**Note - this is my final sermon at Good Shepherd Church in Philadelphia
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are times when you only need a few words - sometimes not even an entire verse - to have enough fodder for a sermon. Then there are times, when it seems you just can’t get enough.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, the first ten verses were optional. But in reality, for the passage to make all the sense that it needs to, we really should have read the ten before it, too.
What we’ve missed is the story of a confrontation that Jesus has with the Pharisees. They are challenging him for leading disciples who don’t always follow the traditions of the faith as strictly as they should. Specifically, the have failed to abide by the tradition of performing a cleansing ritual prior to eating.
That brings us up to speed with what we’ve read this morning: Jesus counters the accusations of the Pharisees by reminding them that the real defilement that humans are capable of committing comes not from the rituals we perform or perform incorrectly or fail to perform, but from the evil that too often lives in our hearts and that we too easily spread throughout the world. That is the behavior that truly defiles. More than any religious tradition can purify, we, ourselves, are even more capable of contaminating. Religious traditions can’t save us if the truth inside us (and the actions that it inspires) grieves the heart of God.
That alone would be a sufficient message for the day: worry less about how you are religious, and worry more about how to be a better person. Let the religion flow from that.
But it’s not the end of the story.
The next thing we hear - which almost seems unrelated - is that Jesus and the disciples are traveling on, when their journey is interrupted by a foreigner begging for Christ’s blessing.
At first, they try ignoring her. But she is persistent. Then the disciples urge Jesus to send her away. He tries - saying, basically: that’s not my department. You aren’t the right kind of person to receive God’s blessing. Even so, she refuses to go unheard. She kneels in front of him - stopping him in his tracks - and pleads her case.
In what always strikes me as a surprisingly terse, and insensitive tone coming from Jesus, he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Even if you’re like me, and happen to love dogs, it’s hard not to hear that and not be taken aback. Jesus compares this woman to a dog. And not even just her, but her entire ethnicity. He claims that she is, because of her heritage, unfit to receive the blessings of God.
It’s really hard to hear.
But even so, the woman remains insistent. She accepts his cruelty and continues to argue her case.
From there we know how the story ends. Even if we didn’t know, we could certainly guess. He is moved by her persistence and by the steadfastness of her faith and sends her on her way, having received the healing for her daughter that she initially sought. If it had ended any other way, it hardly would be a story.
But the connective tissue here is the tradition and the heart’s inner truths. Just on the cusp of Jesus chiding the Pharisees for being more interested in their traditions than what was in their hearts, Jesus finds himself cornered by traditions of his own - traditions so deeply ingrained that he probably didn’t even notice it at first.
The tradition of patriarchy in the Ancient Near East was so commonplace and so deep, that it hardly even counts as a tradition. It was just automatic. So, first and foremost, it’s unimaginable to the minds of those days that a woman should stop this rabbi, and rebuff his refusals, and insist to be heard. Women were not meant to be heard. It wasn’t their place.
Moreover, she wasn’t just a woman, but a foreigner, as well. She wasn’t an Israelite. She wasn’t chosen. To a faithful Jew of that time and place, she was worse than invisible. She was outside the circle. God’s love was thought to be impossible for her.
Even so, she demanded to be heard, and she demanded to know the love of God. She demanded blessing. She was the wrong gender and the wrong ethnicity, and even so, she demanded attention.
Jesus, as should have been expected of a Jewish man of his time, tried his best to ignore her. When he couldn’t do that anymore, he tried to shoo her away - even with cruel insults if necessary. But eventually, through her persistence, he was forced to examine his privilege. He was forced to listen to himself, and to hear himself through the lens of the lessons that he, himself, had only just taught.
He had just told the Pharisees that our relationships with the traditions don’t defile us nearly as easily as do our hearts. It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, he said, but what comes out.
This is where the lesson lies for each of us: following the example of Christ, we have to examine our privilege. Who do we see as no more than dogs, whether we admit it or not? What does it say about our lives as Christians if when we are food secure, we deny that security to others? What does it say about us, if we rise from our soft beds in our warm houses each morning, only to ignore the homeless, or worse yet, to actively refuse them the help they need? What is the truth coming out of our hearts if those of us who aren’t victimized by the scourge of racism sit quietly, enjoying our privilege, without hearing the cries coming not just from Ferguson, Missouri, but from across the country, and even here in our own city?
The mega-church pastor, Craig Groeschel said, “God is not calling us to go to church, but to BE the church - the hope of the world.”
It’s not enough that we live by our traditions. It’s not enough that we go to church. We have to be the church as well. We have to constantly strive to have the truth that is pouring out of our hearts - through our words and through our actions - be a truth that will not defile us. It must build up the realm of God. That will be what purifies our hearts and our souls - more than any tradition we might keep.
As I take my leave from this place, this is both my prayer for you and my goal for myself: that we will BE the church, that we will always examine our own privileges, and look for better ways to bring hope to the world. It’s a lesson that even Jesus Christ had to learn. Surely we can, too. Amen.