A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Aug 14, 2011
A few chapters ago in Matthew’s gospel, if you’ll recall, Jesus had found out that his cousin John the Baptist had been murdered. And so he tried to get away to a quiet place. But the crowd followed him. And they needed to be fed. So he fed them, abundantly, with baskets and baskets left over. And he still needed his quiet time, so he went off by himself and his disciples took a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. There was a storm, Jesus walked across the water to them, and last week you heard about Peter walking on water. The storm calms, they make it to the other side of the lake, and they find crowds there again, this time with religious leaders waiting to test Jesus.
And this is where our text begins.
It has been three weeks, in preaching time at least, and Jesus and the disciples have still not had a day off. He’s done some pretty important things with his time. Healed people. Fed people. Taught people. Walked on water.
You know, the usual.
And the religious leaders pick the wrong Jesus to mess with. They might have done better had they let him get a night’s sleep before they bothered him with their questions.
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
Really? That’s the question they ask Jesus?
And Jesus is done. D.U.N.
“Why do YOU break commandments just to uphold your tradition?? HYPOCRITES! You make VOID the WORD of God!”
And he storms off.
I love this next part.
One of the disciples comes up to Jesus and says, “umm…do you know that you just offended the Pharisees?”
It isn’t easy being a disciple.
And Jesus says, “it isn’t how you eat, or even what you eat, that defiles you. It is what comes out of your mouth. How you speak to each other. How you treat each other. If you honor God only with your words, but not in the actions that come out with those words—then you’ve defiled yourself. If your heart is full of hatred and mean spiritedness, it doesn’t matter how many times you wash your hands before you eat, you will still be hateful and mean spirited“.
Remember this. Because it is connected to what happens next.
Because no sooner has Jesus said that it is what comes OUT of your mouth that gets you in trouble, he meets a woman. At this point, they have moved to Tyre and Sidon, or as we would say today, Lebanon. And he meets a Canaanite woman who asks him for mercy for her daughter.
First he ignores her altogether.
She’s running alongside them, yelling, “have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon!”
And he pretends he doesn’t hear her.
But the disciples do. “Send her away! She’s yelling at us.”
Did I mention it isn’t easy being a disciple?
And then Jesus says to her, “Sorry. I didn’t come here to save you.”
Remember the guy who just said, who just said, “it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles you”??
Yeah, that same guy just told her she wasn’t part of the chosen people.
She knew this, of course. She’s a Canaanite woman, so she would have been under no illusions about this.
But still. He just said that.
Some people want to make this story nicer than it is. They want to say that Jesus is testing her with his replies.
But I think Jesus is at the end of his rope, in need of a nap, and feels like he has nothing left to offer to anyone.
I think this is one of the glimpses we get in the gospels to remind us that Jesus was Fully Human.
Let’s think about that for a minute.
We claim that Jesus is fully human, fully divine. But then, when he does something fully human, like turning over tables at the temple, or losing it with the Pharisees earlier, or making snarky comments to poor Canaanite woman who is just seeking some help for her kid for goodness sake, we run screaming from the text and pull out our pictures of Jesus with the Halo, the nicely bleached robe, and the perfect smile and we say, “fully divine. fully divine. fully divine.”
Why is that? Why is the idea of Jesus behaving like you and I so troubling to us?
I tried to find a good picture of Jesus looking like us, and it was hard to find, quite frankly. Apparently artists don’t like Jesus looking like a regular human either. The closest one I found was a picture I saw this summer at the middle school conference.
We called it the “Robert Downey Jesus”, because he looks like the actor.
In any case, whatever he looks like, we don’t want Jesus to say what he says to this woman. “I didn’t come here to save you.”
“Lord, help me”.
“Why should I take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?”
Oh. No. He. Didn’t.
Oh. Yes. He. Did.
Luckily, our Canaanite Woman isn’t going to let the fact that Jesus is fully human and is having a no good very bad day get in her way. She knows what she needs. And she’s not leaving until she gets it. He can tell her that salvation is for someone else. He can call her a dog. Doesn’t matter.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table, Jesus.”
And with that, he snaps out of it.
Crumbs, he realizes. That’s all she needs. Crumbs. Just enough to heal her daughter. She isn’t asking for boatloads or buckets of anything. Just crumbs. And I wonder if he remembers the loaves and the fishes and how many crumbs were left over after that meal on the hillside. And he thinks, “it is going to be okay. I can get through this day AND I can help this one woman”. And he turns away from the scarcity of not enough energy, not enough salvation to go around and he remembers abundance.
“Great is your faith,” he tells her. Abundant is your faith.
Even when his faith and good manners were in short supply, her faith was abundant.
And maybe this is where his fully divine part kicks in.
Because he recognizes when he’s wrong.
When I show my fully human side like that, saying the wrong thing to someone, snapping at the person who is in front of me rather than the person who actually upset me—when I have those moments, I want to crawl under the table and pretend I’m not there. And that’s if I even recognize when I’m wrong.
So I’m thankful that this moment is recorded in scripture.
Because, even if we’d rather think of Jesus as only divine, this reminder that he’s also fully human ought to help us be more fully human ourselves.
Because look around at our culture. Women color their hair when it turns grey. There’s a multi-billion dollar plastic surgery industry out there trying to convince us that we’ll be happier after that tummy tuck, nose job, or whatever. We fight and deny our human bodies, our frailty, our finite life span.
We also fight and deny our human mistakes. We want our leaders to be perfect, to not make mistakes. We force them to resign when they do make mistakes, or when they, in other words, act like humans.
We human beings are conflicted about being human beings.
And so, when we see Jesus being human, we don’t like it.
As many of you know, last week up at All Church Camp, I was dealing with a muscle spasm in my neck and back. I wish I had a good story for how I got the injury. Let’s say I set an Olympic record for pole vaulting. In truth, I just woke up one morning with a pain in my neck. By the time I got to McCall, I couldn’t turn my head. But look at me now. (The congregation oohs and aahs as Marci successfully turns her head side to side…)
Sometimes a pain in the neck is just a pain in the neck. And maybe that’s all this one was. But it stopped me. Flat in my tracks.
I had to stop. I had to actually use sick days this week. You know how the psalmist says “God makes me lie down beside still waters”. Usually we hear that and think, “oh, what a nice peaceful scene.” But this past week, I heard that as “he MAKES me lie down.”
A temporary pain in the neck is a minor illustration of what it means to be fully human. I know that plenty of people, many of whom are in this room, could share stories of how our limited human-ness creates real suffering, pain and trouble.
But it is the story that I lived this week. I wanted to be something other than fully human. I wanted to tell my trapezius muscle to just get over itself already and let me get back to doing what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t. Because I’m fully human.
And however that manifests itself in your life, you are fully human too. And it is okay.
When we read these stories of Jesus, where he seems so familiar somehow, I hope we’ll remember he’s fully human. And so are we. And so are our friends and family and fellow journeyers on the road.
I also hope we’ll remember that being fully human isn’t a bad thing. Yes, we’re limited physically sometimes. Yes, we say things and do things that hurt people.
But being human has advantages too.
Look at our Canaanite woman. If this story illustrates Jesus’ bad day, I think it also illustrates one of her better ones. She’s a foreign woman with a demon possessed daughter. In other words, not a lot going on for her.
But she knows what she needs. She uses her human brain to realize that only God can heal her daughter. And so when he walks down the road, she doesn’t hesitate. She uses her voice and calls out for what she needs. And she doesn’t quit. One of the gifts of our humanity is perseverance. She doesn’t quit when he ignores her, when the disciples whine, or even when he insults her.
I read an article this week by the author of the Help. It is a great book if you haven’t read it. They just made a movie of the book, and it is a great movie. But the author of that book sent it off to publishers many times before she got a “yes”. Any guesses as to how many times she submitted her manuscript?
She received 60 rejection letters before she received a “yes”. six zero.
Friends and family were saying to her, “I’m sure it will be better with your next book”. And she kept thinking to herself, “next book?! I have to get this story told first!”
And so she kept at it. And I am thankful that she did.
Another illustration of the Canaanite woman’s humanness is her faith. If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” as it says in Hebrews, then only humans can have faith. If we were divine, if we were perfect, all seeing, and all knowing, then faith would not be our experience. Because faith is only for those things beyond our human grasp. And I believe that faith in God, faith in each other, faith in a better world are all qualities that can bring us together to do things that we could never do alone.
Martin Luther, the 16th Century German theologian summed up our condition this way:
“Be a sinner and sin boldly, but more boldly have faith and rejoice in Christ.”
Yes, to be fully human, we are bold sinners who make mistakes. But to be fully human also means we fight for the ones we love, we stand up to injustice, and we believe.
So, sin boldly! But even more boldly, have faith!