Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32
May God be merciful to us, bless us, and cause his face to shine on us. Selah.
I drive my son crazy because I love to watch Hallmark movies. “Mom, they are all the same. I can figure out what’s going to happen even before they get five minutes into the movie.” Sure, they are formulaic, but I still enjoy watching most of them. There are a few actors I don’t particularly like, and I get really frustrated with the story lines that are based around lies, but for the most part they are sweet and make me happy. In times of stress, I enjoy the happily ever after.
As for the idea of those movies being formulaic, aren’t all stories? So many stories, at their core, are the same, and many of them seem to parallel the stories we see in the Bible. They are different, with different people, places and circumstances, but the lessons learned and the basic plotline are the same. Throughout all time, from the beginning until today, people have not changed, and neither have their stories. Different experts have different opinions about the number, but literary experts all agree that there are only a certain number of stories. Despite the number of books available, there are only about fifty plots. We just change the details to make the stories real to us. It might seem like a stretch to some, but all those plots can be found in the Bible.
The story of Cinderella is just one of many. The usual plot has a girl who has been abandoned to a horrible situation by the death of her only relative, her father, who had recently married a woman that wanted his wealth. The daughter is left with nothing, treated poorly and even enslaved. A conquering hero, the prince, comes to save her by taking her away from her wicked stepmother into the life she was meant to live. There is usually a moment of transformation, of redemption, and even forgiveness. There are several biblical characters whose stories might fall into this pattern, like Jesus’ mother Mary and Queen Esther. Different details, but in both stories a lowly girl is given a new life by a savior.
The movie “A Cinderella Story” starring Hilary Duff is a modern day version of the Cinderella story. Hilary Duff plays Sam Montgomery who lives in California with her father and step mother until he is killed during an earthquake. The step-mother then takes advantage of Sam, forcing her to work extreme hours at the family owned restaurant while insisting that Sam will never get any farther. Sam meets a boy in an online chat room who turns out to be the school football hero. Their relationship was anonymous and they did not know each other’s real identity. She would have never guessed his true self because the boy she knew online was poetic, independent, and had very similar goals as she. The football hero was exactly the opposite.
While the story of Cinderella is wonderful, I want to focus on the story of Austin Ames, the boy on the Internet. Austin wants to be a writer, but his father has much different goals for him. Austin is a great quarterback, the star of the team, and likely to be offered scholarships to his father’s alma mater. He wants to go to another school, but does not know how to tell his dad. He lives behind a façade, wishing he could be one thing while pretending to be another. This brings trouble to his relationship with Sam, who breaks free from her own prison and wants him to do the same.
At the end of the movie, Austin realizes that if he does not turn around he is going to lose her and her love, forever. He walks away from the big game, from his chance to prove himself to the college football scouts and his father. He lets go of the man he isn’t to become the man he is. His eyes are opened and he sees the truth. That’s the story we see in today’s epistle.
Paul was in agony over the question of his people. He knew three truths: first, that Israel is God’s chosen people; second, that God is faithful; and third, something new has happened. People around Paul claimed that Paul was rejecting God’s Word of promise to Israel by grasping on to this new thing. Paul, having experienced the love and mercy of God in a very real and tangible way could not understand how the rest of Israel had not embraced Jesus. But he knew God is faithful, so he found comfort in the reality that Israel was, at that moment, wearing a mask. He was certain that the truth dwelled within their spirits and that one day, when the time was right, their eyes would be opened and they would believe. For the moment their hearts were hardened, but there is always hope. There is hope because God is faithful. We are no better because we believe. We were, and are, also disobedient, but He is merciful, transforming us into the people He has created us to be.
Another movie character wore a mask. His name was Montgomery Brewster and he was played by Richard Pryor in the movie “Brewster’s Millions.” Monty was a minor league baseball player who was having trouble making ends meet. A rich relative died and left his entire fortune to him, a three hundred million dollar windfall. He would only get the money if he could spend $30 million in just thirty days. At the end of the thirty days, Brewster could have nothing leftover. He could not have any new possessions. He could not be one penny richer at the end than he was before he learned of his new fortune. He also could not tell anyone the conditions of the inheritance.
So, Brewster went out spending his thirty million dollar fortune. Everyone else thought that was his entire inheritance and they did everything they could to help him. His spending habits became wasteful, or so it seemed. He was extremely generous and hired his friends to help him with ridiculous tasks. He rented the most expensive penthouse and rented furniture to fill it. His employees thought that their job was to help Brewster keep his money. They made savvy investments, recommended buying things instead of renting them and got upset by his unbelievable waste.
He ran for mayor, but when it looked like he might win, he changed his tune and insisted that he’d be a terrible mayor. He still didn’t want the other candidates to win, so he changed his campaign. He convinced the entire city to vote for “None of the Above.” (Who among us wouldn’t love to have that be an option on our ballots this fall?) He bought an extremely rare stamp for one million dollars and used it to mail a letter to someone. He even rented the Yankees for three innings so that he would have the chance to pitch against his dream team.
He even held a magnificent party for them toward the end of the month, to thank them for their help. He was almost broke and ready to be done with the game. They had loved him so much, had told the world about Brewster’s virtues and then when he was nearly at his lowest point in the movie, they took up a collection to help him. He, of course, went nuts because he had to be penniless in just a few hours, but they wanted to show their appreciation by sharing back what he had first given.
The point of the exercise was to ensure that Brewster would not waste the gift he was given. How many people receive a windfall such as a lottery win only to spend it too quickly. Brewster’s relative wanted him to be sick of money, so sick that he would not be foolish with it. Brewster truly did get sick of spending. He was almost ready to give up, especially in the very last minutes of the exercise when it was “discovered” that $1000 was hidden by one of the lawyers that wanted Brewster to lose. The inheritance would have gone to the law firm if Monty failed. The lawyer claimed that it was extra for something and that he “forgot” to give it back. How could Monty spend $1000 in a few minutes in a room full of lawyers that wanted him to lose?
In the end, Monty won because he was able to pay a retainer to one of the lawyers who had spent time with him and knew that he was a good man who deserved the inheritance. She saw the insincerity of the other lawyers and knew that he didn’t deserve to lose because someone cheated. He worked hard to do what his relative asked. She saw him give jobs to people others would not hire and she saw his concern for his city. She saw his love for baseball and his willingness to play the inheritance game according to the rules.
The psalmist in today’s passage joined with the congregation of believers singing the praise of God. They sought God’s blessing on them so that they could be a blessing. They wanted to be able to share His blessedness with them so that they could share it with the world. They wanted the entire world to sing His praise. $300 million was a lot of money and Brewster’s rich relative knew it. He wanted Brewster to receive it with the knowledge that it was not something to waste, but something to use well for the sake of others. Brewster won, and hopefully so did the community as he took his blessing into the world.
We wear a whole new type of masks these days, and we have been having some very difficult conversations about these masks, especially with school scheduled to begin in the next few weeks. We normally want people to take off their masks, but the situation is completely different because of the pandemic. It has become an important item added to a very long list of needed materials. I helped give school backpacks filled with supplies to the clients at a local ministry, and each child received a cute mask so that they will be prepared.
Another important item for those students in upper grades was t-shirts. My kids came home constantly during the first few weeks with requests for money to buy organizational t-shirts. The shirts were specially designed to be an identifying marker for the students involved in that organization. They wore their shirts to events and on special days. The students were never required to spend the money, but they often received points toward awards for wearing their shirts so they were motivated to buy. In college, t-shirts were given at every event. My daughter ended up with so many between high school and college that she was able to have a memory quilt made. Her favorites were from her favorite events and the ones that reminded of her friends from those organizations. They remembered those good times and those important connections when they wore their shirts.
I’ve heard people say about someone, “He (or she) looks like a Christian.” What does a Christian look like? Does it have to do with what they wear? Can race, nationality, physical features or gender act as identifying marks? Does wearing a piece of jewelry with a cross mean a person is a Christian? We all know the answer to these questions. Of course, there are some outward signs that may make a person’s faith obvious. Certain communities require certain clothing. Some kids love the shirts that have faith sayings or their t-shirts from summer camp. But the outward signs do not guarantee commitment to God. A person can be a Christian without wearing a t-shirt saying so.
For the people in Isaiah’s day, the identifying mark of God’s people was their national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where and who they came from, not who they were. At least, that’s what they thought. Through Isaiah, God reminded them that it is not their race or nationality or any other outwardly identifying marks that makes them people of God. They are the ones who are doing justice and what is right, holding fast to the covenant of God. They will be found joyfully worshipping in the Temple. God will embrace them. He will accept their sacrifices. It doesn’t matter what they wear, whether or not they can pinpoint their genealogical line. God sees their hearts, and the world sees that they live according to the ways of the God of Israel. It is ultimately a matter of faith.
The Gospel lesson is a difficult one, especially in these days when there is so much outrage and division. I’ve even heard some pastors are choosing to avoid the text this year because the language seems so disparaging of a foreign woman. It can be offensive to see Jesus calling her a dog and rejecting her cry for help. Yet, as we look at the text from the eyes of grace, we realize that Jesus is not insulting her based on her outward identity, but is encouraging her to remove her mask and reveal her inner faith.
To what sort of person would you say the words, “Great is your faith?” When we think of great faithfulness, we think about the people in our lives that lived an obviously Christian lifestyle. We think about those whose life is one of service. We think about those who praise God even in the midst of hard times. We think about those who are dedicated to the life we live together as a body in Christ. I can remember people, usually older women, from every congregation who exhibited to me “great faith.” A few pastors and other church leaders also impressed me with their great faith. We can name several famous people, like Mother Theresa, who would find themselves on the list. The Saints throughout the ages showed great faith. There was something special about those folk. They stood out in the crowd. They were people who were recognized as Christian even by those who did not have Christian faith.
Considering that we’ve had two thousand years of Christian history, however, that list is very small. Most Christians do not stand out in a crowd. As I look out my window at the homes in my neighborhood, I can’t say without a doubt which ones are even Christian. I am aware of a few who go to church. I know some of them do really great things in the community. Most would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. But I doubt I would ever say, “Great is your faith” to any of them. I’m sure my neighbors would think the same of me.
People are people, and over the ages we have all lived in masks that hide our inner selves. We share all the same stories. The woman in our story was not part of the faith community. She was an outsider who came to Jesus to be healed. She must have heard about His power, perhaps she was even in one of the crowds who heard Him preach. Maybe she was in the crowd who ate the fish and the bread a day or so before this story. The people who were identified as having great faith were those to whom Jesus addressed the previous message: the Pharisees and teachers of the law thought they were faithful because they obeyed all the religious rules and did what tradition demanded of them, but they aren’t the ones to whom Jesus says, “Great is your faith.”
Jesus was not radically rebelling against the faith of His fathers in this story. As a matter of fact, He refused her at first when she approached Him. He pointed out that His ministry is for a specific group of people: the lost sheep of Israel. Even after she worshipped Him, He said, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She became bolder but at the same time more humble by saying that the dogs eat the crumbs. She didn’t let Jesus go, she continued to pursue His help, but accepted her place in the world. She was not one of the lost sheep; she was one of the dogs. Even so, she said, “Please help me.”
The woman in today’s passage did not fit into the mold of those whom would be considered righteous according to the rules of the Jews. She was a foreigner, a woman, a sinner in need of a savior. We know nothing of this woman. Was she married? Was she wealthy or poor? Was she respected among her people or is she an outcast? All we know is that her daughter was possessed and she was desperate.
She yelled to Jesus, “Have mercy,” but Jesus did nothing. He ignored the plea. The disciples did not help her; instead they told Jesus that He must send her away. They were probably concerned about what the other people might say. They were wearing their masks. They didn’t want to ruin the ministry. They didn’t want to upset the authorities. They didn’t want to chase away the very people whom they thought they were sent to save.
In response to their concern, Jesus answered her, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He rejected her, but His words brought her closer; she saw the open door and she entered into His presence. She asked again. He answered, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” We are shocked and bothered by Jesus’ interaction with the woman. This is not what we expect from the Lord of love. It was, in an ancient sense, a bigoted response. The Jews called the gentiles dogs.
In chapter 15 of Matthew, Jesus tells it as He sees it. The Jewish people, especially the leaders, were no longer living faithfully according to God’s Word, but were following a bunch of self-righteous rules. Justice was not according to God’s intent, but what they thought they deserved. He condemned the practices that manifested a false piety. The traditions of the elders, the masks they wore, had become more important to the keepers of the Law than the reality of God’s justice. In 15:1-9 Jesus questioned the Pharisees about a law that actually dishonored fathers and mothers. They claimed it was honoring God, but they dishonored God by dishonoring their parents.
Jesus’ answer fit the expectations of a man in His position. He was being like the Pharisees He’d just rebuked for following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. He showed His disciples what it looked like to be unmerciful.
Jesus did not send her away as they advised. Instead, He continued the exchange, leading her into a confession of faith. She was not a Jew; she was not marked by the covenant or bound by the Law. The disciples were Jews and had the advantage of being born into that covenant. They knew the Law and lived rightly and yet last week Jesus said they had little faith. The self-righteous Pharisees were rebuked for misusing the Law for their own benefit. They may have looked faithful, but God saw their hearts.
It is to this woman that Jesus said, “Great is your faith.” We might never know those whom Jesus calls faithful because we see their masks, not their hearts. They aren’t wearing the t-shirt. There is truth to the statement that we know they are Christians by their love. However, the most faithful people are not those who wear Christianity on their sleeves, but are those who are bold and humble enough to turn to the only one who can bring healing and transformation in their times of deepest distress.
We may not ever know what God has done in our neighbor’s lives. We can’t see their faith and may never know about their miracles. The lessons for today call us to live as those in the text from Isaiah, doing justice and what is right, holding fast to the covenant of God. We should boldly and humbly seek God in the midst of our troubles. We can live like that woman, acknowledging that we are dogs, assured of the truth that God’s grace is bigger than the masks we wear, whether they are by choice or thrust upon us by the world. God sees our hearts and we can hear Jesus’ voice saying to us, too, “Great is your faith.”
The faithful will live like the psalmist, singing praise to God and recognizing that He is looking for people who are humble of heart, those who willingly accept the reality that we are merely dogs. We are unworthy of the crumbs God gives, but we are faithful when we believe the promises. God doesn’t bless us because we do what we think is right. He has blessed us so that we will live in the faith we have been given, doing what is right so that God’s graciousness will be revealed to all.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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