The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - August 20, 2017
      Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:10-28      

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     The reading this morning comes in two sections.  Each one is full of meaning, and they probably should consist of two sermons, but they also fit together.  Let me try to explain. 

     In the first part of our reading we need to get into the idea of Jesus’ time, and Jewish culture.  The Jewish were very concerned about being clean.  Now by clean, I don’t mean physical, but spiritually or religiously clean.  The whole idea of these laws is sorting out who belongs and who does not belong.  If you follow the laws, you are part of our group.  We will stay with you, we will eat with you, we will be in relationship with you.  But, if you are not clean, you are not part of the group.  Don’t want to have anything to do with you, safer to avoid any interaction that might affect my cleanliness. 

     It kind of reminds me of a school lunch room.  When I was in High School each table represented a different group of people.  The football players all sat at one table, all the cheerleaders at another.  Over in that corner you had the Goth kids, all dressed in black, the band table, the chorus table.  Each group had their own table or tables.  Freshman and sophomore year I normally hung out at the boy scout table.  By the time I was a junior and senior I had found my table.  To be honest, I don’t know how we were defined by other kids.  We had kids in honor classes, and kids in remedial classes.  We had wrestlers, and non-athletic types.  We had kids with muscle cars, and many of us didn’t own cars.  We had male and female.  It was comfortable to find a place where I fit in.  I did fine at the boy scout table, but after my second year many of those kids graduated, so while there were still scouts in school, we just kind of split up into new tables. 

     Looking back I would like to think that we were a welcoming group, but in reality we probably were not.  While there was no defining characteristic, we did have unwritten rules.  We were, what I would consider, normal kids.  Jeans and a t-shirt were fine for clothing, but you didn’t wear a polo with the collar up.  We didn’t drink or smoke.  Well, there were some parties where alcohol was present, but none of us were waiting for Friday or Saturday night so we could get drunk.  Wrestling, track and cross country were OK sports, but football was not our thing, certainly the cheerleaders would not fit into our group.  And if you break those unwritten rules you would be sent out of our group.  If you go to one of our parties and get really drunk, that is not what we are about.  You can find new people to hang out with.  We had one member who had decided he liked smoking marijuana.  We didn’t kick him out of our group, but he stopped getting invited to things we were doing, so nothing official, but we made it known to him that if he continued smoking pot, he needed to find a different group to hang out with. 

     In Jesus time, it was very clear who was in and who was out.  Jewish, follow all the rules, you are good, you are part of the “in crowd.”  Not Jewish, or claim to be Jewish and not follow the rules, you are out.  But Jesus sees this differently.  It is not so important what goes into your body, but what comes out of your mouth. Many of the early Jewish laws are dietary, so how to eat and what to eat when is very complicated.  What comes out of your mouth comes from your heart, so if you speak or act in ways that separate you from God, that is far more important than what you eat. 

     Jesus says  “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”  It is important to know when to stay and talk and when to go.  This is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus felt the authorities, the Pharisees, were wrong, but what Jesus says to them is not going to make a difference in them.  Let them alone in the way they are thinking, not right, but not a battle I am going to win.

     And then we get into the meat of this reading, or the second part.  Jesus is in non-Jewish land.  This is quite a distance from Jerusalem.  And all that talk he just finished about being clean and unclean, about what you eat not making you unclean, but what comes from your heart, is really important.  Outside of his disciples, there are probably no Jewish people in sight.  And since all the locals are not Jewish, they are outsiders.  They don’t follow the rules.  If they showed up at our lunch table, we would all turn up our noses, and tell them to move, or we would move to a new table.  If you a think of a situation in which you would be very uncomfortable, this was worse.  Imagine finding yourself in the middle of a homeless camp, trash all over the ground, some people sleeping, some staring at you, wondering what you are doing here.  That would be comfortable compared to where Jesus and his followers find themselves.  This was not just about physical cleanliness, this was being able to approach God.  If you are unclean, you have to do things before you go back to the temple; often those things take time.  And since the temple was where God lived, by becoming unclean you could not go to the place they believed God lived.   In their mind, they are clean, they do follow the Jewish laws, and maybe not 100% of what comes from their heart is pure and good, but at least most of it is.  But you know these non-Jewish are up to no good.   

     And a woman approaches, yelling and screaming.  Oh, no, what does she want?  And Jesus is silent.  This is not what we want from Jesus.  We want Jesus to reach out and ask this woman how he can help her.  But Jesus ignores her.  The disciples know what is going on, they cannot get rid of her, but Jesus can.   “Jesus, tell her to beat it.”  We know that Jesus has come to cure the Jewish people, so this woman needs to get lost so Jesus can do what he needs to do with those who deserve it.  And Jesus does just that.  This is Jesus, the one in whose name we pray.  Jesus calls her a dog, tells her that he is not here to help her, she has to beat it.  Not even a sorry, cannot do anything today.  He tells her that she is not good enough to get anything from him.  His gifts of healing are only for those chosen by God, the Jewish people, not her. 

     I could call Jesus a name here, but to not upset anyone, I think we can all agree that Jesus is not being very nice.  Jesus just told this woman, who is obviously upset about what is going on with her daughter, that she is a dog and not good enough for his special healing.  Obviously, Jesus is better than any of us, but to totally reject a person in need.  She is a woman, maybe Jesus was sexist.  She was from a different part of Jesus’ world, maybe her skin was the wrong color.  Maybe it was just because she was a pain, came out screaming for Jesus to help her.  Some people can just turn you off from your first encounter with them.

     It is easy to reject people who are different than you are.  In today’s world, there is all sorts of discrimination. We just saw a horrible example last weekend.  But our racism, sexism, xenophobia (fear of those who are different than us), is not new.  When I was in seminary we were required to attend several services of different churches.  My roommate and I went to the Roman Catholic church.  It was a Saturday service, I believe, pretty empty church, and the priest asked if we would like to bring the communion elements forward.  We would love to, but unfortunately, we are not Catholic.  We are not part of your group, we our outsiders. For us to touch the host would be bad, at least in your eyes.  A few weeks later we went to a really large African American church.  This pulpit was used by Martin Luther King, Junior when he preached in St. Louis.  We arrived early, at least 15 minutes before the service started, and got probably the two last seats in the church, way up in the back row of the balcony.  And this was not Christmas or any special Sunday, just a normal week.  We were the only two white people in the church.  The members tried to be nice, they knew about the seminary, their pastor was an adjunct professor there, but still it was clear that we were different.  I sensed a bit of hesitation, what are these two white guys doing here in our church. 

     And Jesus plays right into that, shunning of those who are different then we are, rejects the woman’s requests.  The Bible does not say specifically why, but by listing the location of this event, we know that she is not the type of good Jewess Jesus and the disciples should be hanging out with.  Because of her lack of religion, or gender, or some other reason, she is rejected by Jesus.  Sometimes even in our world people are rejected by others, but you are not 100% sure why.

     But the woman pleads her case.  Yes, even though I am a dog, and I can accept that you were sent for Jewish people, can’t I even get the crumbs that fall on the floor?  Isn’t there anything left for me?  So Jesus changes his mind.  Woah, hold on.  I just suggested that Jesus, son of God, changes his mind? 

     I have been struggling with that.  If we accept that Jesus was fully God and fully human we have to ask ourselves about the nature of God.  Did Jesus learn?  Think back when Jesus was a child. He was born and grew up just like we all did.  Jesus goes to Kindergarten, or some kind of school, and is taught his ABC’s.  Did Jesus really learn that, or did he already know that, plus every language, what is in everyone’s heart and all the other things we believe God knows about us?  Was this a mistake on the part of Jesus?  Does our God make mistakes?  If we are to argue our case before God, like this woman did, are we more likely to find favor with God?  That is frightening; we pray every week for people who are sick, in need of healing.  Sometimes they find healing and other times they don’t.  When they don’t, does that mean that we didn’t do a good job of arguing our case for this person before God.  Maybe not enough people prayed hard enough for this person. 

     That also throws predestination out the window, the idea that God has any plan for our lives.  I do believe in free will, but also believe that the hand of God guides us.  If God’s mind can be changed, does that really mean that we guide the hand of God? 

     I hope you are not expecting me to answer those questions, because I don’t have those answers.  There are books and books and books written on the question, “Can God change God’s mind?” 

     We can either believe that Jesus changed his mind, or we can believe it was all a set up, but either way, Jesus does heal this woman’s daughter.  He says “Woman, great is your faith, let it be done for you as you wish.”  Great is your faith for a non-Jew.  Great is your faith, for someone who should be rejected according to the rules of Jesus’ world.  Great is your faith for a woman who is considered unclean. 

     Whenever I write a sermon I ask myself, so what?  I see two messages for me this morning.  First is the whole idea that Jesus had every right to reject this woman according to the rules of his society, and he did at first.  We reject people also, and have unwritten rules for why we reject them.  This is not good or right, but is something that we should acknowledge and try to change.  Jesus saw it in his heart to heal this woman who he first rejected, and we should work to at the very least accept all others.  Even those who are “unclean” in our eyes or the eyes of those around us. 

     And the second is that the grace Jesus showed to this woman we can also hope for.  She was the outcast of her day, at least in Jesus mind.  And today, in many ways, even that which comes out of our mouths is not good.  But if Jesus can see it in his heart to heal her daughter, hopefully Jesus will see it in his heart to look past our all faults and heal us also.