the Lord bless you with his grace this day and forever! Amen

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Christopher Sikkema


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