Sunday, January 27, 2019

Encountering the Canaanite Woman

When I was a child, my favorite television show was Sesame Street. I remember falling in love with all of those wonderful characters: Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird and his mysterious friend, Snuffaluffagus, Bert & Ernie.

There was one regular segment on Sesame Street that always caught my attention. And now, 35 years later, I can still remember it vividly. Each episode of the show had this segment that featured the song: “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.”

Do you remember that song?

One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things just doesn’t belong.
Can you guess which thing is not like the others?
By the time I finish my song…

From an early age, I guess those adults wanted us to learn to appreciate “things that don’t seem to belong.”

As I’ve grown, I’ve realized just how important that lesson was to learn. Because this world is full of things that seem out of place. A stream in the middle of the desert. I’ve seen a picture of Tim Oliver (a 6’8 elder at Broadway) standing with the Ketchuan people in Peru—a giant in their midst! I think it is important that we, as human beings, learn to recognize and appreciate the “things that don’t seem to belong” in our world.

There are some things, I have found, in the Bible that seem out of place

To be more transparent…there are some people in the Bible who don’t seem to belong!
We are all very familiar with the “major characters” of Scripture: Adam & Eve, Noah, Deborah, and David.

But have you ever wondered how God decided which “minor characters” would make it in? I mean, in the entire history of the world, why was Nicodemus’ story told? Or, what about Hannah? Or, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law? Or, Ziba?

I bet you haven’t even heard of that last one. But it’s in there!

These people and the events in their lives do not seem nearly as spectacular as Moses & John the Baptist & Paul. Nevertheless, these people who do not seem to fit have tremendous stories to be told. That is why they are included in this book! Thousands of generations of God’s people have read their stories. And they have enriched the lives of millions.

One of those obscure figures had one rare encounter with God. We’ve been talking about encounter stories this month. Each of these stories show how individuals were changed by their interactions with God. Each of these stories, if you’ve been paying attention, also show us different attributes of God.

This morning’s encounter story is no differentThe Canaanite Woman.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canannite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)

Let’s be honest, right up front…We don’t quite know what to do with this story! Let’s set aside for a moment this Canaanite woman. What do we do with Jesus in this story? I thought Jesus was supposed to have compassion. Did you catch the line?

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs…”

Now, you don’t find those red-letter words on many plaques in Christian bookstores! The difficulty of this statement has led some biblical scholars to suggest that Jesus never really said this at all. They believe Jewish Christians added this story later. Those Christians wanted to highlight Jesus’ Jewishness as the church became increasingly accepting of Gentiles.

Well, I have to be honest…There are many things I wish I could throw out of the Bible sometimes. Those particularly difficult teachings such as, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Those things that don’t always make sense like the weird passage in Genesis 6 about Sons of God cohabitating with daughters of men. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could just decide which parts were authentic? And our only criteria could be: Do I like this or not?

My faith in the integrity of Scripture’s tradition disallows me from ignoring this text. But the question remains: What do we do with this? I think from the outset we must acknowledge the obvious: Jesus was a Jew!

In the strictest sense, Jesus was not a “Christian!” He never attended a Christian worship service on Sunday morning. He never took communion like we take communion on the first day of the week. Jesus never once sang out of a songbook or read words on a screen; Sat in a pew or wore a suit to worship. If Jesus were here this morning, He would stick out like a sore thumb!

No, Jesus was a Jew! And Jews in the first century did not associate with non-Jews. Period. End of story. In fact, in this text, Jesus makes His mission very plain:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Jesus was a Jew, and His mission while He was on this earth was to the Jews. In the gospels, in fact, we find Jesus interacting with only three Gentiles. This Canaanite woman, a centurion from Capernaum, and possibly the Gadarene demoniac. But that is it!

In many ways, what Jesus says here to this Canaanite woman would have been very much in line with orthodox Jewish thought in the 1st century. What was less orthodox was what happened next! If Jesus had been a “typical” 1st century Jew, His conversation with this woman would have ended long before it did. But, instead of ending with an insult, this interaction ended with a healing and a curious statement by Jesus: “Woman, great is your faith!”

For a Jewish rabbi to call attention to the faith of a Gentile in the 1st century was blasphemous! How could a dirty, Gentile have faith in God? It’s no coincidence that this story in Matthew’s gospel follows Jesus’ conversation with a group of Pharisees about dietary laws.

“It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles that person,” said Jesus. “What matters is what comes out of the mouth—that which originates from the heart.” Jesus was challenging these laws that had kept them distinct from Gentiles for centuries.

And in the next moment, we find Jesus interacting with this Gentile woman. These stories should be read together. Both indicate the same truth. A day is coming when God’s mercy and grace would extend to the entire world. Not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles.

Ordinarily, sermons on texts like this one take a very predictable turn. Jesus accepted everyone, so those of us made in His image should do likewise. Like Jesus, we should not be prejudice or exclusive in our interactions with others.

That is certainly a message in this text, but that is not really the message that is meant for us!

Henri Nouwen was a priest and a brilliant teacher at places like Harvard and Yale. Feeling led by God, he spent the last decade of his life living in a community of people with severe emotional, mental, and physical disabilities.

In one of his many books, Nouwen tells a story about Trevor. Trevor was a man with severe mental and emotional challenges. He was sent by Henri's community to a psychiatric facility for evaluation.  Henri wanted to see him, so he called the hospital to arrange a visit.

When those in charge found out that Henri Nouwen was coming they got excited!
They asked if they could have a lunch with him in the “Golden Room.” The Golden Room was a special meeting room at the facility. They would also invite doctors and clergy people to the special luncheon. Henri agreed.

When Henri arrived, they took him to the Golden Room, but Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Troubled, Henri asked about Trevor's whereabouts. “Trevor cannot come to lunch," he was told. “Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together. Plus, no patient has ever had lunch in the Golden Room.”

By nature, Henri was not a confrontational person. He was a meek man. But being guided by the Spirit, here is the thought that came to Henri's mind: Include Trevor. Knowing that community is about inclusion, Henri thought, Trevor ought to be here.

So Henri turned to the person in charge and said, “But the whole purpose of my coming was to have lunch with Trevor. If Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either.”

The thought of missing an opportunity for lunch with Henri Nouwen was too much. They soon found a way for Trevor to attend. When they all gathered together, something interesting happened. At one point during the lunch, Henri was talking to the person on his right and didn't notice that Trevor had stood up and lifted his glass of Coca-Cola.

“A toast. I will now offer a toast,” Trevor said to the group. Everybody in the room got nervous. What was he going to do? Then Trevor, this deeply challenged man in a room full of important people, started to sing…

"If you're happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you're happy and you know it, raise your glass…"

Nobody was sure what to do. It was awkward…to say the least! Here was this man with a level of challenge and brokenness they could not begin to understand, yet he was beaming. He was thrilled to be there. So, they started to sing. Softly at first, and then louder and louder until doctors and clergymen and Henri Nouwen were all practically shouting…

"If you're happy and you know it, raise your glass."

Henri went on to give a talk at the luncheon. But the moment everybody remembered…The moment God spoke most clearly…Was through the person they all would have said was the least likely person to speak for God. It was from the person who didn’t really belong there in the first place.

When we read this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, we are trained to read it through the lens of Jesus (and His disciples). We are taught to think about our own generosity. About how we should extend our bounty to others. We are trained to think of ourselves as people with all the power and gifts to give the world.

Yet, church, here is the real power in this story for us. In this story, we are not Jesus and His disciples. We are the Canaanite woman. We are all, every one of us, Trevor.

The truth is: We don’t belong here. This is not our party! But out of God’s graciousness, God invited us anyway. There is nothing you can do to earn a seat at this table, yet here you are! And that news is just as good today as it was the first time Jesus modeled it in His encounter with this woman.

Antwone Fisher is the true story of a young man abandoned at birth by an incarcerated woman. He was raised in abusive orphanages & foster homes. After his 18th birthday, he joined the navy where his anger towards life brimmed to the surface. After several fights, he was ordered to undergo counseling.

His psychologist, played by Denzel Washington in the movie, encouraged Antwone to find his roots. So, after several phone calls, he reaches one aunt and uncle in Cleveland. They escorted him to a dilapidated apartment complex where his estranged mother lived.

A suspicious and aloof woman answered the door. Upon realizing that Antwone was the child she gave up at birth, she retreated to another room and sat down on a soiled and worn couch and cried silently.

Antwone asked for some explanation as to why she never came to rescue him or why she never sought him out. She could not answer. She simply stared ahead, not daring to look at him, tears rolling down her expressionless face. A despondent Fisher left the apartment with his questions unanswered and he rode back to his aunt's house with his uncle.

As Antwone entered the front door, however, his world changed. He was met with a chorus of cheers from 50 plus relatives, all waiting to meet Antwone for the first time. There were children, couples, cousins, uncles, and family friends, all smothering him with hugs, slaps on the back, and beaming smiles.

One cousin told him his name is Edward and said, "I'm named after your dad." An older aunt squeezed his cheeks. The hallway stairs were filled with kids holding up signs with his name scribbled next to Crayola-sketched smiley faces and rainbows.

He was then led into the next room where a grand feast was spread across a long table. The table was overflowing with chicken, mashed potatoes, fruit salad, and every other possible dish. The room was prepared for a party. For the first time in his life, he belonged.

As the clamor quieted, an elderly woman sitting behind the table knocked to get Antwone's attention. She then waved for him to come over next to her. With slow, deliberate moves, she raised her arms, grabbing his hands and then caressing his face. A slow tear runs down her cheek. With a raspy voice that seemed as if it was mustering all the strength it possessed, she whispered the redemptive invitation: "Welcome."

The message of this encounter story for us is not: “Be more accepting of those around you.” The message for us all is: Welcome. For all of who do not belong…welcome to God’s family.

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