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Great Faith in Unexpected Places

August 14, 2011, 7:00 pm & 10:30 am
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Donald B. Wahlig
Associate Pastor for Outreach and Evangelism

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28;

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One of the real joys of spending time at our cabin on a small lake in Vermont is simply sitting on the dock, reading a good book. Last year, that book was a newly published biography of Robert –Frost.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would deny that Robert Frost is a genuine American literary icon. But it wasn’t always so. For some 20 years, Frost scratched out a living for his growing family as a teacher and a farmer, all the while trying to forge a name for himself as a poet on the American literary scene.

But that proved far more difficult than he ever imagined, which is why, in 1911, he sold his farm and set sail for England, hoping to find an audience on foreign shores.

Only then, 3,000 miles and an ocean away from his chicken farm and fruit trees in New England, did Robert Frost’s words take hold among a broader audience. That provided the literary spark that ignited a global following.

It struck me as I read this morning’s gospel text, that something similar is going on there.

The spat Jesus has been having with the Jewish authorities has become an open battle. The question is “who has the authority to interpret the law, Jesus or the Pharisees, the ones he calls blind guides and hypocrites?”

What follows in our scripture is Jesus’ damning critique of the Pharisees’ misguided and hypocritical understanding of ritual cleanliness. Behind this text lies a debate that raged within the first century church.

The question was this: “Are Jewish dietary laws binding on Gentiles who join the church, or not?” Jesus’ answer is as startling as it is revolutionary. It is not, he says, what goes into the mouth that defiles; it is what arises from the heart and comes out of the mouth that matters.

Then, as if on cue, comes the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. In the eyes of a first century Palestinian Jew, this woman is the very epitome of ritual impurity.

She is not only a Gentile, a pagan who by virtue of her origin is unclean, she is also a woman, which makes her doubly marginalized in that society. Finally, she has a daughter who is possessed by a demon, yet another source of ritual uncleanness.

She would have been well aware of all this. So, we are surprised, even shocked that none of this stops her from shouting at Jesus to have mercy on her.

That’s not all that’s surprising in this text. Did you notice that she calls him Son of David? That tells us she knows who Jesus is: the Messiah, David’s descendant and God’s anointed, sent to redeem Israel. How is it, we might ask, that she, a non-Jew, has come to believe this about him?

But all this is lost on the disciples, who can only see that she has no business speaking with them or Jesus. Instead of sending her away, however, Jesus explains that his mission is not to Gentiles like her, but to the Jews who are the lost sheep of Israel, even though, with few exceptions, they have rejected him. Nevertheless, she persists, saying “Lord, help me.”

He answers in a metaphor. “It’s not fair to give the children’s food to the dogs.” This is not as harsh as it sounds. Household pets were not uncommon in the first century Greco Roman world. They were treated with affection. Comparing the Canaanite woman to a household dog simply meant that her needs were met only after those of the Israelite children.

She could have taken offense at Jesus’ words, of course. But, she didn’t. Out of love for her daughter and faith in the healing power of Jesus, this remarkable Gentile woman persists. She asks for no more than the crumbs from her master’s table, because she trusts that even a little bit of the healing Jesus brings is enough to make her daughter whole. How’s that for faith?

It’s no coincidence that earlier in Matthew’s gospel, another Gentile, a Roman centurion, sought out Jesus to heal his servant. His trust in Jesus’ ability to heal so impressed Jesus that he said “nowhere in all of Israel have I seen such faith.” Just as Jesus did for the Centurion and his servant, he responds to the Canaanite woman’s faith by healing her daughter.

The message for Matthew’s community of Jewish Christians would have been clear. Like Jesus, they too had been rejected by the Jewish leadership and their own people. They were expelled from the synagogues and found themselves in what is today Syria, a Gentile territory.

Like Jesus, they too were astounded by the faith of these new Gentile Christians. This was no flash in the pan–far from it. This was the beginning of exponential growth in Christianity. There were no formal barriers to becoming a Christian in the early church–if you professed the faith and could withstand the periodic and violent persecution of the Roman authorities, you were accepted as a member of the church. People of all classes joined, especially the lower classes.

The logistics and implications of this growth would take generations to work out, but the huge success of the Gentile mission radically transformed the church; so much so, that the day would come when the gospel message was welcomed by the Roman authorities themselves.

On the surface, the question this story poses for you and me is obvious. Who are we called to invite into our Christian fellowship, including and maybe especially those who, like the Canaanite woman, are doubly or triply marginalized?

Is it immigrants who come to this country in search of a better life, often to escape persecution in their homeland? After all, the majority of them are Christian and, if the vibrancy of immigrant congregations is any clue, they also have a great faith in Jesus Christ that could reaffirm our own.

Are we open to people of faith whose sexuality places them outside the mainstream? What about the homeless and hungry who sleep on our steps or depend on our shelter dinner for food?

These are important questions. It seems to me that this congregation has always welcomed folks from all sorts of different backgrounds. This is one of our great strengths. But there is another, less obvious and equally important question in this story. Specifically, are we prepared to allow their faith to change us?

Faith is not innate. It is a gift, a gift of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we pray that God will increase our faith.

Many Christians claim that they exercise and increase their faith in solitude. I don’t doubt that in the least. You and I do that, too, when we pray or mediate on God. The Holy Spirit makes great inroads in us when we are alone in its presence.

But in my experience, one of the most powerful ways the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith is in community, in church. Together, we inspire and build up each other’s faith. In that sense, faith is both relational and contagious.

That’s what happened in the early church, as those Gentiles inspired the first Christian communities. These proto-churches were never the same again. That’s what happened to Matthew’s community.

And it’s what can happen to you and me when we engage one another in living out our faith, paying special attention to those Christians who come from backgrounds different than our own.

This fall, we will all have a spectacular opportunity to do precisely this. In October, seven members of the Synod of Harare will come to stay with us for a week. If all goes according to plan, one of their pastors will stay on here through Thanksgiving.

How will we include them in our fellowship? Will we be open to the opportunity they bring to change us, to help us grow in our faith?

Maybe you’ll host one of them. Maybe you’ll attend Bible Study with our Zimbabwean pastor in residence. Maybe you’ll accompany them on an outing to see the sites in Manhattan. Whatever you are able to do, don’t miss this chance to build your own faith by sharing in theirs.

Being open to change is not something that comes easily to any of us. Maybe that’s especially true of New Yorkers like us who tend to be convinced that we’ve got ourselves pretty well put together in all aspects of our lives.

That may be one reason why such openness is not exactly a common attitude. Spiritually speaking, it is what Robert Frost might have called the road less traveled. But in the end, the decision to open ourselves to the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit, working through the faith of other Christians who are not like us, can make all the difference. May it be so.


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