What follows is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday at Messiah Lutheran Church where I'm currently serving as pastor, primary on the appointed gospel text for the Sunday, Matthew 15: 21 - 28, the "Story of the Canaanite Woman." You can watch video of the sermon on our Facebook page as well. If you like what you read and hear, be sure to "like" us on Facebook, or feel free to stop by Messiah when you're in the area. You're welcome here, no matter who you are!
So last week we talked a bunch about how God more often than not shows up in the simple things, in everyday conversations with strangers and loved ones alike, in ordinary experiences where we’re reminded of God’s presence and love in our everyday lives. So this is awesome, and absolutely true… God is constantly showing up, and usually in the simple ordinary ways we least expect. Today’s gospel lesson though points us in almost the opposite direction though… it proclaims some profound truths about what happens when it seems like God isn’t showing up, when it feels like God isn’t helping us in the most difficult of experiences, when God feels cold and distant, despite our constant pleading and heartfelt prayers. And most of us have indeed had those experiences, or at least will in the future… when we’re confronted by disease, death, broken relationships, heartbreaking disappointment or profound fear… all the sort of modern day demons that most of us have or will face.
And what do us people of faith do in those situations, at least usually? We pray, we plead with God just like the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel passage. To be a fair, a pretty good percentage of folks who usually wouldn’t even consider themselves religious tend to pray when they’re confronted by desperate situations. Yet we also have to admit, we have to confess the fact that at least some of time when we’re surrounded by these sort of demons, it doesn’t feel like God is answering our prayers at all. No specifics needed, but who here has been in that sort of desperate situation, and has struggled with feeling like your prayers weren’t being answered by God? I don’t mean prayers like oh God, I wish I had a coffee, or oh God, I wish I could win the lottery… oh God, I wish mom would get me the latest Justin Bieber album for Christmas or something like that… when God doesn’t answer those prayers, it’s not really a big deal… but those other ones… the ones we can’t even fully describe with words, ones like a desperate mother’s cry for her suffering child, a cry that that in today’s story was initially only answered with silence by Jesus. The text says it plain… “Jesus did not answer her at all.” Jesus did not answer her at all… that’s almost worse than what happens next in a way, right? Jesus calls the woman a dog… and that’s pretty horrible, to be sure, but the silence… “Jesus did not answer her at all.” When it feels like God isn’t responding at all to our desperate pleas, in my experience at least, that’s the toughest our relationship with God can get.
And then how do we respond in these situations, when it feels like God answers our anguished cries with silence? For me at least, in my own experience with this sort of thing, I’ve tended to respond with anger… I’ve tended to become absolutely furious with God. I believe the folks who were on my call committee heard part of this story, and I honestly hesitate because its important I believe that a pastor doesn’t make a sermon about herself or himself, but I think its worth telling to illuminate today’s gospel message. At our Christmas Eve worship service of 2007, I was home in Connecticut from my final year of college in Washington, DC, and I was riding high… I knew I had a great political campaign finance job lined up after graduation, was in a great relationship, and was most importantly really enjoying family life… having just sort of grown out of a sometimes tumultuous relationship with my dad and especially my mom as a teenager, I felt overjoyed to be getting to know them all over again as a young adult, that sort of thing. So it’s Christmas Eve service, and many of you saw my childhood church of Emanuel yesterday at ordination… it’s a pretty big place… full of people, celebrating the coming of God into our world with all the usual Christmas fanfare, we were probably singing Joy to the World or something similar and I look around, see my smiling family, great girl standing next to me, and I just feel well, overjoyed.
I felt like I had it all, that I was ready to graduate from college, be a successful adult with a great family, doing the political campaign work I always dreamed about… everything was awesome. But unfortunately it didn’t stay that way… fast forward a few months to spring break, only a couple months before graduation… my parents had been acting kind of weird on the phone over the last few days, but when my dad picked me up at the airport, he looked absolutely dejected. After I repeatedly asked him what was up, he told me my mom had just been diagnosed with late stage-three lung cancer. There was a chance it could be operated on successfully, but not a very good one. Later that week, I went to the doctor myself after noticing a lump sort of thing in my throat, and the doctor told me there was a good chance it was thyroid cancer. That perfect life, that American dream sort of thing I had been thinking about at Christmas Eve just a few months earlier, was quickly beginning to unravel. Of course I prayed, but it never felt like God really answered. Just like the Canaanite woman experienced in today’s gospel message, it didn’t seem like Jesus would answer at all.
Right around that same time, my relationship was beginning to unravel, and I quickly realized that in trying to help care for my mom and to continue with all the various tests and treatments myself, I couldn’t do the long hours of that campaign finance job I had dreamed about for so many years… the folks over at Camp Calumet in New Hampshire were kind enough to give me flexible work, so that I could head home when needed, but to be honest being a camp counselor in your mid-twenties with a college degree is well, less than ideal. My mom went in to have an entire lung removed, and indeed almost died, but survived for the time being, and left the hospital only a couple days before I went in to have my entire thyroid removed. There was thankfully some good news that came out of that, as I myself had a false-positive cancer diagnosis, but unfortunately a few months later we found out my mother’s cancer had metastasized. My mother passed away only a few months later, a few days after Christmas of 2008.
Now fast forward to Christmas Eve service of 2009. I was in my same childhood church of Emanuel, with the same joyful music playing, a bunch of awesome brass instruments booming out Joy to the World, but it was otherwise nothing like Christmas Eve two years earlier. Instead of anticipating an awesome job and graduation from college, I was unemployed and living at home… although I worked with Thrivent for a year, I had since quit to find a job with less hours and figure out how to get to seminary, but of course at the height of the Great Recession, there wasn’t a whole lot of options. Most importantly though, I felt completely alone in that crowded, massive sanctuary at Emanuel… no girlfriend, no family… I had to go to Christmas Eve service alone that year… my dad and brother usually only went to make my mom happy, and well, approaching the first year anniversary of my mother’s death, they weren’t really in the Christmas mood anyway.
So Christmas Eve service happens, I pray and sing, completely miserable, but it still felt like no one answered. And then I get home, increasingly desperate, and in this intense, chaotic, almost rage I all of the sudden just start screaming at God, tears streaming down my face, barely making words out in between my cries. I looked back at that perfect, happy scene only two years earlier and let out this torrent, accusing God of being completely absent, doing absolutely nothing to help while my family and I were suffering so immensely. Not really thinking that God had done all these horrible things to my family and I, but rather, just like the Canaanite woman experienced at first in today’s gospel message, that God had seemingly answered my prayers with silence… “Jesus did not answer her at all.” Jesus did not answer her at all. Now in my case, that Christmas Eve was a turning point, things did indeed start getting better very soon after my night of struggling with God. Even then though, for years later, even up to perhaps only months ago, although our relationship certainly improved, I never felt like I could entirely forgive God for those two years of silence. But that, however, is a whole other story.
There is, in fact, good news in today’s gospel message my sisters and brothers, and its not some silly platitude like God only gives you what you can handle. And its not an answer to why bad things, and especially a lot of bad things at once, can happen to good people. I have absolutely no idea on that one, although I’d love to have something definitive to tell you, its just a mystery of faith. There is definitive good news we can know from today’s gospel message however, actually two huge portions absolutely amazing, crystal clear, easily defined good news that we can be absolutely certain of. First, God promises us, as shown by Jesus’ later reaction to the Canaanite woman and in a bunch of other instances, that a life of faith need not be one of constant praise. Ya know, for years I felt incredibly guilty that I was so angry with God, but as the Canaanite woman shows us, struggling with God at times is completely okay. God is bigger than our anger, and even more importantly recognizes that just because we’re struggling or even accusing God for a time does not mean we’re not being faithful followers of Christ. Remember, after her repeated challenges, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!” “Woman, great is your faith!” My sisters and brothers, it is completely okay, completely acceptable, to struggle with God, especially when you’re going through the most difficult of circumstances.
Our second portion of absolutely amazing, crystal clear easily defined good news today is also a fairly unique one. Ya know, I’ve studied other major religions in some detail, and this is the one thing that Christianity has that the others don’t… our moral system is not unique, nor is the idea that God is love, but the part that is unique and that today’s gospel message emphasizes, it’s that God was human. And not just divine with a human mask, no! God was fully human. God was fully human in the person of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we don’t like to think about that part, that Jesus was fully human, it makes us feel uncomfortable… that in his humanness Jesus messed up in today’s gospel message by calling the brave Canaanite woman a dog and by at first insisting that he had only come to serve the children of Israel. There’s a few other of these Bible passages too, that emphasize Jesus’ humanness, when he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” most notably.
Yet it’s true. God was fully human in Jesus Christ. And not only is it true that God was fully human, but it’s really, really important, and it’s incredibly good news. It’s incredibly good news because we know, we were in fact promised, that when we’re struggling with God and struggling with the world around us, with death, disease or all sorts of disasters, that not only is it okay to challenge God, but more importantly that God knows what we’re going through. And not in some divine, all knowing sort of way. God knows what we’re going through because God’s experienced it in a fully human way. In a fully fragile, limited, struggled human sort of way God has experienced our human struggles in Christ. How God did it, how it makes logical sense, I have no idea, but we have been promised in Christ that this is true. And thus, my sisters and brothers, while it may not be true that God will only give us we can handle, we have been promised, we have been crystal cleared been made a promise that God will only give us what God has handled in a fully human sort of way in the person of Jesus Christ. And as we know through Christ’s resurrection over the forces of sin, death and despair, none of those things have a chance against the awesome power of God’s love for us. Amen.
Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.