August 20, 2017
11th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
Tomorrow at 1:06 local time, the moon will orbit between the earth and the sun in precisely the right spot, so that for people watching in its path, it will be able to block out the sun, and eclipse the light. Since ancient times, solar eclipses have caused faithful people to take notice, to pause and consider what message the heavens might be sending us.
I heard that it’s pretty rare for planets to even have eclipses. You have to have a moon big enough and close enough to your planet to block out the light of your star, and a lot of planets don’t have that. Even though the sun is so dramatically huge in comparison to the moon, from our perspective, because the moon is so much closer, they actually look like they are both round objects of about the same size in the sky. And so when the moon crosses in the right place, it can shadow the sun’s brightness.
Last Thursday, at 5:00 p.m. their time, a van driven by hate and terror, veered through a crowd of happy families, eager tourists and busy students in Barcelona, and eclipsed the world of their light and goodness, overshadowing their loved ones with unspeakable pain and grief. One week ago yesterday, a van driven by hate and fear veered through Charlottesville, eclipsing the songs of those who were “Letting their little lights shine,” killing Heather Heyer, and injuring others.
Across the globe, across the years, shadows darken the lives of individuals, blocking them from the goodness and light God intends for the world to know.
The shadows that kept this Canaanite woman from the world’s light were not some brief momentary streaks of pain, but years of caring for a sick and troubled child. She is at her wit’s end and comes out to beg mercy from Jesus, pleading with him for help. She uses the same phrase that Peter used when sinking into the water, “Lord, Help me.”
What’s harder to understand is the shadow that seems to be eclipsing Jesus. He answers the woman’s pleading not with his normal compassion and vision, but first with silence, and then with a rude slur trying to shut her up. Over the years, Christians have tried to explain away Jesus’ remarks, claiming he is just testing the woman, or that he really didn’t mean to insult her, because the word for dog here is diminutive, perhaps better translated as “little puppy” or “pet doggy.”
I don’t buy it. Matthew doesn’t ever insinuate that Jesus was testing the woman. And
let me tell you from experience, being called a cute name for a dog is no worse than being called a vulgar one.
No, I think we have to call a thing for what it is. Jesus fails to see what this Canaanite woman glimpses. Maybe he is fatigued from having walked all the way to Tyre and Sidon – way outside his normal stomping grounds. Perhaps it’s his frustration with the questions and misunderstandings of the disciples and the Pharisees and the crowds who don’t seem to be paying attention. Undoubtedly he is still grieving and horrified by the death of John the Baptist described in the previous chapter. But I suspect he’s also showing his human nature – of being caught in the cultural bias of his time and place. Jews just didn’t recognize the people of this region; they didn’t affirm their faith or values system, and regularly ignored the presence of God in their midst. Even Jesus allowed bias and stereotypes to eclipse his awareness of the woman’s faith.
But she would not be stopped. Even as an outsider, even as a woman in a repressive, patriarchal system, even as a mother caring for a deranged and broken child, even after being called an ugly name, the Canaanite woman knows what Jesus seems to be forgetting. God’s Grace is for all. God’s blessing has been promised to all the nations.
The woman knows who Jesus is, calling him by a name that even his disciples hadn’t dared to use, “Son of David.” She knows Jesus is the promised one who embodies God’s goodness. She recognizes the source of the power he has shown in walking on water, and in feeding multitudes, in teaching with authority and in healing so many who only brushed their hands up against his garments, and that power will not be denied her.
The woman is convinced that if there could be twelve baskets full of leftovers from the two fish and five loaves Jesus used to feed over 5000 people in Galilee, there could certainly be crumbs left to heal her tormented daughter. No momentary shadow of Jesus’s willingness to help her is going to keep her away.
It’s interesting that Matthew says the woman is Canaanite. Nobody used that term at the time. In fact, this is the only place the word appears in the New Testament. It seems as if Matthew wants to remind us that the animosity between Jews and outsiders was an old, never-forgotten struggle. Back since the days of Joshua and the Judges, there had been deep-rooted patterns of ignoring the reality and worth of the people of Canaan.
But Matthew gave us a hint way back at the beginning of his story that Canaanites had a role to play. And it was Canaanite women without standing who were essential to the story. In the genealogical list of Jesus’ ancestors, four women besides Mary are included. They aren’t the foremothers you and I may have thought to have named — not Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel.
Instead, Matthew includes poor women with odd histories, women whose sexuality and whose ability to conceive children were less than kosher, Ruth, Rahab, Tamar, and the wife of Uriah. All four of the women are foreigners — a Moabite, a Canaanite directly from Jericho, a Syria-Palestinian, and a Hittite — all as foreign and as “outsider” as you can get[i].
The women are reminders to Matthew’s readers that God has never forgotten the original promise to Abraham and Sarah. From the beginning God blesses them to bring blessings to the nations, to all people regardless of their background, their heritage, their nationality or their skin color.
Isaiah sang about the promise to the people who had returned to Jerusalem from exile. Our faithfulness is not for just those of us in our own temple or community. Rather, God’s house will be called a house of prayer for all people. God gathers outcasts and foreigners to the Holy Mountain. God has never stopped feeding people of the world with healing, compassion and grace.
All the Canaanite women in Jesus’ path remind him and all of us of God’s faithfulness. They will not be denied.
There are shadows eclipsing our faithfulness today. We still have to call a thing what it is. For years, the church has been silent to the destructive nature of the divisions in our world. For far too long, the church has been complicit in fostering hatred, anti-Semitism, racism, and prejudice in our society. The wounds of our complicity and silence have not been healed by our trying to ignore them. Like the disciples in today’s text, we would like the voices of those who have been suffering to be shut up. Too often we ask God to make them stop bothering us.
But the light of God’s justice and mercy will not stay hidden behind the shadow of our ignorance or fear or complicity.
Eclipses only last a moment. I read that the shadow will pass by tomorrow at about 1500 miles per hour and then the full range of the sun’s rays will shine again. God’s promise to the nations is much more powerful than the shadow of our failure to live into it. Racist and xenophobic institutions and groups may carry shields that try to hide the sunlight from exposing them, but God’s love for all people is stronger than any of the world’s hate and violence.
Even Jesus was reminded that when God feeds the earth with compassion and wholeness and love, there is enough to fall from the tables to feed the dogs. There is enough to gather baskets of leftovers and share it with others. There is enough to fill the streets and parks and demonstrations with goodness, peace, hope, blessing and healing.
As some of you know, my youngest spent the summer studying in Barcelona. We joined her there for a beautiful vacation two weeks ago. (Yes, for all of you who’ve been worried, she’s safe; she’s already moved back into her new place in Chicago for the school year.) For a few days earlier this month, she showed us around that beautiful city, and we walked along the same plaza that was so horrendously terrorized on Thursday.
One of the places she took us was to a smaller plaza (the small Plaça d’Isidre Nonell) that displays a gorgeous mosaic mural. It’s made up of tiny ceramic tiles, each one printed with a photograph that had been sent to the artist by someone in the community. The photos were of a person, place, or moment, any event which in some way represents an expression of freedom to the person who sent it[ii].
Up close, it’s hard to really see what the mosaic shows, but as you step back, you discover it’s a huge display of an intimate kiss between lovers. Underneath the mural is a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes that states, “The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.”
The cannons of injustice and hatred are making a lot of noise right now. They are trying to cast a long shadow across our stories. But Canaanite women, and the people of Barcelona, and Heather Heyer, and every one of us who has been marked with the cross of Christ are called to be vigilant in drowning them out with expressions of hope, with kisses of peace, and with songs of light and love,
For a brief moment tomorrow, a shadow will darken the sky. But the promise of the light is stronger than any eclipse, and love is stronger than hate.
Step into the light of love and goodness. Join the Canaanite woman in chasing back the shadows, demanding a taste of God’s banquet to share with a world seeking healing. We have so much to live and work for. Let’s get started. Amen
[i] Sandra Glahn, “The Women in Jesus’s Genealogy: If Not Scandalous, What? (Part 2),” Engage Bible Blog, http://blogs.bible.org/engage/sandra_glahn/the_women_in_jesuss_genealogy_if_not_scandalous_what_part_2__
[ii] “Barcelona Lowdown: The World Begins with Every Kiss,” (http://www.barcelonalowdown.com/the-world-begins-with-every-kiss/)