Sermon: Cleansing What Has Been Defiled

Cleansing What Has Been Defiled
August 20, 2017
Matthew 15:10-28

Doctrine – you know about doctrine, right? Doctrine is those pronouncements about the spiritual realities of the world, about the realities in fact that go beyond the world that we can see, and they are supposed to be authoritative. That, in fact, is what doctrine means: it’s authoritative.

But doctrine is a curious thing.

When we pronounce something as doctrine, we typically assert that it is true now and has been true before and will continue to be true into the future. “God is love,” for example, is a statement that we would claim to have always been true, and a statement that will always be true.

But here’s the funny thing about doctrine: is that somebody had to say it for the first time.

During our Bible Study on Wednesday, a doctrine emerged from this story about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman and it made people uncomfortable. It was the notion that Jesus, that God in fact, favored some people over others. Hey, there it is, Jesus said it right there, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And I think it was Carol who said, “I’m just not comfortable with the notion that God chooses some people and rejects others.

But here’s the funny thing about a doctrine of a chosen people. It’s that in the broad history of the world it didn’t exist before Abraham came out of Ur of the Chaldees believing that God had chosen him and his descendants for something special. Now the doctrine developed over the centuries, with the preservation of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt under Josephn and then the Exodus from Egypt putting a great big exclamation point on it, and then the fall of Jerusalem when Babylon conquered it coming as an enormous shock to the notion of a chosen and preserved people.

And in the very first part of this reading, Jesus challenged a different doctrine of ancient Israel and offered an alternative. Part of the bedrock of Hebrew faith in the first century was the notion of food purity and impurity in a ritual sense. Now why does that become a bedrock? First of all, it’s there in the book. It’s there in the most important books for the Hebrew people, the ones that are called Torah, Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; it’s right there.

But also, in the first century the notion of using food as a way to demonstrate your faithfulness was one that really suited the conditions of the time. The people of Israel lived in a culture that they had not set themselves. It was significantly influenced by Greek culture, which had come in two centuries before with Alexander the Great, and they lived under the domination of a foreign empire, the Romans. And so they were unable to set their own laws and customs under this foreign domination. You couldn’t avoid dealing with all of that, but you could make sure that you ate what God said to eat, and you could make sure to not eat what God said to avoid.

And so food as pure and impure in a ritual sense became a defining doctrine for the people of Israel, but Jesus upset that notion. God was less interested in ritual purity, he insisted, than in personal relationships.

Now that’s also included in the Law. It’s there in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Look there: you will find laws and regulations about how you treat one another.

But you know, it’s harder to treat people justly and generously each day that it is to watch your diet – and this comes from somebody who can’t keep a diet for beans (that actually would be probably doing well if he kept beans out of his diet, but that’s a different problem).

Justice and generosity: they come with big obligations for any of us, but worse, justice and generosity come with larger obligations for those with greater wealth and with greater resources. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but most people of power and resources, they react rather poorly when others come along and suggest that maybe they could do something better with what they have than what they’re doing. That’s exactly what the Pharisees did when Jesus said this.

I may have mentioned that doctrine is a funny thing. And Christians have wrestled with doctrines about the nature of Jesus for centuries, roughly twenty centuries, in fact, since pretty much the first days after Jesus’ death and resurrection. There’s an assertion that’s very widely held in the Church and it goes like this: that Jesus was a fully human person and also fully divine. He was, in his humanity, tempted to sin, but despite the temptation he never actually sinned.

Probably the most famous Biblical source for this is in the book of Hebrews, which offers to us the comfort that “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Now doctrine, as I mentioned, is an assertion about something that has always been true and that is true now and that will be true into the future, but also the funny thing about it is that somebody had to say it first, and here in the Gospel of Matthew there appeared to be three people who aren’t aware of the notion that Jesus never sinned. The first is the Canaanite woman – oh, yeah, the Canaanite woman – because she will not let Jesus get away with ignoring her. She’s going to plump herself right down in front of him and make him deal with her need. And when he insults her – “taking the children’s food and giving it to the dogs” – she won’t let him get away with that, either.

The second person who doesn’t seem to have heard of the story of Jesus’ infallibility is Matthew, who after all passes on this story as we’ve got it. Matthew seems perfectly willing to tell the story about Jesus doing precisely what he had told his disciples not to do just a few verses before.

What defiles a person? What comes out of their mouth – what comes out of the mouth from the heart. Well, let’s let’s see here, what was it again? Oh, yes: Slander.

These are what defile a person, and there was Jesus saying something absolutely devastating to another human being.

And the third who doesn’t seem to have heard the doctrine of Jesus’ infallibility? Yes, well, that would be Jesus. Because he listens. He listens when this woman insists that she has some worth in this need, and will not let Jesus pass her by.

And Jesus, he changes his ways. “Oh, woman, great is your faith” – the one he just called a dog? Now she’s human, “woman.” And his announcement of the healing has no other parallels in the Gospels. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” She set the agenda.

Janet Hunt writes about the broad course of the Bible: “More than once, God’s mind is changed in the course of this Holy Story which shapes and defines us. For there are those who profess Yahweh as Lord who are simply not afraid to argue with him.”

Abraham was part of that. Elijah. The prophet Jeremiah and Isaiah and this Canaanite woman whose name we’ve forgotten but whose acts we do not. To take up a contemporary phrase: She persisted.

Now folks, most of the time, I think of Jesus as being pretty distant from the halls of power. He was born to a family in the most common strata of first century society (that is, the one that had the most people in it): that would be the poor. Most people were poor in the first century. As an itinerant preacher, he left behind pretty much everything he’d owned. The religious leadership, sometimes they took him seriously, but sometimes dismissed him as irrelevant.

But here in this encounter with the Canaanite woman, suddenly he is the one in power, because he had something she desperately needed, and that was the ability to heal her daughter.

Most of the time, I suspect we don’t feel terribly powerful in this world. Yeah, if you’re like me, you probably don’t feel like you’re in control of much, and as American citizens we’re probably right In 2007 (and I don’t really know why 2007 is the year for which the numbers are available, but anyway), in 2007 the richest 1% of Americans possessed 34% of the wealth. 1% controls over one third. Oh, it gets better.

Because if you expand that out to the top 20% – the top fifth – they controlled 85% of the wealth.

I won’t embarrass you by asking, but I know perfectly well I’m not in the top fifth.

Oh, wait a minute, hang on. I may not be in the top fifth of Americans, but I’m well up there if you expand to the population of the planet. I live very well compared to the vast majority of the population of this earth.

So power is not an absolute. Resources and wealth – those are not absolutes. They’re also relational and contextual.

Jesus had no acknowledged power over the Emperor of Rome, and in fact the Emperor of Rome’s power ended up crucifying him, but he did have power in relationship to this woman, to bring her what she most desperately needed, and that was the healing of her child.

Conversely, Jesus had the power to withhold it, and continue her suffering.

Which is why you and I will sometimes find ourselves moving back and forth between feeling like we are in the place of the Canaanite woman: out of control, out of power, and desperate for someone to help us. And at other times, being in the position of Jesus: having the resources, having the power, and also the ability to say no.

And in either condition, it is what we say and do which will defile us or cleanse us.

Karoline Lewis writes: “Somewhere along the line, the church devolved into assimilation and cooptation rather than holding onto its roots as a voice from the margins. A voice that denounced violence and hatred and idolatry. A voice that decried discrimination and disenfranchisement. A voice born out of the fundamental rejection of supremacy and power wielded against the poor and oppressed.”

And we’ve seen time after time after time in the history of the Church: siding with those in power against those seeking justice or simple help.

I slept very badly on Friday night, because I knew a lot of people that I expected to be in the city of Boston yesterday, where yet another group of white supremacists was going to hold a rally. And I knew that these people would be out there to speak against the voices of supremacy and oppression. And after Charlottesville the week before, I had no idea what was likely to happen. How many of these white supremacists would come out? How many of them would be prepared to bring violence to those they opposed? And would somebody that I know find themselves in the way of a stick or a fist?

And one of the marchers against hate and domination was my own son, Brendan. He lives in Boston, and I am really proud of him today, and also profoundly relieved as the papa that the violence did not reach him, and in fact was minimal, and indeed that people were okay.

I’m profoundly relieved that the forces of white supremacy and racial domination turned out to be so small in the end. There were perhaps a hundred of them, and they were outnumbered by those who came to speak for justice and righteousness. They turned out in the thousands, they turned out in the tens of the thousands, such that those white supremacists asked for an escort away from the bandstand.

Now here’s perhaps the most inspiring story I ran into from yesterday. The story is about a counter-protester, an African-American woman named Imani. And the story goes that as these white supremacists were heading away they wentthrough a gauntlet of people that started to shout, and it looked as if they would be attacked.  And Imani stepped out to prevent this, to protect one of those white supremacists as they were leaving, and here’s the quote that’s been floating around. She said, “You know I don’t believe in this right wing narrative of alt left and how we are crazed and looking to be violent. What better way to show them that they are wrong?”

Protecting them: What better way to show them that they are wrong?

She had something in that moment that those white supremacist men needed. And she gave it.

Jesus generously offered us in this text an example of how to get it wrong and then how to get it right. He gave us the example of what not to say, what not to do, and then turned it around and showed us how it should be done.

When challenged, he turned about. He cleansed himself. He did what he was asked. He did what was right.

And the Canaanite woman, too, she has given us the same example: an example of being clear about what’s needed. An example of persistence, and an example of insisting upon truth. She knew her value to God, she knew the value of her child’s life to God, and she threw it right in Jesus’ face, until he saw it, too.

So let’s cleanse what has been defiled in ourselves, in our community, in our nation. Let’s continue to insist upon what is right, or if we’re on that side of the coin, then let’s repent what we’ve done and do what’s right.

Let’s cleanse what has been defiled. In Jesus’ name.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on August 21, 2017

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