Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
The Grace of a Loving God
Psalm 24, Matthew 12:21-28
May 14, 2017
I struggled with today’s sermon for a couple of reasons. I know that there are people whose mothers have not been kind and caring and loving to them. I’m also aware of my own grief and missing my mother even though it has been almost five years since her death and am aware of others who are grieving the death of their mother. So, what I’m hoping this morning is as I talk about this amazing mother who challenges Jesus, that if your own experience with your mother was not positive, that you will think about someone in your life who has perhaps been mother-like to you or has loved you in a way that made you feel extraordinarily cared for, and loved, and accepted and for whom you are thankful.
I want to thank Jim Luicci, who in Bible Study on Thursday, helped me to focus on this scripture and not stay with the lectionary reading for today. Through our conversation, Jim reminded me that one of the things that this congregation wants from my sermons, is to be able to interpret the Bible in ways that affect how you live your life in today’s world. Hopefully, you will find something in my sermon this morning that will do just that, as we honor this mother and as we honor who we are, and whose we are.
So, here we have another unnamed woman whose unnamed child is sick. Her daughter has been possessed by a demon and she’s desperate. Not only is this mother a Canaanite, but demon possession marginalizes her daughter, and by association, the woman herself. Out of her desperation, she breaks every social norm barrier. Her behavior is unacceptable to those witnessing this display of desperateness. Her culture requires that she be reserved. She would have been shunned for calling out to Jesus. And, even Jesus seems to be affirming those social rules by initially ignoring her. Her faith in Jesus is so strong, and her love for her daughter so deep, that she seems not to care about what people will think of her.
The disciples are uncomfortable with her challenging the societal behavior required of her. They tell Jesus to shut her up and surprisingly, he tries, but then she changes her tactics and falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs for healing for her daughter. Yet again, Jesus rebuffs her.
As we know, this is unusual for Jesus, who generally seeks people out and tries to break the barriers to the traditions that have been established by the law, that put the law before the people. And, yet, in this situation, Jesus too puts the law before compassion. How so unlike him! Not at all what we expect! But, this Gentile mother refuses to allow Jesus to let “tradition” become an external barrier, blocking access for her daughter to the grace of God. As Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis observes, “The woman, aware of her location and the limitations placed on her, does not succumb to them but brings them into the light and calls them into question: ‘Yes, Lord, (she says) yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’”
Again and again, she violates the boundaries, boundaries set up because of her ethnicity, gender, religion, and demon. She believes that she and her daughter should receive mercy from God. She challenges Jesus to uphold the very things he had been showing the disciples and his other followers were important for people to remember and to enact in their daily lives.
In the end, this mother displays what Jesus calls faith. She demonstrates for us what faith is about, and also what love is about. I am not sure that I would have had the ability to stand up to Jesus the way this mother did. I am not sure that many of us would be willing to do so. Depending on what is at stake for us, whether it is how we are seen by people or how we perceive ourselves, I am not sure that most of us would be willing to challenge the powers that be.
I have to pause here for a moment and tell you what happened after I typed those words – “I am not sure that most of us would be willing to challenge the powers that be.” You see, when I write my sermons especially when I don’t know where they are going, I sometimes just start typing and let my fingers do the work, so I don’t interfere and censor myself or God. After I wrote this last line, I started laughing because what came into my head is that some people would say that that is exactly what I have been doing over the past year or so. Several people in the wider New Castle community have mentioned to me that they look at me as the “conscience of our community” – which totally surprised me when I heard that. I certainly don’t see myself that way.
I am an introvert. Now, that may surprise many of you. But, aside from when I am leading worship or doing whatever else God has put before me to do, at a party, for example, you are more likely to find me in the kitchen helping out and not milling among the guests. And yet, in my role as one called to serve God, I have had a really hard time keeping my mouth shut. For example, in seminary, I challenged my colleagues who thought I should not be ordained because I was a woman, but even more so because I am gay.
In my training at St. Luke’s Hospital, I challenged the director of the department of pastoral care to fight harder to keep on-call chaplains at the hospital 24-7 because people knew that, if you died at St. Luke’s, a chaplain would come and say prayers for you. That had been the case since the hospital was founded by a minister in 1858. It really bothered me that after more than 140 years, that would no longer be the case. My speaking out has continued as you have encouraged me to speak out in this community, which is what led to people commenting about my being the conscience of this community.
But, I am not alone in this. Each one of you has done the same in various ways. For example, many members of our church have been or are currently involved in the workings of this community. God calls all of us to challenge the status quo when it harms the least of these, especially when the very principles of our faith are challenged and our youth are put at risk. Not unlike the mother who cried out to Jesus to heal her daughter, we too need to cry out to ensure that all people have health insurance that they can afford and not be penalized because of a pre-existing health condition. That all people are treated equally, no matter the color of their skin or the faith they practice, or the gender of the person that they love. God calls us and expects us to pass on the grace to both neighbor and stranger that God has so lovingly and freely given to us. We are called to respond and act and do so with integrity and love and we do it in many different ways, depending on our life situation.
For example, as a registered nurse, my mother was the head of Infection Control for the largest hospital in Wilmington, Delaware. She was in that positon in the mid-1980’s when young men started dying from a disease that no one understood. She went to battle for them and for the hospital staff. She was chastised for insisting that the doctors and nurses use universal precautions when treating these young men. She fought with the hospital administration because it was more costly to them to provide the protection to the staff as well as the proper care to the patients. My mother insisted that these young men be treated with respect and dignity. She made a difference in her own world of caring for people. As my role model, I know that my mother would expect nothing less from me. And, as one who watched her and learned a great deal about compassion and caring and accepting all people, I expect nothing less from myself.
But, I also know that each of you, in whatever way you are able, responds when you see people who have special needs. I have watched our church community help each other and those in the wider community in the most amazing and grace-filled ways. I have heard people talking about how to best help someone and at times, individuals have come to me about someone in the congregation about whom they are worried. That has been a surprising, wonderful blessing for me as we work together to care for our community, even as we care so deeply for each other.
Jesus learned a lesson from the Canaanite mother. He wasn’t ashamed to change his attitude towards her. And we too, can learn something from her as well. When we take chances, when we reach out seeking help for someone else, and for ourselves, we too experience the grace of a loving God.
Jesus does not always come through for us as we expect and hope and pray for. And, yet, we know, we know by God’s grace and love that we will not walk alone through whatever is happening in our life and in our world. We will walk with each other, with God’s amazing grace surrounding us as it has since we first believed.
I cannot imagine that it was easy for this Canaanite mother to speak out the way she did. She probably assumed she would be ignored. But, she was not willing to let her daughter suffer when she knew that this healer might help her. She believed in the amazing grace of Jesus. She believed Jesus could heal her daughter and because of her faith, her daughter was made well. Imagine how she felt when she returned home and found the demon gone from her beloved child. In that hour that she believed, she learned, first hand, the amazing grace and love of God.
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