08.17.2014 Preaching Text: “And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’” (Matthew 15:23b)
Some years ago, while meeting with a couple about to be married, both expressed sadness that the bride’s mother had declined their heartfelt desire to have her live with them after the wedding.
It wasn’t that the mother was at odds with them. Quite the contrary. It was that she didn’t want to interfere in their lives. She insisted that they would need time to get to know each other and having her in the home, she argued, would only make that necessary process that much more difficult.
The mother was wise. She understood what’s involved when two people begin their life together. They are bringing together heretofore separate lives, with separate family backgrounds, and separate ways of thinking and doing.
She knew that a couple’s wedding day does not mark the attainment of their highest relational aspirations, only its beginnings. She knew that just because they were in love did not mean that life-adjustments would be unnecessary, or easy. No, experience had taught her that the couple needed time to carve out a whole new life together.
That’s sort of the way the New Testament understands baptism. Baptism, in other words, does not mark the fullest maturation of our relationship with God, only its beginnings.
In the early chapters of Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, we are told that God made all things perfectly. Tension arises, however, when the archetypical Adam and Eve decide to flaunt God’s one rule – to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
The result of their disobedience is that paradise is now lost. Adam and Eve have chosen to break their primal relationship with their Creator. The biblical message is clear: their sin consists of their choice to be gods themselves, rather than allowing God to be God. And having severed this relationship with their Maker, they are doomed to navigate this world minus the wisdom and guidance of the one true God.
In practical terms, this means that, because they have cut themselves off relationally from God, they no longer know what God wishes for them to be and do. They are forced to organize their lives around their own limited desires and objectives. They might try to guess what God would wish for them, but that’s the best they can do – guess.
In baptism, biblically speaking, our primordial relationship with our Creator is restored. But such a restoration requires major adjustments.
While we were disengaged from God, we couldn’t help but develop habits and attitudes that, though perhaps conforming to this world, run counter to God’s holy desires. When we become Christians, however, as with our newly married couple, major adjustments, i.e. new habits and attitudes, are necessary in order for our newly formed relationship with God to flourish and deepen.
Put only slightly differently, newly married couples quickly realize that old behaviors that may have seemed perfectly fine prior to marriage, now risk almost certain discord or conflict. Newly minted Christians similarly recognize that they too must unlearn certain thoughts and behaviors (while developing newer and better ones) so that they can experience a fuller, healthier relationship with a God once misplaced.
Ultimately, Christian discipleship, as with marriage, is a lifelong project, a process of letting go of our former selves and former ways while simultaneously embracing a very different way of being and doing. Because this is a lifetime project, none of us ever prefects it. At best we’re “in process.”
Shortly after I arrived here in 2006, I preached a sermon about how we all fall short of the glory of God and stand in need of God’s mercy and grace. We’re all sinners, in other words, as we recover by degrees from the Fall, from old habits and old ways of seeing the world.
After the service, in the receiving line, a woman came up to me and said, quite indignantly, “I just want you to know I am not a sinner!”
To which I offered this pastoral bon mot: “Well, you’re the first one I’ve ever met!” (For the record, she didn’t find this particularly amusing.)
In today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, we witness a telling interaction between a Canaanite woman (the Canaanites being a hated enemy of the Jewish people) and the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish disciples.
Jesus has been out in the countryside preaching salvation (and a new relationship with God) when the woman, thought to be outside any hope of salvation, pleads for Jesus’ help. Immediately Jesus’ disciples attempt to silence her.
After a curious exchange (a subject for another day), Jesus grants her wish, something no faithful Jew of the day would have permitted. In so doing, Jesus is, in effect, breaking down the impenetrable wall between the righteous and the unrighteous.
If I refuse to see myself as a sinner, my relationships with others gets skewed. After all, if I think I’m perfect, or better than others, I likely will act as the disciples did, setting myself apart from them.
I once came across an unusual description of evangelism that seems to get things right. Of course, typically, when we think of evangelism, we think of somebody standing on a street corner, thumping a Bible, and issuing threats of eternal damnation.
This expression of evangelism, however, submits that it is more like one beggar telling another beggar where to find a piece of bread. What’s so powerful about this is that it admits that we’re all in the same boat. We all stand in need of a savior, of divine grace, mercy, wisdom, and love, not matter who we are.
Last week, I was talking to a member about the church fair she and so many of you put enormous time and energy into. I thanked her for her efforts. Yet rather than accept my indebtedness, she countered (and I paraphrase), “You know, sometimes I question whether I’m doing these things for the right reason or whether I’m simply acting like a Pharisee.”
This is just a profound insight (because, if we’re honest, there’s a bit of Pharisaism in all of us).
The Pharisees, criticized with special fervor by both Jesus and Paul, were known for always doing the right thing. But they were also prone to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, not so much for the sake of others but that they themselves might look good.
No doubt you’ve heard at some point in your life a husband or wife say, “Look at all I do for you! And what thanks do I get in return?”
Two people can perform the very same act, yet one does it selflessly for the good of the other, while the other performs that same task with an ulterior motive, either to outdo the other or to take pride in his or her effort – or both!
Of course, the pecking order we humans so easily and naturally generate is hardly unknown within Christian circles. At its core, this phenomenon is rooted in our primal need to feel loved. Because we refuse to accept God’s free gift of love in Christ, we try to earn it, and in this pursuit convince ourselves that we are doing just a little better than others, even when performing otherwise laudable Christian works.
Years ago one of my nieces, probably about 4 or 5 at the time, noticed one of her California cousin swimming in a pool. I commented on how well the cousin was doing. Anna then offered this: “Yes, she’s good, but I think I’m just a teensy, weensy bit better!”
We are all equal in God’s eyes, all imperfect, sinners all, each in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We’re all in the same boat together, in other words, in spite of our many differences. Amen.