Recently, I heard this story: A mother went into the room of her 8-year old daughter, who had a large piece of construction paper on the floor and was coloring on it. “What are you doing?” her mother asked. Without looking up the girl asserted, “I am drawing a picture of God.” “But honey,” her mother replied gently, “No one really knows what God looks like.” This time, the girl stopped drawing, looked up at her mother, and with great confidence asserted, “They will when I am done with this picture.”
Jesus’ ministry was about helping people to understand who God is. All of Jesus’ parables, all of his interactions with people, and all of his behaviors had one central purpose--to help people understand what God looks like.
Today’s Scripture passage gives us a glimpse of what God looks like. At first glance, Jesus’ responses to the Canaanite woman who has come to him to help her daughter are disturbing because they seem out of character. One of the commentators that I read said, “Few passages in the Gospels have so insistently troubled the minds of Christian readers as this one.”
Here is the situation: Jesus and some of his disciples have come to the district of Tyre and Sidon. In fact, this is the only occasion in Scripture in which Jesus is outside of Jewish territory. Jesus is in enemy territory. Historically, the Canaanites were the ancestral enemies of the Jews. There is no love lost between these tribes. And yet, it is here that he has this remarkable interaction with the Canaanite woman.
A Canaanite woman, who is in tremendous emotional pain, approaches him and asks him to have mercy on her because her daughter is “severely troubled by a demon.” She asks Jesus to heal her daughter. The fact that this woman dared to approach Jesus itself is quite noteworthy in and of itself. In that place and time, it was socially unacceptable for women to approach and speak openly to men. In approaching Jesus and asking him to help, this courageous woman is breaking the rules.
Presumably, this assertive and faithful woman has heard about Jesus. She has likely heard that he is a teacher, and a healer, and a person who makes God’s love real. She has faith that he is someone who can help and heal her sick daughter. And she has intentionally sought him out even if that means breaking cultural rules and long-standing enmity between their people.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she cries out. ‘My daughter is severely troubled by a demon.” Jesus does not at first respond to her. Perhaps he is waiting to see what his disciples will do. When they do react it is unfavorably. The disciples pull Jesus aside and beg him to get rid of this woman. “Send her away, for she is crying after us,” they tell Jesus, “She is being a pest. She is upsetting us. She is not one of us. Do not bother with her.”
Jesus’ first response to her request for help seems unusually off-putting and out of character. He says to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, Jesus is telling her that his ministry, his healing, his prophecies, and his teachings are only for the people of Israel … no one else. The mercy and love of God do not extend to you or your daughter.
Yet this brave and persistent woman does not give up. She kneels in front of Jesus and begs, “Lord, help me.”
A second time Jesus responds with words that seem uncharacteristically harsh. He tells her, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” In other words, it is not appropriate for him to give to her, an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger what is reserved for the people of Israel.
Still this undiscourageable and indefatigable woman persists. She asserts, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” At last Jesus responds in a manner that seems more typical of him. Compassionately and kindly Jesus says, “Oh woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” And he instantly heals her daughter.
So, what do we do with Jesus’ seeming harshness and resistance to the Canaanite woman’s pleas? There are two schools of thought on this passage. Some commentators suggest that this encounter was a teaching moment for Jesus. They assert that up until this point in his ministry Jesus may have believed that his ministry did not extend to persons outside the Jewish faith. And that it was this conversation with a woman of great and persistent faith that helped him to understand that God's love knows no boundaries and is present to all people … that God’s love is for the whole world, no exceptions.
The other interpretation of this passage and the one that I would like to propose is that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. That he, like all effective teachers, was using this real-life encounter as a teaching moment for his disciples. He is using the occasion of this interaction with this courageous, faith-filled, plucky, and loving woman to reinforce what he has been teaching the disciples all along and what this woman already knows: that God’s love is for all people, no exceptions.
The reason I think this is the case is that as a Jew, Jesus was very aware of the Hebrew Scriptures, including today’s Psalm that exhorts that “All the peoples praise God” and that “God’s ways may be known upon earth, God's saving power among all nations.” God's love and God's call are for all people.
Likewise, Jesus would have been aware of my favorite verse from the Hebrew Bible, Micah 6:8: “God has shown us what is good. And what does the Lord requires of you be to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?”
In addition, that God’s love includes everyone is a common theme in Jesus’ stories, such as the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Lost Sheep. And Jesus has proclaimed that God’s love extends graciously and inclusively to those who, like this Canaanite woman, are in pain. Certainly, this is consistent with what Jesus has said in other sections of Matthew's Gospel.
“Come unto me all of you who are heavy and laden and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3)
“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4)
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6)
And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is what we call Jesus’ great commission when he calls the disciples to carry on his God-work by telling them to “go into all nations and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-20)
I also think that Jesus’ decision to go outside the country of Israel and venture into another country was a symbolic gesture—a way of teaching people that God’s love knows no bounds and has no limits. God's love is available to everyone, no exceptions.
I think that Jesus’ message is not a complicated one, but it is extremely difficult for us human beings and religious communities to get it right. We human beings seem to have a very difficult time accepting that God’s love really does extend to everyone …. and is not just for the select elect.
Earlier this week someone told me, “Religion is really alright until it becomes organized.” What seems to happen when we become organized is that the organizers start to make rules about who belongs and who does not … who is in and who is out. When we begin to decide that some people are not in, we distort the good news—the authentic message that Jesus proclaims in this passage.
A recent study by the Pew Center for Research revealed that one of the fastest growing segments of the population in the United States is those people who identify as spiritual but not religious. Typically these are people who have left organized religion because they have had a bad experience in one. They still believe in God and have an active spiritual life, but they do this apart from an organized religion.
These “spiritual but not religious” people have left religious communities who did not welcome them or were kicked out because they were somehow judged to be unacceptable to God. They have been exposed to a toxic theology that tells them that they are somehow not good enough to be in the group. In those communities they have not heard or experienced the authentic message that Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples in today’s Scripture lesson—that God’s love is for all people.
Earlier this week, someone told me that he was asked to leave a church because he dressed too casually. Perhaps you have been booted out of religious communities or asked to leave because you were considered unacceptable for some reason:
• because you did do not subscribe to the right set of doctrines
• because you had not been baptized in the right manner
• because your faith was judged to be inadequate or too extreme
• because you are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender
• because they are in love with and want to marry someone of the same gender
• because you are of a different race or ethnicity
• because you had broken the rules of the church
• because you had challenged antiquated practices that put old rules before love
And sadly, centuries of Christian history reveal that the Church has often excluded, rather than included, people. Whenever we as individuals or as the Church exclude others from the love of God, we are distorting Jesus’ authentic message that God’s love is for all people. And when we have been rejected by religious organizations, we have not heard the authentic good news that God's love is for all people.
I think God must be very angry. Because after 2000 years, we still distort this simple message—that God welcomes everyone to the table, that God’s love is for everyone.
In her book, “Amazing Grace,” in a chapter on “Organized Religion,” Kathleen Norris writes, “Many say these days that they can't find God in church, in ‘organized’ religion. I do not find that surprising. Churches can be as inhospitable as any other institution.” She has not lost hope for organized religion. And she goes on to affirm, “In the rural area where I live, churches are still the only institutions capable of sustaining community ministries such as a food pantry and a domestic violence hot line. But they provide something more that even the most well-intentional ‘social services’ cannot replace. It is called salvation, but it begins small, at the local level, in a church that provides a time and place for people to gather to meet a God who has promised to be there … And they receive a blessing, just for showing up.”
I also believe that God must be very patient. I think that God must be very patient because even though we human beings distort the message and get it wrong over and over again, God continues to work in our lives, attempting to re-form and transform human beings and the religious communities that we form to bring us in line with the good new that Jesus came to proclaim.
Anne Lamott, a contemporary writer about Christian spirituality has written, “God accepts us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us where we are.” Jesus’ interactions with the Canaanite woman remind us that God’s Holy Spirit is always at work within us pushing and pulling, comforting and challenging, confronting and cajoling us to get it right: God’s love is for all people, no exceptions. God does not leave us alone.
A few years ago I came to the realization that I was probably at the mid-point of my life and decided it was a good idea to make a will. Deciding to make a will presents some unique emotional challenges. First, it challenges you to really accept the fact of your mortality. And second, it evokes important existential and spiritual questions. Given that our time on earth is limited, am I living the life that I want to live? Am I living the life God is calling me to live? And how do I want to live the time that I have left?
Third, it gives you the opportunity to make decisions about what impact you want your money to have after you die. I decided that I wanted to leave money to those persons, organizations, and religious communities that I love and care about. I decided to leave money to Old South Church because I want to support organized religions that are proclaiming the good news that God's love is for all people. Because that is who God is … that is what God looks like.
Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means that there are no perfect people, organizations, or religious communities. Old South Church is not a perfect religious community. We miss the mark here. God is still speaking here. We are still learning here. We make mistakes here. But when we do we do our best to recognize them, confess them, ask forgiveness, make amends, and make changes that bring our ministry more in line with the Inclusive love of God that we see revealed in Jesus.
I put Old South Church in my will because I want to support religious communities that teach their Sunday School classes that God’s love is for all people, that educate their confirmed that God’s love is for all people, that welcome everyone to the communion table, that proclaim in their sermons and songs that God’s love is for all, and that express in their outreach and ministries that God's love is for all … Because that is what God looks like.
Several years ago, I found a story about another 8-year old girl named Tiger Curran, who around Christmas time had written a letter to God. In the letter she wrote, “Dear God, I would like to know what you look like. I put a piece of paper in the envelope. Will you draw a picture of yourself? Please write back. Your friend, Tiger.” Tiger put the letter into a stamped envelope addressed to God at “1234 Heaven Round Clouds and Angels” and put it in the US mail. Somehow the letter ended up in a post office in Fargo, North Dakota. The post master forwarded the letter to the Rev. Dwight Meier, the United Methodist minister in town. Rev. Meier wrote this letter back to the inquisitive girl.
“Dear Tiger, thanks for your letter. God turned your letter over to me to answer. It was a nice letter you wrote.”
“You asked what God looks like. One reason God does not have a picture is that God looks like all the people that God has made. Sometimes God looks brown, sometimes white, and sometimes black. In fact, God looks like the color of every person God has ever made. Sometimes God looks like a girl and sometimes like a boy.”
“Look into the face of a person, and if you see love and kindness in that person, that is what God looks like. When you are kind, helpful, and loving, look in a mirror and see what God looks like.”
“God turns over a lot of God’s work to people. I think God will ask you to do things God wants done too Thank you for writing, and I hope that you have a great Christmas. Sincerely, Dwight Meier, one of God’s helpers.”
God took a big risk to entrust us finite, fragile, and fearful human beings with the good news that God’s love is for all people.
So I have a homework assignment for us. In the next week, identify one way in which you can help someone see what God looks like … what God really looks like. And, if you have been one of those persons who have been hurt by religious communities that have gotten it wrong, who have excluded you, rather than included you, be reminded of this very good news—that God's love is for all people. Because that is what God looks like.
It is a radical message. It is a hopeful message. It is a transformative message. Go and spread this good news. God wants to get the Word out. Amen.