Tag Archive: Barriers

Yesterday’s sermon on Matthew 15:10-28, preached at Community Lutheran Church.

Growing up, as a typical older sister, I did not want my two brothers entering my room. And one day, when I was probably six or seven, I decided the best way to keep them out was to set a booby trap of sorts made out of jacks buried in the carpet. I know, I cringe even thinking about it now… Well, my brothers did not find that boundary… Instead, my barefooted Mom did. Now, in talking with Mom, she pointed out that while it hurt at the time, after the fact, she thought it was pretty creative and even funny. But, I still injured my innocent mother and, in the end, hurt myself because I got in trouble for that little stunt!

The point is, when we create or draw boundaries, we often hurt ourselves and others. Today’s readings look at insiders and outsiders, and the boundaries and barriers we so often put on God’s grace and love for the world. And the words we hear from Scripture this morning help us realize that “us” versus “them” is a problem as old as time itself.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that foreigners who follow God’s commands and love God will be welcomed in – that the new Temple of God will be a house of prayer for all people. God is doing a new thing and gathering those who have formerly been on the outside – the marginalized, the foreigners, and those on the fringes of society.

To our ears, this probably sounds like great news – and it is. But I would argue that it was probably difficult for Israel to hear that God was going to be gathering outsiders in. And the Gospel lesson shows us that this hadn’t gotten cleared up by Jesus’ time either.

In an encounter with the Pharisees, they are having a hard time understanding why Jesus’ disciples aren’t obeying the traditional food and purity laws. So in order to clarify, Jesus says that it’s not what goes in your mouth that makes you unclean or separate from God. Instead, the heart is where all of the uncleanness and evil in the world come from. The disciples report to Jesus later that the Pharisees took offense at hearing this. And of course they’re offended, Jesus has called them out for being hypocrites, saying that all their laws and rules are no good if what’s in their hearts isn’t right. The traditional categories of clean and unclean are being challenged.

But it’s what happens next that really brings the idea of inside and outside, clean and unclean into focus. Jesus and the disciples head north to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile cities located on the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon. As they enter, a Canaanite woman appears, shouting at them, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” Talk about a welcome party!

Now a couple of things we should keep in mind.   First, the Canaanites were the ancient enemies of the Jews. Second, this region was one in which Baal worship was traditionally practiced. And yet this woman immediately recognizes Jesus and calls him by his Jewish Messianic title, “Son of David.” She knows who he is, right off the bat. She’s coming to him because her daughter is being cruelly tormented and she believes – no, she knows – that he can do something about it.

And here’s where my heart breaks for her.   Jesus is completely silent. She’s at her wit’s end, worried about her daughter and willing to cross every known cultural barrier to get help. As a Canaanite, a woman, and as someone who’s daughter was possessed, she would have been designated “unclean” many times over. And yet, she calls upon Jesus for help and he’s silent.

In the meantime, the disciples, who have just gotten an outstanding lesson showing that the categories of clean and unclean are changing, tell Jesus to send this woman away because she keeps shouting at them. What an overwhelming show of compassion…

But Jesus does something here that he hasn’t done in his other interactions with Gentiles in Matthew’s Gospel. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That, to me, must have felt like a punch to the gut. But this woman runs up and kneels before Jesus – she worships him and pleads, “Lord, help me.”

And then comes the part that makes this one of my least favorite Gospel readings… Jesus answers her pleas for help with, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Here is a woman in desperate need and Jesus is equating her to a dog? People have said that this is Jesus testing her, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that. People have pointed out that it’s Jesus showing how awful it is to designate who receives mercy or who doesn’t based on whether they are clean or unclean. People have also said that this is the gospel writer trying to show the ever-widening inclusiveness of the Gospel to a predominately Jewish-Christian church.

I don’t know. It certainly is an uncomfortable text, but I think that through this woman’s faith and determination, she shows that no matter who you are or where you come from, you still deserve a crumb of justice and mercy. When still kneeling in the ground she says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” she is both humble and extremely daring. And it seems to bring Jesus back to the Jesus we’ve experienced at other places in the Gospel – the Jesus that acknowledges her amazing faith and immediately heals her daughter.

I’ve been wrestling with this text and I’ve come to see this woman as a type of prophet. She calls out for justice for her daughter and she speaks boldly, helping the disciples, and perhaps even Jesus, to remember that God’s mercy is not only for Israel. She is an outsider, calling the insiders to step out of their comfort zones for the sake of the good news of God’s grace, mercy and healing.

We, like the Israelites, probably don’t like it when we hear that others – the foreigners, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the broken, and the imperfect are all loved by God. We don’t like it because those people aren’t like us. We don’t like it because it forces us to step out of those flimsy little places we’ve constructed as our safe comfort zones. As J.J. Heller sings about the expansiveness of God’s love in her song, “Small:”

Cardboard cutouts on the floor
People wish that you were more like what they wanted you to be
Eventually they won’t have much of you at all in their theology
The walls are closing in on you
You cannot be contained at all

I don’t want to make you small
I don’t want to fit you in my pocket
A cross around my throat
You are brighter than the sun
You’re closer than the tiny thoughts I have of you
But I could never fathom you at all

We need people who are different than we are to help us see the limitless nature of God’s love. We need people to help us see different points of view – to stretch us and challenge us.

And when we create barriers or form groups, we eventually set up an us versus them mindset. Instead of admitting that we may have been at fault for something, we place the blame solely on others, never finding reconciliation and healing. Or rather than agreeing to disagree on certain political issues, we hear the blanket statements “all Democrats are wrong” or “all Republicans are wrong” and we cannot learn from the other side. This kind of attitude can even coopt the Gospel. The good news that Christ died on a cross and was raised to new life for the forgiveness of our sins and the reconciliation of the whole cosmos becomes, “well, Lutherans do it right and other denominations are wrong.”

Right now, the boundaries drawn due to race have come to the forefront in our country. In the city of Ferguson, Missouri it has become clear that there is a divide between blacks and whites – a divide highlighted by painful clashes between protestors and police. In the middle of all of this, it has become clear that there is a conversation that needs to happen in our country regarding race. We can either ignore it and pretend like things are fine, or we can, like the Canaanite woman, shout out “something is not right here – where is the justice and mercy for all people; white and black, poor and rich?” We can ask, “how might God be calling us to act prophetically?”

The Canaanite woman caused Jesus and the disciples to stop short and pay attention – to rethink the boundaries of God’s unfathomable grace. We need to listen to the stories of others who are different than we are in order to hear and better understand their lives. We need others to shake us up out of our normal routine so we can hear again the good news of God’s saving grace for all people. After all, when we come to the Lord’s Table, each of us comes forward, hands outstretched to receive a little crumb of God’s grace and mercy. And it is more than enough. Strengthened by those crumbs, how can we be agents of that grace by standing with those on the margins and speaking out against the injustice we see?

Let us pray… God, as you broke through the barriers and humbled yourself to take on flesh to redeem all creation, challenge us to break through the boundaries and barriers we set that keep us from loving our neighbors as ourselves. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Scandalized by God

This was the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA on Sunday.


This week I received a chain e-mail from a friend of mine.  Now normally I skip over these things pretty quickly, but I was intrigued by the subject line, “The ‘W’ in Christmas,” so I opened it up and read.  Maybe you’ve received this as well, but for those who haven’t, the story goes like this.  There was a mom who, despite all her best efforts to cut back, still found herself running around like a crazy person trying to get ready before the holidays.  She found herself exhausted, frustrated and unable to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.

Her son was in kindergarten that year and he’d been excitedly memorizing songs for his school’s “Winter Pageant.”  Unable to make the actual nighttime performance, his mom went to the final dress rehearsal that morning.  Joined by other parents in the audience, she watched as each class stood and sang their song.  Being a public school, she expected songs about winter, snowmen, reindeer and joy.  However, when her son’s class was up, they announced they’d be singing “Christmas Love.”  As they sang, the children in front held up large letters: “C is for Christmas,” “H is for Happy,” continuing on down the line.   Everything was fine until they reached a small, quiet girl in the front row, holding her “M” upside down.  As the elementary school kids began to snicker, the teachers tried unsuccessfully to quiet them down, but the girl continued, proudly holding her letter, unaware of her mistake.

As the final letter was held up, a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly people realized why they were celebrating Christmas to begin with, and why, in the middle of all the chaos, there was still plenty of room for rejoicing.  The message spelled out on the cards: “Christ was love.”

Now, even if this story isn’t something that actually occurred, it still tells us something powerful about expectations.  A mother’s expectations that her son’s pageant would be full of secular songs were turned upside down when she encountered the very Christmas message she’d been seeking in the chaos.

This morning’s reading from Matthew is all about expectations as well.  Pr. Joe reintroduced us to our wild and fiery prophet John the Baptist last Sunday.  Well, John finds himself in a difficult position in this week’s Gospel.  Sitting alone in prison, John is wondering if Jesus really is the Messiah.  Now remember, earlier, John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  And not only that, but John initially didn’t want to baptize Jesus at all, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Now, locked in a prison cell, he’s wondering if he’s really picked the right messiah.  After all, Jesus wasn’t walking around with his winnowing fork in hand burning up chaff with unquenchable fire.  He hadn’t overthrown the oppressive Roman rulers.  He hadn’t come in like a powerful king, ready to reestablish the Golden Age of King David.

Instead, of fulfilling all of John’s expectations, he’d been teaching and healing people, wandering throughout the land and consorting with all the wrong types of people.  I imagine John pacing around his cell, wondering about this Messiah he’d decided to support, wringing his hands and muttering, “is Jesus really the one?”  Finally, he can’t stand it any longer and he sends his disciples out to ask Jesus directly if he’s the Messiah.

But Jesus doesn’t answer him directly.  He tells John’s disciples to report back to John, bearing witness about what they’ve seen and heard and experienced with their own senses.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus tells them to tell John they’ve seen and heard the promises of Isaiah’s oracle coming true before their very eyes.  In other words, the proof is in the pudding… and maybe since it’s around Christmas, we can say, “the proof is in the Figgy pudding.” It’s up to John to decide who he believes Jesus to be.  This is a theme we will hear ripple out through Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus doesn’t just tell John’s disciples to bear witness to these healings, he also tacks on this last sentence: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Hmmm…  what’s that all about?  The Greek word used for “offense” is one we’re more familiar with that you might think: it’s scandalitzo (σκανδαλίζω).  Say it with me: scandalitzo.  “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.”

While this word is used figuratively here to indicate taking offense at Jesus and his words, it literally means to cause someone to stumble.  Is Jesus telling John not to be offended or not to trip up over the fact that he doesn’t meet John’s expectations of who the Messiah should be and how he should act?

I hear these words about taking offense at Jesus and I don’t think they’re just meant for John the Baptist.  I hear Christ asking each of us if we are offended, scandalized or tripped up by who he is.  What do we find difficult about this Messiah we follow?  Where do we find ourselves stumbling?  Is it when Christ speaks words of judgment in the Gospels?  Is it when Christ calls us turn the other cheek or welcome outcasts?  Is it when we hear Christ’s call to pray for our enemies? Or do we find ourselves tripping up over really believing that the good news is real? And that it’s for each of us?

Rather than being upset or distraught that we are scandalized by Jesus, it’s an opportunity and a challenge to reflect on why we are offended.  It’s a chance to examine where God may be inviting us to grow in different areas in our lives.  If I am scandalized by the fact that Jesus lifts up the poor, perhaps I am being called to grow in my understanding of stewardship and generosity.  Or, if I find myself stumbling over the fact that Jesus calls us to forgive others seventy times seven times, perhaps I’m being called to look again at what it means to forgive and be forgiven.  And in doing this work, it’s important to keep in mind that even John the Baptist was scandalized by Jesus to some extent because he didn’t meet his messianic expectations.  I know I take comfort in hearing that one of the great heroes of the faith struggled with doubts and uncertainties even after he baptized Jesus!

In this morning’s reading, after encountering John’s disciples, Jesus affirms the Baptist’s important role as not only a prophet, but, “more than a prophet.”  In fact, Jesus says he’s the very one who prepared the way for the coming Messiah.  But Jesus isn’t one to just explain things.  Instead, he asks the crowds who have been listening to him about John the Baptist.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

Jesus makes it very clear that this person who appeared to be a wild, raving man was actually the greatest among those born of women.  The one preaching in a wasteland was the one come to prepare and point the way to new life and growth.  He wasn’t what he seemed.  But this isn’t just a message for the crowds that gathered over two thousand years ago.  It’s a message for us.

“What did you go out to look at?  What then did you go out to see? What were you expecting? When you came to church this morning, what did you expect?”  Jesus asks us to think about our own expectations about encountering the holy.  What do we expect to see and hear from God? How do we expect or want God to act? What do we expect God to do? Have those expectations been fulfilled, let down, or changed altogether?

Our tendency is to try to make sense of things.  To organize things into categories and boxes so that we can understand them better, or at least pretend that we understand them! And I think we often try to confine God to a box, describing God in our own terms and putting boundaries on God.  But the amazing thing is that God keeps breaking out of the boxes that we try to keep God in.

C.S. Lewis’ children’s book and Christian allegory, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describes this well.  In this book, Aslan, the magnificent lion that represents Christ, leaves to go about his mission in the world.  One of the characters explains his departure in this way: “He’ll be coming and going.  One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

I love that! God isn’t tame.  God is consistently breaking through the barriers we try to put up, which makes us a little uncomfortable and maybe even frustrated.  Bursting through the boxes we try to stick God in and shaking up our expectations, God is wild and mysterious.  And God, in Christ, comes to stir things up – to turn the world upside down through bringing about a new kingdom!  God is active and alive, not confined by our preconceptions.

This time of year, we celebrate God coming to earth and bringing about this kingdom.  We think about Jesus as an adorable baby in a manager surrounded by sheep, donkeys and oxen, which is totally appropriate.  But it’s also important that we remember that this baby is one who came to change the world and bring about an entirely new way of being – to bring life out of the barren wilderness, and to bring light into the darkness.

So, what do you expect see and hear when you encounter God? And how might God be changing that? Are you open to having those expectations changed, or does that offend and scandalize you?

I invite you to take the card you should have received when you came in this morning.  Write down your expectations of God and write down where you feel offended.  Pray about these things.  And listen for God’s response in your life.  How might these places be areas to grow and change in your life this Advent and into the coming year?

Let us pray… Open our hearts, O God.  Scandalize us with your gospel and your love!  And may we grow closer to you as you continue to challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones into the places and spaces to which you call us.  In the name of your dear Son we pray, Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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