Sunday, July 23, 2023

HOMILY: "Know Jesus" (Or "No Jesus Without Her")

A Meditation on Matthew 15
Sunday, July 23, 2023
Community Church of Durham


So the way into any kind of relationship with Jesus of Nazareth is through these stories we read in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And, if you’re curious and daring, and I trust that you are—a whole bunch of others we read in gospels according to folks like Mary Magdalene and Judas and Thomas too. To know Jesus is, in a sense, to read Jesus. And I’m deliberate in calling all these texts stories, because they’re not histories; they’re stories told, memories captured, insights passed along—in order that Jesus might shape our practice and shake our lives, that Jesus might embolden our hearts and inspire our spirits, that Jesus might live in us and through us. Sacred stories. Sacred texts. And through them, we live into relationships—with a community that reads together, with a global network of siblings and allies, and with Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God.

But there really are no shortcuts. No doctrinal shortcuts. No memorized shortcuts. No bluster-from-the-pulpit shortcuts. Getting his name tattooed on your ribcage doesn’t get you out of the work. We cultivate and nurture this relationship with Jesus in much the same way we cultivate and nurture every other relationship in our lives: as we risk intimacy and understanding, as we suffer hardship together and celebrate joy together, as we question Jesus and as we hear him out, and as we read Jesus together. As we read Jesus together. There really are no shortcuts.

But the gift of all this—the gift of our immersion in Jesus’ story—is that we become a communal reflection of his loving spirit, of his gathering practice, of his courage and compassion. Not a church of easy answers, but a community of authenticity. Not a church of platitudes, but a community of vulnerability. The great Catholic teacher Jean Vanier once said: “A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose.” Isn’t that sweet? Propose and not impose. “Its attraction,” he said, “must lie in the radiance cast by the love of its sisters, its brothers, its people.” The radiance cast. The love generated within us, among us—as we read Jesus into our lives. We propose. We do not impose.


So what about this Canaanite woman in today’s story? What about this confrontation she initiates with Jesus? How is she, how is he, how are they going to shake us and shape us this morning?

The first thing I think we want to understand about Matthew’s story today is that we’re peeking in on an argument, a confrontation here, between a gutsy intruder and Jesus. Who, by the way, is just trying to get away for a couple days. But she busts in on his little retreat. Demanding help for her daughter. And she provokes a conversation, provokes him, provokes even a revisioning of his faith, his ministry. This isn’t teatime in London. This is a melee in the Middle East. He’s a Jewish prophet. And she’s not. He’s got a circle of adoring friends. And she comes alone. And it’s heated, this conversation, it’s a contest of visions and values. And they get into it. Very quickly. The two of them. So don’t miss the energy. The confrontation.

Jesus says to her, in effect, “I’m not especially concerned about you or your daughter. I’ve got my own people to serve. And I’ve got my hands full.” To be honest, his language is kind of cruel. Calling all Canaanites dogs. It’s nasty. And all the while his disciples, his friends are urging him to just send her away, get rid of her, so many better things for them to do. But then she dives at Jesus’ feet, this Canaanite woman, she dives at his feet and she says, in effect: “Whatever you think of me or my people, we too deserve your respect and your love, we too have a place at your table.” It’s a moment.

Because culturally, she’s breaking so many rules. Canaanites don’t speak in public to Jews. Women don’t address men in this way, or (heaven forbid) challenge their commitments or worldviews out loud. But she does all of this. Quickly. Brazenly. She comes hard at Jesus. Because she loves so deeply. Because she cares so profoundly for her daughter and her people. And it’s got to be tense in there. Between the two of them. And the others wishing she’d go away. But she’s pushing Jesus, insisting on his capacity for change, insisting on his ability to evolve and open up. Spiritually. As a human being. As a man. As a Jew. Insisting on his capacity for compassion and change. It’s a moment.

So I want to suggest, friends, that this little story—tucked away in Matthew 15--is something like the cutting edge of Jesus’ ministry and maybe even his identity. Who is Jesus? Go to Matthew 15 and start there. And you can’t really understand Jesus without opening your heart, your mind, your imagination to the one who challenges him. To the one who moves him to be bigger, to love bigger, to see more.


The second thing about this, then, is obviously this. Jesus is a Jew. Everything about his spiritual practice is Jewish: he was raised by a particularly devout and courageous Jewish mother; he found his faith in Jewish stories and songs; his passion for justice is a Jewish passion, fueled by stories of liberation and courage and a people organized for the common good.

So let’s never say that Jesus transcends Judaism, or that his gospel supersedes Jewish faith—for this would be folly of a serious sort and (to be honest) antisemitic. Christians make this mistake too often, and to our own detriment. Instead, we want to see Jesus and understand Jesus and hear Jesus and wrestle with Jesus—as the Jewish spirit he is, as the Jewish prophet he is, as the rabbi and poet and organizer he is. Steeped in the Jewish faith of his family and his people. Devoted to the One Holy God of Moses and Miriam, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah and Jeremiah. When Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God, he’s imagining Isaiah’s mountain, Zion: where swords are recycled into plowshares, where the widow and orphan and refugee are beloved and protected, where the people study war no more.

So she comes to him on his little retreat, and challenges his faith, his very specific, very Jewish faith, with her own. And it’s really an extraordinary moment for both of them. She—this Canaanite woman—challenges Jesus’ faith with her own. In a sense, she says to him: “You can hang onto the kind of faith, the kind of Judaism, that makes no place for me and my daughter. You can prioritize your own kin, your own kind, and turn from the humanity of my people. Or you can release your grip and welcome God’s purposes, God’s vision, God’s intention for a whole and holy human community.” OK, she doesn’t say all that. But basically, yeah. That’s what she’s arguing.

And, friends, here’s why this one short passage is so fundamentally important as we try to understand Jesus and who he is and how he rolls. Because he does. He does—right then, and right there—release his grip on his vocation, his faith, even his god. And right there he opens his heart both to her and to God. He turns it all over. Surrendering his vision to God’s. And he welcomes (then and there) a whole new sense of God’s purpose in his life, God’s vision for human community. And he turns toward a ministry that—from this point forward—will radically and powerfully include not only the Jews he grew up loving, but the Canaanites, the Gentiles, the strangers he grew up fearing and distrusting.

What she does— this remarkable woman, this Canaanite activist—is call Jesus to an even deeper Jewish faith and practice, and then call the church to the most radically inclusive and beloved community possible. We are all one. We are all siblings. And God’s vision is a vision of the table where all are not just welcome, but fed; not just accepted, but celebrated; not just tolerated, but needed. She does that for him. And Jesus—because he is a Child of God, because he is the Embodied One, the Anointed One—Jesus surrenders his vision to God’s. And he changes course. And he opens up.

And seriously, when you read Matthew’s or Mark’s gospel from start to finish, you’ll see that this one story changes the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ story. He now feeds Gentiles, Canannites and Jews alike. He now risks his own safety and freedom to heal Gentiles, Canaanites and Jews alike. He now welcomes, into his inner circle, Gentiles, Canaanites and Jews alike. The kingdom of God is bigger, even bigger, than Jesus himself imagined. And that’s a beautiful thing, a holy thing, and an evolving thing! And that’s the faith the two of them lay on our hearts this morning.

The truly amazing thing is that this extraordinary woman—fearlessly advocating for her daughter—helps Jesus to find the kingdom within himself. Let me go at that again. This extraordinary woman—fearlessly arguing for her own dignity and her daughter’s wellbeing: she helps Jesus find the kingdom of God within himself. Eknath Easwaran says that life has only one purpose: to discover this kingdom, to revel in it, to live out of its depth and purpose. She does that for Jesus. He can’t do it alone. He doesn’t do it alone. To be the Son of God, to be a Child of the Holy One—is to be radically receptive, bravely open, vulnerable to the lessons and wisdom of others, the courage of strangers, the light of traditions unexplored and unknown. And this, this, is who Jesus is. Who she challenges him to be. And who he is for us.


Believe it or not, I actually attended a Billy Graham Crusade in college, one of the strangest nights in a four-year string of strange nights. And just about the only thing I remember from that experience at Dartmouth was the handout. I don’t remember much of his sermon. I don’t remember what he said, to be honest. But thirty minutes into his sermon, gearing up for what would be his familiar altar call, Billy Graham’s team fanned the auditorium, handing out single sheets to all of us, with a colorful graphic on each side.

Maybe you’ve seen it, but I had not. It’s a sketch (the first side) of two steep cliffs, one facing the other across a deep, deep ravine. Or I guess Billy Graham called it an abyss. On one cliff: three letters. G-O-D. God. And on the other, on the other side of the ravine or the abyss: Humankind. God on one cliff. Humankind on the other. And snapping up from the base of the abyss, flames of fire. Didn’t take a biblical degree to figure that part out.

So the idea in that crowd is pretty clear. Right? There is a fearsome fire, a terrible fate awaiting humankind…unless…unless…unless…

On the other side of that single sheet…the cross. The cross fitting snuggly into that same abyss and bridging one side to the other. God to humankind. It fits just right. The graphic makes its point. And all this, clearly, to amplify Billy Graham’s altar call. Right? That if we college students wanted eternal life, wanted life with God, wanted to clear our consciences and sleep easy—we’d only need to call on the name of Jesus. The Bridge. And all would be well. And wouldn’t you know it, Billy Graham had a whole team that night, roaming the aisles, huddling on stage, ready to receive our confessions and celebrate our conversions. Jesus was a quick fix for our angsty generation. Jesus was a get-out-of-jail-free card for our guilty souls. Jesus was the answer.

But what if Jesus isn’t a graphic designed to cheat an angry God. What if Jesus is instead a story of a Canaanite sister challenging a Jewish brother to open his mind and his heart? What if Jesus is instead a story of friends overcoming fears and learning how to make two fish and five loaves feed a hungry crowd? What if Jesus is instead a story that makes room for every broken heart and every beautiful stranger within the great, big, bountiful hall of God’s grace? You see, Jesus is being born in us, and in our questions, and in our struggles, and in our celebrations, all the time. And in asking the questions, and weeping together, and rejoicing in ministry together, we begin to realize that the mercy in Jesus is also in us. And that the passion for justice and healing in Jesus is also in us. And that the reconciling peace of God that was so dynamic in Jesus is also in us.

So I want us to tell our friends about that Jesus. About the life, the story, the practice that generates such light and love in our community and in our work and in our relationships. I want us to tell our friends that it’s a beautiful life we share here—but it’s by no means an easy one. I want us to tell our friends that it’s a rich and provocative spirit we discover here--but it’s by no means the only one. And then, just maybe, I want us to invite some of those friends to join us, to experience all this, to read the story with us, to practice faith in this way.

I imagine one or two will come with questions that shock us, with riddles that puzzle us, maybe even a challenge or two that makes the pastor flinch. And I pray that they do. I really do. And when they do, that’ll be a good thing. A holy thing. A gospel thing. To be challenged and puzzled and bewildered. Just as it was for Jesus with the Canaanite woman. Because that’s how faith works. And that’s how Jesus rolls. Her humanity made him human too. Her compassion made him courageous too. And isn’t that a very good thing indeed!

Amen and Ashe.