(Video of this sermon is available here, at our church’s YouTube page)
For me, as for so many other people, the Christian teachings about grace – and more importantly the actual experience of divine grace – has been so life-giving and life-changing.
One of the ways I’ve been helped by knowing God’s grace for me and for all people, is in becoming just much more comfortable about being honest about my own flaws and shortcomings, as well as the flaws and shortcomings of others.
Grace takes the sting out of those tough moments when we have to admit something about ourselves that we’d rather not. Grace takes away the sting of judgment that we can dish out on ourselves, the judgment we can dish out on other people, the judgment we fear from others and fear from God, the judgment that can make us so reactive and defensive that we can be in denial about what’s all staring at us in the mirror.
Grace frees us from all that. Grace frees us so we can see ourselves and see other people more clearly and honestly, see our flaws and our shortcomings, as well as the things we are happy about, all by the light of all of our belovedness before God.
The freedom here comes from knowing we are loved unconditionally. God’s love is simply there for all who realize they need it and want it. We are each and all beloved – in our limitations – as children of God.
We cause problems for ourselves when we fight against that unconditional divine love, when we either try to pretend we don’t need it, or we deny ourselves of it, or we try to hoard it for ourselves and pretend like it isn’t for others too.
Now, we say we like to say we’re beloved as “children” of God, but God’s love challenges us to mature beyond childhood. And grace helps with that, helps us grow up, helps us grow into the more ethical and gracious and courageous ways of being to which the reality God truly does call us.
Now, I’m starting out by saying all this this about grace because, well, first of all, it’s my job: My job is to keep reminding us of the Good News of God’s grace.
But also, I start this way because I’m going to next have us explore some human flaws and shortcomings, by the light of God’s grace.
We’ll do that with an uncomfortable story about Jesus. It can be an uncomfortable story because in it, Jesus does not seem to be the perfect moral exemplar we want him to be.
Now, some preachers do all kinds of gymnastics with this Bible story to make it out so that Jesus is the unfailing, flawless authority here. But for me the failings and the flaws of this ragtag holy fool of a Messiah are part of the whole point.
Jesus is so poignantly human. That’s what makes his divinity so startling and captivating. That’s what makes Jesus such a powerful manifestation of salvation by grace. Through his humanity is how God’s grace gets through to all humanity.
So, here’s the story:
Jesus is in the thick of his ministry, going from place to place, teaching and healing, when he is approached by a woman who, we are told, is a Canaanite. Now, I’ll talk more in a minute about what that means. First, let me just go through the story. This is the according to Gospel Matthew (Matthew 15:21-28), There’s a similar story in Mark (Mark 7:24-30).
This Canaanite woman calls to Jesus and says, “Take pity on me, Master, son of David. My daughter is grievously possessed by a demon.” Now, this sort of thing has been happening since the word got out that Jesus is a healer – people have been coming to him with their healing needs.
But Jesus at first won’t even respond to this woman, he gives her the cold shoulder. And his disciples complain to him about how much she’s bugging them. They want Jesus to tell her to get lost.
Jesus tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Alright? Meaning, not to other tribes of people, like Canaanites.
But she persists in a strong but humble way. She comes up to Jesus and kneels and says again, “Master, help me.”
Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
To that she replies, “Yes, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
This causes Jesus to have a change of heart. He says to her basically, “Wow, your faith really is strong. It will be as you wish.”
And her daughter is healed.
Now I imagine many of you who hear this story will feel at least a little uncomfortable about the fact that Jesus here, our dear Jesus, basically calls a woman a “dog” because of her ethnicity. At first, he doesn’t even dignify her with his attention. But she manages to get a response from him, he basically says, “You dogs don’t get the good things God has to give.”
Now, Jesus here is behaving like any Hebrew man in authority would at the time if approached by a Canaanite woman with a request for help. There’s both ethnic and gender prejudice and privilege at play here.
So let’s talk about the Canaanites.
The Canaanites are the broad category of people who were basically the tribes who were indigenous to the Holy Land. Many generations before Jesus, when Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage from Egypt and they wandered through the desert led by God’s promise of a promised homeland for them, and when the generation after Moses the people entered that promised land and claimed it as their own, that promised land was not uninhabited. There were plenty of other people already living there enjoying that milk and honey who were not inclined to give any of it over to these people who just showed up.
Those are the Canaanites.
They then become the mortal enemies of the Hebrew people who set about conquering them. The books of Joshua and Judges in the Bible tell the story of that conquest, and it involves a lot of slaughter and dispossession and political maneuvering, all, they say, ordained by God.
Now, in our history in North America, many of the European Christians in the first several generations of conquest in this land saw themselves as the new Israel, they saw this continent as the new promised land, and they saw the various tribes of Native Americans who have been living here for countless generations, as the new Canaanites. We hear a lot about Canaanites from early American preachers who are conjuring up justification for the slaughter and dispossession the Native Americans. These were the same preachers were also very creative in their use of the Bible to justify enslaving people from Africa.
Anyhow, back to Jesus and his times.
The Canaanites still very much were around and in the mix. They were never exterminated, just like the Native Americans are still very much a part of the life of our country, and actually I think the Canaanites were never quite as decisively conquered. The Holy Land has always been a complex mix of many different kinds of folks – the whole fraught and creative life of a cosmopolitan multicultural world is nothing new.
Anyhow, I hope you’ve got a sense of the tension at play in this first century encounter between a Canaanite woman and a Jewish Rabbi who had been taught that the Canaanites were an especially accursed and wicked race (Wisdom of Solomon 12:10-11).
It’s also breaking proper protocol at the time for her, as a woman of any ethnicity, to approach a male authority, with a request about her family. A man is supposed to do that.
Jesus’ initial reaction to all this is the socially conditioned response. She’s being rude and she’s from a lesser race. She doesn’t deserve God’s grace. God’s grace is for the chosen people, who come from the right stock and know how to behave properly.
But she won’t accept that.
She answers back to Jesus. She answers by saying: God’s grace is for all who need it and want it.
Now, she doesn’t challenge the racism, she stays within the racist image in her response to Jesus, but she does it in such a way – it’s clever – to challenge the very premise of the prejudice. She says, basically, “C’mon, we both know that God’s grace spills over the boundaries that humans set. It’s for anyone who needs it and wants it. Who are you to hoard it?”
This is how she changes Jesus’ heart, with her boldness and persistence, her quick wittedness, and with her clear understanding that the sustaining bread of God’s grace is for all people. He admits she’s right.
It’s telling that very soon after this in both Matthew and Mark is the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. It goes from a woman talking Jesus into giving up some crumbs from the table to in this awesome display of loaves upon loaves upon loaves pouring out for any and all who need it and want it.
See? Jesus was willing to grow through this tense encounter that exposed his prejudice and his privilege, he was willing to grow into a being a more open vessel for the boundless abundance of God’s grace.
And I hope this is encouraging to us, in our own engagement as American Christians with the realities of racism in our country and in ourselves.
Even Jesus had to be confronted with his own racism. This was key to him letting go of the boundaries set by human prejudice and power, and allowing God’s boundless grace to abound. May it be so for us.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered July 19, 2020, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla)
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 3:24-28
In effect, then, the law served as our disciplinarian until God’s Anointed came, so that we would become acceptable to God on the basis of our compete confidence in God. Now that this mature confidence in God can be ours, we no longer have need for a disciplinarian. Indeed, you are all now God’s adult offspring through the kind of confidence exemplified by God’s Anointed, Jesus. So, every one of you who has been baptized into solidarity with God’s Anointed has become invested with the status of God’s Anointed. You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male or female. Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.