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Proper 16A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

It looked bad for the Israelites. Once they were welcomed guests. Now they were feared aliens and oppressed slaves. A new king rose up in Egypt who did know Joseph nor remember how he once saved the nation from famine (Exodus 1:8).

Imagine a ruler, wishing to solidify his political base by blaming a scapegoat for problems that plague society. We’ve seen this movie someplace before. In this version, Pharaoh plots to destroy the Israelites, first by forcing them into slave labor, then by ordering that male babies be killed at birth, and when that doesn’t work, finally he commanded the citizens of Egypt to drown male infant Israelites in the Nile.

And that should have been that. And for many, if not most, it was. The suffering and grief must have been enormous. Pharaoh’s persecution of the Israelites went on for years and generations.

But God remembered the promise made to Abraham and Sarah. So, the Israelites thrived despite their oppression. The Spirit of God remained at work. Something Pharaoh forgot became his undoing. Pharaoh targeted men. Yet it was women he should have feared. Specifically, two women named Shiphrah and Puah, lowly midwives. They did not kill the boys as ordered. They refused. They lied to Pharaoh, telling him the Hebrew women give birth too quickly, delivering their babies before they could arrive on the scene. Next, three more women advance the subterfuge each in their own way. Moses’ Hebrew mother, and his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter. Separately and together these women plant seeds God will cultivate for the Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Each of us has one life. What we choose to do matters. Shiphrah and Puah’s courageous act of civil disobedience changed the course of history. One of the boys they spared will be called Moses and he will lead the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity. I doubt they thought they were changing the course of history, but they were. Just by being faithful, by following the dictates of their hearts, by heeding the call of conscience, they played a decisive role in what would be bound and what was set loose upon the world. (David Lose, The Butterfly Effect, Working Preacher, 8/14/11)

This is the terrifying good news in our scripture today. Your life, and what you do with it matters. It matters forever. Shiphrah and Puah help us to see what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:19A). In Jesus’ time, rabbis spoke of this power to “bind” the law by deciding which commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they cut “loose” the law when they determined that a word of scripture was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.

You may think it unwise, but God entrusts each of us with lots of keys. The keys of discernment, of judgement, and of choice open possibilities and foreclose others. Your acts of mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and love will bind humanity to certain indelible truths we call ‘the past,’ and free humankind to explore vast new horizons we call ‘the future.’

Ordinary acts of conscience and courage have extraordinary consequences. Author Andy Andrews wrote a little book years ago called, The Butterfly Effect, (2009, Simple Truths, LLC, pp. 90-99) in which he tells the story of another man named Moses, and his wife Susan, who lived in Missouri, a slave state, during the Civil War. They were slave owners but decided they didn’t believe in slavery. This proved to be a problem for a band of raiders who terrorized the area by destroying property, burning and killing. “And sure enough, one cold January night, they rode through Moses’ and Susan’s farm. The outlaws burned the barn, shot several people, and dragged off the slave woman named Mary Washington who refused to let go of her infant son, George. Mary Washington had become Susan’s best friend and with his wife distraught, Moses sent word out through neighbors and towns and two days later managed to secure a meeting with the bandits” (Andrews, p. 94).

On a black horse, Moses rode several hours north to a crossroads in Kansas. There, at the appointed time, in the middle of the night, he met four of the raiders. “They were on horseback, carrying torches, and flour sacks tied over their heads with holes cut out for their eyes. There, Moses traded the only horse he had left on his farm for what they threw him in a dirty burlap bag” (Andrews, p. 95). As they rode off, Moses fell to his knees and pulled from the bag a cold … naked … almost dead … baby boy.

Covering him with his own clothes and relying on the warmth from his own body, Moses turned and walked that baby back home. He promised he would educate the boy to honor his mother, whom they knew was already dead. He gave that baby his name: George Washington Carver. Yes, that George Washington Carver. According to Andrews, there are currently 266 things he developed from the peanut, and 288 things he developed from the sweet potato that we still use today (Andrews, p. 86-87).
When young George was a 19-year-old student at Iowa State University, he would befriend another boy, the son of one of his professors, whose name was Henry Wallace.

George inspired Henry with a love of plants and a vision for what they could do for humanity. Wallace would grow up to become Vice-President of the United States during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term from 1941-1945. Wallace “…used the power of that office to create a station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates. Wallace hired a young man named Norman Borlaug to run it” (Andrews, pp. 78-79).

Norman Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Prize and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He developed seeds that flourished in dry conditions where none thrived before, from Western Africa to our own desert Southwest, from South and Central America, to the plains of Siberia, and across Europe and Asia. “Through the years, it has now been calculated that Norman Borlaug’s work saved from famine more than two billion lives” (Andrews, p. 74).

And so, for the second time in human history, a man named Moses saved the lives of a multitude as numerous as stars in the sky, or grains of sand upon the seashore, just by doing what he knew was right.

Throughout the Bible, writers and prophets have given people hope by revealing God’s deepest intention not just to save the world but also to heal it. In fact, “healing” and “saving” are both meanings contained in the Greek word sozo that appears dozens of times in original New Testament manuscripts but is usually translated as only “save.” With both meanings of sozo in mind, how might we be called right now to imagine a new just and multiracial society? How might we conceive to live in such a way as to restore the earth rather than destroy it?

The apostle Paul wrote, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Each of us is endowed with gifts of the spirit, keys to awakening the prophetic imagination. These are the keys to our shared future. Every single thing you do matters. You have within you the power to re-shape the world. Just by choosing kindness, mercy, justice, courage and conscience, we are making the whole world better for everyone and for all those who follow.

Proper 15A-20
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)