Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

KEEP ASKING! (Matthew 15:21-28)

The Canaanite woman was desperate. Her daughter had been possessed by a demon, or was epileptic, or was mentally ill, or whatever demon possession was used to describe in those days. She hadn’t received any help in any other way from her own religion. So she – her mother, driven by a mother’s love – had come to this other religion, this foreign religion that possibly had no use for her and for her kind.

She came. She asked Jesus whom we’ve gotten to know in Sunday School and Church as this wonderful, caring, loving person who gave everything to everybody, even his own life at the end of it all, looking out at the crowd of accusers saying: “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do.”

But not yet. Not here. Here he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Actually, that’s not the first thing that happens. The first thing is that he didn’t answer her at all, not deigning to speak to a woman, particularly a foreign woman. He only speaks to her when the disciples tell him to send her away. And he does! This is not the loving Jesus, meek and mild, we’ve all gotten to know and love and not be intimidated by. This is not the universal Jesus, savior of the world. This is a narrow minded Jesus, rejecting those who do not fit his vision of the church.

How are we like this Jesus? How do we reject those who do not fit our image of polite society? How do we reject the mentally ill or the physically ill or those who do not fit our vision of the saved?

We are like Jesus in that way.

And we are like Jesus when those we reject come after us and after us and after us, not letting up until we give in and actually share the Gospel even though we think it’s no use to them.

Perhaps that’s what’s really going on in this story. It’s not just that Jesus rejects the woman because he has no use for her. Perhaps it’s because he thinks the religion of the Jews will do no good for those who are not Jews, that it will not ‘take’, in the same way; that their souls are not prepared, that God will not ‘see’ them or they will not ‘see’ God.

Perhaps from an interfaith perspective, that is why we do not reach out, out of a certain kind of respect that think s we are of no use to others.

Are we like Jesus in that way? Do we think the Gospel will do no good to someone else? Do we think they are not ready for it, or that it is not ready for them – that it is something we live our lives by but really, deep down, think it’s a little ridiculous, a little unworldly, a little unrelated to the lives of others. So we ignore their clamors and their cries for help.

Don’t ignore them. Don’t ignore the helpless and the needy. I think I’ve already told the story of the man on Hollywood Boulevard who came every day for a sandwich until I decided one day I needed to give him something that would give his dignity back. I rue the day, though, that I did not testify to him there, figuring I had to go to seminary first.

Something else happened to me one day at a gas station. I went in to pay the man who was always behind the counter. He was a Muslim, and he asked me a question. He said: “You, you are holy man” – since I was wearing my collar – and he asked me what to do in a domestic situation he was involved in, that he couldn’t find his way out of. So I gave him my advice even though I was Christian and he was Muslim. I would have ignored him at some previous time, thinking that Christian advice to a Muslim was to no avail. But it did help – because he asked.

Another day I was out walking, also wearing my collar, and a stranger said hello. I said hello back. He was Ecuadorian and so we had a conversation in my bad Spanish and his bad English. He also wanted some advice on a domestic situation – I guess that is what people need to know most about, or at least its why they’re most likely to turn to a priest – and I gave him my answer, even though a part of me wondered if it would do any good, if I had any hope of giving the right advice to a man in his situation, of another culture and language the way the Canaanite woman was of another culture and language than Jesus.

It was the right advice. I knew from his response. It was given out of the depths of my soul since I had no other place to turn for resources.

In these three incidents, the crazy man on Hollywood Boulevard, the Muslim gas station attendant, and the Ecuadorian day laborer, I guess I learned – looking back now – that God is the God of all, that God is the resource of all, and He uses us all to talk to each other no matter who we are, no matter who they are: though I was a young privileged person talking to a crazy beggar on Hollywood Boulevard, a Christian priest talking to a Muslim gas station attendant, a privileged resident of a town talking to an immigrant day laborer.

In each one, God gave me what I needed in order to talk to them.

In all our cases, whenever anyone comes to us needing our help, God will give us what we need to say to others, if we open ourselves to him.

God has already learned his lesson that all people are his children.

And if we are on the outside; if we are the Canaanite woman whom no one and nothing has helped – keep on asking. Keep asking the privileged and the insider Christian who might yet turn to us and give us what we need. Keep knocking on that door the way Jesus – in a parable he tells later – speaks of the widow who knocks on the door of the judge in the middle of the night until he gets up and goes out to her and gives her what she needs. Perhaps Jesus thought of that parable because of the way this woman, with her mother’s love, calls out to him.

But call out – in prayer, constantly. Reach out – to friends, constantly. Don’t be distracted by the borders that you imagine exist between you. Don’t be distracted by the idea that the person you’re asking is so much holier than you or has no use for you. God has a use for you and God will work on them to answer you, for you are both his children.

Sometimes the church is Jesus, thinking it’s called only to its own people; to minister to them and love them and wait ‘til others join so it can minister to them and love them too

No. The church is Jesus after this loving, persistent mother, of another nation and another religion, has changed his mind. Reach out to me too, she says; and he does. We don’t even know if she is converted and becomes a follower of his. Perhaps not. But her daughter goes away healed because of her faith.

So persist. Persist in prayer to God. Persist in going after other Christians, even if it’s annoying. Both you and they are children of God, and God works through both your questions and their answers or; if you are Jesus to them, the insider to their outsider – and we are all both from time to time – God works through their questions and persistence, and your answers.

Finally, God has created us all to minister to each other, and God has come to minister to all of us, of whatever race and religion, ability or disability. So keep asking Him those questions. Keep on praying to Him those prayers. And keep reaching out to unlikely people who might not be able to help you and yours; but actually might be able – with God working through them – if you just ask.