Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
They lied, conspired, and hid their crime telling Jacob, their father, Joseph was dead. ‘Probably he was killed by a wild animal,’ they said (Genesis 37:33). No one would blame him for hating his brothers. No one could expect him to forgive them. Yet, as we read, Joseph chose love and forgiveness. His brothers hated and despised him. They trapped and sold him. Yet, when the tables were turned and Joseph had the power to decide if they lived or died, he chose life. He chose reconciliation. He chose mercy. Joseph was a gambler. He dared hope relationship with his brothers could change and the future become better than the past.
Joseph’s great gamble resembles the one God makes with each of us. God’s gamble goes by many names: resurrection, transformation, incarnation. These words are all grounded in love. God has placed a bet on you. At great expense God risked everything for the possibility of relationship with you. God dares to hope we can be changed, and our future become better than our past. God dreams of who we might become when finally grace dwells in us as it did in Joseph. Who are the you God created you to be?
I want to suggest this morning at least part of the answer is you and I become more human the closer we move toward God. You may protest. Being human is the one thing I’m already pretty good at. I mean, do I have any choice? We’re all creatures of the animal kingdom. We are finite and fallible. As Martin Luther might say, ‘This is most certainly true.’ Yet it is also true that you are created in the likeness and image of God. In you all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. God’s gamble on you makes a difference. The divine spark kindles fire within our better qualities. The Holy Spirit activates what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln, 1st Inaugural Address).
I mention this because I believe Jesus shows us how to be more human in our extraordinary gospel reading today. Jesus gets schooled by a nameless Canaanite woman. Her people are the ancient enemies of Israel. Yet, in an amazing role reversal, this time, Jesus becomes the pupil not the teacher. The disciples beg Jesus to send her away. He insulted her, called her a dog, and declared he’s not here for her and her kind.
It’s not an excuse, but here we see Jesus working out the meaning of the divine vocation the Father has given him while on vacation. For the past three Sundays, we’ve seen Jesus in retreat. After the death of John the Baptist he sailed across the Sea but the people followed him along the shore. After feeding and caring for them, Jesus sent the crowds away and walked up a nearby mountain to pray while the disciples headed out across the Sea of Galilee by boat.
And today we find Jesus 70 miles further north, in the district of Tyre and Sidon, cities of Lebanon. He is at least 50 miles north of the border. He intentionally went where no self-respecting Jewish person would go. He wanted privacy to prepare himself and the disciples for what was coming next in Jerusalem. Yet, even here, news of his ministry had spread. He was recognized on sight.
Matthew uses the word “great” 20 times, but only once in connection to faith. Ultimately, Jesus commended this Canaanite woman whom he called a dog for her great faith.
Matthew goes out of his way to tell us she was a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The label is strange. In Jesus’ lifetime, nobody was still called a “Canaanite.” It was part of ancient history even then. The region of the Canaanites no longer existed on the map. It would be as if Matthew were calling New York City by its old name New Amsterdam! Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” on purpose: it meant that she is not only an outsider, but she is part of an enemy people.
Love your enemies, Jesus said. But it’s never easy, not even for Jesus. Our gospel today challenges us to look beyond artificial boundaries and borders of ethnicity, nation, and creed that naturally divide people into insiders and outsiders –making us feel safe with some people and afraid of others. Often in scripture, it is the outsider who turns out to be the true insider. One of the defining characteristics of grace is that we are surprised to see it where we found it. Even Jesus had to grow his way into a more comprehensive, all-inclusive understanding of God’s generosity.
We say we believe Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Yet we rarely affirm this in practice. Upsetting this delicate balance in favor of the divine empties ourselves and creation of its inherent value. When we dehumanize Jesus, it is not surprising we can so easily begin to dehumanize others and dishonor ourselves.
So just look how Jesus has shown us to become more faithful and more human! Jesus changes. Jesus listens. Jesus learns even from his enemies. He is open to grace even when it’s not on his agenda. Jesus has shown us that loving others begins with loving yourself the way that God does, all the way down. This is God’s extravagant gamble. For a great price, God invested the divine spark within you. In you—little old you—finite and fallible you in the flesh.
As you channel surf and scroll through all the bad news, seemingly unable to stop or to look away, as you endure these endless Covid days, no one would blame you for feeling overwhelmed. No one has the right to expect you to be hopeful. That’s when I’m most grateful we have a savior in Christ Jesus who knows what despair and human limitations are like. We have the gift of grace to draw upon and give us strength. While the world weighs us down, we have the breath of the Holy Spirit to lift us up. When the body politic is infected we have the wisdom of God to make us healthy and whole again. Like Joseph of old, the grace of God enables us to choose life and to keep choosing it. By grace, we change, we listen, we learn. We break through barriers of our prejudice. We widen the circle of compassion. We learn to be more human and more humane. ‘May the healer of our every ill, our light of each tomorrow, give you peace beyond your fear, and hope beyond your sorrow.’ (ELW # 612)