Sermon – August 20, 2017 – Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost

The New Story


So, I’m going to allow myself a moment of personal privilege if you don’t mind.


My dad was a World War II veteran. He served in the 28th Infantry Division, in the 109th Combat Regiment.  They landed in Normandy a couple of weeks after D-Day.  The 109th was the first Allied unit to cross over a German border, the first into the Fatherland. Getting there was brutal. Dad had five battle stars, including the Battle of the Bulge. The 28th insignia was a red keystone.  One of those was a horrific battle, the battle of Hurtgen Forest, the longest sustained battle of the war.  In it, the 28th infantry division took so many casualties that the Germans start calling them the Bloody Bucket Division. As the 28th and the whole of the allied army marched on Germany, the Nazis were furiously executing and incinerating Jews by the tens of thousands, ultimately murdering 6 million of them. The flag that flew over the units opposing the 28th Infantry Division, the flags that flew over the extermination camps was the flag of Nazi Germany. Unbelievably, supposed American citizens were marching under that flag in our own streets, spewing the same Nazi hate, in Charlottesville Virginia last week. You know the story.


They were joined in that march of hate by groups and individuals, including the KKK who were flying the Confederate battle flag. One point two million Americans, North and South, were killed or injured in the Civil War because the people that flew that flag chose to go to war to defend their prerogative to own other human beings as property.  Thirty-five thousand of those dead were from Illinois, along with thousands more wounded, by the way.  They even had the gall to fly that flag – in fact both flags – alongside of the American flag. The whole rabble was flanked by pretend soldiers in camo carrying semi-automatic weapons.  Hate and fear.


The motivation for these folks is drawn from their hatred for nonwhite people.  Their chants reflected that hatred and their goal is an America were white people protect their privilege and hold power, while others are marginalized, persecuted or sent away. These core values of racism and hatred are documented in their own literature and in their own statements.  There are no “fine people” who adhere to those ideas.    This offends me as a veteran, as the son of a soldier and as an American. There’s my point of personal privilege.


Now, we know that’s wrong.   I’m convinced that there’s not a person in this room who would give those ideas any quarter. We know they are wrong, and so we have no choice but to raise our voices against them and resist them. We have no choice but to examine our own accountability, whether it be silence or looking the other way or sharing in bits and pieces some of this ideology, and then to change.


This garbage proceeds from skewed, dishonest, but widely shared narratives that say one race is better than another, that one part of our national community has a right to greater privilege, prosperity and protection under the law then another. That narrative invokes such things as the Constitution and the Scriptures to try to normalize these ideas and give them some credibility. And we know this is a lie. And we know it is wrong.


So, we know what to do as Americans?   We stand against this. We raise our voices. And we seek change in ourselves in our communities.


But what do we do as Christians? What do we do with our particular identity as the body of Christ? Where do we take our cues?  Somebody said to me once, “I don’t come to church to hear politics, Pastor. I come to church to hear the gospel.” Well, here’s some gospel. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Or maybe this.  “There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Or, there’s this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind.  That is the first and greatest commandment.  And another is like it.   You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  One this hangs all of the law and the prophets.”


You see, these things that we know are wrong culturally, constitutionally, even legally, take on yet another dimension when viewed through the eyes of faith.  They are evil.  By the definition of the Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, they are demonic, meaning evil takes good—such as freedom and community and even our faith—and twists and distorts them into malicious and malevolent tools.  And as such, they will be the target of our challenge by and for the sake of the gospel.  Because evil and division and hatred as a community practice is not the kingdom Christ came to usher in and it is not the kingdom to which we bear witness .


Now, to our story from Matthew.  Here we tune into a troubling exchange between a Canaanite woman, the disciples and Jesus.  Now, Canaanites were despised by the Judeans.  They were the original occupiers of the land that God had promised to the Chosen people. Beginning with Joshua, they had battled them and subdued them, though not entirely.   And the paganism of Canaanites those who sustained was often blamed for tempting the people of Israel into idolatry, the sore breach between God and the covenant people.  So, you just did not have anything to do with those Canaanites.  Every pious, self-respecting Jew knew that.  That was the story and the woman was caught up in it.  Her daughter was ill.  Obviously, she had caught wind of this Jesus and knew of his power and compassion and was desperate to appeal to him.  The disciples were doing their jobs, protecting the boss form the hoi polloi so he could get some rest.. They knew who she was in the narrative and felt justified in turning her away.  And yet, she persisted.   Remember the story of the unjust judge who finally acquiesces to the demands of the persistent widow?   Same thing going on here.   Her request was righteous, her faith in this rabbi was strong.  She was a mom with a sick child, so she wouldn’t let up.  Finally, she gets an audience, and assumes a profile of a worshipper, she knelt before Jesus, and extended her plea, “Lord, help me.”  Kyrie Eleison.   But instead of a gracious welcome, she is insulted as Jesus parrots the centuries old narrative that guaranteed and affirmed the separation of this woman from him.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  She brushes off the insult as Jesus refers to her and her people as dogs, and persists.  “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  I wonder, did she know that crumbs in the hands of this Master, of this Healer, transforms lives?  Did she know that in a few short days, Jesus would feed thousands and thousands with the crumbs that fell from five loaves and begin to change and heal the world?”  Probably not in the details, but she believed he was whom she had heard he was, and now she was an instrument in his hands, for change, for healing and for new life, not only for herself, but for those of us who are privileged to hear this story.  “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was instantly healed.


Now, I don’t know if Jesus changed his mind, realized he was captive to an old narrative that guaranteed, even celebrated, the separation of people. Possibly this was a Kairos moment, a moment ripe with God’s loving purposes, that prompted Jesus to reject that old story and begin another.  If your piety doesn’t allow for that.  If it is too much for you that Jesus might have been in the wrong in this story, then maybe you might conclude he was using the exchange as an opportunity to show the disciples that the old story is giving way to the new story, where all people are welcome, all people are objects of God’s love, and the prayers of all people can reach the ears of the great healer, the great, hope, the Messiah who has come to save the whole world.  However you care to hear this story, the old narrative of separation is broken and gives way to the story of grace.  That story needs to be operative in every moment of our lives, especially in times like these.


But there’s one more thing.  Let’s not take our eyes off the kid.  The reason for this exchange, for this plea from a frightened mother, the reason for her faith in the healing power of this Jesus and the reason for her persistence, is this child.  She is tormented by a demon, sick in her mind, and spirit.  The well-being, the health, maybe the very life of this kid is a stake.  If the woman is turned away, if her voice is silenced, if she is not heard the child will continue to suffer or die.  No, the life of a kid was at stake . . . . and Jesus knew at least that.  And if the story of separation and division and rejection and suspicion of one another had not been broken, the child would have been.


Brothers and sisters, in the midst of all of this hatred, racism, violence and fear, let’s not take our eyes off the kids.


We are the stewards of the New Story and it is one of faith and hope, promise and grace, community and new life.  God is serious about that, so serious, that Jesus walked a bit further down the road and gave his very life for the sake of that woman’s life, for that child’s life, for your life and for mine.  For your neighbor and the stranger, for the black and the white, for the Jew and the gentile, for sinner and the saint.  That is our story now.  That is our path.  That is the truth.  These are the words of our mother tongue as the community of Christ that break the narratives of hatred, racism, and fear.


If we don’t lift up the new story.  If we don’t renounce that the old narrative, then the life of every person, child, man and woman, will be held in the balance.


It’s hard work. It calls us to repent, to change, to risk and to release our grip on the old stories that keep us apart and embrace again the story of life and forgiveness.


It’s hard work.  It requires change and sacrifice and humility and courage.  But the Word made flesh says, the one who calls us to this new story, the one whose life and death and resurrection articulates this gospel story says this, too,  “Do not be afraid.  I am with you.  You and my beloved world are caught up in my story now.  For the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the kids, for the sake of your family and community, hold on to me and I will show you the way.”


I say, let’s hold on to each other, too, these days, as the body of Christ, as the voice of this promise.  And let’s keep an eye on the kids, knowing that their lives, their well-being, their faith depends on our stewardship of this new story of hope.

Thanks be to God.