Sunday, August 20, 2023
As some of you know, this August I had the opportunity to serve on the faculty of Pinecrest Lutheran Leadership Ministries, a special one-week Christian leadership camp for youth and young adults ages 15-25 years old. It’s unique in that the campers pretty much run the camp themselves; the pastors and other staff are there to help organize and facilitate classes on leadership, the Bible, and faith and then we all together enjoy the typical camp activities like relay races, swimming in the lake, and talent show night. One of the exercises in our first day of leadership class was to write down ten good things about yourself – personality traits, physical features, even things you are good at doing like baking cakes. I was struck by how virtually none of the 20 amazing young leaders in our class could put more than three good things down about themselves. These are impressively awesome young people, yet they struggled to see any good in themselves.
We had a great conversation about how it’s easier to see the good in others than in ourselves. We are taught not to be prideful or haughty in speaking well about ourselves. But of course, when God created human beings, God called us very good – we are created in the very image of God! And as believers in Christ, we know we are good because God adopts us as his own children, beloved as much as God loves his only begotten son, Jesus Christ. We are good enough because Christ is good enough! HOW do we think of ourselves with audacious humility, believing in our own God-given goodness, and at the same time acknowledging our need for God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ as sinners? The Canaanite woman is an unlikely yet powerful person to help us embrace our God-given goodness with humility.
This is a challenging gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. First of all, we don’t know the tone in which Jesus speaks to this woman who keeps shouting at Jesus to heal her daughter who is being tormented by a demon, but we do know from the text that Jesus basically calls her a dog. Culturally then and now, yes, it is as harsh as it sounds; it is offensive. Jesus has just preached about being careful about what comes out of the mouth and then uses hurtful language to talk about throwing children’s food to dogs in comparing Israelites to Canaanites. This woman humbly knows who she is as a Canaanite, Gentile woman – as a respected Jewish teacher of Israel, Jesus has no obligation to help her or her daughter. Yet this woman also believes in her own God-given goodness – that if the Lord God intended his house to be a house of prayer for all peoples including foreigners, as we heard in Isaiah today, Jesus’ healing can extend to her daughter, too. The woman approaches Jesus with humility but does not let go of knowing her own worth as a child of God. AND she believes in Jesus’ worth and value as her Lord and Savior. At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ closest disciples are still trying to figure out who Jesus is and what his mission is, but it is an unlikely outsider, a Canaanite woman, who knows who Jesus is! It is this unlikely woman who tells us how Jesus’ mission can expand beyond the lost sheep of the house of Israel to others like her, too. Her faith is indeed great as Jesus tells her at the end of our gospel story for today.
The Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is. She cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” Her cry has been used throughout the centuries in worship in the Christian church as the Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy! She doesn’t’ just believe that Jesus can heal her daughter’s demons, she believes that Jesus’ mission can go beyond the people of Israel, beyond her daughter to heal and save the whole world! She recognizes Jesus as THE Lord. She calls Jesus “Lord” three times, in fact. She asks Jesus for help not just for herself, or for her daughter, but that so that Jesus the Lord’s mission and ministry of healing and salvation might be expanded, for the sake of the whole world.
In the first congregation I served, we read a book together as a council written by my mentor, Pastor Dave Daubert, who advised that along with putting together a mission statement, a congregation should have stated core principles or values, and the first core principle should be “Jesus is Lord.” Putting this at the top of our list as Christians keeps us grounded both as individuals and as a church, that everything we do is recognizing Jesus as our Lord.
But we do need to know what we’re talking about when we say that Jesus is Lord. What does it mean that this woman, a non-Israelite Gentile, calls Jesus, “Lord?” What does it mean for us to profess that Jesus is Lord of our lives? We are not British – he is not simply a “Lord of the manor,” reminiscent of Downton Abbey. It is not just a fancy replacement for “Sir” or “Mister” Jesus. In the Old Testament, most English translations of the Hebrew use “Lord,” all caps, as the primary name for God. In the time of early Christianity during the Roman Empire, to call Jesus “Lord,” was subversive. It meant recognizing Jesus as the one with true power as the resurrected Messiah rather than the Roman Emperor as Lord. Because we don’t use that title, “Lord” often if at all to describe anyone but God today, calling Jesus “Lord,” may not carry the same weight or power if we don’t know the story behind the name. Since the beginning of Christianity, saying Jesus is Lord, like the Canaanite woman today, means striving to put Jesus first, above all else. Jesus is our true leader, not the president or your boss at work or even me as your pastor. And the Canaanite woman helps us recognize Jesus as Lord not just of my life or of a certain group of people’s lives like the first disciples or the Jewish people but that Jesus is Lord of the nations, Lord of ALL.
If Jesus is Lord of my life, that means everything else – my phone, my calendar, other’s opinions and thoughts of me, my job, even my family and friends, come after Jesus as my Lord. Jesus as Lord has power over my life in a way that no one or nothing else can. Jesus has power to heal not just this woman’s daughter, but power to heal my life today! Jesus has power partly because I give him that power over my life willingly, in order that he might save my life. And what Jesus can do for me he can do for others – this is what the Canaanite woman recognizes so well. Like the Canaanite woman, we can come to Jesus as Lord, asking for his mercy, and in giving over our lives we start to see ourselves as he sees us; as good, as worthy, as created in God’s very own image; worthy of saving; created for a life worth living. May we see ourselves with audacious humility, united through the healing power of our Lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.