Message for Pentecost 12 on Matthew 15:21-28 and Acts 2:37-42 given on August 20, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. Because we are starting Life Groups in the fall, I changed the New Testament reading to Acts 2.
Our theme right now is “Together in the Boat” (which is funny because there are no boats in our readings today!). It refers to our Gospel last week when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm. Peter walks on the water briefly before the wind scares him, but the storm only calms down when Jesus and Peter get back in the boat together with the rest of the disciples. Dealing with life’s storms and challenges is more successful when we are together in the boat with Jesus.
We have a problem today, however, because our Gospel reading seems to challenge this theme—like Jesus himself is pushing the idea that not everyone is welcome in the boat of faith with him. But that doesn’t really sound like Jesus, so we need to take a closer look. He seems awfully rude to the Canaanite woman, while they are up on the border with what is now Lebanon. But I wonder if his comments are not really intended to teach the disciples a lesson.
Jesus has just finished instructing the disciples about eating with unclean hands—that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—it is what one says that defiles, because this comes from the heart.
In their encounter with the Canaanite woman, it is the disciples who speak of her negatively, that is with defiled hearts. Granted, she is their enemy, and Tyre economically exploited Israel, especially with grain futures, leaving only crumbs for the Israeli farmers. This woman clearly benefited from these economic structures because she is wealthy—her child sleeps on a bed not simply a cot like most of the poorer peasants that they know.
So the disciples have no patience for this wealthy enemy, and they say so: Send her away Jesus, because she keeps shouting at us. She is a nuisance, a pest and the kingdom is not for her anyway. Send her away – the Greek word is apoluson
But her daughter is sick, and no amount of money has made her well. She acknowledges who Jesus is, Lord, Son of David. This woman actually has the posture and the words of worship – Lord have mercy on me. She is speaking the traditional language of Israelite prayer and worship. Kyrie eleison.
Do you hear the alliteration in their words?—eleison---apoluson. The alliteration in Greek sets up the contrast between the woman and the disciples. The woman--an enemy--has the mind and heart of worship and asks for mercy - eleison. The disciples, have the mind and heart of superiority and exclusion and say– "go away" -- apoluson
Apoluson – this is the same word in Matthew, Mark and Luke in the feeding of the 5000. The disciples say to Jesus, "send the crowds away, we have nothing to offer them." That was pretty recent, and the disciples have not learned the kingdom way, yet.
Jesus lays bare what the disciples really sound like, to hear the exclusion and defilement that was coming out of their hearts; how it sounded when they thought that all the good stuff of God was just for them:
So using sarcasm, Jesus says to the disciples (not the Canaanite woman), Well, yeah, I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel
The disciples hear how ugly the sound. And it gets worse before it gets better. The Caananite woman then kneels before Jesus, now with the posture of worship to accompany the words. With an urgent cry she says, Lord Help me. Again, acknowledges Jesus as her Lord and Savior.
Jesus then magnifies the cost of exclusion and control rather than inclusion and embrace: It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. He is voicing the disciples’ frustration over the economic exploitation of Israel at the hands of Tyre, but personalizing it to this woman—it does sound so awful.
Maybe the disciples are shocked at Jesus words – maybe they feel they are justified—but we do not hear another peep out of them. One hopes they really hear and see the defiling sin that can come out of the human heart.
The Canaanite woman argues her position –even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. All people deserve God’s grace and favor, even a crumb. Because God's grace is so fast, even a crumb is sufficient!
The gospel is preached by a pagan, foreign woman – even she, on the lowest rung of the social, political and religious ladder to the Israelites – is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Jesus commends the woman’s faith and worship and wisdom. She’s inside the boat—and so is her daughter. So are the disciples, recipients themselves of Jesus’ mercy and learning.
The disciples more deeply grasp the truth that no one falls outside of the embrace of God. Then I imagine the disciples start to remember:
• Jesus healed the Gerosene demoniac – who was also outside of Israel—he’s in the boat
• Jesus touched and healed lepers, the lame and those wracked by demons – all unclean and outside of the social and religious communities in Israel—they’re together inside the boat
• Jesus even healed the Roman centurions’ slave – another enemy and oppressor of Israel –and they’re together inside the boat
Maybe this trip to Tyre and Sidon at the border had to happen for the Pentecost that was to come after Jesus resurrection to make sense at all.
Because by the time of the Pentecost event in our Acts passage the whole Mediterranean world was visiting Jerusalem for the festival, and the disciples stopped asking who was in the boat and who was out—they just up and baptized 3,000 people! As you recall at the beginning of Acts Chapter 2, there were Parthians, Medes, Cappadocians, people from Phrygia and Pamphylia, (and all the other names you hope you don't have to read as Assistant on Pentecost!). There were wealthy and poor, women and men, single and married, kids and elderly. They were all gathered together in one place.
The point is—everyone was together in the boat with Jesus. Now, they did not have a mega church building—so they gathered together in small groups and house churches.
Our Acts text says, They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Like the disciples did in the conversation with the Canaanite woman, they experienced transformation in their shared life together through the presence of Jesus’ power in their gatherings! They came to a deeper relationship with Jesus and with each other—they experienced healing, new life, and new relationships, so they invited others to join them! And that’s how the early church grew.
We hope to grow this way too—spiritually, numerically, relationally, devotionally, missionally—by starting Life Groups in September. This is one way to practice living faith together in the boat with Jesus.
Some of you have participated in Life Groups at other congregations—or done them here with our Rooted groups a few years ago, some of you have been in a dedicated Bible study group, or women’s group that share many patterns of a Life Groups. For others, this will be a new practice.
We are hoping that everyone will give it a try for the 6 weeks of our Spiritual Growth Challenge in the fall, we hope groups will continue beyond that. This week I invite you to pray about joining a Life Group yourself. Then begin asking God to show you someone you can invite to join you in a Life Group, especially someone from a different background, like the Canaanite woman in our Gospel reading, so we too can be transformed through new relationships.
We are expanding the boat at St. Luke’s and we want to practice our All Are Welcome invitation with intention and love. With Jesus, no one is supposed to be sent away; everyone is welcome to receive the love and goodness of God.
It’s time to let as many people as possible know that St. Luke’s is a place where they are invited into the boat together with us and Jesus! Amen.