Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dogged Faith

In Nomine Iesu
St. Matthew 15:21-28
August 14, 2011
Pentecost 9-Proper 15A

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

What do you do when you’re desperate? What do you do when you’ve got trouble with a capital T—when you’re past the point of panic, strangled by fear, spiraling downward into despair? What do you do? Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged—Take it to the Lord in prayer. Prayer, of course, is the natural thing for Christians to do in times of trouble.

But what do you do when your prayers seem to fall on deaf ears? What do you do when your trials, temptations and troubles don’t seem to subside—even after you’ve taken it to the Lord in prayer time and time again? What’s a faithful Christian to do when his or her prayers seem to do no good—seem to be met with only the stony silence of God? The Canaanite woman in today’s Holy Gospel provides us with answers to all of these questions.

Jesus happened to be in her town. Her town wasn’t in Israelite territory; it was a Canaanite neighborhood. But this Canaanite woman was desperate. She had trouble with a capital T—panic, fear, and despair. Her little daughter was suffering from demon-possession, and there was nothing she could do about it. How helpless she must have felt—forced to watch her lovely daughter suffer so.

But this woman did the very thing that you and I would do. She turned to Jesus for help. She went running to Jesus and cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” She called Jesus the “Son of David,” which wasn’t the way most Canaanites would speak. She started talking like an Israelite—like a Jew. Talk like an Israelite. Speak like a Jew. Was it a clever strategy to get Jesus to do a favor for her? Still today some people do that when they pray. They pile on the religious phrases—try to sound like someone they’re not. Or they pray in King James English: “O Thou great Jehovah, we dost thank Thee for Thy great bountiful goodness . . .” It sounds impressive, but perhaps less than authentic.

But whatever the case, Jesus met the woman’s prayer with stony silence. “He did not answer her a word.” Nothing. Silence. Strike one. But the woman kept on pleading, over and over again. “Lord, have mercy.” (Just like we pray here nearly every Sunday.) The woman’s desperate pleas start to get on the nerves of Jesus’ disciples and they ask Jesus to send her away. When Jesus finally opens His mouth, He doesn’t even speak directly to the woman. He simply reminds everyone of who she is, and who she isn’t: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In other words, “Sorry, I’m not here primarily for Canaanites like you. Sorry, you’ll have to go somewhere else.” Strike two.

What would you have done if Jesus had treated you this way? First He’s silent. Then He slams the door in your face and tells you to get lost. And then, strike three: He calls her a “dog.” “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Israelites often called Canaanites “dogs,” and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. What would you have done after striking out with the Savior—after discovering only a dead end with the Son of David?

Some people simply give up. Some get angry. Some leave the church. Some walk away from Jesus, because they believe that Jesus walked away from them. As a pastor, I’ve encountered a lot of people like this. At a time of crisis and desperation in their lives they turned to Jesus—they prayed for help, for mercy—but their prayers only seemed to be met with silence. And so they stopped praying, stopped going to church, and many stopped believing. Sometimes they will tell you why—about the terrible time when Jesus let them down—when Jesus didn’t come through for them. If you know someone like this, don’t try to defend Jesus and don’t be too quick to dismiss their complaint as petty. But do learn from this Canaanite woman about how to handle the seeming silence of God in times of trouble.

This entire episode hinges on dogs. Dog lovers, take heart. Every dog has his day and today dogs are man’s best friend. For when Jesus calls her a dog, she didn’t run away. She didn’t get angry. She didn’t give up. She took the very words that came out of Jesus’ mouth and used those very words to take her prayer to a whole new level. Jesus called her a dog and she said, “Amen to that. Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even Canaanite dogs like me get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table, and I’ll be delighted with whatever crumbs you would throw my way.”

This is faith: she takes a hold of the words of Jesus and hangs on for dear life. She accepts Jesus’ words—harsh words with no sugar coating—that she’s nothing more than a yapping dog hassling Him on His way, even though He really wasn’t sent for the likes of her. This is faith. And this is how the faithful pray: We base our prayers on the words of Jesus. We wrestle an answer out of Jesus by using the very Words He Himself has given us. Jesus called the woman a dog and she latched onto that word like a terrier latches onto a soup bone.

What does this mean for you? Well, of course, Jesus hasn’t called you a dog. He calls you His brothers and sisters. God calls you His children. And so we base our prayers on that. We use God’s own words in the Bible to launch our prayers. O God, You command that children should honor their parents and that this pleases You. Help me to love and honor my parents, and help my own children to love and honor me. O God, you command that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and that wives should submit to their husbands. Help me, then to love my wife with a Christ-like love, and grant that I might lead our marriage in such a way that she will be glad to follow. O God, you invite me to cast all my anxiety on You because You care for me. Help me to do just that—to let go of all anxiety and fear that all my words and deeds might bring glory to you.

Do you get the idea? Do you hear this pattern for prayer? You take whatever words Jesus gives you, and run with them. That’s what faith does. This woman had great faith because she clung to Jesus even when Jesus seemed not to care. Faith clings to Jesus even when He calls you a dog. Faith hears “yes” even when our eyes and ears hear “no.” Faith trusts the words of Jesus despite all appearances to the contrary. “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Some daughters aren’t healed. Some sons aren’t healed either. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is “no.” Sometimes we hear the same answer that St. Paul heard from Jesus, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And the answer you get has nothing to do with how strong or how weak your faith is—or how well-crafted your prayers may be. For all sons and daughters, all mothers and fathers, live like little dogs beneath the table of our Father who art in heaven. He sent His own dear Son into this dog-eat-dog world of sin and death. Jesus carried all that sin and death in His body which was nailed to a cross as the payment for our sins. On that dark Friday afternoon Jesus Himself suffered the terrible silence of God. Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus prayed, “Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus prayed, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” But His prayers were met only with stone cold silence. But as your sacred substitute, Jesus continued to pray, continued to trust, continued to speak and act with perfect faith.

Those prayers, that trust, that perfect faith—it all counts for you. Everything that Jesus did, He did for you. You may feel dog-tired this morning, weak and weary of waiting patiently for the resurrection. But even dogs like us are privileged to feed on crumbs from the Master’s table. And this morning those crumbs turn out to be the finest and richest of fare: “Take eat, this is my body, given for you. Drink of it all of you, this cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Dogs never have it so good as when we are welcomed to this Master’s table. In this case, man’s best friend is . . . the Son of Man. What a friend! What a friend we have in Jesus. Amen.

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