August 16, 2020

An Outpost of the Reign of God
Pentecost 11, Proper 15, Year A
Becky Robbins-Penniman

Planet Earth has gone through a very weird spring of pandemic, unfolding into a distressing summer of storms, heat, and economic collapse. Here in the United States, on top of all that, the pressure cooker lid containing the despair of centuries’ of injustice and oppression has been blown sky high, which is daunting enough, but now we are layering on a campaign season that already looks more like a bare-knuckle boxing tournament than the quest of a civil society for principled leadership.

And in this little corner of paradise, some of you have told me, the sun is hiding behind clouds of anxiety that are boiling up as I enter the last two weeks serving you, the people of God, here in this place. This is a great time to remember who we are at the Church of the Good Shepherd. For 10 years, I’ve really given only one sermon: the single purpose for this parish to even exist is for us to be an outpost of the Reign of God.

As a parish, we’ve set out our mission and vision very simply:
We Aspire to live in a world where all creation thrives in God’s love. We Seek to to become who God created us to be by worshiping joyfully, respecting all, sharing generously, and nurturing every spirit.

We are a family, a clan, (for you Scots, a ceilidh), a body of people made up of all sorts of folks, young and old, liberal and conservative, male and female, energetic and tranquil, rich and poor, certain and doubtful, afraid and confident, and everything and everyone in between. Our mission is for each member of this body to worship their Creator with joy, then use their God-given gifts to love each other – and everyone else on Planet Earth – as Christ loved us, thereby joining God’s work of healing all Creation, of living the fullness of the Reign of God right in the middle of a terrifying world.

No worldly problems or issues, no pandemic, economic difficulty, civil unrest, or political brawl, is more real, more certain, than the Reign of God; no power is greater than God working through us to be the Body of Christ in the world today, doing what Jesus did.

Is it sometimes hard to stay focused on what God is doing through us? The answer has to be “YES” because today we hear how even Jesus Christ, God with skin on, once had to get back in focus. For the past few weeks, we’ve heard several great stories where Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God coming on earth, feeding thousands of people on a hillside, and saving Peter when he was filled with doubt and fear.

After those stories, we skip over a couple, but I need to mention them. When Jesus, Peter and everyone else on the boat weathered the storm and came on shore, people flocked around Jesus – again. This time Jesus healed all their diseases; Matthew says “Everyone who touched him was cured.” [Matt. 14:36]

While Jesus was doing God’s work of healing the world, some Pharisees and Scribes showed up to argue with him about the absolute need to follow the rules of religion in order to be saved, to be acceptable to Almighty God, in this case, washing their hands correctly. [Matt. 15:1-20]

Jesus makes it clear as a bell to these uber-observant holy folks that it’s God who does the saving, the justifying, not because people are holy, or even because people are good, but because God is merciful and loving. God asks humanity to respond to divine mercy and love with their own mercy and love, not with hard-hearted legalistic rituals. By denying the Scribes’ and Pharisees power to dictate whom God will save, Jesus makes powerful enemies who will soon find a way to Take. Him. Down. In short, Jesus is not only pretty exasperated with the lost sheep, the people of Israel, but now those lost sheep are acting like wolves.

So Jesus and the disciples leave the crowds, and get back in their boat to sail across the lake again, this time into Gentile territory, into Canaan. Jews and Canaanites have a long history of detesting each other, so Jesus and the disciples assume they will be ignored and thus get a moment of peace and quiet. But, no. A pesky Canaanite woman sniffs Jesus out. She’s heard about him. She actually believes the stories of “everyone” being healed. Her hope soars; she is desperate for Jesus the Healer to do one thing: Heal.

For the sake of her miserable daughter, this Canaanite does something shocking: she, a Gentile woman, ventures out all alone to find this Jewish prophet traveling with a group of men. When she does, she does something else shocking: unlike the Jews he just left, she calls him by the highest title in Israel: Son of David. This is the title of the ultimate king, the Messiah of Israel. Jesus’ identity is affirmed, not by his own people, but by a pesky foreign woman.

Jesus does not respond to her at first; when he does, he actually insults her. He calls her a dog. That’s not nice now, and it wasn’t nice then, either. The Canaanite woman she doesn’t escalate the situation, though. Instead of acting out of her own wounded ego, she stays focused like a laser on what she wants: healing for her daughter. She then joins the ranks of the truly faithful: people like Job, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah – all of whom had enough faith in God to argue with God, to struggle, to explore.

The Canaanite woman enters into a vulnerable, honest dialog with Jesus, God with skin on, to find out just what God is about. She brings into the conversation the same prayer Peter prayed on the lake, a prayer of faith when all seems to be lost, and God is the only hope left: “Lord, help me.” Do what you do, Lord: Save. Rescue. Heal my little girl.

The woman’s unshakable faith that God’s could heal her daughter tied directly into the mission Jesus was giving his life to: God’s project of healing all creation. The woman’s amazing trust in him as God’s presence in her life refocused Jesus as to why he was present there at all. His grief over the perverse obstinance of the Scribes and Pharisees is set aside for now, and he fulfills his main mission: to do what needs to be done for all Creation – including a pesky Gentile woman and her sick daughter – to thrive in God’s love, we all need to be respected, nurtured: healed…

Read the full sermon text HERE.

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