The Offensive, Healing Kingdom
Sermon on Matthew 15:10-28
Today’s gospel reading offers us two different scenes, and the lectionary actually gives preachers the choice of only reading the second one. I opted not to do that, because I think these scenes interact in important ways, but they are clearly distinct, so this sermon is going to be in two parts.
Part 1: Don’t take offense, it’s distracting.
The first time I heard the phrase “the gospel is offensive” I got offended. (Ironic, I know.) But that phrase felt to me like an attack on God. God is supposed to be good…
And in my feminine, white, middle class worldview everyone knows that the good people are polite.
(I didn’t know Jesus quite as well then as I do now!)
But I also now know that it isn’t just me. I got a pointed question a few months ago about including the phrase “the scandal of the cross” in our Prayers of the Church, even though that phrase was actually taken directly from one of that day’s readings.
It is uncomfortable to embrace the idea that the gospel is supposed to be, well, uncomfortable. We want it to be comforting, and filled with grace, and healing, and IT IS.
But it is also offensive. It HAS to be – because if the gospel never tells us that we are wrong, then we don’t need grace. If we have nothing from which to repent, we don’t need forgiveness.And if we are content with the world as we make it, we can’t accept the radical change of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.
Not that any of this comes naturally. In my more honest moments, I recognize that I really identify for the disciples when they come to Jesus and say: “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”
I have had a few times in sermon preparation, when I have looked at the text, and felt the prodding of God’s Spirit, and said: “Wonderful as this congregation you have given me is, God, don’t you know that people will get offended if they hear me say that?”
If they feel like I am calling them out…
Or if they think I’m taking sides in a political debate…
Or if I say Jesus does exactly not share their worldview.
Thankfully, God’s Spirit has never responded, as Jesus did in our gospel reading, by saying “they are blind... let them fall into a pit” . Rather, God’s Spirit has reminded me of why we all need to hear the gospel.
We need to hear the offensive gospel because we all need to be changed, and that doesn’t come from being told that we are already right. We all have things in our hearts that defile us. Whether they be one of the evil intentions Jesus names in this text, or something else that he names elsewhere… something like pride, or anger, or selfishness, or greed, or apathy toward the pain of others, or self-righteousness.
I have found all of those things in my heart, just in the last week.
So I know that I need to speak the truth of the gospel, not just in spite of the offense, but because of it! Because while it might be true that "the best Offence is a good Defense", it is also true that the best Defense is to get Offended.
Because offense is a satisfying distraction. It lets us reject any legitimate challenge to our way of thinking or doing things, because we can point to the offense and lay the blame there.
And it is this distraction, this deflection that is the real problem with getting offended. Because that offense distracts from the gospel – from the challenge and the hope of being genuinely reformed.
And we need reform – in the Christian church, and in our country. We have some serious issues to deal with – and the one that is attracting the most OFFENSE at the moment is the way we all respond to white supremacy.
And we cannot afford to get distracted (by defensive finger pointing, and who threw the first punch arguments, and “the other side is wrong too” rhetoric). We cannot afford to get distracted from the work of actually figuring out how to heal this evil, how to exorcise this demon. We cannot afford to get offended.
God’s kingdom is for ALL God’s children – today’s lectionary readings make that ABUNDANTLY clear – but white supremacy is defiling the heart of our nation, and our church – make no mistake, the Christian church is deeply implicated in this sin, both historically and in this present moment.
Both our nation and our church are in desperate need of healing.
Which brings me to…
Part 2: Did Jesus REALLY just use a racial slur?
I have been dreading this story coming up in the lectionary, because it deeply offends me. And, yes, I recognize the irony.
The 8 verses of the second half of our gospel reading tell the story of an encounter between Jesus and a desperate foreign woman seeking healing –
a woman whom Matthew describes as a Canaanite, even though there were no Canaanites at the time, in order to underscore the enmity between her people group and Jesus’ Jewish identity –
And for the first seven verses of this story, Jesus treats her like dirt!
First he flat our ignores her;
Then he tells her “your problems have nothing to do with me;”
And then, he calls her a dog who doesn’t deserve the good things his people deserve.
And on this week of all weeks, I just can’t handle racist words in the mouth of Jesus.
I want Jesus to sound like the prophesy from Isaiah: welcoming immigrants to the holy mountain, and calling God’s house “a house of prayer for all peoples;”
And I want Jesus to quote the psalm in calling ALL peoples to praise God, with gladness, singing for joy because God guides the nations (not just Israel);
And I want Jesus to embrace Paul’s vision from Romans that BOTH Jews and non-Jews are united by God’s mercy and promises.
But instead we get a supremacist slur, paired with cold apathy for a suffering child and a desperate mother… and I am left asking “where is the gospel in this story?”
I hope you are too – because it’s an important question. And because it has an amazing, transformative answer.
The gospel is in the mouth of the woman whom Jesus called a dog, unworthy of his attention. The woman who took his slur and turned it around to challenge his limited worldview. His rejection of her plea for healing reflected a scarcity model of the Kingdom – a model where there wasn’t enough to go around, so he had to preserve what he had for HIS people. But she called that lie what it was, and used his own insulting language to do so, reminding him that even with a finite meal there are crumbs to give to the dogs.
But, of course, the meal Jesus had to offer was not finite! He had just proved that in the chapter before when he turned 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast for thousands with twelve baskets full left over. And if there are no limits on actual, physical bread, then certainly there are no limits on healing and grace.
And when she challenged him – a woman, an ethnic outsider, a desperate mother with an unclean, demon-tormented daughter – when this person from the margins challenged Jesus to live up to his own witness, she CHANGED him. She REFORMED Jesus.
That might actually be the most offensive part of this whole story – the fact that Jesus had to change, had to learn about faith from someone he had discounted as unworthy of his attention or care.
But if we resist the temptation to get offended, and to let that offense distract us from the gospel grace of this story, then there is HEALING for us here.
There is healing in the example of a “great faith” that rejects racial prejudice and a scarcity model of grace, and instead teaches even Jesus what it looks like to model God’s kingdom.
And the fact that Jesus was changed by this encounter is an important part of the hope in the story – because Jesus's perfect human nature includes being our model for how to change, how to recognize the limitations in our own view of the kingdom and embrace a greater faith... a faith that believes the demon can be cast out.
There is a demon in our country and in the church – the demon of racism and white supremacy. And this demon, this source of evil is skilled at distracting us from the work of casting it out.
But Jesus’ ministry was transformed by a powerless woman who stood up to hate and said “no. I won’t get distracted by offense, and I won’t accept a scarcity model for God’s kingdom. I belong here too.” And her great faith “radically changes the scope of Jesus’ ministry,” in 1st century Palestine and in 21st Century America.
This is the kingdom message we have inherited:
That there is enough for everyone.
And that GREAT FAITH rejects exclusion, and hateful language, and instead pursues healing.
Jesus learned a lesson from the Canaanite woman that day. And we can too. A lesson that the marks of God’s Kingdom are INCLUSION and FAITH and HEALING –
and that ANYONE can proclaim this gospel. Including you.
Thanks be to God.
 D. Mark Davis: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-gospel-is-going-to-the-dogs.html. (accessed 8/14/17).