Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32
Matthew 15:21-28

Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy; For thou wilt judge the peoples with equity, And govern the nations upon earth.

We have seen in the past few weeks how Matthew has organized his gospel in a way that gives us a lesson and then living that lesson in very real and tangible ways. The same is true in Matthew 15. The chapter begins with Jesus speaking about the way the Pharisees and teachers have made Godís Law a burden, piling human interpretation onto Godís intent in a way that rejects mercy and justice. They wanted to know why his disciples do not wash their hands, but He asked them why they used the traditions to dishonor their parents. They used the Law as an excuse to avoid mercy.

Jesus did the same thing in todayís Gospel lesson, at least to start. A woman, a foreigner, cried out to Jesus for help. She did not belong there. The woman in todayís passage does 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. Is she married? Is she wealthy or poor? Is she respected among her people or is she an outcast? All we know is that her daughter is possessed and she is desperate.

She yells to Jesus, ďHave mercy,Ē but Jesus does nothing. He ignores 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 didnít want to ruin the ministry. They didnít want to upset the authorities. They didnít want to chase away the very people whom they were saving.

In response to their concern, Jesus answered her, ďI was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.Ē He seemingly rejected her, but His words brought her closer; she saw the open door and she entered into His presence. She asked again. He answered, ďIt is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs.Ē These are answers expected of someone in His position. Jesus was being like the Pharisees Heíd just rebuked for following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. He was showing His disciples what it looks like to be unmerciful.

But the woman showed what it means to be faithful. She accepted His judgment: she was a dog. She was a sinner. She needed Him. She probably knew what the Jews thought about her daughterís demon-possession. She probably understood that she was to blame; she accepted that blame and humbled herself before the Lord. She knew Jesus could fix it. ďYea, Lord: for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their mastersí table.Ē She sought Jesusí mercy and had confidence that Godís promises were as real for her as they were for Godís people.

They are. And because she believed, she was lifted up as an example of great faith. In the end, Jesus showed the disciples and those Pharisees what God intended.

How hard must it have been for those Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who thought they had great faith, to see Him crediting this foreign woman with a faith that was not obvious in their own lives? What about those disciples? They left homes and families and followed Jesus everywhere and yet in last weekís story about walking on the water in the storm, they had little faith. How could a foreign woman have great faith when they had little?

She had great faith because she trusted in God even though she had no reason to think He would do anything for her. The disciples had everything going for them: they were Jews. They came from the right heritage. They believed in God. They knew the scriptures. They followed the Law. They followed Jesus. Surely their faith must be great!

Jesus isnít suggesting that she was better than the others, or that she was more deserving of Godís grace. Compared to the disciples and to the Pharisees, she didnít have the credentials. She didnít appear to be the right kind of person to receive Godís blessing. She simply had no reason to believe that God would do anything for her. Yet Jesus saw her faith and humility and held her up as an example of great faith. She doesnít need the credentials; she only needs to believe.

God made this promise well before Jesus ministered in and around Israel. He promised that His grace and mercy would be given to all who have faith. In the Old Testament we see that the identifying mark of Godís people was national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where they came from and their genealogy. It had seemed to have nothing to do with their hearts. At least, thatís what they thought. In todayís passage from Isaiah, God warns them that it is not their race, nationality or any other outwardly identifying marks, which makes them people of God. His people are those who love Him and who live according to the intent of His Word. They are found worshipping in the Temple with joy. They do justice and have a right relationship with God and His creation. Those are the ones whom God will embrace, whose sacrifices God will accept. It doesnít matter what they wear, whether or not they can pinpoint their genealogical line. God sees their hearts. The world sees their witness in the way they trust Godís Word.

In this passage from Isaiah, the Lord promises the foreigners that they will have a future and that they will benefit from the covenant promises. They will be adopted into Godís family and given His name if they believe and obey His Word. Though they may not be able to claim a physical ancestry to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they become sons of the patriarchs through faith. Most Christians are foreigners, but we also will benefit from the promises of God. We are those who have been gathered along with Israel to live in the heart and the kingdom of God. We are the dogs, but our faith is great because we humble ourselves and believe.

We know that the promises, like this one found in Isaiah, were meant for us. We donít need special credentials to enter into the presence of God. Jesus Christ broke down all the barriers between people. In Him there is no difference in nationality, gender or race. Jesus Christ came in flesh to live and to die for our sake, to reconcile all of us to the God who has mercy. By faith we all become part of one family; we are made right by God and we are invited to share in the covenant promises no matter who we are.

Iíve heard people say, ďHe (or she) looks like a Christian.Ē 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 certain piece of jewelry mean a person is a Christian? They may be outward signs that make a personís faith obvious, but even then we canít always be sure. Those physical signs do not guarantee commitment to God. Like the Pharisees, they may look like they are doing all the right things and come from the right heritage, but are they humble and trust in God? We might not know the answer to those questions, we canít read the heart, but God can.

We also canít read the hearts of those who donít look like Christians, either. Who have we rejected because they didnít fit our expectations? Who have we sent away because they didnít belong to our group? We arenít much different than the disciples that day in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Weíve ignored the cries of those who have reached out to God for mercy. We have rejected them. Weíve told God to send them away. Thankfully, some of those who were rejected continued to seek God. They persevered in that faith, knowing that it is God who saves, not His disciples.

But what happens to those who reject Him because weíve rejected them?

Sadly, we forget that we are Christian because of Godís grace. Like the Israelites of Isaiahís day and the Pharisees when Jesus lived, we take credit for Godís grace based on all the wrong things. We reject the foreigner because they donít look like we think they should look. All too often we think that we have great faith based on that which we have done or from whence we come. We think we deserve the blessings of God because we have done what is right. We think that being a good Christian, attending church regularly, giving our tithes and doing good works is what makes great faith. Yet, even the disciples who gave up everything to follow Jesus had little faith. We are no different, no better, because we believe. We were, and are, also disobedient. But He is merciful, and so we are called to be merciful. God does not forget His promises, and He made the greatest promise to all those who believe.

In todayís epistle lesson, Paul is in agony over the question of his people. He knows three truths: first, that Israel is Godís chosen people; second, that God is faithful; and third, something new has happened. People around Paul have claimed that Paul is rejecting Godís Word of promise to Israel by claiming something new has happened. Paul, having experienced the love and mercy of God cannot understand how the rest of Israel has not embraced Jesus, but he knows God is faithful. He has found comfort in the reality that Israel is Godís chosen people. They are blind for a moment, but Paul is certain that the truth dwells within and that one day, when the time is right, their eyes will be opened and they will believe. For now their hearts are hardened, but there is hope. There is hope because God is faithful.

The psalmist understands that Godís grace is not meant to be confined to a small box, but that it is given so that we might be a blessing to others. God shines His face on ours and blesses us so that we might make Him known to the whole world. This means taking the message to people we do not think is worthy, to the foreigners, the outcasts and the sinners. We are blessed to be a blessing, to draw all people into His heart, to share His promise with the world.

God is not looking for people who are perfect. He is not searching for the people who follow the law to the letter without mercy. 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 doesnít bless us because we do what we think is right or because we deserve His blessings based on some temporal credentials. He has mercy on those who trust in Him and gives us the faith to be merciful. It is by that mercy that they will know we are Christians.

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