Sermon Archives

Sunday, August 16, 2020
Proper 15 (Year A)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
Whose voice do you hear?

Oh, Lord God. The light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you. Help us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you, that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

This encounter that we just read about, the encounter between Jesus and the woman from Tyre and Sidon, is one of the most important stories of the gospel. We’re familiar, of course, with all the stories of the incarnation or the last supper and the cross and of course, the resurrection, and we know how important those stories are, but this...This is one of those quiet stories that so often and easily slips our mind, and yet whose profundity we mustn’t miss.

We’re familiar, of course, with the stories of Jesus walking on the water or healing a blind man or even the feeding of the multitude. So familiar, in fact, are we with those stories and miracle of miracles and healings that it’s tempting, easy, in fact, to pass this story off as another, just another one, of those healing stories, which it is, of course. The young woman is healed. The daughter of this woman is redeemed. But this story, in fact, is about much, much more.

In the course of these simple eight verses, Matthew tears down any preconceptions that Jesus or the Messiah, and therefore God, is for Israel alone. In fact, in these eight short verses, Matthew shatters one of the oldest stories and teachings that privileged Israel ahead of all nations. One of the great insights of Judaism, of course, is, and an insight which is true still today, is the recognition, the realization that Israel, the children of Abraham, were in some fundamental way chosen, blessed, and beloved of God. Matthew sums up the entirety of that tradition, in fact, in this exchange. As Jesus says to his disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The belief and understanding that the Messiah was for Israel alone, that the redemption of God was for Israel solely.

But this story, this story transforms that teaching. This story fundamentally asks, “Who?” Who does God desire to heal and to redeem? Is it, in fact, Israel alone?

You see, for Jesus’ community and his followers, there was no question that God would send the Messiah to redeem Israel because Israel, they all knew, we still know today, is God’s beloved. But like so many things, there is a shadow side. It is easy, you see, to move from recognizing that one is chosen, that one is blessed, that one is beloved...It’s easy to begin to think that the other was not chosen, that the other is not blessed, and that the other is not loved. It is so easy to see God’s capacity to bless and to love through the lens of human scarcity and to think that God can only love us and therefore not them, that God can love me, but perhaps not you.

And so, over time, great walls build up between Jews and Gentiles and Samaritans, such that the children of Isaac begin to look down upon the children of Ishmael, their cousins, and those who worship Yahweh upon the Temple Mount in Jerusalem look with disdain upon those who worship Yahweh, the same God, upon the Holy Hill of Mount Gerizim. But this daring woman doesn’t settle for such a limited view of God. And so she challenges Jesus, “Do not the dogs, do not the dogs get the scraps under the master’s table?” That is to say if we humans have the capacity to love and to tend even to animals of our household, is it not possible that God, too, has the capacity to love and to care not only for Israel, but for all the kingdoms and people of God’s creation?

And with one simple word, Jesus proclaims that that inherited teaching, that inherited privilege of theological and religious privilege was unmerited or incomplete.

“Woman,” he says. “Great is your faith.” This is the only person, we might note, the only person in the gospel of Matthew whose faith is proclaimed as great. “Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus says. “You are right,” He seems to say. God’s passion is not for Israel alone. God’s passion is not limited to Israel and her people. God’s passion, in fact, is for all nations and for all people. In eight short verses, a brief exchange between an unnamed Canaanite woman and Jesus changes generations of teaching. In eight short verses, generations of faith are overturned. But Matthew doesn’t stop there.

Now, lest you think that such shadows and perversions of teaching are limited to the ancient world, Christianity, we must be mindful, Christianity over time has succumbed to the same fallacies, believing that because we proclaim Jesus as Lord and God that we alone were righteous, that we alone were redeemed. And so over time, we Christians have built up the very same walls between us and the children of Abraham and between those of us who worship at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem still today and those who worship at the Dome of the Rock or pray at the Great West Wall of Jerusalem.

Matthew doesn’t stop there. That would seem to be enough for any ordinary story of Jesus, but Matthew goes further. While he’s tearing down generations of religious and national privilege, he goes on to tear down even more endemic prejudices at the heart of every human society. The simple human prejudice that some voices aren’t worth listening to, that some people are worth neither the time nor the effort. All societies have them. All societies are plagued by this, shall we say, inherent sin, or at least all societies that I’ve encountered and all societies that I’ve studied, voices that we diminish and voices that we discount.

In old Hawaii, they were the kauwa. Not even the Makaʻāinana, the kupuna, nor the ali`i. No, the kauwa were relegated to the very bottom of society. But it’s not only in Hawaii. In Burundi, in the heart of Africa, the Batwa, pushed off to the margins of modern-day society. In American society, as we know, has been plagued by these same illnesses, these same sins, as we have diminished the voices and lives of Black and Brown and Asian and indigenous peoples through the years.

And of course, in almost every society, and in all times, this has been the voice of the woman and the lives of the poor. But Matthew doesn’t allow it to continue. And like he does with the generations of religious privilege that had beset Israel, Matthew tears down any privilege that we might feel toward the proverbial other. In this passage, Jesus encounters the epitome of the dismissed and dispossessed. To begin, this is a woman, and not just any woman, however, but a woman without a male patriarch to guide her and to care for her, an unredeemed woman, we might say. But even more, she’s a Canaanite woman.

Now, that may not mean much to our modern ear, so we have to listen a little more closely. If we look at this passage in the gospel of Mark, Mark describes her as a Syrophoenician woman, which is to say, the respectful way to describe this woman’s heritage. But not Matthew here. Matthew chooses instead to describe her as a Canaanite woman. That is to say that her Gentile heritage goes back generations. She’s not just a Gentile, one might say, but an ancient Gentile. One of those people that we were supposed to clear the land of, cleanse the Promised Land that we were inheriting. She’s one of them. In modern English, American parlance, this is akin to the difference between referring to someone today as an African American versus any number, any one of the disparaging names that we have used over time.

No. Matthew is making crystal clear that this woman merits no historic voice. Hers is the voice we dismiss. But then he goes further. She’s yelling, so much so that the disciples of Jesus want to send her away simply for that. “Send her away,” they say, “for she keeps shouting at us.” Not only is she a woman, a Canaanite woman at that, but she’s not waiting patiently or politely for Jesus to take note of her plight. She’s not standing quietly by the side, waiting patiently for Jesus to attend to her. She’s shouting, crazed and out of her mind, some might say, for his attention, demanding that he listen to her.

Hers is the voice we all so easily dismiss. Each of us has that person, the person we don’t think is worth our time or our energy. Not only have we been taught that their voice doesn’t matter in the same way that our voice does, they aren’t behaving the way good, proper people behave. And so we send them away by shutting them out, by dismissing their voice, and ultimately, ignoring their cry, their story, and their lives.

But not Jesus today. He tries. The old prejudices creep in, but thankfully she persists. And He does the nearly unimaginable. He listens. And ultimately, He changes. In spite of all the prejudice that He had inherited, in spite of all the social norms that she is breaking, she is also able to break through, and He is able to stay present and to listen to her cry, and ultimately, to change His promise.

Yes, in fact, He has called not only to the lost sheep of Israel, but to the people of Tyre and Sidon. He has called to the Gentiles of Galilee and to the Gentiles of ancient Canaan. His is a message, a healing and a redemption, not only for the house of Israel, but for all people and all nations, for the rich and for the poor, for the Jew and the Gentile, for the Samaritan and the Canaanite, for the Black and the Brown, the straight and the gay, the woman, the poor, and the rich all together.

Friends, this is as important a message for all of us today who strive to live like Jesus as any message there is. We talk about loving one another. We talk about respecting the dignity of all people. This is what it looks like. It means being willing to listen to the voice we want to avoid, staying present to the voice of one who is so impassioned and so desperate as to break all societal norms, to listen in such a way so as not to be patronizing or falsely attentive, but to listen with genuine openness, and ultimately, respect, so as to be able to change when love and justice demand it.

Friends, we are left with one simple question: whose voice, whose voice do we need to hear differently today? Whose voice do we need to hear differently as a society, and whose voice do we need to hear differently individually, in our families, amongst our friends, and amongst our peers within this community? Whose voice do we need to hear differently today? Amen.