After years of trying my hand at children’s sermons and chapel services for our nursery school, and still trying to get it right, I am slowly learning that usually the ones that go best are the ones where I use some kind of object as a lesson. Ms. Christy, our diaconal minister is especially adept at this…although I must say I was curious to see how she might incorporate an object lesson today to discuss “evil intentions, murder…and fornication!” Naturally, given the nature of the children’s sermon target audience, things can still go awry, but, generally-speaking, object lessons help focus everyone’s attention. They give people something concrete to concentrate on. They make topics that are usually pretty abstract, “out there”—like faith itself (which is pretty abstract)—and make them real and “down here,” which is doubly helpful since most adults are paying as much attention to the children sermon as the children are. In fact, one of my colleagues suggests that perhaps the sermons preachers deliver from the pulpit should contain an object lesson each week.
There may be something to that idea since Jesus, himself, is not above using an object lesson here or there to make a point about the surprising grace of God’s kingdom. He does it, for example, this in this morning’s gospel text when he goes from his lessons about the Pharisees’ rules regarding ritual defilement and food purity laws to this encounter with a desperate Canaanite woman in the region outside of his native Galilee. Although in real time these two instances—the teaching itself and then the teaching moment—probably spanned a few days because of travel, Matthew puts them right next to each other to make sure Jesus’ point is concrete.
Now, to be completely honest: it’s not altogether clear from what Matthew tells us whether Jesus initially intends for this encounter with the Canaanite woman to serve as an object lesson or if the opportunity just falls in his lap. Regardless, her presence and her request for her daughter’s healing present a wonderful occasion for Jesus to give a concrete, real-world explanation of his abstract lesson about the rules of religion. As Kentucky author and environmentalist Wendell Berry says, Jesus “seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.”
It is that religion in the temples and synagogues which Jesus had been talking about. The religious leaders, such as Pharisees and scribes, had taken issue with Jesus’ disregard for the rules and restrictions they helped maintain and enforce, rules like the ritual washing of hands before eating and not sharing a table with people who were deemed “unclean,” rules like the avoidance of certain foods and how those foods were obtained. These rules and restrictions went far beyond being a hassle to follow; they had terrible power in Jesus’ day. They helped determine who was fully a member of the righteous community and who was left outside of it. They created strict boundaries around what was holy and therefore life-giving, and what was defiled and therefore essentially deadly.
Granted, the temple in Jerusalem was to remain a place of purity and holiness where worshippers’ faith could be renewed through an encounter with the divine presence, but the leaders of the religion had barnacled over a great deal of that relationship between God and human with their own numerous interpretations of the laws. As a result, they had claimed that power of determining who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was defiled. Safe to say, that was probably most people’s impression of religion in Jesus’ day: a habitual fascination with clean and unclean, following rules and ticking off boxes.
|"Eating with Unwashed Hands" Jan Luyken (2008)|
All that really was, of course, was a desire to control. Borne of human sin, focused purely on self-preservation, a religion of rules and regulations is nothing but a longing for power—power to ensure that we can keep ourselves in God’s good graces, keep ourselves pure from the world and other people not like us, keep ourselves…alive. And Jesus sees right through it. The experience with God in the Temple was always supposed to be about relationship, not power and control. It is about faith, not following rules. It is about life in God flowing from of the hands of a few and out into the fields and sheep pastures, to the houses and tables of everyone in creation.
The disciples get to see exactly what this all means when the object lesson appears. It would be difficult to find someone more removed from the heart of rule-obsessed religion than a Canaanite woman in Gentile territory. She wasn’t part of the household of Israel and she was a woman—to the religious authorities that was two big strikes against her. Jesus then illustrates the ability of religious rules to demean people and harm that relationship with God by letting them take their course: first, Jesus ignores her. When she appeals to him a second time, he reminds her that she is not in the in-crowd, that she is an “other.” Eventually he even insults her verbally, using a common put-down of the day. In the end, it is her strong faith in Jesus as Lord that cuts through all that religious convention. It ultimately pays little attention to the rules and boundaries that humans use to divide and control and demean and exclude. It just looks at Jesus and says, “You alone can help me.”
|"Christ on the Cross between the Two Thieves"|
Peter Paul Rubens (1619-1620)
Of course, you are right to say this Canaanite woman is not an object at all. She’s a human, and that’s part of the point. Rules of religion, used without care, can dehumanize people, turning us all into objects that are labelled clean or unclean. But no amount of regulation-following and ritual-completing will eve make one clean in God’s eyes. No amount of church attendance or participation in service projects or money donated will secure that relationship of faith that God is reaching out to create in us. That, my friends, has been accomplished by the teacher who dies on the cross to rid the whole world of the sin that defiles from within, the man who suffers and becomes an outsider himself in order to make firm God’s relationship with us even through the barrier of death.
Yes, the sermons that go best are the ones that have some visible, tangible aspect to them often, and lo and behold it is a foreign woman well off the beaten path who becomes the perhaps the best example of faith in God through Jesus that the gospels offer. Thank goodness God is still teaching this way!
Two weeks ago members of the Epiphany high school youth group returned from a week of service projects on the Eastern Shore. Most of these projects were undertaken among regions there that might be compared with Jesus’ adventure into Tyre and Sidon. That is, we worked not among the posh tourist towns or even among the many different farms that spread out on either side of the peninsula’s main highway but rather down the unpaved roads well off the beaten path into places ironically named Dreamland 1, Dreamland 2 and Mirina, the neglected trailer parks that house the migrant workers who pick produce on those farms.
Some of us were given the task of putting a new layer of paint on their rusting and leaning single-wides. Others of us went into the trailer parks to pick up pre-school and elementary-school-aged children and shuttle them to a local Methodist Church where we ran something similar to Vacation Bible School. We’d pull our minivans and rental vans into the communities and the kids would come streaming out of the dark and empty-looking trailers, literally by the dozens, excited for a day of art and games.
On our last day there, we had the additional responsibility of organizing and then distributing donated school supplies to the children, of whom there were about a hundred. The whole affair got pretty chaotic pretty quickly, kids jumping into vans, our youth trying to count squirmy kids to make sure everyone got the school supplies they needed. In the midst of this, there was a language barrier, too. Unfortunately, there were not enough book-bags for each kid to receive one, and pretty soon we noticed an argument was brewing in the van I was driving over a particularly desirable book-bag. Two elementary school girls started to get a little testy about who would receive it, and, knowing how these things can go with my own two elementary-school-age daughters, I began to worry that we’d have to come up with some rule or regulation to decide who got it. Without any bright ideas of how to do that, one of our youth and I just looked at the two girls and stated the obvious, as if a plea for help: “Only one of you can have this.” Immediately, one of the girls pointed to her friend and said, “Then I want her to have it.”
Later that evening, Matthew, the youth, shared that’s where he had seen Christ that day. I fully agreed, and then it got me thinking: were those migrant worker children objects of our charity? Or were they human examples of faith and life in God? Had they been placed in our path to offer us an opportunity to serve and practice acts of Christlike kindness, to offer them the crumbs of donated school supplies? Or had we been brought into their path so we could experience little outbursts of Christlike humility?
What do you find to be the case in your lives, as you share your faith and practice your religion, as you come to conclusions about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, or Gaza? Are you the in-crowd or the outsider?
I’m not really sure where I am all the time in that dichotomy, but I am more and more thankful to have a God who is still teaching all of us wandering Canaanites wherever we are with the love and compassion of his Son…a Teacher who takes his religion out of the temples and into the fields and trailer parks and focuses our attention on all the people of God…a gracious Lord who cleanses even defiled religious leaders like me with crumbs that fall from his good table.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.