Jesus changes his mind, by Pastor Noel

August 20, 2017     Proper 15A        11th Pentecost


      “Lord, save me!”  “Lord, help me!”

      We heard these words from Peter in last Sunday’s  gospel, and today from the Canaanite woman.

      It’s said that the most uttered prayer is “help!” and here it is from one of Jesus’ closest colleagues, and from a woman who was considered unworthy of a response.

      Jesus DID respond, and this is considered a turning point in his ministry and his understanding of God’s kingdom.

      Mark tells this story, but calls the woman “Syrophoenician.” He was calling her a Gentile, a non-Jew, but he was not judging her for this.

      Matthew wants his Jewish congregation to know that she was not just any Gentile. All Gentiles were outside of the Jewish covenant with God. This woman was a despised Canaanite—a person so low on the cultural scale as to be invisible.

      She is Matthew’s answer to Luke’s Good Samaritan. The most unlikely person to be “good” or to get God’s attention.

      She is a symbol of all the people in the world who are hated just for being who they are. All who are hated, dismissed, left out, beaten, killed, or just ignored and left alone, uncared for.

      My first thought when I reread this gospel was, “nevertheless she persisted.” She saw in Jesus something that he seems to have not seen in her—a connection to God and holiness.

      So she cried out “Lord, help me!” and Jesus saw that connection. It changed his ministry from “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to include all those included by the prophets. Everyone.

      Inclusion/exclusion. Who’s in/who’s out. These have been themes in the news more than usual since the recent events in Charlottesville, Barcelona, Turku, and who knows where else.

      In case you miss the rest of my sermon, please know that for God there is no one excluded, no one outside of God’s love.

      Does this mean that God says “go ahead and do whatever you want?” I don’t think so. I hope you don’t think so.

      God is always calling us to reconciliation, to understand those we consider other, and to live in peace as God’s beloved children.

      As I write this, and go about my normal Saturday, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people marching in Boston. Some of them are my friends, marching to say that love and peace are better for us than hate and violence.

      Others are there promoting hate.

      We’ll see about the violence.

      This week the church calendar has been filled with reminders of people who have promoted God’s justice—peace and love.

      Unfortunately, we remember some of them because they died  so that we could see that the power of hate is not part of God’s love. Here are some of them.

      Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan Friar who was imprisoned at Auschwitz. He volunteered to die so that another man, a complete stranger, could live. He and nine others were starved to death to prevent prison escapes.

      Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvador. He was a strong promoter of God’s justice. He was shot to death as he celebrated the Eucharist in 1980.

      Jonathan Myrick Daniels was a seminarian at Episcopal Theological School. In 1965 he went to Alabama to help black people register to vote. He and several others were jailed, and then unexpectedly released. They went to a nearby store for food where they were met by a man with a shotgun who cursed the young black woman who was part of the group. Jonathan pushed her to safety, and was killed instead.

      Jonathan was moved to follow this call during Evening Prayer as he sang the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

      In an interesting cosmic connection, Jonathan’s day on our calendar is August 14, the day he died. August 15 is the day we honor St. Mary, the mother of Jesus. One of the most powerful things we know about Mary is the Magnificat, this song of praise for God’s justice and love, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”

      Kolbe, Romero, and Daniels are considered martyrs because they were killed for their faith, their trust in God’s goodness.

      Martyr means witness, and, thankfully, we can be powerful witnesses to God’s love without dying.

      The Canaanite woman was a strong witness to the power of faith and trust.

      Mary is more of an enigma. We know nothing of her old age or death. We don’t know much about her young age, except that she knew God’s goodness, and was willing to trust God with her life.

      Another woman who trusts in God’s goodness is Ruby Sales. You may not know her name, but she is the one who was pushed aside by Jonathan Daniels when he was killed. The shotgun pellets were meant for her. She was 16, and showing courage and strength beyond her years.

      Dr. Sales, Ruby, is a well educated theologian, and still a powerful ally for those ignored, dismissed, put down by the dominant culture.        

      She has made very good use of the life she has thanks to the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels. We have talked on the phone, and are connected on Facebook. That may not be a very deep connection, but even so I am grateful and amazed to call her a friend.

      In a recent interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR show, “On Being” Ruby talked about different kinds of anger. She spoke of redemptive anger, which leads to righting wrongs and establishing God’s justice

      My friends who were marching in Boston yesterday, and those who have marched in similar peaceful events, are looking to right injustices. They march to stand up for equality, and to lift up what Mary calls “the lowly.” To undo “lowliness.”

      The other kind of anger is non-redemptive. This kind of anger is not peaceful, but uses violence and fear to keep the lowly in their place.

      Non-redemptive anger is what Jesus mentions in the first part of the gospel. “For out of the heart come evil intentions murder,

Adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

      He was accused of not following the ritual cleanliness laws.

      Jesus is saying that following ritual laws does not make us pure and clean. Our purity and cleanliness—what we think we need to be loved by God—comes from our heart, and our thoughts.

      We cannot control our thoughts. We can control what we do about our thoughts.  At about age four we begin to learn about cause and effect. We begin to learn that it’s good to not do some of the things we think about doing!

      At some point we may begin to obsess about the things we have done to keep us from receiving God’s love.

      The only thing we can do to not receive God’s love is to refuse to receive it. To think that we are irredeemable. Then we put a fence around ourselves, and we limit God’s limitless love.

      The Canaanite woman didn’t think about the possibility of that fence. She trusted God’s goodness more than she feared her unworthiness. Her cry of “Lord, help me!” broke through whatever might have held her back. Her cry of “Lord, help me!” opened Jesus’ heart to the immensity of God’s love and care.

      When Peter impetuously thought he could share in Jesus’ divine powers, Jesus didn’t let him sink. Peter cried out “Lord, save me!” and Jesus did.

      I hope that we, too, can realize that there are no fences around us deflecting God’s love. It’s said that God will not love us less than God already does, and God cannot love us any more than God already does.

      May we all know God’s all-encompassing love to the depths of our souls. May we know that nothing can keep God from loving each of us completely. And everyone else, too.

      May we remember the examples of the martyrs I have spoken of—and remember that martyr means witness. When we follow Jesus we are witnesses to God’s love in the world.

      May we be filled with redemptive anger and redemptive love. May we use the energy from that anger and love to break down fences of doubt and fear, and witness for God’s justice and peace.

The Rev. Noel Bailey

The Reverend Noel Bailey was born in Providence, is now back in RI for the 4th time, and hopes that this stay is longer than some of the others. She was ordained Priest at St. Michael's, Bristol, in May 1988, More details