A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.
Aug 16, 2020
A few chapters ago in Matthew’s gospel, 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.
It has been a stretch, 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.
Jesus is tired. I suspect many of us can relate. This pandemic has made it feel like we’ve lost our rhythms. I have felt both busy and unproductive during this time, unsure why I’m tired when I never left my house. The Jesus we get in this story may be the closest to who we are six months into a pandemic—at the end of his rope and wanting everyone to leave him alone.
And the religious leaders pick the wrong moment to mess with Jesus. 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 Jesus storms off.
When the poor disciples chase after him, they say “hey buddy. Do you know you just offended the pharisees back there?”
You wonder if Jesus is feeling like he has clowns to the left of him and jokers to the right. His own followers don’t get it. The religious leaders don’t get it. He can’t catch a break.
So he explains to his friends, 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—although please do wash your hands—you will still be hateful and mean spirited.
Remember this. Because it is connected to what happens next.
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 how Jews would have regarded her salvation.
But still. Jesus 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. Maybe so.
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.
This is one of the glimpses we get in the gospels to remind us that Jesus was Fully Human.
We claim in our creeds and confessions that Jesus is both fully human, fully divine.
And then, when he does something fully human, like turning over tables at the temple, or losing it with the Pharisees, 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 me so troubling to us?
The photo on the bulletin cover is a depiction of Jesus that hangs at a conference center where I once preached for a middle school conference. Because of his resemblance to the actor Robert Downey, Junior, we titled the painting Robert Downey Jesus. It’s one of the few contemporary ‘paintings’ of Jesus that don’t make him look fully divine. His skin isn’t glowing, and neither is his robe. He’s just a guy.
But notice how white he is? Even when we talk about Jesus being fully human, we often mean a pretty narrow depiction of humanity. Jesus was a middle eastern Jew, not a white man with a goatee. Obviously, we don’t know what he looked like, but any depictions you see of a blond and blue eyed Jesus is probably not it.
We want a fully divine Jesus, whose human features mirror our own, I suspect.
In any case, 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?”
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. She may not be fully divine, as he is, but her full humanity is also a sight to behold. He denies her humanity by calling her a dog, and she calls him on it.
“Even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table, Jesus.”
And with that, he snaps out of it.
Crumbs, he realizes. We can start with crumbs. 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, “I can get through this day AND I can help this one woman. We’re all in this together and I have more than crumbs to help her.” And he turns away from the scarcity of not enough energy, not enough salvation to go around and he remembers abundance. He remembers her humanity. He doesn’t call her a dog again.
“Woman, 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.
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, and to maybe aim for the better side of our human nature, because it is so troubling to see the lower side of his.
Acknowledging our full humanity also means we must recognize the full humanity of the people with whom we’re journeying through this life. Not just the ones we like, or the ones who look like us, or the ones who agree with us, but the full breadth of humanity with whom we share this planet.
I’ve been thinking about our country’s response to COVID19, and wondering why it has been so difficult for us to get this virus under control. And we could talk about different governmental responses at state or national levels, decisions being made by other humans with whom we agree or disagree. But at the root, I think we are gripped by an inability to see the humanity of our fellow citizens.
Wearing masks is not what anyone wants to do. Curtailing our behavior and sheltering in place is difficult, and financially a challenge for many people. But when I have compassion for people around me, when I see their humanity, I can make the minor sacrifice to wear the mask, to protect myself and to protect them. Even if I’m not in a high risk category, I can choose to care for the people who are. It’s an offering of crumbs under the table when we wear masks. It inconveniences us, but doesn’t take much from us.
Listen to the people on the news who explain why they won’t wear masks. They speak of liberty and freedom. They aren’t referenced to the well being of anyone other than themselves. They didn’t come here to save anyone else.
This passage reminds us that full humanity is a tale of extremes.
Full humanity is a beautiful hot mess. We support each other in glorious and heartbreaking ways. We hurt each other in similar scale.
We human beings are conflicted about being human beings. And so, when we see Jesus being human, we don’t like it.
When we read these stories of Jesus, where he seems so familiar somehow, I hope we’ll remember even Jesus said the wrong thing to someone, at least once in his life, and was called on it. 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 is also a good thing. Yes, we need naps some days. 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.
And she knows what she needs. She uses her fully human brain to realize that only God can heal her daughter. And so when Jesus walks down the road, she doesn’t hesitate. She uses her voice and calls out for what she needs. And she doesn’t quit. I suspect people sometimes called her “bossy”.
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 and calls her a dog. Nevertheless, she persisted.
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 human beings can have faith. If we were divine, if we were perfect, all seeing, and all knowing, what need would we have for faith?
Faith acknowledges there are things beyond our human grasp, and dare I say it, beyond our control. And I believe that faith in God, faith in each other, faith in ourselves, faith in a better world are all qualities that can bring us together to do things that we could never do alone. Faith is what allows us to keep working for a better world when the mess seems too big to correct.
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 in a better world, and we have faith.
It is an interesting time to be starting a new ministry. Which might be my understatement of the year. But for all the limitations we have right now, I couldn’t be more excited about joining into ministry with you.
In a world where the downsides of our ‘full humanity’ might be dominating the news, the church, broadly speaking, has work to do. This is an important time to be church, and a reminder that as much as we love and miss our great church buildings right now, church was never primarily about the building. We need each other and we are called to serve those who need help.
Calvary’s session adopted a statement this summer committing to the work of anti-racism. If you haven’t read it, you can find it on the church’s website, here. This fall, church members are planning a series of book discussion groups, opportunities to discuss movies, and other chances for us to educate ourselves. In truth, our country is late to the work of anti-racism.
And we can’t just read a book and consider it done. We also need to act. In addition to the education pieces, church leaders are also working to get the congregation engaged in the actions needed to transform our world into a more just world. We hope you’ll join the socially distanced, pandemic safe engagements the team is coming up with.
As the session statement put it:
“Calvary Presbyterian Church, and all Christians, must recommit to the struggle for racial justice. We are one in Christ: if others are in pain, we are in pain. Churches must provide a moral compass for the nation by helping to shape public policies and shift our institutions in a way that will move the nation towards justice, peace, and reconciliation.”
It’s a daunting task. But think about the woman asking Jesus for crumbs. She wasn’t asking for the leftovers, I don’t think. She was reminding Jesus that we’re in this together and God has given us enough to build bigger tables so nobody requires the crumbs off the ground. We can give someone a relief from their pain, which in turn begins to heal the world. We have enough.
Who is the proverbial Canaanite woman challenging you to remember the good abundance of our full humanity this day? I pray we can stop and listen when we hear her voice crying out for help.
How is your fully humanness these days? If you need a nap, take it. If you need healing, keep crying out for relief. And when you think you don’t have what the world needs, see if you can find some crumbs and start from there. May the crumbs lead us to remember true abundance.