Harrowing Of Hell
August 16, 2020

When we listen and wait for faith

Kelli Martin, Lay Preacher

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

I am Kelli Martin and I have been a parishioner here at Epiphany Parish for almost 2 years.

In today’s Gospel we have a special encounter; an encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Now, as a lay preacher, to share this story with you as it relates to how God is moving and working in my own life, I read chapters of Matthew that came right before and right after this Scripture.

And what I read is Jesus being followed by massive crowds. Jesus healing people who have all kinds of illnesses. Jesus curing those who are in distress. Jesus sitting and eating with sinners. Jesus quieting the seas and walking on water. Jesus feeding thousands and thousands of people. Jesus nourishing the crowds with teachings of the good news of how to live in the kingdom of heaven that God promised.

Most of this was pretty familiar to me from Sunday School and Vacation Bible Camp.

But then we get to this story about Jesus and the Canaanite woman. And I have to tell you: I found this Scripture really really challenging. This didn’t seem like the Jesus I remembered from my childhood. This didn’t seem like the Jesus I remembered from Sunday School.

THIS Jesus, the one with the Canaanite woman, is walking along with the twelve disciples, and this woman starts shouting at Jesus, she’s begging for his help to heal her daughter. And Jesus doesn’t respond to her. Even his disciples are telling him to send her away.

I’m sitting there reading and thinking: He just finished doing all of this healing, for a ton of people, and he’s not answering her!? I’m getting amped up and I’m thinking, “Okay. There has GOT to be a reason for that.” Maybe he doesn’t hear her because it’s crowded or she’s too far away, maybe he’s tired because he’s been giving so much to the crowds. I’m giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt because I’m still thinking this is Sunday School Jesus!

When Jesus finally does answer, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

And I’m thinking, But what about the rest of the world? And I’m feeling a little deflated at this point in my reading.

But the Canaanite woman is not deflated. She does not back down. She continues to ask for his help. She says it like it’s a plea.

And Jesus responds, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Now some of you may be familiar with this Jesus. And I remember learning in Bible study here at Epiphany that the Gospel of Matthew was written for a largely Jewish audience during a period of rebuilding the region. This was my first encounter with this earthy, more human Jesus. And my second encounter with the word “dogs” being used as a reference for Gentiles, I first learned about in my small prayer group here at Epiphany. And I’m reading this and thinking, maybe he’s not responding because Jesus has tunnel vision. Maybe Jesus has such a laser-like devotion to who God sent him to focus on. Maybe Jesus is simply being obedient to God the Father. He’s following God’s plan for Jesus the Son.

But the Canaanite woman seems to challenge him. She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

After all that…the shouting, the begging, the pleading, the silence, the dogs, the confronting…Jesus does what seems like this complete about-face, he seems to see her point of view, and he heals her daughter!

I was so focused on being puzzled and frustrated by this passage. I was so focused on the shouting and the not answering and who else confronted Jesus like this…did other women do it? Did the disciples? Did Jesus change his mind like this often in the bible? I was so focused on all of that, that I almost overlooked what led me to think about how this Scripture reveals the transforming love of God in my own life.

I realized with this slow, yet sudden knowledge that just overtook me: This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman was not just an encounter. It was this moment of profound recognition between the two of them.

Look at what they recognized about and within one another.

Jesus recognizes her as a woman of faith, not just faith, but great faith. He calls her this, as if this was her name.

The Canaanite woman recognizes his lineage as the Son of David. She calls him this. She KNOWS who Jesus is. She calls him Lord. She asks for his mercy, and even when Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she’s not asking him to do that. She knows she is not one of those children, she’s not a member of the house of Israel. She accepts that. She knows that she’s a Gentile, an outsider, an outcast.

And still, look at what she does.

She kneels before him.

Maybe out of love, probably out of reverence, definitely with deep humility. Certainly out of recognizing who Jesus is and knowing his authority. And she calls him Lord, again.

She says it like it’s a plea.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Now, Jesus did a LOT of explaining in those chapters in Matthew prior to this piece of Scripture. Even with all the explaining about everything that Jesus did, in my reading, it was clear sometimes he wasn’t believed. Sometimes he was still doubted.

But the Canaanite woman does not doubt who Jesus is. And this time, it’s the Canaanite woman doing the explaining. She is undeterred. She is steadfast.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

I am moved every single time that I read that. Why do the metaphorical dogs eat the crumbs that fall? Because they are hungry. So many need and want sustenance too. All children of God are hungry for Jesus’ nourishment. The nourishment of Jesus’ teachings, of Jesus’ healing. Think of all the ways God’s love nourishes us. We as followers of Jesus are hungry for that.

On the journey that this Scripture has taken me on, I’ve been thinking about that moment of recognition. What makes those moments of recognition so profound is that they lead to great, great learning. And those last lines told me why. Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Jesus doesn’t say, “I see you have followed my teachings,” or “I see you have followed the word of God.” He says: YOUR faith.

I’m in awe of how God does that in our lives. God puts our following of Jesus on US. It is up to us as Christians to choose to listen to how Jesus is modeling for us how we should live in the Kingdom of God. It is up to us to listen – meaning to sense something – and then to take it further and to actually hear it, which means to seek to understand something with intention.

Because that’s what I think Jesus does in this Scripture. He listens to the woman from Canaan. And what he hears…is her faith. What he also might be hearing is the Canaanite woman stretching to seek out the answers for herself. Because God, and only God, has given us the freedom to do that. Perhaps in this moment of recognition, Jesus hears that what was in her heart, has come out of her mouth.

What has come out of her mouth is not faith from a self-interested point of view: to heal her daughter because she loves her daughter and her daughter was sick. But faith that considers an all-encompassing, other-centered point of view – that so many people need Jesus’ healing and want to be nourished by Jesus too.

We’ve all had moments like that….where we’ve been the outsider or the outcast…We’ve all had moments where we had to use our shouting voice or even our quiet voice…Because we were hungry for a seat at the table and all we wanted was nourishment.

And we’ve also had moments we’re not open or receptive to what someone is trying to tell us. But when we are…it can lead to us EXPANDING in ways we never thought possible. I think of how God has done that in my life; given me those moments of recognition, those moments of great learning where I stretch to be more of who God created me to be. That moment of recognition was an experience I had with my daughter a few years ago.

She was about 6 or 7 and she was crying about something, I can’t remember exactly what. But I remember being frustrated that she was crying, and I couldn’t understand what she was saying through her tears, so I couldn’t soothe her. Maybe you’ve had this same experience with children in your lives….You want the crying to stop so they’ll feel better and – if I’m being totally honest – you want the crying to stop so that possibly you’ll feel better and it’ll be quieter and more peaceful.

So I’m in this moment with my daughter, I’m frustrated, trying to ask what the big deal is, why she’s crying. And she’s this very wise soul, always has been – all of a sudden she settles herself, looks me right in my eye and tells me, in the most clear, calm, quiet yet distinct voice, she tells me, “Mommy, sometimes I just need to get it out.”

It stopped me cold. And as I recount that story, it squeezes my heart now just as much as it did back then. And it was this moment of recognition that EXPANDED the type of parent that I am, it transformed the way I mother my child, and even expanded – hopefully – the type of wife and daughter and sister and friend and colleague I am. So now when my daughter or a loved one cries or has a moment, I recognize that sometimes, they just need to get it out – and I will wait sometimes in silence, and with love, for whatever they need to do for themselves and for what I can do to meet them, to encounter them, in that moment, with whatever they may need. It’s not my job to interrupt their experience, but to respond in ways that meet their needs.

Doyt, the Rector here at Epiphany, preached a few weeks ago about the ways we respond to the world and to each other. And he preached about not responding by getting hung up on a single issue, but by responding in and with love. Ruth Anne, the vicar here at Epiphany preached about the very real ways God’s love responds to us, when we ask. The Canaanite woman asked. Jesus responded with love.

Both of those reflections remind me of what I love about this Scripture with Jesus and the Canaanite woman. What I love is that it reminds me how expansive, how all-encompassing, how inclusive God’s love is. It reminds me that Jesus embraced inclusivity before our modern age ever used the word. Even with all the unrest that envelops the world we live in, with all that’s being stirred up, this Gospel makes me fall in love with those moments of recognition, those moments of expansion that sometimes come from the unlikeliest places, like the child teaching the parent, or the outcast explaining to the teacher. These moments are more than crumbs. There are so many ways we cry out for God to nourish us. They are moments of profound recognition, where we have the chance to listen to one another, the way Jesus listened to the Canaanite woman. We have the chance to hear one another with intention and openness and being receptive the way Jesus was. When we do that, when we are intent on doing that, I think that is God allowing us to choose to recognize someone’s faith; the faith my daughter had in what she needed; the faith the Canaanite woman had in Jesus, and the faith she had that so many people want and need to be nourished by Jesus too. And that witnessing causes us to expand and make more room in our lives to receive love and to give love the way God wants us to.

I’m thinking back on my journey with Jesus and the Canaanite woman. I have a gentler reading of it now. When I read it now, I sometimes think Jesus seems like he may have been waiting; waiting for what the Canaanite woman will say next’ waiting for her to continue to show her faith; the way God sometimes cries out to us, shaping us, giving us room, then waiting; not passively. Of course God is always working and moving in the world and in our lives. Sometimes I think God waits for us to stretch toward the fullness of our faith, waits for us to cry out that we see ourselves the way God sees us, the way God created us. Jesus and the Canaanite woman may be explaining to one another, listening and hearing one another, waiting for one another’s responses, and then….responding to one another, with love. Maybe in the same way God is shaping this changing world we live in, waiting for the world to stretch toward these moments of recognition with one another and to treat one another the way God intended.

The Jesus of my Sunday School childhood? He’s there in my memory. But now I see him as undeterred. He knows who he is. He listens to his followers. And Jesus was always listening to God. And now my prayers are that I deeply listen to God too, that I’m intent to hear God. Because when we do that, when we choose to do that, we are strengthened and restored and expanded…in our responses, in our love, and in our faith – faith in one another and in building a persistent, undeterred faith in God. And those are far from crumbs. That is all the nourishment that we need.