11 Pentecost A—8/20/17
Isaiah 56:1,6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a,29-32; Matt. 15:10-28
Pr. Scott Kramer
Did you ever think you’d hear Jesus call someone stupid?
Matthew 15 is a hard-hitting chapter in which Jesus exposes the hypocrisy and screwed-up priorities of religious people, including his own followers. It’s a chapter that speaks to American Christians in 2017, maybe especially over the past week following the events of Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Christian who is deeply convinced of God’s unconditional love doesn’t need to waste time in angry denial of our sin. We don’t need to be weighed down by guilt. The person who is convinced of God’s love can hear a chastening word from the God who loves us deeply and who has given us the incredible privilege of getting on board with God’s project of saving the world. In today’s second reading St. Paul puts it this way: Has God rejected his people? By no means!…God has not rejected his people…For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Armed with the bedrock assurance of God’s love, what might God’s beloved people learn about ourselves from today’s gospel reading?
One day Jesus calls a crowd that is gathered to hear him and begins with these words: “Listen…and understand!” It’s quite clear that they do listen. But it’s also quite clear that they fail to understand. And it is this that triggers Jesus’ exasperation (v.16): Are you being willfully stupid? he asks of his best friend and “right-hand man.” (The Message)
The problem for Jesus’ followers two thousand years ago is the same problem that his followers face today: the teachings of Jesus Christ challenge our human traditions and priorities that distract us from our God-given work on earth.
Here’s how it begins: Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said? (v.12) The problem is clear: Jesus’ followers care way too much about what other people might think and way too little about what God expects. When God takes sides, God always takes the side of those who have no voice. So when it comes to the controversial issues of our time, how willing are we to be the voice of God, to make our voices heard for the sake of those who have no voice? Or, are we too worried about what people might think of us that we fail to speak up and speak out?
Yesterday’s Seattle Times featured an article by Seattle rabbi Will Berkovitz, endorsed by a dozen or so other rabbis. In response to Charlottesville and related events of our time, he wrote:
We must name hate and bigotry for what they are, and uproot them in all their forms. We are at a critical moment in our country. And the longer we wait the more irreversible the damage becomes. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference…We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” The Nazis came to power in Germany because of the bystanders as much as the perpetrators. And today, none of us can be bystanders. Silence is guilt. Once again, as we careen further down the path of division, far too many of us are silent.
Like Jesus’ first disciples, Christians today sometimes care too much about what other people might think, and too little about what God might think.
In today’s reading Jesus seems annoyed that his followers are so worried about what others might think. But one of the reasons we are worried about what others think is that we are sometimes distracted from following Jesus by human rituals and traditions. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, for example, seemed more concerned about ritual washing of hands and foods and vessels than about compassion and care for their brothers and sisters in need (vv.19-20).
What are the rituals and traditions of our own day that distract us from following Jesus? The list is long!–but one that leaps to mind is the uproar over whether professional athletes stand for the National Anthem. The National Anthem is nothing more than a human tradition but even among Christians it has taken on a certain religious character. A few courageous athletes have rejected the tradition of standing for this ritual as a statement of protest against the racism and injustice that continue in our land. Seahawk Michael Bennett is one such person. To me, one of the great images of this past week is the photo of Justin Britt, a white man, standing for the National Anthem while his hand rests on his seated black brother Michael Bennett as a public show of affirmation and support. It is the least that a white man could do, especially when many white people remain silent.
Having criticized our preoccupation with human rituals and traditions, in our gospel reading this morning Jesus moves on to a foreign land, where he is met by a woman of the region desperate for his help. Strangely, however, Jesus seems to ignore her…or, does he? I wonder if instead he’s testing his own disciples to see whether they’ve learned anything at all from him. Will they speak up for her? Will they care for the stranger, as he has instructed? His silence provides an opportunity for them to say something. Will they object to his silence? Will they come to her aid? No, they are silent!
Where are the voices of ordinary white Americans in response to the events of Charlottesville? Where are the voices of white American Christians in response to leaders and policies that are indifferent to racism or even hostile toward people in need?
But, sometimes Jesus’ disciples do speak up! In response to the Canaanite woman they become irritated and say to him: “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.” (v.23). Many voices today are crying out for help: Black Lives Matter, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, people in need of dependable health care. And how often do these same groups hear from white Christians silence when we could speak words of protest, support and advocacy. And how often do these groups hear from us irritation when we do speak: Send them away, for they keep shouting at us! In other words, “Things may not be perfect but they work for me; just be quiet!”
There is a final teaching in today’s reading. It speaks to the temptation to merely repeat what we hear around us not because it represents a word from God but because it suits our self-interest. Have you ever heard yourself, or maybe someone else, say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”? Where does this come from? Certainly not Jesus, who in today’s reading judges the Pharisees for their preoccupation with cleanliness instead of compassion! But such human sayings seem to support our values and self-interest so we don’t question whether they are supported by our Scriptures.
In today’s reading Jesus spouts what sounds like a traditional saying to the Canaanite woman: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (v.26) Coming from Jesus, this may sound to us shocking and cruel! But what if he is merely quoting a local saying to once again test his followers and see if they will push back in support of the woman? The answer is clear: Again, they say nothing. When he gives them the opportunity to speak to the woman a gospel word of compassion, hope and healing, they say nothing. Instead, she speaks, pushing back against bigotry, indifference and injustice in a way that he publicly proclaims as an expression of faith. Where Jesus’ followers have failed, this foreigner, this outsider has proven faithful!
Beloved in Christ, today’s readings are a word for our time, a word for followers of Jesus in America in 2017 to learn from and practice. But before we can do that we white Christians especially need to let go of our defensiveness, our indifference, our fear and our denial. This we can do only if we are deeply convinced that our relationship to God has nothing to do with our goodness or good intentions. Instead, we are, as St. Paul proclaims in today’s reading, God’s beloved, no matter what.
It is the deep conviction of God’s love, and that only, that can lead us boldly and courageously to recognition of our sin, to repentance, and to transformation of our hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Dear friends, hear again the assurance of God’s grace, receive the free gift of God’s love and forgiveness, hear the difficult message of God’s Word that we might prefer not to hear, and be transformed for the good work that we’ve been given of caring for all God’s people and healing the world God loves!