Sermon
August 18, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Isaiah 56:1-8 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15:1-28 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ ”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 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.”

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.

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Sermon: When the World Comes Calling

What does it mean to be a human being? From the earliest confessions of faith the church has maintained that Jesus Christ was fully God and yet fully human. This obviously creates some problems, and some of those problems come right to the surface when you try and understand the Gospel story we read today.

We begin with Jesus in a confrontation with the religious authorities about some of the traditional rituals and observances of Judaism in that day. The ask him: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

I don’t know what tone of voice they used in asking this question, but there’s no mistaking Jesus’ tone in his answer: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ ”

Then Jesus calls the crowd to him and proclaims: “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” It was probably bad enough to tell the authorities that they were hypocrites right to the their face, but apparently using them as an example in a teaching about defilement an even more hostile act – because now the disciples come and try and get him to cool down - “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” But rather than calm down, Jesus really lays into it saying, “They are blind guides of the blind.”

Now, whether to change the subject and ease the tension, or because he really didn’t understand, Peter asks Jesus to explain this teaching about defilement; with a little frustration at their lack of comprehension, Jesus spells it out: whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 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.”

Now this seems very clear and very consistent with what we know about the teaching of Jesus and other Rabbis who, in the tradition of the great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, emphasized justice, compassion, and mercy over the more priestly concerns of worship and ritual observance.

And we think of ourselves as being very much a part of this tradition. The Congregationalists split from the Church of England with its pageantry and pomp because they felt buried under all those human traditions and longed for a religion of the heart. They wanted nothing to do with ritual observances, except if it was a commandment direct from God - such as:

Exodus 20.8: Remember the sabbath to keep it holy,”

or Matthew 28:19: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, or 1 Corinthians 11:23-25For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

These were the only rituals those early Congregationalists would observe, because all else represented the confusion of human tradition with divine doctrine.

Even people who have little use for religion would understand this teaching - in fact, it is often used against the church and church going people - sure, they show up on Sunday, but on Monday they’re back to their old tricks. There is no easier target for the label of hypocrite than someone who wears their religion on their sleeve and yet has no more moral scruples than anyone else to show for it.

Well, we see something unexpected about Jesus’ moral scruples in the final scene of our lesson, the scene where the Canaanite woman throws herself on his mercy, begging a healing for her daughter.

And this is where the question of what it means that Jesus was fully human comes into play. For in the this scene Jesus seems to be remarkably lacking in the very moral qualities he advocates in his teaching and we associate with a loving God as he ignores, deflects, and belittles this woman who has come to him for the sake of her tormented child.

One of the qualities we associate with God is omniscience - that is, God is all-knowing. And one of the realities we associate with being human is that hind sight may be 20/20, but when it comes to where we stand on the spectrum being all knowing and profoundly ignorant, well, we don’t even know what we don’t know so its hard to know where we stand. There sure does seem to be an awful lot of what Jesus called the blind leading the blind.

The best than can be said is that we learn as we go along and as situations develop for us we grow in understanding.

So some people have interpreted the actions of Jesus in this story as evidence that he is, like God, all knowing. He knows how this encounter will end before it even begins, he knows that the woman will persevere in her faith and that the child will be made well. He acts as he acts only to give her the opportunity to experience and express the depth of her faith and so be an example for generations to come.

But what if you look at the story through the lens of Jesus being fully human, what does it look like then?

It looks to me like Jesus is suffering from what modern observers call “compassion fatigue.” He’s just had to defend himself, his disciples, and his mission from a bunch of petty, egotistical, wealthy, and well taken care of people of power and influence who use religion primarily to maintain their own comfort and privilege. He sees right through their hypocrisy, but he’s not so foolish that he doesn’t understand the harm they can do him and those who follow him.

Now he’s tried to get away from all that by traveling north where no one knows him. But no sooner does he get out of the Jewish areas than a woman from that region comes out and starts shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Jesus first tactic is to try and ignore her, but because she is pleading for her child, ignoring her doesn’t work. Even if Jesus can ignore her, the disciples can not, and they come to Jesus not because they want mercy for the woman, but because they want to get rid of her: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

Jesus then tries another tactic: he says, basically, not my job - she is outside my sphere of concern: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Where did his eyes turn as he said this - did he finally turn and look at her? Did she sense something in his tone of voice that indicated he was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince the disciples?

We don’t know, but his tactic seems to have backfired, because instead of going away she now draws near and kneels as his feet and makes her request in the simplest, clearest, most heart-felt terms possible: “Lord, help me.”

Jesus resists yet one more time - and it’s not in a way that shows us the best side of human nature: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Can you put a good spin on this or is it simply insulting? Jesus has said that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. Well, I don’t know about defilement, but these words seem to indicate a hard heart, - or maybe just a heart that’s hit a low point and has no hope, no faith that things can get better - although, again, it’s hard to tell the tone from the text, and certainly the woman was not dissuaded by either the words or the tone of the words, for she takes his saying and turns it around: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Before we get to the happy conclusion of this story, let’s take a little aside here and think about what this story would mean if in the place of the woman with the sick daughter you put the world with all it’s poverty and distress, and in the place of our Lord you put the church of Christ with all it’s mighty fine preaching and considerable resources.

The world comes calling at the door of the church, and it’s not a single woman pleading for her only daughter, it’s ten thousand times ten thousand men, women, and children whose poverty is relentless and whose problems are so wrapped up in the great issues of politics, economics, and civil strife that it does seem the truest words the Lord ever spoke are: The poor you will have with you always.

And we, in our humanness, are prone to the same set of responses that Jesus gave this single Canaanite woman who showed up at a bad time and knelt at his feet seeking salvation for her daughter. We hear this defensive negativity all the time as people speak about taking care of “our own” first, of how the immigrant and the stranger are not our job, not in the sphere of our concern, of how there really isn’t enough to go around and “those people” are a threat to our comfort and security – why give the children’s food to the dogs.

We are prone to all these ways of thinking, all these barriers we put between ourselves and world that hungers at our door, but thank God the rest of this story leads us to higher ground.

In the end, Jesus says to her: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” But what was her faith, exactly? Did she confess Christ as Lord, Son of God, fully divine? Or did she simply have faith in him as a person – faith in his humanity – that he could be fully human and respond to her need.

Perhaps her faith in him was just the tonic he needed to overcome his blues at how bad it was going. Perhaps in this story she was the one who gave the greater gift as she persisted through all the negativity and barricades Jesus puts up – she persists out of love for her daughter and finally reached the core of his being, the center of his heart, his place of vulnerability and compassion and in making that connection set the stage for a miracle. She reminded him that we do not exist simply for our own sake, but for the sake of love, and that in God’s eyes, there is no “us” and “them.”

What does it mean to be a human being? Certainly is does not mean we are all knowing, but if we learn from the teaching of our Lord we know enough to live a life of mercy and love, and perhaps that is all the knowledge we really need to be fully human and find favor in the sight of God. Amen


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