Sermon: Sunday, August 17, 2008: Time After Pentecost, Lectionary 20

Text: Matthew 15:10-28


Have mercy on us, Lord. Amen.

As a preacher, I have a professional interest in the practice of preaching. I grew up in a community that prided itself on calling pastors who were strong preachers, and because my dad worked for the church – and I, therefore, often ended up sitting through two or three (or, very rarely, four) worship services a weekend – I have heard a lot of sermons.

Preachers are generally humble enough to acknowledge that there is more to worship than their sermons, particularly if we come from liturgical traditions – as we Lutherans do. But, because (for us) sermons take more time to prepare than the rest of the worship service – never mind the work it takes others to clean the sanctuary, or prepare the altar and sacraments, or rehearse the music – we can sometimes slip into thinking that the sermon is the focal point of the service.

According to those who’ve researched the matter, preaching has a lot to do with why unchurched people choose a congregation, but less to do with why they stay. According to a study published in 2001[1], 90% of unchurched people cite the pastor’s preaching as the number one reason they chose to join a community. That number is compared with those who are church veterans, or who’ve belonged to other faith communities, for whom preaching is the number three reason they join a church – behind doctrine and evidence that people actually take care of one another.

Think about that for a moment. For people who are new to Christian community, the first thing they look for is preaching that reaches them. For people who have prior experience of Christian community, the first thing they look for is evidence that people are taking care of each other. This isn’t to suggest that preaching isn’t important, but simply to point out what I (and many of you) learned after listening to thousands of sermons – all the pretty preaching in the world doesn’t matter if it makes no difference in the life of the individual or the community that hears it.

Or, put more simply, those who’ve been around the block a while want to know if you’re talking the talk or walking the walk.

Jesus gives a really good sermon this morning. He calls a crowd to him and says,

Listen, and take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up…Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated? But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies and cussing. That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands – that’s neither here nor there.”[2] [Mt.15:11-20]

It’s a good sermon on a couple different levels. Firstly, the words themselves tell the truth about human behavior and the human heart. We all know that our hearts harbor all sorts of unresolved pain, hurts both petty and large, anger and jealousy. Those festering emotions are the cause of so many cruel words and actions.

But beyond that simple truth, Jesus is confronting the hypocrisy of the religious people in the crowd. “Did you know how upset the Pharisees were when they heard what you said,” ask his disciples. But Jesus shrugs it off, “every tree that wasn’t planted by my Father in heaven will be pulled up by its roots. Forget them. They are blind men leading blind men. When a blind man leads a blind man they both end up in the ditch.”

The Pharisees, as you know, focused their faith practices on the keeping of Mosiac law. They approached holiness as something one attains by doing the right things, observing the right rituals and holding fast to tradition – such as the restrictions we find in the book of Leviticus about what kinds of food a faithful Israelite should eat or not eat. Jesus’ words were a direct challenge to these church people. He confronts their preoccupation with rituals and traditions and says, “be more concerned with what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it!”

This is something church people in every day and age need to hear over and over again. There is just something in us, something about the habits that form over time as a result of gathering in buildings like this one to offer our worship to God, that becomes idolatrous. We can confuse the building or the liturgy or the hymns we sing or the altar cloths – all the rituals and traditions – with true worship, which is the humbled heart offering thanks to God for the gift of love that transforms how we see ourselves and relate to others.

It’s not just our rituals and our worship that becomes idolatrous, but also our speech (or our preaching). We all know what it’s like to be near someone who holds all the right opinions about all the hot topics, and can’t stop sharing them. It’s like having dinner with a talk radio shock jock. Whether your issue is the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, or Israel and occupied Palestine, or gay marriage, or gentrification and balanced neighborhood development, or worship renewal – Jesus tells his crowd, you can internalize all the right answers to all the right questions but if you can’t speak with mercy and compassion and gentleness and grace toward one another then who cares? What good does it do you (or any of us) to be right if you cannot be kind to one another?

It is the things that we say, individually and collectively, with our words and our actions, that do so much harm. We can leave ourselves and one another critically injured and in need of healing.

So Jesus gives a good sermon – a great sermon even – on how the life of faith should shape our speech and our behavior. Then, in order to get some distance from the Pharisees or to retreat from the crowds for a while, he takes his followers into Tyre and Sidon, which was Canaanite territory – a land where people didn’t follow the same dietary laws and restrictions. A nation of outsiders, not Israelites, not the chosen people of God. And there Jesus is challenged to practice what he preaches.

A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus looking for healing for her daughter. “Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.”

Jesus ignores her.

The disciples find her demands for healing irritating. Doesn’t she know her place? Doesn’t she realize that they are Israelites and she is a Canaanite? That they are ritually clean, and that she’s unclean? That they are God’s chosen people and she, well, isn’t? They say to their teacher, “would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy!”

Here the scripture says something that’s a little difficult to interpret. Matthew writes, “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’” He speaks here to define the scope of his mission. As he understands it, he is sent to call God’s people back into relationship with God, who he calls ‘my Father.’ He’s actually not even talking to the woman at this point, but responding to his disciples. They want Jesus to tell her off, and he seems to be saying, “I’ve got my hands full enough with you.”

Then one of my favorite moments in all of scripture takes place. The woman comes back to Jesus and begs for her daughter’s healing. After two thousand years it’s hard to hear in our translations, but the words this woman uses to address Jesus are the words the early church used in worship, taken and adapted from the Psalms, “Have mercy on my Lord,” kyrie eleison. We use them in our own worship, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” We are supposed to understand that she has adopted a posture of true worship, that she acknowledges Jesus as the sign of God’s presence with us, the advent of God’s reign here and now.

But he repl
ies, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What is going on? After preaching a radical, confrontational sermon in the presence of the Pharisees about watching what comes out of your mouth, Jesus addresses this woman in her moment of need, in her desperation, and calls her and her people dogs. It is not a pretty thing.

This text makes most Christians deeply uncomfortable. How do we reconcile our understanding of Jesus as the image of the invisible God made visible, the truly perfect One, with what is essentially a racial slur? How do we get from that word, dog, to the words we sung this morning, “all are welcome in this place?”

Only Matthew and Mark contain this story. Luke omits this story, but has Jesus tell a parable about an unjust judge and a persistent widow who comes to him demanding justice, which he finally grants so that she’ll leave him alone. I sometimes wonder if that parable is a gentler reframing of this uncomfortable encounter between the Son of God and the Daughter of Necessity. Or, perhaps Jesus learned something so profound, so essential to the true nature of his mission that he created a story about the persistent woman and the unjust judge so that he could share with others what he learned himself that day.

In a foreign land Jesus finds a woman, a parent, who will go to any length – even humiliation, even the degradation of racism and nationalism, to obtain healing for her children. She meets his disregard with confidence in God’s healing power – even an attitude of worship. Jesus learns from the Canaanite woman the power of a parent’s love and the depths of pain and humiliation a parent will endure to save their children. Jesus who is bold enough to call God his Father, who teaches us to pray “our Father,” gets a foretaste of the path of worshipful humiliation that stretches before him as he prepares to face the humiliation of the cross for the sake of all people. God’s heart is moved.

“Woman,” he says, “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The number one reason unchurched people cite for joining a community of faith is the pastor’s preaching. But here’s the more interesting thing – once they join, the preaching becomes even less important to them than it is to those who were brought up in the church. For those formerly unchurched people, once they join a community of faith preaching falls to number five on the list of things that keep them active. Above that: ministries that engage them, education and faith formation opportunities that deepen their discipleship, a sense of obedience to what God is up to in the world, the fellowship shared among members, and then – just above the overall quality of worship – is the pastor’s preaching.

This may help us understand how it was that Jesus was able to draw such large crowds and keep their attention as he led them through the wilderness of Israel, as he led them beyond borders and into foreign lands, as he led them to break boundaries and encouraged them to eat with sinners and tax collectors, as he examined the wounds their filled their hearts and filled them with healing. Jesus gave a good sermon, but it was his action that confirmed the truth of his convictions.

God grant that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts find expression in acts of love, mercy, charity and boundless hospitality that is acceptable in the sight of God.


[1] Rainer, Thom. 2001. Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[2] Peterson, Eugene. 2002. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

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