Sunday, August 20, 2023

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Regrets — Rev. Brent Gundlah

When people come to my office for the first time, the tend ask me about the blue post-it note taped to the door above the inside handle that says “KEYS?” in capital letters. It’s there to remind me to take my keys with me when I leave, and the reason I need the reminder is because I often forget to do it — which is not great because the door frequently locks behind me.

I found this out the hard way on my first full day in the office back in 2021. I walked into the narthex and down the hall by the copy room to do something thinking that I’d unlocked the door. But I came back to discover a handle that wouldn’t turn and soon realized that I also didn’t have my keys (including the the ones for my car). I peered through the little window to see them sitting on my desk.

But I did have my phone. So I sent messages to Mark, John and Peter (I didn’t have numbers for the other nine apostles saved in my contacts) and waited for them to respond because it was all I could do.

It had been a really long and exasperating week by that point. My family had just driven across eight states to get here; we’d moved into an unfamiliar apartment in a place we’d never been before; and we couldn’t find any of our stuff. I was stressed, I was tired, and locking my keys in my new office at my new job was the last straw.

So, as I sat on that bench in the narthex feeling absolutely exasperated, I shouted a single choice word that I won’t actually share with you (though it sounded like more than one word because really echos out there). In hindsight, I can only thank God that there was no one else in the building to hear me.

I say this because people tend expect better from you when you’re a minster, and while this isn’t necessarily fair, it’s definitely true. I guess all I can do is hope that I’m out of earshot when I lock my keys in my office and the you-know-what hits the fan next time too.

Look, we’ve all said some things that we didn’t necessarily want the whole world to hear (or remember); we’ve all uttered words that we’d reel back in given the chance. It’s just part of being human.

As you heard today’s gospel passage you might have wondered whether Jesus felt the same way? I mean, if he had known that his conversation with this Canaanite woman was being committed to memory — if he had known that people would be scrutinizing his words two thousand years later — would he have said some things differently or, perhaps, not at all?

In this story Jesus sounds impatient, harsh and rude; we witness a side of him here that we don’t typically see in the Gospels. Jesus is generally shown to be kind and compassionate, loving and understanding. Today, however, not so much.

For starters, Jesus refuses even to acknowledge this Canaanite woman’s desperate plea for help. And when he does finally respond, all he says is that he has nothing to offer someone like her. Then Jesus goes so far as to compare her to a dog before her response triggers some kind of change in him that inspires him to answer her prayer.

It is really uncomfortable to think about Jesus speaking to anyone in this way, and so it’s tempting to skip right over this problematic passage; it’s so much easier to focus instead on nice Jesus as cures and feeds and comforts people. But this exchange is just as much a part of Jesus’s story as those events are — and besides, no one ever said this was going to be easy. 

Jesus and the disciples have just left the town of Gennesaret after healing people on the sabbath and dining with dirty hands in front of the disapproving Pharisees. Jesus turned that meal into a teaching moment about how God’s commandments are more important than human rules and regulations.

In today’s story, they head to the area around Tyre and Sidon, which lies in the land of the Gentiles. There is no reason to believe that they plan to share the good news with the Gentiles there — indeed, all of the people with whom Jesus has engaged thus far have been other Jews.

Recently, Jesus has seemed a bit overworked (remember, he’s been trying to take a break since the feeding of the five thousand), so perhaps he goes to Tyre and Sidon figuring that Gentiles wouldn’t actually want, need or expect anything from him. Jesus’s God-given mission — at least as he understood it — was to spread the gospel among his own people. As we’ll soon find out, though, Jesus was very wrong about that.

For whatever reason, as was the case a couple of weeks ago, Jesus seems to want to get away from it all. Perhaps it’s because he was rejected at his home synagogue; perhaps it’s because demanding people continue to follow him wherever he goes; perhaps it’s because his recent arguments with the Pharisees have left him feeling frustrated. You can’t really blame Jesus for wanting to be alone — the normal human response to stress is to try and avoid it.

And this is an important point: Jesus is human, but, because the church tends to focus so much on the divinity of Jesus, we often fail to appreaciate the humanity of Jesus. Today’s gospel story presents us with a very human Jesus, and it’s kind of unsettling to see him depicted this way.

We could choose to concentrate all of our attention on Jesus’s miraculous healing of the Canaanite girl because it is consistent with all the other things that Jesus does but, if we were to do that, we’d be ignoring some important aspects of this passage. We could simply look the other way and pretend that Jesus didn’t say what he said here, but we have no reason to believe that he didn’t actually say it.

The reality we’re presented with is this: a desperate woman in a foreign land comes to Jesus, bows down at his feet, and begs for him to heal her daughter. And Jesus treats her badly. After telling the disciples that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” Jesus says to this poor woman in need, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

There was absolutely no love lost between the Jews and the Canaanites. The former saw the latter as inferior beings who were not counted among God’s chosen people; Jesus definitely understood this. And back then, calling someone a dog was one of the worst things you could do; Jesus knew this too.

We can sugarcoat it, we can twist it around so that we can reconcile it with whatever understanding of Jesus we have (or want to have). Maybe Jesus said what he said in order to test the Canaanite woman’s faith. Maybe he used the word “dog” as a term of endearment. Yeah, I doubt it.

The more obvious explanation is that, Jesus, who was human, was susceptible to life’s pressures and society’s prejudices just like we are; he occasionally got tired and grouchy and frustrated just like we do; he sometimes thought of the world in terms of who’s in and who’s out just like we do. 

So Jesus probably would have seen the Canaanites as people who were beneath him simply because of who they were and where they were from — as people who were neither worthy of his attention nor part of his mission. And Jesus probably wouldn’t have wanted to give this Canaanite woman the time of day. I know it’s difficult to think about Jesus thinking and acting in this way, but both Matthew and Mark tell us that he did. Thankfully, though, the story doesn’t end there.

After Jesus refers to her (and hers) as dogs, the Canaanite woman doesn’t just walk away; she stands her ground and advocates for her daughter. She doesn’t respond to Jesus with some flowery profession of faith, she challenges the validity of Jesus’ own words by turning them around on him. “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” is what she says.

No Jesus, you’re wrong — even dogs are worthy of God’s grace — and I’m here to remind you of that. Oh, by the way, Lord, Son of David, this dog is also able to see you for who you are, which even your own disciples can’t seem to do at this point. 

And how does Jesus respond to her? He admits she was right and gives her what she asked for. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish,” is what Jesus says.

If we allow ourselves to focus on the Canaanite girl’s miraculous healing we might miss the more significant thing that happens here: Jesus, the Son of God, actually learns something from her mother; he is opened up to a new way of seeing because of what she says to him; as a result of his interaction with people — outsiders, no less — he actually changes his mind.

Jesus suddenly realizes that the mission that God has chosen for him (and chosen him for) is much bigger than he had previously understood it to be. His calling isn’t simply to bestow God’s blessing upon the Israelites, his calling is to share God’s grace with the world.

As Christians, we look to Jesus in order to know who we are called to be, Jesus gives us important example to follow here. We humans are constantly limited by all sorts of biases and preconceived notions, and Jesus, because he is fully human, was susceptible to these very same things. But Jesus was receptive to new ways of seeing and acting; as this encounter with the Canaanite woman makes clear, Jesus was capable of change. 

And this is one of the greatest gifts given to us by our strange and mysterious God, through Jesus:

by showing himself to be open to new possibilities, he calls upon us to be opened by them;

by embracing an expansive and inclusive vision of God’s grace, Jesus challenges us to transcend the limits of our misunderstandings;

by sharing with us his experience of humble learning, he invites us to learn from our mistakes.  

Now if only I could learn to stop locking my keys in my office.