FAITH IS IN THE ASKING
A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Based on Matthew 15:10-28
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
Political correctness has come to the pulpit. I remember the days when Protestant sermons would tell you all about what was wrong with the Roman Catholic Church. Methodists would fault Episcopalians for their liturgical folderol, and Lutherans would say that Pentecostals have swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. Of course, we don’t to that anymore. We have become politically correct now. Besides, we have become ecumenical now, and we want to rise above all those old barriers that have divided Christians from one another. Of course, in ecumenical circles we do have ways of referring to our differences in a more genteel way. One ecumenical scholar (Geoffrey Wainright), with some genteel humor, likes to make a distinction between Episcopalians and Presbyterians: “Episcopalians,” he says, “are people who insist on the historic significance of bishops; Presbyterians are people who insist on the historic insignificance of bishops.” That’s about as close as we can come these days to not offending anybody.
But sometimes offense has a point to it. Like Jesus in our Gospel reading for today. “Don’t give me all this stuff about kosher. It’s not what goes into your mouth that should give offense; it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.” It’s like a blast against his whole religion. He calls its leaders “blind guides” who will drag you down into a deep hole, if you let them. No worry on Jesus’ part about being offensive, much less politically correct.
So I had to ask what the take-away is for us pastors from today’s Gospel reading. If we want to be faithful to the gospel – and that’s what we’re supposed to be when we give sermons – then we have to get serious about offense, well-taken or not. After all, even St. Paul said the gospel, the word of Jesus’ cross, can be an offense to some and foolishness to others (1 Corinthians 1:23).
So we have to take seriously Jesus’ statement “it’s not what goes into your mouth but what comes out of it that defiles you” – and learn from it. He specifically names some things that can defile you: “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” Did he say “false witness?” That’s lying. If a lie comes out of your mouth, you’ve defiled yourself. Slander? If you’ve slandered someone, you’ve defiled yourself. Lies, slander – they’re offensive, and they make you look bad.
The President has given offense this past week, and a lot of people have said so. They have resigned from his commissions and committees. Congressmen have condemned him for it. The mother of a victim of the violence in Charlottesville has said she will not speak to him and will not take his phone calls. All because of what came out of his mouth. His “many sides” comment about who’s responsible for the violence has offended people. He wanted to place the blame on both sides, and he actually made the wrong side happy about what he said. My problem is that he was right, at least historically. Certain observers and commentators have fallen all over themselves to argue that the counter-protesters did not engage in violence, but were provoked by the “Unite the Right” demonstrators. But what the President forgot is that we fight Nazis. We fought them 70 years ago, and we fight them now, because what comes from their hearts and out of their mouths defiles them. We do not say that they are good people, because they’re not. Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought Nazis, so we fight them too. And those who mouth epithets and threats against Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, and people of color in the name of free speech, especially in the name of Christianity, are being offensive. Free speech ends when you yell “Fire!” in a movie theater. Neo-Nazis, the Klan, and white supremacists yell “Fire!” with hearts full of evil intentions, which defiles them, and we do not want our country to be defiled along with them. And like Bonhoeffer said: to do nothing is the greater evil.
Of course, the better way is no violence at all. The Church of Christ rejects violence, and its members all believe that love, in the long run, overcomes hate. But the church has also developed a doctrine of justifiable warfare, and the Second World War came as close as can be to being a justifiable war. Because Nazis had brought immeasurable suffering and death to minorities, to other countries, and to leaders of the church, whom they imprisoned and executed because of their objection to Nazi atrocities. The Klan still burns crosses on peoples’ lawns, and inspires hate for minorities, and acts to bring fear into our communities. Christians speak out against such injustice, and they help to elect governments who will defend their people against injustice, against evil intentions, and lying, and slander. But when governments give encouragement to white supremacy and other racist movements, then Christians speak out against such governments. And when governments do not stand up for what is good and true and just, then others will, and as a last resort will fight for it.
So we come to church on this Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost and we hear a story about Jesus’ offending some people. His disciples took him aside and told him, “You know, what you said about keeping kosher offended the Pharisees.” The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism that kept strict daily rules in order to show how serious they were about God. They wouldn’t eat pork, because their Scriptures defined as kosher only meat that came from animals that had cloven hooves and chewed their cud (see Leviticus 11:3). They had strict rules for slaughtering animals that they could eat, and they had strict rules for washing themselves before they would eat. They did all this in order to please God in all aspects of their lives. They wanted to stay in good standing with God and with other people, so they observed the rules for “kosher,” which means “clean.” Better said, they kept kosher as a sign that they were God’s chosen people.
Jesus made a comment that could be taken as totally offensive. He said, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” It sounded like Jesus was taking on the entire practice of their religion. So the disciples ask him about it, and Jesus responded by saying that the human body has a way of dealing with what we eat: the body eventually processes what we eat and it’s finally done away with and gone – no damage done in our relationship with God. But what can damage our relationship with God and with other people is what comes out of our mouths. What comes out of our mouths comes out of our hearts, and that can hurt other people – and us: murder, adultery, lying about other people and slandering them. God commands us not to do those things, and if we have those things in our hearts it can hurt us; and if they come out of our mouths it hurts other people. Those are that things that really displease God, not what goes into our mouths, but what comes out of them.
Then Jesus starts walking, of all places, toward Tyre and Sidon, places where few Pharisees would go, because you meet up with “unclean” people there who don’t observe any kosher rules at all. And soon one of them stopped Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter, who was demon-possessed. Then he does what would please his disciples: he puts her off, even puts her down, a couple times. But she keeps coming back; she ignores his insults and keeps asking. Maybe he’s waiting for one of his disciples to say, “Look, Lord, she’s really hurting; maybe it’s time for a little compassion.” Instead, they say, “Get rid of her, Lord; she keeps whining.” So he comes close to insulting her: “Lady, do you want me to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?” But she doesn’t get hung up on the insult. She replies, “But Lord, even the dogs will eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And suddenly Jesus responds, “Woman, great is your faith! I will do what you ask.” And the story ends: “And her daughter was healed instantly.”
What made Jesus respond as he did? Saying to this stranger, this Canaanite woman, this non-Jew whom he had never met before, “Great is your faith!” Was it that she totally disarmed him by her willingness to swallow his insults? Was she so desperate that she would field with a shrug every one of his put-downs? When Jesus said that her faith was great, it wasn’t like she had just recited the Nicene Creed! What was it about this strange woman that Jesus could suddenly talk about her faith, her great faith?
First of all, we can get a clue from other stories of Jesus’ healings. In so many of them, Jesus gets people to ask, even if he already knows what they want. For Jesus, asking is important. So he makes her ask. In today’s story Jesus makes the Canaanite woman ask, and ask, and ask again. And when she does, he says, “Woman, great is your faith.”
So it’s in the asking that faith is found. Asking, genuine asking, is not demanding. Demanding is standing over God and telling God what to do. Asking is not demanding. Asking is letting God do the answering, on God’s terms, not ours. Asking is not putting God into our test tube and making God come out our way; it is knowing who we are before God: recipients, not achievers. As Jesus taught those who want to listen: “Ask, and you will receive.” As if to say, “Demand, and you get nothing.” Faith is understanding that. Faith is understanding that we are recipients before God. Faith is the refusal to stand over God and make God accountable to our standards and desires.
Anti-Semitism, which is at the basis of all racism, is a Christian heresy. It has infested Europe for centuries, and white Europeans brought it with them to this country. It is based on the notion that God has rejected the Jews because they were responsible for the death of Christ. That makes all those who accept Christ superior to Jews. It leads some people to think that we can persecute Jews to get even with them for killing Jesus. And once we think we’re superior even to God’s chosen people, we’re superior to all other races as well. It is a heresy, something that ought to be rejected. And there is an alternative, and we’ve heard it this morning in our second lesson, from that section of Paul’s letter to the Romans where the apostle struggles with the question of whether Israel is lost because they have rejected Jesus as Messiah.
St. Paul deals with this question not in terms of anger toward Israel but in terms of his love for Israel, and he’s passionate about it. In chapter 9 of his letter he wrote: “I have great sorrow and deep anguish in my heart” over this question (9:2): “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people” (9:3). “Look at what they have: their election as God’s chosen people, they have the covenants, the giving of the Torah, the worship, the promises, and the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and from their own race came the Messiah himself. What is going to happen to them in the end?” (9:4-5). For three chapters in Romans Paul struggles with this question.
And what is his answer? How does he resolve this question that bothers him so much? He finally says straight out: “All Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). Why? Because they have kept kosher, observed all the right laws, and carried on strict washing before eating? No. He says Israel will be saved, as we heard in the second lesson today, “because the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (11:29). In other words, it’s what God has promised to them, and God does not go back on his promises. So not because of what they do, but because of what God has done. They are not achievers of God’s love; God has given it to them. They are recipients.
Earlier in his letter to the Romans, when St. Paul expressed his own deep sinfulness, and that he, like all of us, is under the power of sin, he had struggled with the same question: “Who will deliver us from this body of death?” It was not that he could claim the right pedigree, being a child of Abraham and a member of the tribe of Benjamin. That highest of religious pedigrees would not be enough. “Who will deliver us from this body of death?” Only a recipient can give the right answer: “Thanks be to God: through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 7:25).
Achievers will not understand that. They’re righteous; they’ve done so many good things in life, and now God should thank them for it. But the Canaanite woman knows she’s not an achiever: that’s why she’s asking for help. She refused to demand her rights, to assert her dignity, to turn her nose up and walk away. She simply asks, and asks again, and again. And it was in her asking that Jesus sees her faith, great faith. She made no demands. She was a recipient.
Faith is asking, and receiving, because only recipients can say, “Thank you. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
-- Richard L. Jeske