Over the last several weeks, I have heard and seen one phrase more than any other: Lord, have mercy.
To watch the news, read the paper, to look at social media means being confronted by the violence, destruction, and hatred in the world around us. Planes being shot down; terrorist groups massacring men, women, and children; violence overtaking Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa; violence taking over the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t know about you, but as I watch the horror unfold it is all to tempting to turn the page to the next story, to change the television station, to scroll through my Facebook feed until I find pictures of cute little animals. This, however, is not a luxury that we can afford. We cannot as Christians – as human beings – pretend that nothing is going on and turn and look the other way. We must cry out – Lord, have mercy. This mercy is the cornerstone of our Gospel passage today.
This Gospel passage is a complicated and messy one. There is a demon, Jesus ignoring the cries of a desperate mother, annoyed disciples, a restrictive mission of Jesus, and the apparent insult of Jesus calling this woman a dog. There is far more going on in this Gospel than any preacher can cover reasonably in one sermon. But if we step back and look at the larger picture, it seems to me this Gospel brings forward one very key theme. God’s mercy transcends all boundaries that separate and divide humanity.
The Gospel begins, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” The religious authorities, the Pharisees, are greatly concerned with the purity codes – they are ever vigilant to not put anything into their body that is seen as unclean. Jesus is criticizing and chastising the official keepers of the Jewish tradition. They have become so concerned with following the rules and regulations that they have squeezed the life out of their tradition turning it into a tool of division. Jesus, in a seemingly crass way, calls them out saying that it does not matter what you eat. What you ate yesterday has been washed away in the sewer, but lies, hatred, and violence are not washed away. When those things come out of your mouth, it changes your heart. That is what we are to be concerned about these are the things that defile, that make a person unclean.
Now Matthew is writing to the church of his day, a church that is an increasing blend of Jews and Gentiles. It is an increasing blend of those who were raised within the structures of Jewish written and oral tradition and those who were excluded on the basis of the same tradition. It is a church struggling to figure out who is in and who is out, which rules to follow and which to ignore, what traditions to carry with them and what traditions to leave behind. The new Christians are trying to sort out their life of faith and so the evangelist recounts this hard-hitting message from Jesus. According to Jesus, purity or religious faithfulness is not about worshipping tradition uncritically. It is not about blindly following the rules and regulations at the expense of others. It is not about policy that segregates portions of the population. It is not about casting aside individuals as unworthy and less than.
For Jesus, religious purity and faithful discipleship are not measured by how many perfect attendance badges one earns for Sunday School, how often one has read the Bible form cover to cover, how many liturgies one goes to, how much money one contributes in their pledge, or how many A’s a person gets in seminary. Purity and faithfulness are shown ultimately by how the church speaks and lives out the radical hospitality and love of Christ. It is marked by what comes from our hearts, the words we preach, the way we treat others, and how we care for the stranger and outcast in our midst.
For better or for worse, we live in a society based on power and privilege, a society where some are put down for the benefit of others, where the system does not treat everyone equally. We live in the midst of a broken system where only the extreme voices are heard. Moderation and compromise have been lost. The scariest part of this system is the boundaries it creates. If you do not act like we do, if you do not follow our rules, if you disagree with what we say, if you do not believe as we do you are not only wrong, but you are evil. This is the system I see at work when I look at what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri. A system that has been completely broken down and plagued by a “huge poverty of trust in the community.” The sides have been set, and the extreme voices are those that are being broadcast at the highest volume. The situation has escalated to extreme proportions and it is easy to confuse the images coming out of Missouri with those coming out of a war zone. This is the same system for which Jesus chastises the Pharisees.
A friend and colleague of mine is the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He has been working tirelessly with other clergy, community leaders, and youth to stand peacefully in the midst of the violence plaguing their community. In one interview Mike had the following to say:
It’s so easy in moments like this to cast one side, one person, one group of people as completely good and the other side as completely evil and we have to resist that at all costs. But, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ and ministers of reconciliation and we stand with everyone. We have to call all of us to be those images of God that are our best selves.
Mike’s words apply not only to the situation in Missouri, but to this Gospel passage as well. We cannot cast people aside and continue to create boundaries of separation. We must be ministers of reconciliation. We must pray that the mercy of God descend upon the people of Ferguson – and all places of war and violence – and wash away the defilement in our hearts. It is this mercy that will lead to understanding, and it is only through understanding – not violence – that peace will prevail.
As soon as we finish hearing about Jesus taking these Pharisees to task, we hear of the encounter of Jesus and the unnamed Canaanite woman.
“Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus ignores her, and the disciples are clearly annoyed. They want her sent away out of their sight. Jesus claims his ministry as one “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” A ministry not meant for her. But, the woman does not stop. She kneels before him and begs, “Lord, help me.” Jesus’ responses is one that catches me off guard each and every time I hear it, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus seemingly insults the woman. (It should be noted that “dog” was a common name Jews gave to Gentile pagans). But even this insult does not stop this woman. She said in response, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus has a change of heart, he listens to the pleas of this woman, recognizes her great faith, and heals her daughter.
What I find so striking about this encounter is that it is not Jesus who takes his mission to the Gentiles. But rather, it is this Gentile woman that goes after Jesus. In taking the initiative in this encounter, the woman crosses countless societal boundaries. Again and again she violates boundaries of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and demon possession. She must even contend with Jesus’ reluctance to violate the ethnic boundary, but nothing will stop her from obtaining the mercy and healing of God for herself and her daughter.
This woman believes that she and her daughter are people who should benefit from God’s work in the world. She is willing to go against every boundary established in her societal context. Jesus recognizes her unending desire for the mercy of God, and names it her faith – her great faith.
Part of the challenge of this passage is that Jesus does not act as we expect he should act. Jesus is the one who constantly breaks down barriers of power and privilege. He is the one who corrects the disciples when they say, “surely you can’t be serious about helping that person.” He is not the person who lives in step with those boundaries. Yet that is what he seems to be doing here. Now some commentaries I read this week say that Jesus is being tongue in cheek following the first few verses of this passage, while others said this is a moment where Jesus is caught “with his compassion down.” But, I think the motivation and reasoning of Jesus’ actions are irrelevant to us. What we must struggle and wrestle with is that Jesus does not act as we want him to. We must recognize that we do not control the timing or direction of the spread of God’s mercy.
This Gospel passage leaves us with far more questions than answers. I know that it leaves me in an uncomfortable place.
Despite hatred, violence, and prejudice the boundaries of God’s mercy are stronger than any barrier we can put in place. In witness to the depth of human misery and suffering we cry out, “Lord, have mercy.” When it seems that everything, even the church, stands in the way of God’s mercy we must persist. Like the unnamed Canaanite woman, we must not take silence, no, or insult as the final answer. We must continue to shout, beg, and plead for God’s mercy to come into the world. We must act as reconciling agents working to break down every barrier that divides: barriers of race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical ability, geographic location, and political affiliation.
As my friend Mike said, “[This] is the long term work of the Church, to build relationships of love and respect with everyone so we can bring people together and say let’s listen to everybody and look at who God is calling us to be.”
In a world of division and enemies, we must adhere to enemy love: To refuse to live in the “us and them” paradigm, to refuse to battle for the destruction of our enemy. We must work to make sure that all voices are heard, that every single human being is valued as the beloved child of God that they are.
This is a parish that knows how to do this work. It is a parish that has been at the forefront of every fight for inclusion in The Episcopal Church. In light of this history, and our call as Christians to break down the bonds of oppression and the barriers of violence, I wonder what dark place this community is being called to next. What defiled, toxic, and unwanted place is Jesus calling us to follow him? Who are the outcasts and those deemed unworthy of God’s mercy that we can stand up for and shout for until they too know the mercy and grace of God. My friends, our work is not done yet. May we join with those in Missouri, Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa, and with the unnamed Canaanite woman in proclaiming, “Lord, help me. Lord, help us. Lord, have mercy.”