Sermons That Work

Mother Theresa…, Proper 15 (A) – 1996

August 11, 1996

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a modern day Saint, tiny though she is, perhaps wields the most power of any living person. This is done through humbly serving the most destitute and rejected children of God. In an interview, Mother Teresa once said, “I am but a little pencil in the hand of God as He writes His love letter upon the world!” Though I know the definition of love, I cannot fully comprehend its power when applied to God’s created world and people, who, through Jesus Christ, God leads one to serve.

In today’s reading, we hear these words, “Lord help me.” The Canaanite woman (a scriptural term for ancient Israel’s pagan enemies and here used to designate a Gentile) has complete faith in the ability of Jesus to heal her daughter. Though a Gentile, she calls Jesus Lord, son of David, acknowledging Jesus’ lineage. His disciples urge Jesus not to respond, in fact telling Him to send her away. He then answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Perhaps this rebuke would have sent most people scurrying away with disappointment, anger, and an unwillingness to try again. However, not this Canaanite Mother.

This woman is determined to get help for her daughter. The Canaanite Mother is no different than many contemporary parents who want something better for their child. Just such a story occurred when parents encouraged their daughter to attend a diocesan summer camping week. The daughter was eighteen years of age, suffered from severe heart deformities and wanted so desperately to be “just like everyone else”. It had been extremely difficult for the parents to let her out of their sight, because you see, the doctors had said she had very little time left to live. Though medical science had made tremendous strides in treatment of heart ailments, her particular case was hopeless. The best that could be done was provide the most quality life possible under such dire circumstances. After considerable planning by the parents and camp staff, the daughter arrived at camp. She could walk only a few steps without being completely exhausted. The rough terrain made it impossible to use a wheelchair. What to do; the girls in her cabin solved the problem by two of them at a time forming a “chair” by linking their arms together and carrying her from place to place. It was done with genuine caring, a great deal of laughter and equal sharing among her cabinmates. Rather than the experience becoming a burden, it became a ministry to one in the community. No camper nor staff was willing for this particular person to be left out of anything! She was the recipient of parental love willing to take a risk by letting their daughter have a memorable experience. The campers experienced selfless love because they willingly embraced her needs and unselfishly saw to them. The result for everyone was a deepening of what it means to “love one another as I have loved you”. When news reached the campers and staff that she had died a quiet death within the year, many traveled to her hometown to say goodbye and to reminisce about the experience and learning’s they gained from one of their own. Love does indeed change people whose lives it touches. I’ve always thought those young people who ministered to their peer were indeed little pencils through whom God wrote His love letter upon that gathered community.

The mother in today’s Gospel simply will not be put off by Jesus referring to dogs receiving food meant for children. Though this may well be taken as a rather severe rebuke, this Mother will withstand the seemingly derogatory comment, while making her request. She knows she is not considered a believer, but she is also convinced that only Jesus, Son of David, can help her daughter. One can almost visualize her standing face-to-face with Jesus and saying, “……even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Though this woman is a Canaanite, i.e., a Gentile, she kneels in worship, humbles herself and confronts Jesus with her request. She will not be deterred.

Jesus was the only hope for her daughter. How had she heard of Him? Had she been in the crowd of people whom Jesus addressed and taught? Had she held His words in her heart, mulling them over before taking such a brash action? Though a Gentile, had she come to faith over a period of time hearing about Jesus? Was her action of confronting Him what ultimately brought her to faith? She would not willingly depart from Jesus. Rather she was willing to stand before Him and make her request and furthermore, she was driven to her knees as she knelt before Him petitioning Jesus for help. “Lord, help me.” Such is her faith that she accepted Jesus as being the one who could heal her daughter and restore her child to health. She understood who Jesus was and what He alone could do.

Today, we commemorate William Porcher DuBose considered to be the most original and creative thinker the American Episcopal Church has ever produced. He probed the inner meanings of the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews. For him life and doctrine were a dramatic dialogue fused with modern thought and his own strong inner faith. He once wrote, “God has placed forever before our eyes, not the image but the Very Person of the Spiritual Man…….He is with us, near us and in us. We have only to confess with our mouths that He is Lord……” This is precisely what the Gentile woman in today’s Gospel did. She professed Jesus as Lord, by boldly proclaiming her request that he alone can be of help. Matthew’s Gospel implies that the woman belongs, not culturally to the Hellenized population of the cities of Tyre and Sidon, but the rural people. Being a Canaanite, she is representative of the despised indigenous population with which Israel was not supposed to fraternize. The confession with which she addresses Jesus, “Lord, Son of David,” marks her as the vanguard of Gentile believers. Her boldness sets her aside, from those who may have followed Jesus out of mere curiosity. This woman is determined to seek help, even at the cost of being called a dog. She knows not whether the disciples will bodily drag her away, but no doubt she would have mightily resisted had they tried. She was totally focused on Jesus. Can we not somewhat identify with this Canaanite woman? If we love someone who is critically ill, do we not pray to Jesus for healing?

Three important points are contained here in today’s Gospel:

1. Jesus was no ordinary physician dispensing wonder drugs, but one for whom a faith relationship was essential to healing. It is true for the Gentile Mother and for us.

2. The Gentile woman provides a sharp contrast to the Pharisees and scribes who seemed determined to cause problems for Jesus as well as the many Jews who rejected Him as the Messiah. The Gentiles recognizes Him as Lord who has mercy, who exorcises the demon of paganism and who, through His actions, invites them to God’s table. This provides some overtones of the Eucharist, though not implicit in Matthew’s Gospel.

3. Love, as the motivator for action, does indeed bring one into seeking the Lord, even at the potential rejection of His followers and even perhaps Jesus Himself. The Mother sees this as the only possibility for health for her daughter. Even at the risk of being despised because she is a Canaanite, the Mother is bold in pursuing Jesus on behalf of her daughter. Her faith makes it possible for change to occur.

The Mother in Scripture and the Mother of the camper were both motivated by love and by the desire for a better life for their child. Perhaps the most difficult thing for each of us to do, is accept the fact that God does love His creation unselfishly. Dr. Werner von Braun (the father of our space program) once wrote in 1972, “It is simply that the idea of God creating an extension of Himself as a man and letting this God- man, Jesus Christ, die in an agony with which each of us can identify, is the ultimate of any sacrifice that God would make to show His love for mankind.”

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Through a great and all encompassing faith, what might be done for each of us? How might we respond to the Lord, Jesus Christ? What sacrifice are we willing to make on behalf of another? He makes all things possible, as He is with us, near us, and in us. “Lord, help me.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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