New Impulses of Love

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8/14/11; Matthew 15: 21-28

A sermon preached by Rev. Jane McBride, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; we are weak, but he is strong.” To be honest, I didn’t like this classic Sunday school song much until I started singing it to my daughter. A little one needs to develop a healthy “attachment” to parents and caregivers; this bedrock sense of security gives confidence to risk and grow. This song offers the same kind of safety in the relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ love, like that of a parent, is disciplined. It is strong where we are weak. Jesus’ love is for “me”, not in a self-centered way, but in order to show me how to belong to something bigger.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. But then along comes this week’s text. What the Bible tells us about Jesus is shocking indeed – A woman comes to him, broken-hearted, pleading for his mercy to heal her daughter. In the biblical tradition, mercy is a divine gift. It is an infusion of strength and hope that arises out of God’s own heart.

Picking up the paper one day this week, I read a heart-breaking story about parents and children in Somalia. The article began this way: “Wardo Mohamud Yusuf walked for two weeks with her 1-year-old daughter on her back and her 4-year-old son at her side to flee Somalia’s drought and famine. When the boy collapsed near the end of the journey, she poured some of the little water she had on his head to cool him, but he was unconscious and could not drink. She asked other families traveling with them for help, but none stopped, fearful of their own survival. Then the 29-year-old mother had to make a choice no parent should have to make. “Finally, I decided to leave him behind to his God on the road,” Yusuf said days later in an interview … “I have never faced such a dilemma in my life,” “Now I’m reliving the pain of abandoning my child. I wake up at night to think about him. I feel terrified whenever I see a son of his age.” (Star Tribune, August 11, Somalia, Famine’s tortured choice.)

I hear the Canaanite woman’s cries for mercy echoing down through the centuries. In the biblical encounter Jesus at first ignores the woman’s plea. He did not answer her at all. What happened to the Jesus to whom the little ones belong? The Jesus who gives strength to the weak? We might ask this same question today, as children die in Somalia, Not only of Jesus, but of ourselves, of the church, of we who are followers of Jesus. Jesus’ silence, and our silence, Jesus’ inaction, and our inaction, is betrayal – of all the children.

Returning to our Gospel lesson, the woman refuses to accept Jesus’ silence. She keeps on shouting. So Jesus tells her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” There’s some history here. The Caananites, the people whom this woman belongs, are enemies of Israel. Liberated from slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before arriving in the land which God had promised to give them, the people of Israel found the Caananites occupying this land. War ensued. According to the scriptural imagination (if not the historical record) the Israelites defeated the Caananites and drove them out.

The woman, in kneeling before Jesus, in calling him “Lord”, in begging for his help, lays aside the scars of this old conflict. With her words and body language, she pleads for Jesus to do the same. His response is not only cruel, it is racist. ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Because you are a Caananite, because you don’t share my culture and religion, because you are part of an enemy people, you and your daughter are dogs. You aren’t God’s children. You don’t matter to God.

One summer, I traveled with a group of youth to do Habitat work on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Several abandoned homes and trailers surrounded the new Habitat home we were building. They were nothing more than a few supporting beams, rusting appliances, broken glass and rotting wood. One day, bored and hot, somebody picked up a rock and chucked it at an abandoned trailer nearby. We all joined in, laughing and having a great time.

Later in the day, when the Habitat supervisor returned, he took me aside and asked me to keep our group from disturbing the abandoned homes. He said that though they might look like junk to us, they did belong to people. He told me that in one of the houses, a young man had committed suicide. I realized that I had been blinded by my own cultural values, I judged these homes to be ruined, and I assumed I had the right to further destroy them. I was blind to what they represented to the people of the community and I hadn’t bothered to find out. It turns out they were wells of memories and containers of stories. They were sacred spaces. In that moment in which my prejudice and ignorance was revealed, I was filled with shame and regret. I saw, with pain, what kind of message had we conveyed to the members of the community watching quietly from their windows.

When Jesus calls the woman a dog, she turns his words back on him. “‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’” She reminds Jesus that his own Jewish tradition extends God’s great feast to all nations. In Genesis, God calls Abraham to found the nation of Israel, saying: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” (Gen 12: 1-3) Isaiah 42: 6 declares: “I have given you [Israel] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations” The woman shows Jesus that, in refusing to help her daughter, he is failing to be true to his own deepest beliefs. He has strayed far from the divine path of mercy. The warmth of Jesus’ response is as startling as his former brutality: “Woman, great is your faith!” He acknowledges that her vision of who God is and what God is doing in the world— is more compelling than the one he has been living.

It’s remarkable that Jesus chose to be converted, changed by this woman. But it’s  astounding that the scribes compiling the “canon” of the Bible allowed this encounter to become scripture. But I am very grateful they did. This text offers us a Jesus who struggled to love in the same ways we do. It suggests that sin is not rule breaking, but a failure of love and vision. Our perspective is limited. There is always an angle we can’t see, an impulse of love to which we can’t yet dance.

In this age of political correctness, we tend to be careful with our words. Calling another person a “dog”, or other racially charged term, in most circles, just isn’t OK. And that’s a good thing. Even so, fear and hatred of those who are different from us still permeates our own hearts and the heart of the world we live in.

The “Canaanites” of our day still get crumbs rather than a genuine place at the table. Parents still watch children suffer as the powerful people and nations fail to hear their cries for mercy, refuse to set aside all other priorities to offer healing and help. I am still ashamed of the rock-throwing incident. But I hold its lessons close. It was one moment of conversion that changed my sense of value. It is a touchstone for me, a reminder of my capacity for ignorance of the divine ways of love and my ability to learn them again and again.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this difficult story about Jesus, I’m still singing: “Yes, Jesus loves me …the Bible tells me so” Most Christian theologians in some way distinguish Jesus from Christ. Jesus is the person who lived in a specific time, who shared our frailty, our prejudices, our fears. but who also chose to let God guide him in extraordinary ways. Christ is what Jesus was on a journey to become. The resurrected Christ embodies to a new kind of human life that puts flesh on God’s own being. As Jesus-people, we, too are becoming. We are growing to be the church, the body of Christ in the world. Christ is that power that works in each of us to transcend our limited vision and fill us with new impulses of love. Amen.

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One Response to “New Impulses of Love”

  1. Pete Norum Says:

    Such a powerful message, Jane. I’m glad i heard it in person, and it reads well. Pete Norum

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