Homily From Service Sunday, August 20, 2023 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
by Guest, Rev. Dr. Elise Feyerherm
Sermon preached by Guest, Rev. Dr. Elise Feyerherm
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
I have not been to a child’s birthday party in a very long time, but I find myself wondering whether they still play the classic game “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” at said parties. I wonder this because the gospel for today has put us a bit in the role of the poor child who has been blindfolded, spun around until their head is whirling, and then has the task of figuring out which direction to go in to find the poor tail-less beast. Without, of course, injuring any of the other partygoers in the process.
Our gospel sets us all in a similar sort of whirl, presenting multiple possible directions all at once, and it is not particularly clear which one is the right one. Is Jesus a faithful, Torah-abiding son of Israel, as Matthew generally would have us believe, or is he stripping away the power of external regulations in religious life? Does Jesus have compassion on all persons regardless of their origin, or is he a narrow-minded bigot who cannot see the purpose of tending to anyone outside the house of Israel? Is he the Son of the living God, without sin or defect, or are there limits to his understanding?
With Jesus and the disciples, we find ourselves in a kind of liminal space, on the threshold between alternate realities. Jesus has been in Galilee, discoursing with his own Jewish neighbors, healing their infirmities and feeding thousands. We hear the tail end of those conversations in the beginning of today’s gospel reading, as Jesus reflects on the significance of the Jewish laws of purity. But then he leaves that place, we are told, heading toward the district of Tyre and Sidon. Gentile territory. Foreign territory. It’s not clear whether he actually crosses over the boundary, or simply is heading in that direction; in any case, Jesus is not staying still. He is on the move. And we are on the move with him.
Being on the move means you have to be ready to pivot if the circumstances demand it. It means you might have to shift to plan B, or C, or D. It means that what you could count on in your settled life might not be true anymore. The old categories may end up crumbling. Being on the move, in that liminal space between the familiar and the unknown, means that you probably won’t be the same at the end of it: transformation is coming.
It may be unsettling to a lot of people, even to us, the possibility that even Jesus himself might experience and – this is key – need transformation. That he might not see the whole picture all the time, at least during his earthly life. That he might have succumbed to the same tribalism of which we are so painfully guilty today. How can we turn to Jesus as Redeemer if he shows signs of needing to be, if not exactly redeemed, then at least redirected?
These questions lead us toward our own Tyre and Sidon, regions of shadow and uncertainty. We are nowhere close to pinning the tail on the donkey here; instead we fumble about, not sure which direction to turn. How to find Jesus when he defies our expectations, and even seems to let us down? How to relate to a Savior who leads us into such enigmatic territory? This is a question answered best not by academic theology, but by determined Christian practice. It is not so much about the nature of Christ in his divinity and humanity, but more about us and the nature of our prayer.
As examples, the disciples, unfortunately, are not much help here, but we are used to that. Their response is to push away anything or anyone that doesn’t meet their standards. But there is someone who knows what to do with a recalcitrant savior – I think we would do well to follow her lead. This Canaanite woman is not put off by Jesus’ refusal to answer her, nor by his not-so-subtle insult comparing her and her child to dogs. She could walk away, as we might be tempted to walk away from a savior who does not meet our expectations. But she does not.
To her there is no contradiction in a Messiah who is both sovereign Lord of all creation and at the same time knows human uncertainty in himself. She begs, she pleads, but she is not obsequious; she will go head-to-head with the Lord of all the earth, precisely because she knows who he is, and she knows he can handle her challenge.
The Franciscan friar Robert Lentz has created a striking icon of this woman – though he names her according to Mark’s version instead of Matthew’s, calling her Syro-Phoenician instead of Canaanite. Regardless of her title, she is a force to be reckoned with. Her gaze cannot be eluded; she is laser focused. Her left hand covers her chest, while her right hand is raised above her head, fingers splayed, as if to summon, or even bless.
In this woman I think we find a model for our prayer, especially in times when we don’t know which way is up, when we’re not sure who or what Jesus is. It is not only her persistence, though it is that.
As biblical scholar and teacher Mitzi Smith has written, “Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes.” I think it is more than persistence. I see in this woman the refusal to reduce Jesus to one thing or another. To bow in awe and to argue with Jesus are not contradictions to her. They dance together in that mysterious, liminal space we call life.
This encounter with the Canaanite woman changes Jesus’ mind, and it changes the course of the gospel itself. This woman’s challenge stands as a pivotal moment between two miraculous feedings of thousands of hungry souls. The first time, in chapter 14, five thousand are fed, with twelve baskets left over – symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The second time, as Jesus returns from his encounter with this determined woman, four thousand are fed, and seven baskets left over – symbolic, some scholars say, of the Gentiles. The Good News has been set free to provide more than just crumbs under the table, prefiguring Jesus’ command at the close of Matthew’s gospel: “Make disciples of all nations.”
The very purpose of Jesus’ ministry has been altered by this persistent, reverent woman, which is really to say that the mission of the Body of Christ on earth has been transformed by her. And we realize, finally, that the challenge is really to us. We are the ones being summoned and blessed by the Canaanite woman. We are the ones ignoring her. Her daughter is being tormented, and yet we say she is not our responsibility.
Who is she, here and now? Who has thrown themselves down at the feet of the Church, begging for the mercy of Christ, and has been ignored or dismissed? Who is waiting in that liminal place for the Body of Christ to venture out towards our version of Tyre and Sidon? Whose challenge will remind us that this is no game of pin the tail on the donkey, but an invitation to venture out into unfamiliar territory, knowing that we might be challenged and changed?
Were we to respond to this challenge, what blessing might be spread throughout the world in Christ’s name?
Anglican priest and professor Steven Shakespeare has written a collect for this day; let us pray: [O God], you let the Gentile woman subvert your plans: give us the faith that comes from the heart and walks beyond our boundary posts that we might be surprised by outrageous grace; though Jesus Christ, son of David and light of the world. Amen.