“Can We Be Taught?” Matthew 15:10-28

There is very little that prepares us for this Gospel story.   Not in Matthew’s Gospel leading up to it, not in any of the other Gospel accounts.  We have been reveling in a Jesus who includes, who heals, who forgives and who feeds.  Sure, Jesus can be enigmatic at times, sending Disciples off in a boat, challenging them to feed the crowds, and a bit scary walking on the water.

But nothing prepares us for a Jesus who turns out to be a racist.

Yes, we can use that term here, as powerful and as objectionable as it may feel.  Jesus is a racist in this story.   He takes one look at this woman who comes looking for help, and the first thing we are told about her is her ethnic derivation.

She is a Canaanite.

That moniker in the history of Israel carries with it a lot of baggage, just as much as any ethnic slur we might have today for a particular group of people.   Canaanites were the original inhabitants of this land.   They were the Ba’al worshipers that Israel attempted to drive out, subjugate, or get rid of, but who always managed to appear again.

The Canaanite woman begs Jesus for help, but instead of compassion and understanding and readiness to help, what she is met with is rejection. Jesus seems to go out of the way to insult her.

He does not even inquire of the child, or do what we would normally anticipate him doing, say “take me to her.”

No, instead He calls this woman a dog.   A demeaning slur on top of the other slur.

He tells her that it just wouldn’t be right for him to help her since he was sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Let me make that clear – Jesus is saying here that he was sent only to his own kind – his own kin and country.

What kind of a picture of Jesus is this?  This is a racist Jesus.   There is no avoiding that, or talking our way around it.

How could Jesus have turned his back on someone in need?

I believe Matthew and the other gospel writers preserve this story to give us a glimpse into just how fully human Jesus was.

We already know that he is susceptible to temptation.    He spends the 40 days in the wilderness, and comes out of that experience on top.  But temptation isn’t usually a “once and done” experience.   It comes at us again.   The “opportune time” mentioned in Luke’s Gospel will arise again.

Remember that the whole point of the incarnation was born was that God became as one of us, a human being.   God did that so that God would come to know what it is like for us to live in this world.

And, here is the ugly truth of being human and living in this world.  If you live in this world, you are always tempted to see division and difference.  You are tempted to think tribally, me—my own—not them—their kind.

If you live in this world, you are always tempted to put limits on what it is that you can do, and what it is that can be accomplished, and you are attuned to the differences between people.

If you live in this world, (and truly understand what it is to be human,) you will discover how deep the lines of prejudice, race, and privilege can be, and how susceptible you are to their influence.

We live in a world that is in many ways always “measured.”

We recognize that much of our time as human beings is spent either “measuring up,” or making judgments about who “doesn’t measure up,” or trying to figure out just “where to draw the line.”

Isn’t that ever the temptation before us?

In the wake of Charlottesville, we’re all trying to figure out where to draw lines, aren’t we?

When do you denounce actions, and when do you accept them or encourage them?

Were there “good people” in that crowd of torch bearing protesters?   Or does marching with a crowd shouting “Blood and Soil” pretty much make you of one cloth?

Were there “violent people on both sides?”   Or was this the kind of moment where opposing the manifestation of evil warranted meeting such force with opposing force?

You can look out over the events and conversations of this past week and see that we’ve all spent a great deal of energy in our conversations and in social media trying to figure out just where to “draw lines.”

That is the human tendency. One quickly discovers that there is no clear agreement of where any line ought to be, but still we are drawn to consider it.

So then, when we hear Jesus voice the hard line: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” — that at first sounds like a pretty good hard line to us.

We might even find a sense of comfort in that.   “See, Jesus isn’t afraid to draw it, call it like he sees it, you have to draw the line somewhere.”

And, indeed, part of us can relate to this moment in Jesus’ life.

Jesus had come up to Tyre and Sidon to get away from the crowds pressing him in Galilee.  This is supposed to be a “mini-vacation” of sorts.  But now this woman shows up begging him for help like a vagrant on the street corner asking for change.   It’s just too much!  You have to draw the line somewhere!

And so, Jesus does, and as soon as he does, — as soon as we hear the line coming out of his mouth….we instinctively know that there is something wrong about it.

That’s what bothers us about this story.

How could Jesus, of all people say no?

Well, as it turns out, saying “no” and drawing lines comes with the territory of living in this world and being human!

It comes with the kind of fear that is born of scarcity, that there might not be enough to go around, not enough for me, or that viewpoint that “you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Here Jesus is tempted in a not-so-subtle way, more powerfully even than he was in the wilderness, to be fully human.  Is God really only interested in the lost sheep close to home?  In Jesus’ own kin and countrymen?

Is there really a finite measure of God’s power to heal, forgive, love, and accept?  Only enough for the “Lost sheep of the house of Israel”… and after we attend to them, we’ll see?

There is another reason why this story ought to bother us.   Who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel?

In Jesus’ day that distinction was clear.  They were the people who believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They were the Jews, the people living in Palestine or in diaspora waiting and watching for Messiah.

Take a look here people, a good look at this Canaanite woman, this “Gentile” because she is arguing on your behalf.

None of us gathered here most likely have any Jewish background.

None of us here have been about the task of keeping the Torah, keeping the Sabbath and the commandments or observing the laws.

Most of us wouldn’t know a bar-mitzvah from a bar of soap.

So then, when Jesus says he was not sent for her,- “I have come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  – he is saying that he was not sent for us either… not in this moment, not in his own self-understanding of his mission at this moment in time.

That puts you and me out in the cold.

What Jesus would decide to do with this woman’s request, is what Jesus would have decided to do with all of our requests, as we come to him as Gentiles, foreigners, and outsiders.

So how would you have reacted to Jesus?  Would you have been insulted by his remarks?  Outraged?  Argued with him?  What would you have done?

The woman’s answer is most intriguing.

She agrees with Jesus.

Yes Jesus, perhaps I do have no right to ask this of you.  Maybe you did not come specifically for my benefit.  Yet, am I not able to receive some scraps, some crumbs that fall unintentionally, or purposely, from the master’s Table?

The scraps of God’s bountiful grace are enough, more than enough to help me.

That is an incredible statement of faith!

This woman’s vision of God is far greater than Jesus’ own vision of God or of himself at this moment, and It takes him back a bit.

The hazard of being human is that temptation to begin to think in limited ways, (as humans will) or to think as the world tempts us think, to be about drawing lines.

The scraps are more than enough to save her little girl.

That is what is reckoned as faith to this woman.  She sees the truth.  God is big enough to provide for everyone, and everyone is of God’s concern.  The least bits that God lets fall around are more than enough to bring healing and life and power to her and to her people.

In that moment, Jesus is taught by her.

Can we dare to believe that?

Can we dare to believe that the power of human pride and arrogance is so overwhelming that even Jesus is not immune from its most powerful temptations?

The whole world is looking for Messiah.  The whole world is looking to Jesus.

The lost sheep becomes all of us, — everyone caught in the web of sin in this world that ever tempts us to draw lines, and draw distinctions, and succumb to “this far and no more.”

All of us tempted to look at this world tribally, as “my people” as opposed to “your people.”

All of us are infected with a degree of racism simply because of our very humanity.

And so, in this moment, when confronted with this woman’s need, her faith and her persistence, Jesus is taught, or reminded, of God’s greatness.   He repents of the worldly viewpoint that even he is susceptible to at times, and grants what the woman requests.

“Let it be done for you as you wish.”

This is the good news of this Gospel.

This woman speaks for you and for me to Jesus.

This woman reminds Jesus of how big God’s table of grace truly is, something even Jesus needed to be reminded of, it appears.

And, if even Jesus needed a reminder of that, then we do too.

This is the good news of this Gospel.  Racism is something that even Jesus was tempted by, and something that he had to repent of, and if Jesus can both experience it and repent of it, so can we.

Jesus, it appears, could be taught when confronted.   The question remains, “Can we?”

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“Fear and Frantic Grabs” Matthew 14:22-33

To begin with, there is an awful lot for which we can be legitimately afraid.   Can we just acknowledge that right off the top?

As a flatlander from Nebraska, one of the scariest moments in my life was getting caught in a storm in deep water.

It was on a family vacation to a lake in Minnesota.  We didn’t own a boat, we rented one at the resort.   I still remember that it was a bright red open “Lund” fishing boat with a woefully underpowered small engine.  The wind came up suddenly, the skies clouded over and the motor struggled to push us back toward shore against the wind.  We went from “fun” gliding over the water to dipping and rising with the swells, almost losing sight of the shore between the waves.  There is something particularly disconcerting about water sloshing over the sides of the boat and gathering around your ankles.

I was pretty young at the time and so I don’t think I was actually contemplating drowning or dying, but I certainly felt very much out of control and could see the look of panic in the faces of the adults in the boat with us.

So, in this story, I totally get the terror of the disciples.

There was probably not a one of them in the boat who could actually swim,- even the fishermen.   Learning to swim in largely desert Palestine was probably not high on the list of things to do on your summer vacation like it was for me, and there were no life preservers.  The prospect of the wind being against them and struggling to make shore would have unnerved even the most seasoned of fishermen.

The fear and the danger in this Gospel story is real.

We can tend to forget that knowing how the story ends.

We even sometimes criticize old Peter for his “lack of faith.”  I’ve heard and probably delivered a number of sermons on the need to “get out of the boat” in faith.

You can deliver a sermon like that when you know that in the end the storm is stilled and things all turn out just fine.  Go ahead, step out in faith!

But, when you’re in the middle of it all, there is no such reassurance.

So, acknowledging that the fear and the danger is real in this story is the first step toward finding the good news in this story.

In similar fashion, the fear and danger that we have in this present “storm of life” is no less real.  There is much for which we can be legitimately afraid, and real harm is possible.

We can acknowledge that, right?

Did you ever think we’d be tap dancing around Nuclear exchanges again?  “Fire and Fury” meets “Enveloping fire” with escalating threats sounding every bit like bullies on the playground.

We have become keenly aware of how little check there is on leaders when they use the rhetoric of irrationality.

Or who would have thought that just a little cracking open of the door on nationalism, tapping into some good ol’ patriotic pride and playing to American exceptionalism would result in the White Nationalists rising again and hate speech mongers scurrying out like cockroaches?

We hear the angry rhetoric of hate, and see things that my grandfather and father would never have dreamed possible.  The Swastika flying in America, beside the Confederate flag and stars and stripes.

We fought a war, and have proclaimed the message, “never again” – and yet the seeds of anger, privilege and bigotry are as persistent as ragweed.  It springs up to irritate and choke out all too readily.

So, we’re afraid, and the danger is real, and we need to own up to that.

We’re afraid right now that cooler heads will not prevail in time of crisis.

We’re afraid that the evil released by inflammatory rhetoric cannot be contained, but instead will continue to spill out like the plagues of Pandora’s Box, doing damage, overrunning and overwhelming the good.

The fear in our own lives is real.

That’s the starting place for finding the good news in this Gospel story.   The fear that we feel is just as real as the fear the disciples felt in that boat.

The second thing we need to acknowledge in this story is that the picture of Jesus as he appears is of no real comfort.

This is a Jesus who seems detached and distant, and who confuses us.  Just last week the good news revolved around how Jesus would not dismiss the crowds.  Not until they had been fed.  Not until they had been satisfied with compassion.

But now with those things met, Jesus himself dismisses the crowds, and the disciples as well.  He sends them off and then goes off to the mountain to pray.

As the storm rises on the lake and the disciples begin to struggle, we are left to wonder if Jesus is paying any attention to the events at all.

How did the disciples get into their predicament in the first place???

It was at Jesus’ command that they set off on the perilous journey.  Jesus told them to get into the boat and go ahead of him.

Is that really the case, that Jesus sends us out to our own peril while he’s off doing something else?

Sometimes it seems that way.

Sometimes it is in the midst of doing what we thought Jesus told us to do that we find ourselves thrown into the midst of the storm.

There were clergy and lay people gathered for prayer on Friday night in preparation for the “Unite the Right” assembly in Charlottesville when a group of torch bearing people there for the assembled showed up at the University of Virginia chapel and surrounded the place.

Do you suppose those inside felt like the disciples bobbing in the boat?

And, hey let’s admit it.  If Jesus really wanted to be helpful to those disciples in their peril out in the boat, why didn’t he just calm the storm from where he was when he first noticed it?   Why let the disciples bob around like corks waiting for him to show up?

And speaking of that, you can’t read this story without thinking how absolutely unhelpful it was to have Jesus walking out over the waves toward them!

First of all, he turns out to be unrecognizable to his disciples from their storm-tossed position in the boat.  We are told he looks like a ghost, and no one finds a ghostly apparition walking toward them particularly comforting in the midst of danger or difficulty.

Secondly, what exactly was Peter thinking?   “If it is you Lord, bid me come to you?”   Here’s a great way to find out if you’re unsure, step out of the boat and see if you sink!

Just having Jesus “show up” while you’re in the midst of the storm turns out to be not very helpful.

The storm rages on.

The unsteady legs that try to step out in faith on their own will inevitably falter and sink.

The mind is too distracted by the events around you, the wind and waves to focus on clearly on Jesus.

It’s going to take a little more than Jesus “just showing up” to get us through our time of fear when the danger is real.

Which, as it turns out, is the point of the story, because the story isn’t just about Jesus “showing up.”

No, it’s about what Jesus does in response to Peter’s cry.

It turns out that this is a story about a display of the power of God.   It’s about a God who ignores the laws of physics he put in place and upends the natural order to get to us when called upon.

This is the source of hope and comfort in the Gospel here.

When Peter says, “Lord, save me!”   we witness a God in Christ Jesus who reaches out and grab him and pull him up out of the waters.

That’s the moment around which everything else revolves.

This is the action—Jesus reaching out at the right moment to catch hold when we falter.  That calms the storm in the story, and perhaps in our world.

The gospel presses us to see that Jesus is doing more than just “showing up.”

Jesus defies the normal rules, controls the wind and waves, all for this moment.  The moment when we cry out and when he can reach in to grab us.

This is a part of the biblical story that we see time and again, and yet it is hard to keep in focus.

The storm of life is so overwhelming sometimes, the bad news so persistent, the appearance that evil is winning so prevailing that we can lose sight of the God who strides into this world to save.

God strides in with the birth of Jesus in the first place.

God strides in where we don’t think anyone could ever go, and reaches into the midst of the maelstrom, pulling out and saving.

Where do we sense or see Jesus reaching out to grab us these days?

It might be in the actions of those around us.   Those who will speak and will not keep silent.

It might be in the words that remind us of God’s unfailing love and intention for this world, that no matter how bad things look at the moment God has not given up on us, or on this world, nor has God just stepped back to let happen what will happen.

No, the promise in this Gospel is that Jesus is not in the business of just casually “showing up.”

He comes with intention.

He come not as just some shadowy, ghostly figure, who we hope is who he says to be, who is barely perceptible amidst all other static and noise of the storm around us.

No, Jesus comes to make God’s presence known, and to confirm the power God has to save.

It is not with our faltering steps and actions that we find hope, as necessary as they may be, but it is ultimately with the firm grasp of God upon us at the moment that we need it that we trust and depend.

Jesus comes, and while we sometimes think faith is about our weak attempts to step out and act in faith, that is not what we put our hope and trust in at all.

It is instead about a firm hand that comes and says, “Gotcha!” at the right moment when we think we’re about to slip under.

That’s the good news today, to a people who have real things to fear, and for a time when there is real danger.

God is not done with us or with this world.

Even if we can only dimly perceive his presence amidst the storm, he is coming with intention, with an outstretched arm and mighty hand to those who call out.

That is the promise of God this day.

Jesus says with his actions and presence— “I’ve got you….”

“Now When Jesus Heard This..” Matthew 14:13-21

“Now when Jesus heard this….”   That’s the opening line of the Gospel today.   It is an opening which we mostly jump over to get to the “good stuff” of the feeding of the 5000.

But today I’d like us to slow down and reconsider this opening a bit.   This is, after all, the comment that drives the whole narrative!

“When Jesus heard this…”

Oh, and it’s not just the driver of the narrative for Jesus. The very next sentence in the story begins “But when the crowds heard it, they followed on foot..”

Whatever is being “heard” is both what prompts Jesus to get into a boat and withdraw, and the same thing that motivates the crowds to strike out on foot looking for Jesus.

And what was it that Jesus heard about?

He heard about the death of John the Baptizer.

This is the event that drives Jesus to withdraw in the boat and the crowds to pursue him.

Does that make a difference in the way we hear this story and what it is about?

As I said, we like to rush ahead to the feeding of the 5000.

When we do that we assume that the point of this story is Jesus coming out here in the wilderness to “do a miracle.”

We assume and that the point of the story is that everyone is looking for bread, and here’s a story of how Jesus commands his disciples to take on the power Jesus has to offer.

When you jump ahead to the feeding, we tend to mine the feeding event for all the details that it has to offer.

“Dismiss the crowds” the disciples say, so they can get something to eat.

“You give them something to eat…”  Jesus says.

Five loaves and two fish feed multitudes, and we debate whether the miracle is one of multiplication or of people able to share what they already have.

Jump ahead to the feeding, and you risk forgetting what is driving the narrative.  You get caught up in what the Disciples do, Jesus ends up doing, and what feeding might have to say to you, what you ought to do, what you could do, and whether or not Jesus wants everyone fed.

Jump ahead and ponder the feeding, and you naturally are consumed with the question of what you are supposed to do, since Jesus’ command is directed to his disciples.

“You give them something to eat” he says.

Since a disciple is what you are, off we go into the realm of thinking about how we are to do that work that is commanded by Jesus.

But slowing down a bit allows us to put that directive on the back burner.  As important as it is to think about what Jesus calls us to do, and as important as it is to feed people who are hungry, the call to action is not what drives the narrative.

Grief is driving what happens here.

It is grief upon hearing about John’s death that makes Jesus want to withdraw.  He slips off to a “lonely place” to consider what such a message, an event will mean for him and his own ministry.   Where does the message about the Kingdom of God go from here, when the one making ready for the Kingdom’s coming is gone?

It is grief that causes the crowds to seek out Jesus.

The “voice of one crying in the wilderness” has been silenced.   John had talked about God’s coming.   John had been the one who called for action.  “Bear fruit that befits repentance!”   There is extreme loss amongst the people.   There is no longer a voice telling them what they must do.   There is no longer a voice calling into question their own religious leaders, their actions.   The voice that critiqued and spoke truth to power, telling Herod that he could not take his brother’s wife for his own was silenced.   Who now would speak out against complacency and against corruption, and call into question the status quo?

Where are we to turn now, with John no longer preparing the way?   Will the Kingdom still come, and is Jesus the one to whom we are to look?

John himself had pointed to Jesus, but even John had his doubts.

John had sent his own disciples to inquire of Jesus, whether he was “the one” or whether another should be looked.

And so, the crowds decide to go and see for themselves what Jesus will have to say in the face of this event. The crowds are seeking out Jesus in the midst of their own grief and confusion.

Just dwell in that today for a while, and return to the question I started the service with today.  “What is it that grieves you today?”

We heard a number of answers.

Some were personal, the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs or friends or way of life.

Some were more universal.  The loss of innocence.  The loss of the way things used to be, a longing for the past, or for the remembered past which can be quite different from the way things “really” were.   We tend to idolize and idealize things.

The ice cream of our youth was so much better than the guar gum and Xanthan stuff you get in the store now.

The church was so much more friendly, homogenized, powerful, central to people’s lives, enjoyed privilege in society — whatever we remember it being at the time when classrooms seemed full, sanctuaries packed and extended families were intact and living close to one another.

What would it be like to come to church today and not rush on to what we need to do, to feed people, or gather baskets full of stuff, but just to be seeking Jesus in the midst of our own grief, — personal, national, or corporate?

What would we hope for, finding him sitting in his own grief in the bobbing boat?

Would we, perhaps for the first time, see in Jesus the compassion we would hope for?

This is what comes to us as the first gift of Jesus.

It’s not his furious activity.

It’s not his words, teachings, parables or witty repartee with the Pharisees.

It’s not the even the activity of healing, feeding or listening.

No, the first gift we receive from Jesus is his compassion.

And, guess what?  Compassion turns out to be a gift that can be shared and given even in the midst of one’s own grief!

In fact, your compassion becomes immeasurably more powerful when it comes from a place where you are grieving yourself.

Giving compassion from the midst of your own grief is close.

Giving compassion from the midst of your own grief is empathetic, heart-felt and heart breaking.   It is to know and recognize the disappointment of the other and to speak into it as well as speaking out of it.

This why this story, and this moment is so powerful for Jesus, and for us.

We recognize that what Jesus does here, he does out of his own broken heart.   He begins to heal their sick out of a sense of compassion for them.

He inhabits this space.   This “lonely place” with those who are also grieving and in the midst of that clarity of vision about the Kingdom begins to take shape.

John had pointed toward it.

Jesus had proclaimed it in their midst.

And now, with broken hearts that need mending and the healing of accompaniment, the disciples are pointing out the obvious.

We don’t enough food to feed these folks.

Maybe it is time to “dismiss” them.

And… it is that comment about dismissing that pushes Jesus to the next statement.   “They need not go… you give them something.”

This is what Jesus will not do to the grieving and the broken hearted, no matter how logical it may be or how necessary.  It’s what he won’t let his disciples do either.

Jesus will not dismiss them.

So today, just for a moment, let that sink in.

This is perhaps the seminal moment for how the Kingdom of God will come.

We thought it came in with feeding, and taking care of people’s physical hunger.  We were so eager to understand how to do that.  So eager to “do” that.

But what drives the story instead is grief and the showing of compassion.

So then, maybe…. Just maybe, that should be our cue as well.

Maybe instead of trying to figure out what to do next, as a nation, a church, a people and getting wrapped up in “doing,” we ought to just bring our broken hearts to Jesus and to one another.

Maybe we should pause from expecting Jesus to DO something just long enough to recognize this — his heart is broken as well.

Jesus grieves, with us.  He grieves the loss of the things that we had put great stock and hope in….whatever that may be for you.

Maybe before we get all excited about what Jesus can do with bread and fish, we ought to slow down and see what Jesus does with the broken hearted, and learn the first lesson from him.. that it is compassion that leads the way into the Kingdom of God.

Where is your heart hard today?

Where would you rather go gather bread than just sit and be?

Where would you find yourself speaking words of dismissal?

“They don’t deserve…”

“They shouldn’t have….”

“I never would have…”

This day, may the words of dismissal be particularly bitter on our tongue, for these are the words that Jesus will not speak, and they are certainly the words we would never want to hear from him.

It is alright to dwell in grief a bit, for it opens the way to the next step we must take.

It is perfectly fine to step away to a lonely place yourself, and let your own disappointments accompany you there.

It is good to find others who share your grief, and to find ways to minister in the midst of it together.

In such a holy moment, the Kingdom comes near, and what looks like too little becomes abundance.

What grieves you this day?   Find the compassion of Jesus waiting for you, and healing you.

That’s what we find when we slow down and don’t rush so quickly to what we must do.