Beyond the Boundaries

As we hear from our Gospel reading this morning Jesus is teaching his disciples, instructing them in the fine details of his program to take back the world. Then Peter asked Jesus, "Explain this parable to us." Jesus is amazed that his disciples just don't seem to get the point of his teaching.

Matthew, more so then any of the Gospel writer's portrays the disciples as people who never seem to quit get the point. And you'll find this to be true throughout the entire Gospel of Matthew.

Well after all his teaching, Jesus ventures out beyond the typical geographical and religious boundaries of his time, out toward the shadowy district of Tyre and Sidon. It's there he meets a Canaanite woman who shouts at him with a nagging persistence.

The disciples showed no compassion for her or sensitivity to her needs. And after a while the disciples have had just about enough of this woman. She was becoming a real pain and the disciples began to plead with Jesus to, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."

But Jesus ignored them and continued on with his mission. He had come for the lost sheep of Israel and that's where his focus seemed to be. After all this is what the Messiah was expected to do according to the Jewish scripture. When the Messiah came, he would reconstitute Israel and gather the scattered sheep. And this is what Jesus had been doing up to this point in Matthew's Gospel.

Now these words of Jesus may be disturbing to some, but they do not contradict the truth that God's message is for all people, because it is. Jesus ministered to all people throughout his ministry. Jesus was simply telling the woman that Jews were to have the first opportunity to accept him as the Messiah because God wanted them to present the message of salvation to the rest of the world.

This is a sub theme that runs throughout Matthew's Gospel and it comes through once again today. You will recall Matthew's Gospel begins with a group of gentile stargazers, the magi, coming to worship the infant Jesus. And at key points throughout Matthew's account of Jesus' life, these Gentiles keep showing up, breaking in, and intruding into the life of Jesus. The Canaanite woman we read about today just happens to be one of the more intrusive Gentiles to break into Jesus' inner circle.

Jesus at first attempts to push her away, informing her of his understanding of his mission to save the lost from the House of Israel. But she persistently demands help, because her need for help is great. Her daughter is ill, and she needs a miracle of healing and needs it immediately.

Hasn't Jesus made it clear that his mission was to save the lost people of the house of Israel? She is not part of that household. But you'll recall Jesus and his disciples are now out in gentile country and she is a Gentile. And not only is she a gentile, she is a woman, who dares to speak to a distinguished male religious teacher like Jesus.

Jesus attempts to brush her off with the little slogan about not giving the children's bread to dogs. Dog was a term used in Jesus day by the Jews to describe Gentiles who were pagan. The Jews believed because they were pagan they were as likely as Dogs to get God's blessings.

But the woman engages Jesus in a debate saying, "But even the dogs are allowed to gather up the children's crumbs from under the table. That's all I'm asking." The woman basically agrees to be considered a dog, and was content as such, as long as she could receive God's blessings for her daughter. She really gets to Jesus. Then out of nowhere Jesus shouts, "Great is your faith!" Which is remarkable because only a few verses ago Jesus was marveling at the lack of faith and understanding among his own disciples.

As it turns out Jesus wasn't rejecting the Canaanite woman during this story. He may have wanted to test her sincerity. Did she have a genuine faith or would she readily give up when she was rejected. Well Jesus uncovered a genuine faith and used this event as another opportunity to teach his disciples that faith is available to all people. Her faith is a great contrast to the lack of faith among those of Jesus' own inner circle. His disciples don't understand. We the church often don't understand.

It's ironic isn't it that many Jews would lose God's blessing and salvation because they rejected Jesus, and many Gentiles would find salvation because they recognized and accepted him. This pushy woman seems to understand that the grace of God present in Jesus will not be limited by human boundaries of who is deserving and who is undeserving, who is on the inside and who is on the outside. And because of the Canaanite's women's persistence her daughter is healed.

We should read this story as being revealing of Jesus, and also revealing something about us, the disciples of Jesus, all of us here - the church. You see Jesus is willing to be engaged by this assertive, needy woman. She comes from the margins, the fringe, and pushes her way into Jesus, thus revealing something about the mission of Jesus that we had not known, at least up to this point in Matthew's Gospel, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation are for everyone.

How great is the Canaanite woman's faith that Jesus would have compassion on her? How great is our faith? Do we have a deep-rooted faith? How persistent are we to want to get closer to God? Are we ready to push aside the distractions, the nay Sayers, and the hard obstacles, are we ready to adjust our priorities to get closer to Jesus, or do we stop short because we are afraid to make waves, afraid of what others might think, afraid to make Christ our number one priority.

A couple of Sunday's ago; we noted how Jesus demonstrates an abundance of compassion, so much so that he feeds the multitudes. Well once again we witness his overflowing compassion. His love and healing power are not just for the "insiders," those who have God's word, those who have come forward to follow him, his disciples, us, the church. His healing power overflows even to this outsider, this woman, this Gentile, this so called "dog."

This story in Matthew follows a whole series of perplexing, hard-to-understand parables of Jesus. Today we encounter a parable about the compassion of Jesus that reaches out beyond our boundaries. But here we may also see a parable about the way we, the church, the insiders react when we learn Jesus' good news is also good news for the outsiders.

As Christians, Jesus is our friend. We have come together today to be close to him. Perhaps it's only human to want him to be our special friend and no one else's. Are we disturbed that outsiders to the church are blessed?

There are many congregations who take pride in saying they are a "friendly church." What they usually mean is that those who are in the congregation experience the church as a warm, caring, and friendly place. But the very quality that makes the church so friendly and warm for those on the inside may make it feel just the opposite for those on the outside.

Some years ago, in a church I attended, we decided we wanted to grow, to move beyond where we were, to do more then just worship with ourselves on Sunday mornings. To prepare ourselves for this faith walk the first thing we did, after prayer of course, was to step out into the church parking lot and just look around.

We began to imagine we knew nothing about the church and that we had just arrived on a Sunday morning to worship. Well we were both amazed and confused. It was uncomfortable to view our church, not from the inside, the way we usually viewed it, but from the outside.

We discovered there was no way to tell what the church was doing, the ministries we were engaged in, type of worship service, and so on. Those on the inside knew, but no one on the outside did. What we discovered was that we had unconsciously formed a church around us, around the insiders, and erected all sorts of barriers to entrance. This exercise was very revealing. And today's Gospel, I think, is a parable about this point.

When I began serving here at Trinity (Catoctin) one of the first things I did was try to look at the church through the eyes of a visitor, through the eyes of a non-Christian, and through the eyes of someone unchurched in the community.

Many of the things we have done this past year to raise the awareness of who we are as Christ's church, and to be more visitor friendly are a result of several people informally going through the exercise I described a minute ago. We must be careful to not fall into the trap the disciples did, becoming exclusive, being only accepting to people who are like us. We're not a country club; we are Christ's church. We must be inclusive meaning we accept all individuals as children of God with love and compassion, as long as we don't adulterate our Christ-like ways, as I mentioned last week.

The pushy Canaanite woman is desperate in her need. Her beloved daughter is ill and she needs help. So she pushes forward to Jesus, she allows nothing to get in her way, she pushes aside all obstacles. She's clearly a woman on a mission.

A few weeks ago I met a man at an event I was attending. We talked for a little while and then I asked him what he did for a living. His response was profound. He said, "I am a witness for Christ but I work as a butcher to pay my bills." And as we talked more I began to realize this man, like the Canaanite woman was on a mission. His message was to live and proclaim the gospel, and nothing was going to stop him. How great and genuine is his faith.

There have been times when I, as a pastor, have thought that some of these so called outsiders put us insiders to shame with their pushy determination to get close to Jesus. Perhaps the problem lies in our need, or lack of it. Those of us in the church, fairly content with our world, not too desperate, not too much pain. Well perhaps we don't have much desire either. After all what more can Jesus do for us?

Jesus praises the woman for her great faith. I wonder what he might say to us? Jesus will not be limited by our definitions of insiders and outsiders. We want to build walls and boundaries; Jesus pushes out beyond these boundaries to a fresh definition of God's family and bids us to do the same.

Inside these four walls is not our parish; the world is our parish beginning right here in Emmitsburg (Thurmont) reaching to the far ends of the earth. Let us tear down the barriers in our own life that limit us, those things that prevent us from getting closer to Jesus; whether it be prejudice, financial hardships, relationship issues, feelings of inadequacy, and so on.

Let us tear down those barriers, which exist within our congregation so that we can be a true beacon of hope in the community, whose light has no end.

A number of years ago while in Germany President Regan said, when speaking of the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbechof tear down this wall." Well, Christ's church, today I say, "Tear down your walls, don't limit God, move beyond the boundaries."

Read other messages by Pastor Wade