Sunday, August 20, 2017

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

Maintain justice, and do what is right; for my salvation is near, and my righteousness will soon be revealed.

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 faith t-shirts they can wear. But the outward signs do not guarantee commitment to God. A person can be a Christian without wearing a t-shirt saying so.

For those in Isaiah’s day, the identifying mark of God’s people was national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where and who they came from, not who they were. That’s what they thought. Through Isaiah, God told them that it was not their race or nationality, or any other outwardly identifying marks, which makes them people of God. The ones whom God will embrace, whose sacrifices God will accept are those who do justice, who wear righteousness and obedience, and are found joyfully worshipping in the Temple. 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.

What does this mean? Ask two Christians to define justice and you’ll hear two different answers. The elephant in the room as pastors are preparing their sermons for this Sunday is the horrific tragedy of last weekend. Though some, many, addressed it this past Sunday, the text for this week comes at a moment when we can’t ignore God’s voice in the midst of it all. Both sides of the present divide believe that they are fighting for justice. Unfortunately, I think the reality is that neither side truly knows what God means when He says, “Maintain justice.” Justice is not “I will get what I want or what I think I deserve,” but rather about making God’s world whole again. Hatred and violence will never make the world whole again. And there is hatred and violence on both “sides.”

Unfortunately, by the time Jesus lived, the identifying mark of the Jews was whether or not they could obey the laws, or rather the interpretation of the laws. The laws became the rules for identifying someone as righteous and only the righteous were part of God’s people. Obedience was a sign of righteousness. If people did not do as they were required by the interpretation of the laws provided by the temple leaders, then they were not even worthy to worship God in the community of believers. They were unclean and in their uncleanness had the power to make others unclean. They were outcast and unwelcome. This is why Jews did not fellowship with Gentiles or an unclean Jew. They were unclean because they were sinners and the righteous were not allowed to be in fellowship with sinners.

Is that any different than what we are doing to one another today? Don’t we point our fingers at “the other” and claim they are the sinners. We believe that our cause is right and they are not only wrong, but evil. We use God’s Word to prove our point, but the paradox is that they do too. We can all point to a proof text that shows our righteousness; so can they. We all forget that we are as fallen as our neighbor. None of us are perfect; we all fail to live up to the expectations of our God. There are none who are innocent; we would do well to recognize our own fault in the brokenness of our world.

A woman, a foreigner, cried out to Jesus for help. She was “the other.” 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 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 were saving.

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 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 dishonors fathers and mothers. They claimed it was honoring God, but by dishonoring fathers and mothers it was really dishonoring God.

Jesus answered as would be expected of someone 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 was showing His disciples what it looks 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.

The woman in our story today probably looked much like the average Christian in our world today. Though a relatively high number of people in the United States claim they are Christian, a relatively small number of people actually appear to be one. 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 whether my neighbors are Christian or not. 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 thy faith” to any of them. I’m sure my neighbors would think the same of me.

I confess that I would never say “Great is thy faith” to any of those who are perpetuating the present brokenness and divide in our world today. Though some may have marched or countermarched on Saturday because they believed it was demanded of them by God, I don’t see great faith in any of their lives. Hatred and violence does not come from God. The thing for us to remember is that somewhere in the midst of the horrific tragedy of last weekend is God saw their hearts. He knew the ones who were fighting for His justice in the world. He knew the ones who truly sought healing and wholeness to the brokenness.

The woman in today’s Gospel story was not part of the faith community. To the Jews she was “the other,” 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 had heard Him preach. Maybe she was in the crowd that ate the fish and the bread in the miracle of the feeding of five thousand. The community (or at least the leaders themselves) thought that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were the faithful ones 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 thy faith.”

Jesus said, “Great is thy faith” to this dog because 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 daughter’s 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. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She sought Jesus’ mercy and had confidence that God’s promises were as real for her as they were for those who wore the identifying marks of God’s covenant people. That is faith.

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 dog 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 week’s 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? In their failure to trust, the disciples learned that they, too, were sinners in need of a Savior.

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 isn’t suggesting that she was better than the others, or that she was more deserving of God’s grace. Compared to the disciples and to the Pharisees, she didn’t have the credentials. She didn’t appear to be the right kind of person to receive God’s 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 doesn’t need the credentials; she only needs to believe.

God is not looking for people who have a certain appearance. 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, including “the other.”

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul is in agony over the question of his people. He knows 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 is rejecting God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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.

The promises, like the one found in the passage from Isaiah, were meant for us. We don’t 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.

There were Christians on that street Saturday. There were people who really were marching to make the world whole again. Unfortunately, we may never see their faces because the images of hatred and violence have become all-encompassing, as if the world were trying to magnify the divide rather than heal it. The truth is that Satan does want to continue the divide, and he will always push us toward hatred and violence. Jesus calls us to love.

The psalmist today joins with the congregation of believers singing praise to God. They seek God’s blessing on them, but unlike many of our self-centered and self-righteous prayers, they wanted to be blessed so that they could be a blessing. They wanted God to share His blessedness with them so that they could share it with the world. They wanted the entire world to sing His praise. This is the prayer that Jesus lived. As we recall our own sinfulness we will treat those who are “like dogs” with mercy, knowing that we too are unworthy of the crumbs we have been given. Sometimes we will be shocked by the people to whom we are called to share God’s message of hope and peace. Sometimes we’ll be offended by the way we learn the lessons of 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 graciousness will be revealed to all.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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