Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost - August 20 2017

Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
August 20, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

Joseph and his brothers are reconciled: He understood and told his brothers: “You did not send me here; God did.”  Joseph may once have hated his brothers – and who could blame him? They plotted to kill him, and then they sold him into slavery, and his life was hard – he was unjustly accused of dallying with the wife of a high official, and unjustly imprisoned.  How could he have known that God even cared about him, or that God could turn his suffering into release, power, and a position where he could turn the tables on his brothers?  All those years, all those many years, when he may very well have cried out to God for aid, and heard nothing in return.  Yet, he persisted.

And in the end, his brothers did come to him, and instead of hating them and destroying them, he … helped them.  He forgave them.  He was reconciled with them.  He learned, through the years, the valuable skill of resilience, and resilience taught him mercy.

How good it is when brethren live in unity.

Today we heard Paul say that God does not abandon but shows mercy to his people, even while we are disobedient; God’s mercy frees us when disobedience imprisons us.[1]  God has not rejected us; the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.[2]  Persist.  Hold on.  Learn resilience.

Matthew describes a time when Jesus says what comes out of a person defiles the person – for the heart is the source of evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander (that’s seven, a “complete” list).  Nothing in the world can defile us; only we can do that.  What do we do about that?

We find the answer in the Canaanite woman, who has a daughter who has a demon and comes to Jesus for help.  And he … ignores her and, when pressed, says NO.  Where is God’s mercy in that?  If Paul is right and all are imprisoned, yet all are freed by mercy, why doesn’t “all” include this Canaanite woman? 

Is this the cure for the defilement we bring on ourselves?  Jesus’ dismissal is not only abrupt, it is cruel.

Yet, to coin a phrase, she persisted.

If you remember who Job was, you know that Job persisted. Through 38 chapters of sheer misery, he sought an answer and an explanation from God for his suffering.

Joseph persisted.  Through years of slavery, suffering, imprisonment, and finally high office, he held on, no doubt wondering if he would ever see his father again.  Surely he was tempted to attack his brothers; if anyone had cause, he did.  But he persisted in the path of mercy.

How many times in the psalms do we hear the cry to God for justice, for peace, for mercy?  Here are just a few examples:

Psalm 10:  (1) Why do you stand so far off, O Lord, and hide yourself in time of trouble? (2)The wicked arrogantly persecute the poor, but they are trapped in the schemes they have devised. (10) The innocent are broken and humbled before them; the helpless fall before their power.  (11) They say in their heart, ‘God has forgotten; he hides his face; he will never notice.’

Psalm 13: (1) How long, O Lord? will you forget me forever? how long will you hide your face from me? (2) How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart, day after day?* how long shall my enemy triumph over me?

And the Psalm that Jesus quoted has he was dying on the cruel cross, Psalm 22: (1) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?* and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?  (2) Oh my God, I cry to you in the daytime, but you do not answer;* by night as well, but I find no rest.

An unanswered prayer, or a prayer that receives a negative response, we all know all about those prayers, those pleas, and that silence.

So why should we persist in beating on the doors of heaven?  Why wouldn’t we give up, why not despair? 

The Bible is filled with promises of God’s presence and mercy, of God’s grace and gifts and faithfulness – yet sometimes our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears.  What are we to make of that?  Perhaps we find a hint in this story of the Canaanite woman who did not give up, but found a ready response to each action and word of Jesus.

And here it is: We are to persist.

We are to hold on like Job, like Joseph, like the Canaanite woman.

We are to hold on like Paul, who told the Corinthians “To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’  So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”[3]

Through suffering and through persistence, we learn resilience. Our resilience lies in our faith in God’s ultimate mercy.  And we need to practice that resilience, just as we need to practice all the other things we hope to do well – art, music, cooking, raising children, speaking out for justice, programming computer code, preaching (yes, I need to practice, too!), and, not least, leaning on God, from whom our strength comes.

Even in the midst of our distress, we do not hesitate but appeal to God, and to claim the promises, despite all setbacks.  The same psalm that begins in despair, ends thus: “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him;* they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn* the saving deeds that he has done.”[4]

This Canaanite woman knew that.  She believed that.  Her faith – and her faithfulness in that faith – were heard in heaven, and the Lord responded.

Does that mean that all prayers, if said enough times, will be granted as we envision or hope?  I wish it were so, but as Paul would say, “By no means!”  He himself is the example of that truth.

Yet still, we must persist.  Our answer will come; and when it comes, it may change everything – but by building up our “persistence muscles” we are enabled to carry on no matter what.

Resilience is something we have to learn; and we learn it by persisting.

Resilience will help us get through the hard times, the tough times, times like these when everything seems to be falling apart.  Resilience in the faith grants faith the power to move mountains, to change the world, and, not least, to change ourselves.

That is where the work begins.    That is where our work begins.

Shall we begin?

 

 

[1] Romans 11:32.

[2] Romans 11:29.

[3] 2 Corinthians 12: 7b-10.

[4] Psalm 22: 29-30. (BCP)

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