The Eye of the Beholder (November 16, 2014)

candleringA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon,
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Texts: Deuteronomy 7:1-11; Psalm 137; 149; Matthew 15:21-39


When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession (Deuteronomy 7:1-6).


8O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9).


6Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, 7to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, 8to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, 9to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 149:6-9).

OK…that’s the good news for today. These are God’s words, right out of the Bible, taken from today’s texts.   How do you feel about going into all the world to proclaim this as God’s holy word and way? You say you find as much discomfort with this as I do? Well, perhaps there is still hope.

We come up against this dilemma over and over again as we consider the ancient collection of writings we claim as our holy scripture. More than once in Bible study, we have read passages like these and looked at each other in perplexed wonder. How can these words be reflective of a God whom we claim to be love incarnate? Where is the compassion and grace on which we have come to depend?

Brian McLaren shares this concern with us and offers a way to reconsider the place of violence and destruction in our religious tradition. The core to this consideration is to see that our understanding of God has evolved over the millennia as has our relationship to the Holy. This should not surprise us if we have come to see God as “the More,” the One who will always be beyond our ability to contain either in understanding or in practice. This is why we must inevitably walk the road in faith without seeing or knowing all that will sustain us as we journey and bring us home.

In today’s words of preparation, McLaren says that “Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past, and it is still all too common in the present.” He asks, “How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent?” He says of the ancient texts, “We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us toward a better vision of kindness, reconciliation, and peace for our future and for our children’s future” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 49).

Most of the time we avoid these words of violence and destruction, of vengeance and hatred, especially in our worship. We might read Psalm 137 or 149 but we stop before we dash any babies against rocks or lift our swords in triumph. We try to emphasize words of praise and gratitude, peace and justice, compassion and love. That is largely how we have come to understand what it means to walk God’s way through this world. However, as McLaren reminds us, it is important not to deny or ignore our capacity for anger, violence, hatred, and revenge. We can all learn to expand and sustain our consciousness and practice of praise, thanksgiving, peace, justice, compassion and love. Even Jesus faced such a challenge. That’s is how I see it anyway.

He was exhausted. He had been working so hard to spread the good news and bring God’s reign into the lives of his people. Healing, feeding, exorcising, teaching, training his disciples – he needed a break. In our common humanity, we can understand that sometimes we need time off, time to refresh our spirits and replenish our resources. We call it vacation or R and R or the weekend or just a day off. Another way to think of, central to our faith tradition, is Sabbath, time to re-center our lives in God, to re-focus our attention on God’s desires for us, to re-new our bodies, minds and spirits.

Jesus had left the comfortable confines of Galilee, that district that he called home and knew so well. He was no longer in familiar Jewish territory. He was in a foreign land, Gentile territory. Tyre and Sidon were in Phoenicia on the Mediterranean coast, though I doubt Jesus’ intent was a week at the shore. However, I am guessing he was not expecting to be easily recognized. He was hoping for some time away from those Galilean crowds that pressed so heavily against him with their endless neediness and constant clamoring for attention.

And now this woman, this foreigner, this Gentile is demanding a response. At first he tries to ignore her. Maybe she will go away if he simply does not respond. But anyone who has been or known a mother with a sick child understands that she will not be easily dissuaded.   Then the disciples join the fray. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  In spite of his best efforts to train them, they can’t figure out how to handle her either.

Can you hear the weariness in his response? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Please go away. There’s nothing I can do. I have nothing left for you.” And there she is on her knees, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; help me.” She sees in him what may have dimmed for the moment but what he knows about himself, about his calling, his ministry, his work on behalf of God’s reign. In fact, she sees it more clearly than his own disciples and she believes with all her heart, mind and soul that he can make a difference.

At first he seems irritated that she has found him out and can see him so clearly. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! That doesn’t sound very nice. Some have argued that Jesus is actually testing the woman with these words. Does she really see what she claims and believe what she says? Well, maybe, but I wonder if this isn’t Jesus struggling with a shift in his own consciousness? How difficult is it for him – or any of us – to admit that maybe he has it wrong or has misunderstood or has more to learn about God’s way and will?

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  The genius of her response completes what some have called the conversion of Jesus. A warm smile spreads across his face as he lifts her from her feet. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And it was. But the story doesn’t end here. Jesus actually seems refreshed and inspired by this encounter. He is energized by this realization that the Good News is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Now we find him on a foreign mountainside, in Gentile territory – once again healing and exorcising and teaching. After a three day marathon, he looks with compassion on this crowd of foreigners and realizes they must be hungry. He asks his disciples about feeding the crowd and before the day is done the whole crowd of 4000 men, plus women and children have been fed. How many baskets left over? That’s right – seven. Remember that.

Have we heard this story before? Well as a matter of fact we have. In chapter 14, Matthew tells the same basic story of Jesus feeding 5000 plus on a Galilean hillside. That day there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Now here is what McLaren sees happening in this dual account of mass feeding. In the first story, Jesus has broken bread with those “children” whom he has told the woman he came to “feed.” He has ministered to his own. The twelve baskets of leftovers can be viewed as symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel.

However, I believe his encounter with the Syrophoenician or Canaanite woman has expanded his vision of his ministry, and we must expand ours. On a Gentile mountainside he as fed a foreign crowd and there are seven baskets left over. Where have we encountered seven today? “…the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you…“ At least in symbol, the healing of the nations is complete. That is, ancient enmity, hatred, violence and vengeance is left behind and everyone finds welcome at God’s feast. Jesus Christ is the consummate host. There is food enough and to spare. There is abundant healing and hope, peace and justice, compassion and love, plenty to go around and more.

Now this is Good News. Remember, God brought forth creation and called it good. God desires we share with God the joy of that creation. We are made to live in communion with one another and with God. Old ways, old thoughts, old hates, old hurts are left behind. This road we make by walking is lined with love and compassion, peace and justice, healing and wholeness for individuals, communities and all the world. We scan the road as it unwinds before us; from the ugliness of violence and vengeance, hatred and hurt, enmity and fear, a beauty emerges that has been there all along, waiting for us to behold it and embrace it as our way of life. Thanks be to God that we like Jesus can learn and grow and become the people God made us to be. Amen.