Here’s the thing. Last week’s story was about Peter, the rock on whom Christ would build the church, and the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. Today’s story is about a foreign woman, not an adherent of the Hebrew tradition. She’s excluded on two counts: she’s a foreigner, not a member of the tribe, and she’s a woman, who in the ancient of days was of little account in a male dominated society.
Yet, she was driven by need, by the circumstances of her daughter. The Canaanite woman shouted at Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
She prayed the right prayer. In fact, it’s the prayer we pray all the time, Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy. It’s a basis of the Jesus Prayer, central to piety in the Russian Orthodox tradition: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We don’t pray, Kyrie Eleison, out of thin air without cause. There’s always some specific something in our life circumstances that causes us to cry out. For the Canaanite woman, it was deep concern for the well-being of her daughter.
The Canaanite woman’s heart was true. She was desperate. She sensed in Jesus someone to turn to for help, given her likely awareness of what Jesus had done for many in her similar circumstances.
Indeed, Jesus was known for his gut-wrenching compassion for the crowds. But here’s the astonishing thing recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus “did not answer her at all.” Jesus completely ignored her – like the many times in New York City I would completely ignore people on the street who clamored for my attention for one reason or another (looking back, I am not proud of that, especially when those seeking my attention were desperately poor and in genuine need).
Apparently, the Canaanite woman did not let Jesus’ ignoring her in silence stop her, for the disciples said, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
Then Jesus finally replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
That did not stop her. She knelt before Jesus, a posture of worship and adoration and respect and honor, and she spoke again with this simple plea: “Lord, help me.” Calling Jesus Lord is a recognition of his authority, it’s a stance of faith.
Then Jesus, as recorded in Matthew, offers another astonishing response, an insult: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Wow. That, an insult, out of the mouth of our loving Lord Jesus?
Jesus remains sealed within the cocoon of his religious and ethnic heritage, at this point unwilling to see beyond those confines.
But then the Canaanite woman speaks again: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Touché! Great come back, we might say. Gotcha.
Well, it did get to Jesus apparently, breaking through his hermeneutically sealed boundaries. That’s when Jesus answered, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Then her daughter was healed instantly.
“Woman, great is your faith!” Or Jesus might have said, “You have real chutzpah!” Or we might call her response the audacity of faith.
It was this audacity that broke through Jesus’ religious and ethnic boundary walls and got him to acknowledge that which was unmistakable, namely, that the Canaanite woman, excluded as both woman and foreigner, had great, audacious faith, trust in the lordship of Jesus. Lord, give us such faith!
It is here that I cannot help but think of various protest movements throughout the ages waged by the powerless and marginalized against whatever “powers that be” that have inhibited God’s justice. Think of it: Abolition of slavery; Women’s suffrage, the centennial anniversary of which we celebrate in 2020; the Civil Rights Movement. You name it, historically it has always taken the audacity, the boldness of faith to break through and make for major societal change.
Again, God in Christ, have mercy on us, and give us such faith.
In the spirit of audacious faith, I want to turn your attention now to our Hymn of the Day for today, “Day by Day, Your Mercies, Lord, Attend Me.” It’s a hymn that came from the Swedish Lutheran Pietist tradition. It’s a favorite of many North American Lutherans of Swedish descent. It’s a favorite of mine. It was a favorite of faithful women of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh when I introduced it to them.
On the face of it, more heady Lutherans might dismiss the text of the hymn as overly sentimental, Pollyannaish, too sweet, and precious.
Perhaps the charge that this hymn text is too sentimental can be challenged by the biographical circumstances of the hymn writer, Carolina Sandell Berg. As a child, she was frail and endured significant illness. She was devoted to her father, a Swedish Lutheran priest. When she was 26, Carolina was present and saw firsthand her father fall overboard on a boat outing. She watched him die by drowning. What a horrific thing for a young person to witness. But it was this experience that birthed her religious poetry that became hymns.
Given the theme of the audacity of faith, I am moved to frame the text of “Day by Day” not so much as a sentimental pious song, but rather to view it as a kind of protest song, a song of audacious faith in the spirit of the Canaanite woman.
Here is the stanza that has given me encouragement and strengthen my faith throughout the years, and I use this to conclude my sermon – listen for hints of faith’s boldness:
“Day by day, I know you will provide me strength to serve and wisdom to obey; I will seek your loving will to guide me o’er the paths I struggle day by day. I will fear no evil of the morrow, I will trust in your enduring grace. Savior, help me bear life’s pain and sorrow till in glory I behold your face.”
God in Christ, give us such faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As is our custom now for home worship, I invite your reflection and maybe conversation on the following:
- What circumstances in your life provoke you to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord”?
- Name persons you know who show forth in their lives the audacity of faith.
- Remember occasions when perhaps you have experienced such audacious faith.
God bless your reflections and conversations.