Proper 18, Year B
Delivered by: The Rev’d Kevin Corbin Smith
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are several hints throughout the Gospels that indicate that Our Lord was an introvert. This does not mean that he was the shy, retiring type. We all know better than that. However, introverts need time away to recharge, to rest, to be internally creative so they can emerge from their time away refreshed and ready to move on to the next stage of the adventures of life.
So, Jesus travels north to the region of Tyre in modern day Lebanon about fifty miles south of Beirut - no ordinary town but a Canaanite city filled with Samaritans no less - to get away from all the hubbub of Jerusalem and Capernaum. No one would expect that this is the place to which Jesus would escape to recharge his spiritual batteries. Some might equate this with going on retreat – seeking a quiet and secluded place. Of course, as with all best intentions, word gets out that the Galilean Rabbi is in town. As they say, popularity has a price.
One of those to hear of Jesus’ presence was local woman whose daughter was ailing from something – whether mental, emotional or physical, we do not know. However, her mother was greatly distressed by the daughter’s condition, so much so that she finds out where Jesus is staying and decides to seek him out.
Once can imagine Jesus sitting on a patio, enjoying the sun, enjoying a beer and minding his own business when, from out of seemingly nowhere, this woman appears, gets on her knees and bows at his feet – certainly an unusual posture for a Canaanite woman towards a Jew. Our Lord looks over his sunglasses and says, in a rather annoyed tone, “May I help you, Madam?” at which point the woman begins to tell Jesus of her daughter and the unexplainable ailment she suffers.
Now, Jesus knows – or thinks he knows – the mission on which God has sent him. He is to bring Good News to the People of the Covenant. So, speaking metaphorically, he says to the woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to give their food and give it to puppies” – which is the Greek – rather than to dogs. His message is to his own people, not to those outside the Law of Moses. But the visual of puppies takes the sting out of calling this woman “a dog.”
We will never know whether this woman believed herself to be worthy of the attention of the God of Israel, but she was sure that her daughter was as well as worth Jesus’ time. She teaches us the nature of faith. She understands that with God all things are possible. So, she meets Jesus’ metaphor with one of her own: “True sir. But even the pups sit under the table waiting for something to fall from it.” Jesus takes off his sunglasses and gives the woman a hand and helps her up. “You are a woman of great faith and wisdom, my dear. Go home. Your daughter is well. And may peace be with you.”
Now, we might want to see this as another healing story taking from it the suggestion that if we persist enough in taking our needs to God, God will grant them, another fallacy brought to us by those who support the concept of the Santa Claus Deity: if we’re persistent enough or good enough, God will give us the things for which we ask. Or God will come and rescue us from the hole in which we’ve found ourselves. The first is based on hubris – our arrogance in thinking that we know better than God how things should be. The second has been supported by Holy Mother Church over the centuries because it’s a good way to control the crowds. Part of the human dilemma is the tendency to see God as we would another human being: someone who can be influenced and manipulated to do what we want. The problem occurs when we realize that such is not the nature of God. God is beyond our comprehension. At this point, because people don’t get their prayers answered, many become agnostics or atheists or just stop going to Church. And, given their perspective and expectations, I’m not quite sure I blame them. The Church needs to do a better job educating the faithful as to Who or What God is and is not.
However, this morning’s Gospel reading can easily be seen in a different light if one changes the focus of the story from the Lebanese woman to Jesus himself. Jesus goes on retreat to recharge his spiritual batteries so he can return to Judea and continue his ministry. While he’s there, he is confronted with a messenger in the form of the Lebanese woman who, with great finesse and humor, teaches Jesus that his mission is not just to the Jewish nation and people but that his mission is universal. The message of the unconditional love of God is not just for a small, strange sect in a backwater kingdom but to the entire world. Jesus learns that what he has expected is not all that’s expected of him. He’s being called to the genesis of a movement that in time will reach the ends of the earth. And, for the human part of Jesus, I suspect this realization was a bit daunting.
And the Lebanese woman teaches Jesus the definition of faith. Faith is not the belief that if I wish something to be true that God will make it so. That’s just wishful thinking which usually leaves us heartbroken or worse. Neither is Faith the blind adherence to a set of theological concepts handed down to us by our ancestors. Faith or being faithful, Jesus learns and we learn, is being ready for our being called to do something beyond what we think we can do or what is expected of us with the understanding that if we have the courage to take on what is set before us, God will give us the power to do it.
As most of you know, this is my first Sunday back from my vacation. Yeah. Some vacation: looking after a very sick spouse – seeing to his getting to his radiation appointments as well as the other appointments that have popped up here and there. A vacation of not knowing the outcome of all of this and going about the everyday cycle of watching someone I dearly love get weaker and weaker, loose his lunch on a regular basis, and be present in a loving way for the emotional end of all of this.
To put it mildly, this was not in my book of expectations about life. We were supposed to grow older, retire and move to Barcelona and soak up the sun on the beach and travel around Europe taking in the sights and the history. And had you told me three months ago that I’d be where I am, I’d’ve told you that such was beyond my pay scale. I have no experience in this kind of stuff aside from being an onlooker in pastoral care. I also don’t have the emotional and spiritual strength to cope with much less endure such things. I’d just curl up into a ball and sleep all day rising only to eat – maybe. But, here I am. Standing before you in this pulpit having been given the grace and fortitude – and the willingness and kindness of many loving hearts - not just to endure our present moment, but to live into it and do what needs to be done. And I’m not telling you this just to toot my own horn. You will experience it too.
God doesn’t make these things happen. Those who claim that God sends us such things to test our faith are theological sadists. This is not an attribute of the God of whom Jesus preached and bore witness. God did not send Jesus to the suffering of the Cross. The rich and powerful of his time were threatened by his message and his influence over the people and decided to silence him once and for all by a death he had not expected. But even at his darkest moment, crying out in despair and wondering where God had gone, Jesus was not alone. And three days later, the power of God raised him from the dead. The truth of the matter is that when these things happen, a Power greater than ourselves enters into our lives and gives us what we need to meet the unexpected. God gives us the people and internal certainty to know that we are not alone and that together we can conquer anything.
In times when our lives seem like total chaos, are uncontrollable, have gone off the rails, destroyed our expectations about life and even our expectations of ourselves, we realize that we are not alone. And we are given the means to meet the unexpected with courage and hope and peace.
So, the next time life throws you a curve ball – and you know it will – and you wonder how you’re going to survive the unexpected, be prepared. Know that you are not alone. Know that God will meet you where you are and walk with you in the hearts of your brothers and sisters and deep within your own soul to do what needs to be done and for you to be who you need to be. Remember that God is not the Quick Fix Deity. God is much more profound, giving us the courage and power to overcome.
And we come to this Table this morning to remember once again that God feeds us with the very self of the One who walks with us and brings us to a safe harbor – that One whom we know as Jesus Christ our Lord.