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Time after Pentecost #20 (A)
Text: Genesis 45:1-15, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:10-28
August 14, 2011      

This morning we have heard the next installment in the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Last week we heard of the time his brothers decided to do away with him and sold him into slavery to a band of passing Mideonites.  Joseph ended up in Egypt as a servant in Pharoah’s court.  Between last week’s reading and today’s passage from Genesis 45 a few more things happened to Joseph and, SURPRISE!, he is now a valued man who works for Pharoah and actually has quite a bit of power in Egypt; a long way from the little daddy’s boy who got thrown into a pit and left to die because his brothers couldn’t stand him.  Now, those same brothers are standing before Joseph—although they don’t know who he is—and they are seeking help.  What could have been a morality tale entitled “what goes around comes around” turns into a story of forgiveness and mercy.  But there is that moment, that short breath of time, just after Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, when the brothers wait to find out what is going to happen.  Not only are they in a position of needing help, they have asked the one person in the world who could, perhaps legitimately, deny them help—or use his power to put them in jail…or worse!  


Mercy.  Forgiveness.  The power of words to heal and unite.  To mend broken hearts and comfort broken lives.  Remember that time when all you hoped for was to be welcomed back into someone’s life?  How about the burden of knowing that you screwed up and hurt someone else?  What about those moments when you can’t seem to stay busy enough to forget how worthless or alone you feel?  I think, on our good days, most of us can usually accept that we have been forgiven and that God’s mercy is for us.  But there are days when we feel like Joseph’s brothers, waiting to hear that help is available but sure that it will be denied.  Waiting to find out if we are going to be forgiven or left to rot in the prison of our mistakes.   Wondering if this is going to be the sin that finally drives God away for good. 


Our gospel passage contains two encounters, the first scenario is actually the end of the first encounter and it is between Jesus and those who were very concerned about ritual cleanliness and the second scenario is between Jesus and a gentile woman who needed help. 


Ritual cleanliness…doesn’t seem like a controversial subject…I mean, everyone likes to be clean, right?  Well…here’s the deal.  This was not washing hands like we usually think of it…soap or disinfectant…cleaning under our fingernails…you know, actually cleaning off dirt and germs.  This was more of a sacred ritual that probably didn’t do a lot of actual cleaning.   AND, if they did not wash, then they could not participate fully in their religious life.  Jesus’ disciples were getting called on the carpet for not doing this ritual.  So according to the tradition, they were defiling themselves by eating with unclean hands.  That brings us to today’s passage with Jesus teaching about the difference between what goes into the mouth and what comes out of the mouth. 


Like so many situations, the problem being debated is not the real issue.  The big problem was not the neglect of the ritual, but that by not doing the ritual, the disciples were acting like gentiles.  “They” were acting like “them.”  The dividing line between Jew and Gentile was becoming blurry.  And this whole conversation between Jesus, the disciples and the Pharisees is a set up for the conversation to come between Jesus and the Canaanite (gentile) woman. 


She comes to Jesus for help.  Her daughter is sick.  And Jesus, in a very non-Jesus way, says no, his first priority is his own people.   But this woman does not give up—she has a sick child.  And Jesus relents, commends her for her faith and assures her that her child has been healed. 


At first, it seems as though Jesus is going to keep the dividing line between “them” and “us”, Jews and gentiles.  God’s mercy was reserved for Israel.  Now there are many theories as to why Jesus acted the way he did.  The two most popular these: 1. Jesus wanted to use his encounter with the woman as a teaching moment for his disciples or 2.  Jesus had a more narrow understanding of his mission, but because he opened his heart to a stranger in need, he grew in his own self-understanding.  Quite honestly, either theory works for me because the result in the same:  God’s mercy is for everyone.  When we are talking about the grace and love of God, there is no “us” and “them.”   The dividing lines must go away.  The words that come out of our mouths must come from hearts that finally understand that there is no distinction between people when it comes to God’s mercy.  There is no distinction between sin when it comes to God’s mercy.


Those moments when we are waiting, like Joseph’s brothers, to find out if we are going to receive mercy or a swift kick, no longer have to exist.  We don’t have to worry or wait or wonder when God is finally going to say…”that’s enough.  I’ve had it with you.  Don’t bother calling on me anymore.” 


When we stand in worship and we sing the words, “Lord, have mercy” we can finally believe that mercy will come.  We stand in solidarity with the Canaanite woman and, like her, we are bold enough to cry out because we can be confident that God will hear us and will respond. 


Author and church development consultant, Kelly Fryer, tells of a time in seminary when she was listening to an uninteresting lecture on a beautiful day when everyone would rather be outside. Apparently the professor sensed that nobody was being attentive because suddenly he closed his notebook and stopped talking. “He wasn’t going to waste one more breath on us,” she writes. But, before leaving the lecture hall, he picked up a piece of chalk and going to the blackboard he drew a huge arrow pointing straight down. He stood back and told the class, “If you understand that, you understand everything you need to know about what it means to be a Christian …” and with that he left the room.

Everyone remained for a time staring at the arrow pointing downward. Fryer admits that the most logical thing she could think was, “He thinks we’re all going to hell.”

But the next time the class met the professor began his lecture by drawing that same arrow on the board. This time he had everyone’s complete attention. “Here’s what this means,” he told them. “God always comes down. God always comes down. There is never anything that we can do to turn that arrow around and make our way UP to God. God came down in Jesus. And God still comes down, in the bread and in the wine, in the water and in the fellowship of believers. God ALWAYS comes down.”

We trust in this because we know we must have this mercy and love in our lives.  We read with confidence the words of Paul, that God is merciful to all.  Thanks be to God! 


Pastor Charlane Lines

418 W. Main St.

Sidney, MT 59270