Who's In, Who's Out?
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
August 17, 2014

Matthew 15:21-28 [link]


Is there anyone here old enough to remember the Little Rascals: “Spanky,” “Buckwheat,” “Alfalfa,” and the rest of the gang? Does everybody remember them? Is there anyone who doesn’t? Ah, yes, I see that hand. The Little Rascals was a show about a group of poor neighborhood children and their adventures. It was filmed in the 1920’s and 30’s, back in the early days of moviemaking, and then syndicated for television in 1955. I hadn’t been born yet, but those little rascals were still around when I was old enough to watch and I loved to watch them. One of my favorite episodes was the one where Spanky started the “He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club.” He called the regular meeting of his boys club to order and said, “We all know those McGillicuddy girls gave a party and not one of us was invited. Now, what do you say if we form a new club, and call it the He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club?”

And all the boys cheered.

The first order of business was to elect a president, and the president had to be the worst woman hater of all.  So, Spanky nominated Alfalfa because, as Spanky pointed out, “He hates women.”  But it turns out Alfalfa didn’t hate women.  In fact, he had just sent a love note to the beautiful Darla.  When he got to the meeting late he learned that a new club had been formed and he had been elected president.  His first order of business was to enforce the rules.  “The rules of this club must be obeyed!” he said, thumping the podium.  And then he held up a huge paddle and said, “Any man who breaks the rules will get five swats with this paddle!”  And then it occurred to him to ask Spanky: “What have I been elected president of?”  “The He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club,” Spanky said.  “And what are the rules?” Alfalfa asked, nervously.  “No man is to be seen with girls,” Spanky said.  “He can’t look at them, he can’t talk with them, he can’t walk with them, and he can’t even write letters to them.” 

Which put the new president in somewhat of a bind. 

Now the HMWHC is an extreme example, but to some extent every club works this way, doesn’t it?  You come up with a cause, you elect some officers, you lay down some rules, and the rules help you determine who’s in and who’s out.  In the case of the He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club, you were in if you were a he-man who hated women, but if you didn’t hate women, and you let it slip in any way, you were out.  It won’t surprise you that Alfalfa eventually let it slip, but then, so did all the other boys.  Now, we can laugh about the He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club: it was just some boys pretending to be men.  But there are other clubs that aren’t so laughable, aren’t there?  Clubs that make it clear: “We welcome as members people who are just like us, and if they aren’t just like us they are not welcome.”  You’re heard of clubs like that.  You may have been excluded from clubs like that.  And if so then you know that often they aren’t clubs at all, but communities, societies, nations, and the nation of Israel was one of those.

I don’t mean the modern, political entity we call Israel.  I mean the children and grandchildren of Jacob, who ended up as slaves in Egypt.  The ones Moses led into the wilderness.  The ones God made his covenant with at Sinai.  “I am the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” he said.  “You shall have no other gods before me; you shall make no graven images; you shall not take my name in vain; you shall remember my day and keep it holy; you shall honor your father and mother.  You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet your neighbor’s possessions.  If you can keep the terms of this covenant you will be my people and I will be your God.”  And for years and years that’s how it was: membership in God’s club meant that you were a descendant of Abraham and a keeper of the covenant.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is approached by a woman who is not a member of that club.  She asks him to heal her daughter, who is tormented by a demon, but Jesus doesn’t say a word.  She keeps after him until the disciples come to him and say, “Send her away!” but Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”  Finally she falls on her knees before him and pleads with him to heal her daughter, but he says, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  It’s an uncomfortable moment in the Gospel, and it’s an extremely uncomfortable moment for the preacher.  Week after week I tell you about the love of Jesus, how inclusive it is, how unconditional, and yet in this story he sounds like a member of the He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club.  How can I explain his behavior?

I asked my colleagues that question at last week’s meeting of the Tuesday Morning Preacher Club (and just so you’ll know, it’s a very exclusive club.  You have to be a preacher to get in; you have to preach from the lectionary, at least occasionally; and you have to be interested in the kinds of things preachers talk about over morning coffee, which leaves a whole lot of people out).  Rachel May, the pastor of Boulevard United Methodist Church, is a member of that club.  She loves the woman in this story, but she doesn’t love the way Jesus responds to her.  “How could he say such a thing?” she asked last week.  I tried to explain.  I said, “You know how it is.  If we decided to take a medical mission team to Liberia to help with the Ebola outbreak we would be focused on that mission.  If someone came to us asking for food, or clothing, or shelter, we might say, ‘Sorry, we’re here to help with the Ebola outbreak.’  It’s not that those other things aren’t important, but you can’t do everything, right?”

So, maybe that’s all Jesus is saying: that he’s been given a specific, targeted mission.  He has been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  He can’t heal everybody.  I find it easy to put myself in his shoes, and think about how I would respond in a similar situation.  When I go to the hospital to visit one of our members, for instance, I usually go to the information desk, get the room number, and then go up to that room, to visit that person.  I don’t just start visiting people at random, and I certainly don’t try to visit everybody.  I would never get out of the place.  But if I were visiting one of our members, and offered to pray for her, and the woman in the next bed said, “Would you pray for me, too?” I hope I wouldn’t say, “Sorry, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.”  I hope I would say, “Well, of course I will!  What would you like me to pray for?”  I’d like to think I got that from Jesus, but where did Jesus get it?  From this woman?

Let’s take a closer look.

At the beginning of today’s reading Matthew tells us that Jesus left the place where he was and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  It’s possible that he did it because he needed some rest.  In the chapter just before this one Jesus withdraws to a deserted place by himself, but the crowds find him, and he can’t help himself: he has compassion on them, and ends up healing and feeding them.  He gets in a boat with his disciples and goes from there down the coast to Gennesaret but the crowds find him there, as well, and he does the same: he heals them.  Eventually he goes away to the district of Tyre and Sidon, on the coast of modern-day Lebanon.  It seems obvious that he’s trying to get away from the crowds, trying to get some rest, when this woman comes begging for help.  

I tell you, I can sympathize with Jesus.  There are times when you need a break, even from the good and godly work of helping and healing.  But she won’t give him a break.  Matthew says she started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”  She’s not asking; she’s yelling.  But Jesus ignores her completely.  And so she turns to his disciples, asking them to get his attention, until they come to him saying, “Make her go away; she keeps shouting at us!”  And that’s when Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But that doesn’t stop her.  Her daughter is being tormented by a demon, and Jesus is her only hope, so she kneels down in front of him and begs him, “Lord, help me!”  And he says, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  I wish he hadn’t, but he did.  I can only imagine that he’d heard that saying a thousand times in his childhood, and probably in this context, with someone saying that it wasn’t right to take what was meant for God’s people, his children, the Jews, and give it to the Gentiles.  But even that doesn’t stop this woman.  She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” 

And that’s when it happens.  Some locked door in Jesus’ mind clicks open and swings wide.  He looks at this woman in a whole new way.  She is not a dog; she is a person.  And she is a person of great faith.  She will not let herself be dissuaded.  She just keeps coming, begging, pleading, groveling until she finds the key that fits the lock, and it’s this—her faith—and specifically her faith in Jesus.  She believes that he is the one who can heal her daughter.  She latches on and doesn’t let go until he blesses her.  “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus says.  “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  As I said, in that moment a locked door clicks open and swings wide, and this Canaanite woman walks through it to claim her prize.  Her daughter is healed instantly.  And it teaches us a lesson about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to God’s grace.

Paul struggles with this in today’s lesson from Romans.  We didn’t read it, but it’s in that section of the letter where he is asking what will become of the Jews, his “kindred according to the flesh.”  Paul has been preaching to the Gentiles, and they have been hearing the good news about Jesus and receiving it gladly, but the Jews have not.  They cannot believe that Jesus, who was crucified, died, and was buried, could possibly be their Messiah.  They are looking for someone who will conquer and rule, not someone who will suffer and die.  So they listen to Paul right up to that point where he begins to talk about a crucified Messiah and then they turn and walk away.  “What’s to become of them?” Paul wonders.  “Are they in or are they out?” 

At some level he can’t believe they will ever be outside the circle of God’s grace.  “They have the adoption,” he says, “the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5).  But they won’t receive the Messiah Paul preaches.  They won’t confess with their lips that he is Lord, or believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9).  “What’s to become of them?” Paul wonders.  He spends three chapters of Romans trying to work it out.  His reasoning becomes more and more complicated.  He is trying to understand the mind of God and in the end he gives up and says,

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory for ever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

And maybe that’s what we need to say about this passage from Matthew: How can we know why Jesus said the things he said?  “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”  Yet in the end, a Canaanite woman who had been outside the circle of God’s grace was inside.  And that’s what Paul hopes and prays for his fellow Israelites, that they will end up not on the outside of God’s grace, but on the inside.  In the meantime, how glad he is that the Gentiles have found a way in. 

And how glad I am.

It may have started on that day Jesus was in the district of Tyre and Sidon, and a Canaanite woman came to him saying, “Lord, help me!”  Her stubborn faith may have been the key that unlocked the door that let her inside the circle, so that when Jesus called Paul that day on the road to Damascus, he called him to go to the Gentiles, since they, too, were part of God’s family.  In the beginning it was a matter of birth, a matter of being one of the children of Abraham, but in the end it was a matter of faith, a matter of saying “Lord, help me!”  That’s what brings us inside the circle of God’s grace these days.  That’s really all we have to say.  And as we come to the time of invitation I wonder: is there anyone here today who is ready to say that?  Anyone who has tried everything?  Anyone who is on the verge of giving up?  Is it possible that you could come to Jesus today as that woman did and say simply, sincerely, “Lord, help me!”?

Who knows what doors might swing open?

Jim Somerville 2014
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