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A Woman of Faith

Matthew 15:21-28

(Sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church, SF, on Sunday, August 17, 2014)


One of my favorite radio programs is KQED Perspectives where Bay Area locals share their insights and opinions on a variety of topics.  I am often stunned by the power of the speakers’ perspectives.  One recent perspective was titled:  “Meat, Milk, and Butter for Vegans.”  The title suggests that a vegan  who consumed animal based products such as meat, milk, and butter must have found healthy alternatives or substitutes taking the place of the real thing.  The speaker, a life long vegan, challenged the meat, dairy, and egg industry’s control of the language we use for food, that food that was not animal based could not use words like meat and milk and butter.  Food that was not animal based were not real.  The industry has gone to such extremes as to recommend that the liquid that came out of a lactating mother be called ‘breast beverage’, not breast milk.  After all real milk came only from cows.  Yet, real butter do come from plants—peanut butter, cocoa butter.  The word meat has its origin in the old English word ‘meta’ which meant solid foods.  We still use the word meat for non-animal base foods such as coconut meat or the meat of fruits.

I. Language and words are powerful.  Words can touch you in deep and emotional ways.  Language can bring joy to your heart, like when you hear the very first words out of a baby’s mouth.  Like a parent saying to a daughter who is caught telling a lie, “I forgive you.”  Like a wife saying to her husband who violated a trust, “I love you.”  Words and language can also hurt and be used in an abusive way.  Like when people call you a ‘chink’ or a ‘chinaman.’  Or when we label people with names like ‘nigger’ or ‘faggot.’  I get frustrated with ‘Chinese drivers.’  When I served the congregation on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation where three tribes shared a common land and governance, one of the tribes, the Paiutes, were often referred to by the other two tribes as ‘dogs.’  It was one of the worst things to call a tribe of people.  So when Jesus called a foreign woman ‘dog’, we must realize how degrading a term and what an awful thing it was for Jesus to use.  In today’s Gospel reading, we are shocked by the way Jesus spoke to this woman who came to him for help.  The first thing Jesus says to this woman who comes to him, pleading for help with her daughter, is:  “I was sent ONLY to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And when the woman persisted, Jesus smacked her with, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the DOGS.”  The Canaanite woman, a foreigner, was not human in the eyes of Jesus.  She was an animal, an animal that begs for food.  The way Jesus treats this Canaanite is abusive!  It makes me wonder about the popular portraits of Jesus, portraying him as a meek and mild and gentle man.  Well in this story, we sure see a different side of Jesus.  Here he is mean and cruel.

II. But just for a moment, let’s try giving Jesus the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s give him a break.  In today’s story, Jesus has come from Nazareth, his own hometown, where his family and friends have doubted his authority and taken offense at his teaching.  He has recently received word that John the Baptist has been beheaded, and he has tried to get away from the crowds for a while, but the crowds have followed him, and he has, with 5 loaves and 2 fish, fed them all.  Then there was the storm at sea and Peter’s wish to walk across the water, only to be ruined by Peter’s fear and doubt.  Everywhere Jesus turns, he finds need—need and people who want what he can do them, but who remain blind to who he is.  He is at the frayed end of the rope, used up, burnt out.  And then comes this Canaanite woman crying out to him to heal her daughter—one more needy person who wants something from him.  She’s the last straw.  She’s the telephone solicitor calling on behalf of the Disabled American Veterans selling light bulbs; or the fire department recruiting sponsors for handicapped children; or the kidney foundation seeking donations.  The doorbell rings and it is a Hispanic man looking for work, while his whole family waits and watches from the battered car by the curb.  There is always something that can use our support whether it is sponsoring a walker or a bicyclist or a runner, whether it is ordering gift wrap or magazine subscriptions from school children.  So Jesus does what any on us would do, right?!  You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.  Enough is enough.  The doctor is out.  We’ve already given at the office.  The post office is closed.  We draw the line, and like Jesus, we may lose our tempers when outsiders try to cross it, because they are challenging the limits we have placed on ourselves to protect ourselves.

III. Over the years, scholars and preachers have tried to come up with all sorts of explanations and rationalizations to protect and defend Jesus.  Jesus was merely testing the woman’s faith.  Or, Jesus was struggling in his mind whether his mission was to include Gentiles or not.  Or, Jesus was teaching this pushy, assertive woman appropriate humility; after all, she was a foreigner and a woman no less!  When you take sides with the majority opinion, when you take sides with the dominant group, when you take sides with those in charge, those in authority, those who have the power to define and to name and to make the rules and to decide what is normal, you tend to make excuses when their faults and flaws are exposed.  And you tend to shift the blame onto the victim.  This is common human behavior.  When we put people we admire and respect on pedestals—whether they be ministers or teachers or leaders or politicians, and certainly the Son of God—we tend to look the other way or even live in a state of denial when their mistakes and faults are made public, or when they are exposed by scandal.  Consider how long the Roman Catholic Church protected its abusive priests.  Consider how long it took to bring to light the abuses of Dick Wichman.  The disciples tried to protect Jesus by urging him to “send her away; transfer the pedophile priest to another parish!”

IV. But what if we took the side of the Canaanite woman?  What if we took the side of victims of abuse?  What if we took the side of the poor and the powerless?  What if we took the side of the child, the undocumented immigrant, the mentally ill daughter, the elderly patient?  What we took the side of the “minority?”  If we could do that, then this story would look very different, wouldn’t it?  If we could do that, then the teacher in this story is NOT Jesus.  The teacher in this story is the Canaanite woman, at wits end, desperate and struggling with a daughter who is mentally ill.  What is she to do as a woman in a society dominated and ruled by men, as a foreigner discriminated by the dominant culture, as a single mother shamed and rejected by her society?  SHE is first and foremost, “a woman of faith.”  She is Janie Spahr and Glenda Hope.  She is Donaldina Cameron and Lorna Logan.  In the end, when Jesus learned his lesson, he said to the Canaanite woman, “Woman, great is your faith!”  And he then went on to tell her, “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.

At this very moment, there are unnamed Canaanite women of faith seeking our help.  They are the tenants in Chinatown against powerful landlords.  They are the families who come to the Food Pantry.  They are the Central American children crossing our borders.  We would be so lucky to have people knocking on our locked doors to get in.  I pray that the unnamed Canaanite women of faith will be persistent with you, Covenant Church, because you have in your possession the power and the potential to heal the sick and to overcome the demons that threaten our society.


Do you remember how Matthew’s gospel ends?  With these words from Jesus:  “Go and make disciples of ALL NATIONS…”  In today’s story, Jesus said, “I was sent only to the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel.”  But by the end of the gospel, Jesus has learned something and his mind has been changed.  Who knows, could it be possible that the nameless and faceless, but tenacious and persistent, Canaanite woman was responsible for convincing Jesus that His mission was not just to Israel after all…but to ALL the nations of the world?! 


6 thoughts on “A Woman of Faith”

  1. Pointing the lens to focus on the Canaanite woman of faith seeking help does bring the scripture to present time relevance and need. This reprise sermon is powerful and inspires action.

    During this past Thanksgiving week the Byron Allen Grio Awards 2022 was televised on Nov. 27, 2022. For background about Byron Allen and the Grio Awards, just google Wikipedia. Byron amassed a Media Enterprise and uses it to highlight, promote, unite and inspire the best and brightest black talents in business, arts and science, kind of like the Kennedy Center Awards. Of the women honored this year were Patti LaBelle, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifa. But the award that impressed me the most was the Youth award given to Alena Analeigh McQuarter, a 13-yr. old Fort Worth, TX STEM wunderkid. In her acceptance speech Alena said, “I am NOW (I am not the future)”. She continues to use the stage to speak to young girls and stood in protest to the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini by cutting off one of her dred locks. It was a Powerful message. A 13-yr. old messenger.

    But the other perspective, focus on Jesus still leaves perplexity, especially since the School of Discipleship had recently been studying about the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Are they three different and separate entities? All One but different manifestations/experiences? The scriptures make them seem separate. If Jesus was both human and divine, when did he “become” divine? If he was more “human” in this Matthew gospel, how can we reconcile that with the promise that “God loves everyone and forgives everyone (Grace)? Or are we doomed to the idea of anthropomorphic, like us humans acting on how we feel and know at the time?

  2. Thanks Cal. I finally re-read your entry after brushing through the opening quickly on Sunday morning. I was impressed with many of your thoughts–general and with details that make those general ideas come alive–but especially about how it is easy to put leaders such as pastors on pedestals. I have done that. However, part of what I learned in my years at SFTS, obtaining a Master of Divinity degree in 1985, was how truly human and in many ways defective that we seminarians, many who would become ordained or otherwise leaders in the church, were. And that to apply that insight to all who are in church leadership or who might otherwise prompt me to put them on pedestals–and that would apply to politicians and other leaders. My history of putting ministers and others on pedestals is mild in many ways, it still has had an effect on my attitude toward churches. Even in the 25 years back here in Iowa that I belonged to a Unitarian Fellowship–UU’s probably thinking they are exempt from putting ministers on pedestals–I have difficulty seeing how a congregation can defer to ministers. And now, I am “unchurched” and not missing being part of a congregation–something I thought I would never do. I will end by saying that I was curious about who Dick Wichman was and read an article about his activity at Cameron House.

    Wow, I first knew you in my first year at SFTS (1981) and have continued to keep in touch with you and Sharon and fondly remember our trip a year ago to the Fields of Dreams baseball field in NE Iowa. I had hardly a clue of the Cameron House drama of abuse then the subsequent, courageous process of you and others to bring justice, healing, and change to the place. I have known you to be a deep and conscientious person–and now I have a bit more of a window to the complexities of your life. Thanks.

    And now, on a lighter note, your readers might love seeing this video about that visit to the Field of Dreams.

  3. I loved the vimeo! Thank you Helen. Of course it would have been more impressive if Cal had come out of the bushes in uniform. Remake next time?
    His body twist and curvature of wrist and hand were pretty snazzy as well, sort of Steph Curry’s hand and wrist finish.

    1. Wow, Gwendolyn. Glad you enjoyed the video. And your comment about Cal coming out in uniform and his style make me chuckle. A fine delightful moment here as I wind down for the evening.

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