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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Canaanite Woman Expands Church Mission - 08/20/2017

One of the last things I did on internship a few yeas ago now was make a home visit and share communion with a wonderful 92-year-old woman named Norma Jean.

I came to know Norma Jean as a woman of great faith over the course of my year there. She loved to talk about her questions about God and being a follower of Jesus. She devoured books and loved to tell me about what she read and then we'd recommend books to each other and talk about them on my next visit. She treasured having someone bring her communion.

During our last visit, she was very distressed over the stories in the news about unaccompanied children attempting to make their way to the United States from an area of Central America called the Northern Triangle. Norma Jean was fighting back the tears as she wondered out loud how people could let these children make this dangerous journey on their own. It just seemed so wrong to her, so counter intuitive. Who could do this to a child? she asked.

The conversation got me thinking about our immigration history and how the United States was shaped by those people, many of them children. In fact, the first immigrant to come through Ellis Island was Annie Moore in 1892. There is disagreement over how old she was, some say 15, others 17, but regardless, she and her younger brothers were unaccompanied children coming from Ireland. That year 89,000 children came through Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1954 about 3.4 million children immigrated to the United States. For many of us, those children are the reason we are here.

When I talked to my son Max about this, he reminded me of another unaccompanied child immigrant. Perhaps you'll recognize this story: “Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.” (Exo 2:1-4) And that little Hebrew baby was plucked out of the river by an Egyptian princess and she named him Moses.

These are stories of people who envision a better life for the children they love so much that they dare to send them off into a strange life where they at least have a chance to thrive and grow. The children from the Northern Triangle in Central America are fleeing life overwhelmed by violence and murder. Annie Moore was sent out of an Ireland that held little promise her being able to make an honest living for herself. Moses escaped certain death at the hands of an Egyptian king who wanted to keep the growing population of Hebrew slaves  … firmly under his thumb.

In our familiar where we hardly send our kids to the store for bread and milk without a cell phone, I think it's hard to imagine a life in which sending them off to an unknown future, into the hands of strangers, and maybe never seeing them again, is less risky, less painful than keeping them by our sides.

But when we make the effort to learn the stories of others, when we pull ourselves of out of our own perspectives, maybe we can at least understand a little more about why people do things that may seem so counter intuitive to us, even cruel or irresponsible.

And I wonder if that's the experience Jesus had in our text today from Matthew. It may be a strange thing to consider but it just seems to me Jesus' understanding of the reach of his ministry was changed radically by his encounter with the Canaanite mother.

Now don't get me wrong. Jesus is God, divine and without sin. This divinity is key to who Jesus is and what he was able to do during his brief and game-changing time on earth.  It is through that divinity that he was able to defeat death in the tomb. It is through this divinity that we learn just how radical and far-reaching is God's love for us – that God would come to us solely for our benefit and by God's choice alone to walk among us, teach us, feed us and finally free us.

But we cannot forget the radical and powerful truth revealed in the fact that God chose to come among us in human form. And today we have a rather difficult story before us of what that humanity can look like – a picture of the human Jesus that our Gospel writer felt should be preserved. In it Jesus leaves the familiar territory of the Hebrews, perhaps to escape the overwhelming attention of the people he has come to serve, only to find he has piqued the curiosity of these foreigners too.

When the Canaanite mother comes to him, using the Hebrew words of prayer “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” Jesus ignores her. This is not a response we expect from Jesus. We expect it, perhaps, from his disciples who then complain to Jesus about the persistence of this foreign woman. But then we get more of this unfamiliar side of Jesus. He says he has been sent for the tribes of Israel alone and he calls her and her people, her daughter, dogs. We've now officially gone beyond unfamiliar Jesus to uncomfortable Jesus.

But the Canaanite mother does not back down. She has obviously heard of Jesus. Maybe she heard he is the one many are saying is the long-awaited Messiah. Or maybe she's heard parts of his message or about his unconventional and yet sound explanation of the Hebrew laws of Moses. Perhaps she's heard how he has restored sight for the blind and cast out demons. Or that just the other day he apparently fed 5,000 people with only a few fishes and loaves. Whatever she’s heard, she has recognized already the wideness of God's activity through this Rabbi and so she does the unthinkable, for the sake of a better life for her child. She challenges this great man. “Yes, Lord,” she says, retaining the reverence in her appeal, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Though brushed off momentarily by Jesus and the disciples, the Canaanite mother does not sink back into her world of hopeless prayers and offerings to Ba-al and Asherah, the fickle and undependable gods of her people. And now she has Jesus' attention. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And with that, the mission of God come among us as the human being Jesus of Nazareth has exploded far beyond just the lost sheep of Israel to all of God's creation.

The Gospel writer shows us this by sandwiching this story between two feeding miracles. In the first story, after feeding the 5,000, 12 baskets of leftovers remain – symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel. After his encounter with the Canaanite mother, we get the second feeding miracle. When those 4,000 people have their fill, there are seven baskets of leftovers. Seven is the number of completion, the complete intention of God's mission in Jesus to all of creation has been revealed.

We remember that intention to this day in the words we hear as we prepare to come to the Lord's Table … eat this bread, drink this cup, this is for the forgiveness of sin, for you and for all people.

So what are we to do with a story that forces us to take our eyes off the divinity of Jesus and refocus on his humanity? Why did the Gospel writer preserve a story that has made people so uncomfortable that they say things like “he must have been testing the woman's faith,” even though there is absolutely nothing in the text to indicate that?

I’d like to suggest that it may be that in looking at Jesus' humanity, we get a glimpse of what God intended for our own humanity.

God knows that humans have blind spots. Our experiences, our culture, our families all help create these. And it's not a matter of fault. It's simply the human condition. This story calls us to acknowledge that we do have these blind spots. … which is especially important to remember in these days when it has become increasingly obvious that we as church need to step up and be very clear that our Christian identities call us to name all forms of racism and bigotry as sin.

And when we encounter people or experiences that are foreign to us, I think we are called to follow Jesus' lead here and push ourselves continually to open our hearts and minds to them. To welcome opportunities to have our perspectives widened to the experiences, the hopes and dreams of those outside these walls, outside our familiars … even if it means that we must admit that the very system or culture many of us benefit from is holding others … firmly under its thumb.

And in that openness, we serve all of creation better in God's ever-expanding vision of the mission of the Christ's Church in the world. We become the instruments through which God answer the hopes and prayers of people who want more than a world of death and oppression and dead ends for their children –  whether they are children from Central America or Syria – whether they are  black and brown children of US citizens watching the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacists marching through their neighborhoods or on the news wielding automatic weapons,  – whether they are children caught up in cycles of poverty and addiction our own backyards.

Having the courage and trusting God enough to open ourselves up like this allows us to more fully live out our identities followers of Jesus …. to start taking the word “Christian back from those who use it to condemn any of God's creation …. and it allows us to love God above all else and love our neighbor as Jesus loved the Canaanite mother.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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