Sermons That Work

Try As We May…, Proper 15 (A) – 2008

August 17, 2008

Try as we may, we do not always find ourselves comfortable when we are among people we don’t know. Visiting a new church can be nerve wracking, unless we are among the extroverted class.

Even within our own country we find cultural and ethnic differences that may challenge the best of us. Traveling abroad may similarly pose challenges, particularly if we stray outside the usual tourist bubble and find ourselves lost among people whose language we don’t speak and who look different.

It is easy for us to be caring at a distance. Writing checks to help other people in need is a vital and good service, but it is perhaps made easier because we don’t have to rub shoulders with the people we are helping. If we volunteer in a thrift shop or help feed the needy, we may wonder what on earth we would say to such people if we had to be in their homes or on the street.

In the gospel today, Jesus has a discussion about the way we think. He points out that what we say, perhaps how we act toward others is much more indicative of how we think than keeping certain religious rules about what we eat or drink.

It seems his comments offended the pious. One is reminded of the story Jesus told of the pious person who went into the temple to pray. He stood there in the attitude of prayer and said, “Thank God I am not like other people.” It would be dreadfully offensive if we said, “Thank God I am not of another race or culture.” Yet we do find ourselves thinking such things as we watch the news or engage in heated conversations about those people who don’t agree with our politics or religion or social attitudes. It makes it worse when we are sure we are right and they are wrong.

Being bigoted against bigots is no virtue!

The gospel today goes on to tell a story about Jesus leaving his homeland and going into what we would now call Lebanon. There are only two recorded occasions when Jesus leaves Jewish territory.

There was a long-standing ethnic feud between the people of the Holy Land and the people of Lebanon. There still is. This might well be a contemporary story.

Jesus is approached by a local woman who wants him to heal her daughter. The Israelites called such people “dogs.” And remember that dogs didn’t enjoy the privileged place in society then as they do for many of us now.

It was obvious that the woman was desperate. She would have been brought up to despise Jews. She risked being rebuffed and insulted. There are moments of desperation in our lives when we are impelled to step out of our safety zone, our secure society. Our need overcomes fear and even prejudice.

Jesus tests the woman. He even uses the common racial slur. “We don’t give dogs human food.” Please note that Jesus is not merely saying that dogs shouldn’t beg at a table. He is using a dreadful slur to test the faith of the woman. We may find that shocking. Please note he is not being a racist. He is testing the boundaries that have been set. May they be crossed? The woman is desperate, but can she, is she able, to step through pride and prejudice and reach the point of acceptance and healing?

Yes, Jesus comes to us, but we also must make that step of faith toward him.

In the Rite 1 Eucharist there is a lovely prayer that begins with the words “We do not presume to come to this thy table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercy.” The prayer is built around the gospel lesson we are using today. Jesus is different. He isn’t a nice friendly American or a person we would meet at church. We have to admit our need as we approach him. “Our own righteousness” won’t hack it. By “righteousness,” we can mean pride, or confidence in our own culture, or learning, or intellect, or good taste, or manners. We might mean our own racial, or political, or national roots.

Jesus is for all; and because he is for all, he belongs to no one.

The woman replies with some good humor. She points out that even dogs get the scraps that fall from a table. Jesus tells her that her trust has made it possible for her daughter to be healed. The woman is being a conduit for another. There is an extraordinary reminder here that we may become “go-betweens” for others and be the means by which God’s gift of healing love may be extended to others.

All too often our prayers are safe. They are prayers at a distance. They cost us little. They trip off the tongue at bedtime or even in church when that long list of sick people is read during the Prayers of the People. We risk nothing when we say, “God bless Annie.”

When Jesus says that if we are to follow him we must be cross-bearers, he invites us into uncomfortable, painful, and hurting places where those who need our prayers live. He invites us out of our comfort zones. He invites us to experience the tragedy and hurt another one is suffering. He invites us to be with those who may be called “dogs,” or think of themselves as “dogs” – unclean, apart, perhaps at the bottom of the social or class ladder, or perhaps “apart” because of their lifestyle or habits.

The woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon came to Jesus where he was. He came to her. They met and exchanged barbed words, and another was healed. Here is an extraordinary example of reconciliation and grace.

It is clear that none of us has the strength to reach out beyond our comfort zones. Yet at the table spread each Sunday we step from our own world into the unknown place where Jesus is and he feeds us with more than crumbs or scraps. We receive him. We live in him and he lives in us. The question remains, For who is our encounter with the Lord intended? Is it intended for another, a person who may live in a place or have an experience outside the normal routine of our life, or whose habits or lifestyle may offend us greatly?

Perhaps in this holy place this day we can think of a group, or a person who cries out to be healed in one way or another. Dare we step out to the table at which the Lord sits and beg for his aid? Dare we be a channel of healing and love to that other person or group who, too, belongs to God and for whom Jesus died?

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Christopher Sikkema


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