Saturday, August 16, 2008

Seeking the Words of Christ

St. Matthew 15:21-28

The allusion to sacramental living in the gospel lection for today is somewhat hidden but very forthright. It makes us stop and think about this woman and her demon-possessed daughter. The church must ponder this account in order to come to a better understanding of the sacred nature of what God gives to us. What, could it be, that Jesus wishes to teach those around Him at the coming of the Canaanite woman?

Even more, what is Jesus trying to teach the church of all ages? Furthermore, what is St. Matthew trying to teach us? Jesus is pursued four times in this account. The Canaanite woman, sorely troubled by her daughter’s dreadful condition, says to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David? My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”

Jesus did not respond to her. The second is a statement but begs the question posed to Jesus. It is the disciples who speak, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” The Greek gives us the picture. It literally says that “she cries out from behind us,” thereby giving us the image that as the woman begs for mercy, Jesus simply walks right by her, as do the disciples.

One might be led to conclude by the disciples’ words, that they are annoyed at her presence and simply wish to be left alone, but such is not the case. Jesus answers the disciples, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Christ’s reply would not make sense if the disciples were annoyed at her presence. It is quite the opposite. The disciples, too, are begging Jesus to help this poor Canaanite woman. We see the merciful hearts of the disciples at this early time.

The woman, in her persistence, shows the character and nature of Christian worship. She came and worshipped Jesus, saying ‘Lord, help me.’” The sort of worship that is demonstrated is illustrated by the Greek word for worship, which means she gets down on her knees in submission to Him. She asks the third question, but Jesus still resists, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” Jesus speaks of the Jews, God’s chosen people, calling them children.

Then the woman pleads the fourth time, “yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” This account is strange in that we see a side of Jesus that appears to be hesitant to help and heal. We do not see this very often in the New Testament. In fact, we often see just the opposite. But, this woman, a Canaanite, was not a Jew and despised in Jewish society. Even in the Old Testament, the Canaanites were the enemies of the Jewish nation.

This account must be read in conjunction with the first part of this chapter, particularly in verse 11 where Jesus is complaining about the false confessions of faith by the Pharisees: “not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” In the first part of chapter 15, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, considered to be the children of God, for their hypocrisy. They do not confess the faith that God’s people should confess and they don’t live as God’s people should live.

This being the climate of the first part of the chapter, we then see the marked contrast of the Canaanite woman. She is not one of God’s chosen and blessed children. She is like a dog, lowly, mangy, and filthy. Yet, she is not only willing to confess that Jesus is God and Lord, but she is insistent upon it. She has faith that insists that God will look upon her and smile, giving her and her daughter peace.

If we see no relevance of this encounter with Jesus to our lives today, then we are to be pitied. This woman simply wanted just the crumbs of Christ’s blessings because she knew that even just the crumbs were more than enough to bring peace and blessing. The crumbs alone were more than the sinful world had to offer.

Such is the reality of sacramental living today. Every human being is born in Original sin. No one can be spiritually neutral in this world. Either you belong to God or you belong to the Devil. There is no in between. Either you are filled with evil spirits, or you are filled with the Holy Spirit. Until a person is washed through the waters of Holy Baptism and comes to believe in Jesus Christ, they are filled with evil spirits and, like the daughter of the Caananite woman, she needed the crumbs of Jesus to fall upon their plate.

In Holy Baptism the evil spirits are cast out and the Holy Spirit comes to make His dwelling, thereby making the child holy. Today the church sees the crumbs of Christ falling onto us through this sacramental washing and gift. Jesus looks for the person who comes to kneel before Him and cry out, “Lord, help me.” For those who cry out and confess Jesus to be God and Lord, there is an answer, a dropping of crumbs from heaven, as Jesus comes to you in the Eucharist.

I cannot stress enough that the church must be sacramental if it is going to find the kinds of spiritual blessings that this Canaanite woman was seeking. One cannot look to emotions and feelings to find the evidence of God’s blessing. What makes the woman so persistent? Does she at a certain point conclude that she “feels God’s presence.” Is she making her own “decision for Christ” in order to have her daughter healed? No. The woman’s persistence and Jesus’ response gives the sacramental answer. Jesus was merely testing her to emphasize the point.

Jesus said, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” The woman had great faith because she knew that Jesus had to say it for it to come to pass. “Let it be to you as you desire.” Jesus commanded it to come to pass. She had to hear it. He had to say it. She did not want to be left to wondering if God loved her and would heal her daughter.

It is the same today. The sacramental nature of the church is such that if you are to receive the crumbs of Christ’s blessings, it has to be Christ’s command. He has to say it for it to be so. If Jesus doesn’t say it or command a blessing to you, then you are left wondering. This is why we are a sacramental church. We look to Christ’s command at the end of St. Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you….”

In that command is both the sacrament of Holy Baptism, as well as the teaching and preaching aspect of the Holy Ministry. At another time Jesus also gives the command to “take eat, take drink this is my body and my blood for the forgiveness of sins. This do in remembrance of me.” Then with the apostolic office, Jesus also commands that pastors forgive sins: “receive the Holy Spirit.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Then Jesus adds in St. Matthew, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

From the mouth of Jesus the church has the promised blessings. Through the mouth and command of Jesus you shall be made holy through the sacraments and through the instruction into Christ’s teachings. These gifts are sacred and carry with them eternal results. Being baptized makes you Christ’s children and eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood make you holy and having the pastor forgive you your sins makes it so in heaven as well.

Great are the children of God who are so blessed as to receive the crumbs which fall from the table of the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Sacramental Way

This sermon was preached at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Kewanee, Illinois on August 3, 2008

St. Luke 18:9-14

We live in the midst of two worlds and two ways. The world, God’s wonderful creation, soon tainted with sin after it was created. Adam and Eve enticed by the serpent, they were taught to look only at themselves. Seeing their nakedness, they ran and hid at the sound of holy movements in the Garden of Eden precisely because they knew that they saw things differently in an instant, at the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This new innovation, this practice of gazing at ourselves has become the norm and the novelty of creation. The struggle that Adam and Eve had in the garden, you know, was over holiness. Satan, that dastardly serpent, enticed our first parents to desire an increase of holiness which they themselves were to take from God of their own doing.

The serpent says to them, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You see, the serpent traps them with a desire to obtain their own greater holiness. They can be like God, he says. And this of their own doing. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?!

The history of fallen man is encompassed by this desire to be holy. This temptation, therefore, attaches itself to each and every one of us. When Adam and Eve had then subsequently heard the sound of the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day, they were frightened. For the first time, they experienced a different side of God. They felt threatened by Him because the holiness that they thought they could obtain was of a very different character than the holiness of God.

This whole account unfolds throughout the Holy Scriptures and we see this battle wage itself in holy Israel, in the patriarchs, in King David, and King Solomon. We see it in the New Testament and the battle between the God and the serpent in the garden is presented in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

The Pharisee was, as far as society is concerned, a very good citizen. Role model citizen, in fact. He was all for the prosperity of Jewish society. He gave tithes, he was learned and held a respectable position as a scholar and teacher of the Jewish law. The Pharisee dressed well and took good care of himself. The tax collector was a different sort in Jewish society. He would have been a man of Jewish origin as well, but he was employed by the Romans to collect taxes from the Jewish people, his own flesh and blood.

This was a no-no. The Jews considered it blasphemous to give taxes to a pagan government. To have one of their own people doing the collecting of the taxes added insult to injury. A Jew of this period would not think very highly of the tax collector. He would be looked upon as a traitor to the Jewish people, all for money.

So, as the parable goes, the Pharisee and the tax collector go into the temple to pray. The Pharisee prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.” This Pharisee gives a portrait of prayer with peripheral vision. He is praying with one eye open so to speak, which smacks of insincerity. In other words, he is so concerned about what others think of him, that he cannot have an honest petition to the Lord.

In fact, the Pharisee goes on to boast that he fasts twice a week, and gives tithes of all he possesses. The Pharisee, unbeknownst to him, is falling just as Adam and Eve fell. The Pharisee is being enticed by the serpent to look to obtain his own holiness. If he can take it of his own doing, then he can rise above others. So he thinks.

The serpent can creep upon all of us, for we are plagued by the same desire to look to ourselves for holiness. It is such a cunning trick. Any virtue or gift that God gives you, can be misused by you. God gives us a gift, then we try to take more by force. In the same way, Adam and Eve were holy because God had made them in His image. They were virtuous by God’s doing, so they thought they would take more. This is an anti-sacramental way of thinking.

This is an innovative way of thinking. This Pharisaical gazing at ourselves is an innovation that tries to creep into the church. When you think that you are becoming holy apart from the hearing of the Gospel and eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, then you are practicing the innovative ways of Adam and Eve in sin. To attempt to obtain holiness apart from Christ’s means of grace is the way of the wicked and cunning serpent.

The tax collector, the filthy lout that he was, understands. He comes into the temple, yet stands afar off, keeping his head low and beating his breast, says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” In the midst of his sin, he understands that true holiness is not for ours to take by force. It is not ours by right. The tax collector knows that holiness is outside of him. By nature, it is out of his grasp.

This man understands that any holiness that he will have has to come from the Holy One Himself. This is the churchly way of believing, thinking and living. This is sacramental. To know that God’s mercy stands outside of us, to know that God has to somehow give us His love, mercy, and grace, is to wait for His answer.

We have to receive God’s holy pronouncement. This is why Jesus instituted holy baptism, the pastoral office with the office of the keys, and the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted these things to combat the serpent’s trickery. We cannot take God’s holiness by our own taking or by force. He must give us His love, mercy, forgiveness, and holiness. Jesus wants you to know with certainty when you are being loved and made holy by Him.

So, to conclude, the means of grace happen to be the weapons to combat Satan’s temptation to humans to get us to try to fashion our own self-contrived holiness. Jesus said something that rings through history to conclude this parable, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Today, humility, looks like the Christian who confesses his sins and approaches the altar to eat Christ’s body and drink His blood, knowing that in this all is forgiven and true holiness is given as a pure gift won by Christ on the cross. Amen.