Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Mother's Love and Faith: Sermon for Mother's Day 2017

Here they came, over the hill. The Complaint Brigade. Always looking for a party to ruin. Always looking to inspect and evaluate and, if they had their way, find fault. Scribes and Pharisees had come all the way from Jerusalem to look into whether this 'teacher' Jesus fit their standards. And when they saw that his followers were eating freely in the fields without carefully purifying their hands, the Pharisees knew they needed to set Jesus straight. His disciples, after all, were out of step with the holy traditions passed on from one generation of wise teachers to the next. And so they confronted Jesus about it in a public place, chiding him for not caring more for the detailed strictures of purity that would safeguard the holiness of the meal (Matthew 15:1-2).

But Jesus lambasted them as hypocrites – hypocrites! His students, he said, were only flouting man-made rules of no consequence – after all, the purity that matters most in God's sight is the purity of the heart, which is seen not by what enters your mouth but what leaves it – but the Pharisees, he charged, were themselves misleading their students to disdain the very commands of God himself through their traditions! God had sternly warned the Israelites long ago to show careful respect for their mothers and fathers, to honor them and love and cherish them, to care for them; and yet if a Jewish man declared his property qorban, a gift for the temple once he died, he could use it however he liked and preserve it as off-limits to his parents in their old age – and the traditions of the Pharisees did nothing to cancel that vow. And so the Pharisees had effectively rendered God's actual commandment a moot point, given it only lip-service – all in the name of their precious tradition, for which they dared to rebuke his disciples.

And as he said those words, Jesus was, I'm sure, righteously indignant. He thought about the mothers of the Pharisees, the mothers of their followers, wasting away in old age, forced to beg while their children enjoyed plenty – and they took his Father's name in vain to excuse it! And perhaps Jesus thought about his own sweet mother Mary, a woman forever dear to his heart, a woman who had raised him from his human infancy, who had given him love as best she could, and whom it broke his heart to think of leaving uncared for. And so Jesus decried the Pharisees' neglect of mothers everywhere, and the honor that God had carefully specified they were deserving of (Matthew 15:3-11).

But his own disciples approached him, after his sharp denunciations knocked the wind from their lungs. They were worried. Did Jesus realize, they wondered, how badly the Pharisees were offended by the way Jesus had deconstructed their whole religious system, by the way Jesus had dared speak to them? Didn't Jesus understand that he'd never win their approval now – that the Pharisees would pursue a vendetta? Didn't Jesus care that the Pharisees were offended by him? Matter of fact, no – his Father hadn't planted the Pharisees; they were blind through their stubborn pride, and the blind would follow them, but for his part, he'd challenge their blindness, not coddle it. And he questioned Peter and the others on why they just didn't get it (Matthew 15:13-20).

The truth is, though, that Peter and the disciples were exhausted. They're still traumatized by near-death in the recent storm (Matthew 14:22-33). They badly needed a vacation. They were in dire need of a retreat. Every time it seemed like they would get a break, another crowd was pressing in on them with demands. They needed some time away from it all. Peter's brain was extra sluggish. James and John were on an even shorter fuse. Matthew and Simon were having explosive political arguments at the drop of a hat – more than normal. Thomas was starting to mumble and look sullen and talk about death a little more than was comfortable for the rest of the disciples. Some of the others were twitchy, irritable, fatigued. They were at their limit – their limit for dealing with people, their limit for dealing with puzzles and parables and Pharisees. And they'd never get any rest in any of the villages of Galilee. So Jesus led them north – north, for the first time crossing outside the borders of the land of Israel, out to the Phoenician countryside near Tyre. They settled in a little farm house, where Peter, for his part, desperately hoped no one would know they were there (Matthew 15:21).

Meanwhile, in the city weeps a woman. A mother. Draped in fancy purple finery, she sobs tears into her hands. There's something badly wrong with her little girl. It had been this way for months, and she didn't know where to turn. Her daughter would seize and jerk in unnatural ways, would glare with anger then weep with agony, would utter the most obscene things, would wake up battered and bruised. She was sick all the time. And it tore the little girl's mother's heart to pieces. She didn't know what to make of it. Until one day, passing through a Jewish neighborhood in the city with her girl, she kept overhearing those words. “Unclean spirit.” “Demon.” “Possessed.” In the beginning, the mother thought it might be a good thing, a touch from one of the gods of her people – maybe a little household god, maybe even Ba'al or Melqart. But this... this was no way for a little girl to live. This was no life for her daughter. This was torture. In the child's more lucid moments, free from fever, she'd cry out, “Mommy, mommy, help me, it hurts!” But this spirit just wouldn't go away.

The teary-eyed woman reached into a bag, pulled out a handful of silver coins. On one side, they bore an eagle; on the other, they bore the face of her god Melqart, King of the City. Her ancestors had been worshipping him for well over a thousand years now. This was a long and esteemed history, stretching back long before these Jews invaded the land. At first, in the days of Hiram, they were friends. At some points in time, they were enemies, even oppressors. During one season of friendship, the Tyrian king even gave his own beautiful daughter as a wife to the Jewish king – and Israel's prophets repaid the kindness with anger and rage, and then the next king had her assassinated! These Jews had never appreciated the people of Tyre or their gods.

Down through the years it went. Alexander came and conquered the city, broke it to pieces, introduced some Greek settlers to mingle with the native Canaanites. The woman could trace some of her family to both. For centuries, the descendants of his general Seleucus governed them. When one of those kings, Antiochus, cracked down on the Jews, made their religion illegal, the people of Tyre cheered! In time, though, they tired of being under anyone's rule, and declared their independence again. Almost a century ago, the Romans took over Tyre – or, at least, the Romans thought so. The proud people of Tyre never quite admitted it. They had plenty culture of their own, had produced poets and philosophers of renown. In the woman's parents' day, they had invaded Galilee, only to be stopped by a petty tyrant named Herod. But Tyre, the woman often mused, would always endure.

And yet... She looked down in her hand at the coin, blurry through her tears. She saw the face of Melqart, and she wondered, “Well, where is Melqart in all this? Where is he when I need him? I've cried and I've cried, and he's been no help to drive this thing out. For all I know, Melqart is the one causing my little girl's pain – maybe Melqart is the demon!” She gasped in horror at the blasphemous thought, but she couldn't shake her suspicions that perhaps the gods of her fathers were either powerless, in cahoots with this kind of darkness, or implicated more directly. She looked back at the moneybag, filled to the brim with silver. She'd gone through the streets of Tyre, tried paying any half-promising quack to chase this thing from her home, from her daughter's body and soul and life. And all her money couldn't do a thing.

But she remembered a rumor she'd heard on the street in the Jewish quarter just this morning. Out there in the countryside, at a local farm, there was a Jewish teacher. She didn't catch the man's name, but whispered words had it that he was a miracle-worker, that he could do anything, that there was no challenge too great, no problem beyond his reach. Some, in fact, were calling him the Messiah, the Son of David – the rightful king of Israel and of all nations. In desperation, the woman wondered, if her gods were frauds, if the prosperity of her people was trivial, could the answer, the real Lord, actually be found in the house of Israel – among the people whose historic privilege she found it so hard to forgive? Would help for her little girl be possible if only she swallowed her civic pride, threw everything away, and entrusted her loyalty and her very life and heart to this stranger from Galilee?

She took another look at her daughter, convulsing on the floor next to her bed, and sobbed the sob of a broken heart. This was the child she'd borne from her womb in great travail. This was the child she'd fed and reared. The child she'd taught how to walk. The child she'd taught how to talk. The child whose soulful eyes, gazing up at her with a smile at bedtime, had once cleared all the clouds from her mind and filled her with the joy only a mother can know. And to see her now, like this, in such pain, was the greatest agony this mother had ever felt, ever known, like a sword slashing her heart to ribbons. And so, as their little dogs howled and whimpered at her burning tears, she dashed out the door into the streets. Every Jew she saw, she begged for a hint, even just a rumor, of where she might find this teacher, whose name, she learned, was Jesus.

It took a couple hours, but finally she was locked on to his coordinates. She was at the right place. Standing at the gate, she screamed out, “Lord! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” She repeated it over and over again, hoping against hope that he and his followers could understand Greek. “Have mercy, have mercy! I need your help, I'll do anything! My daughter has an unclean spirit! The demon has her in its clutches, and she's suffering so badly, so severely oppressed by the foul thing! Have mercy, O Lord, Son of David!” She cried at the top of her lungs, her words breaking down into incoherent sobs. She listened desperately for any sound of movement in the house, any touch at the door that might suggest he would come out to her – he was her only hope. If hope for her girl meant rethinking the history of her own people, throwing Ba'al and Melqart and the rest to the wayside, submitting to the Son of David, hoping he'd be a merciful master, no price was too big. But there was only silence. So she kept screaming for him (Matthew 15:22).

Inside the house, beyond her hearing, the disciples were agitated. They were so utterly burnt out. Drained of energy. They didn't want to deal with people. They didn't want to leave the house. All they wanted was a quiet day inside. They wanted to hide with Jesus, just enjoy his company without being interrupted by crowds. And if this crazy woman kept babbling on in Greek, the neighbors would surely hear and swarm their hideaway, and they'd never get any peace! You can just picture Thomas muttering under his breath, “Just our luck.” You can see Peter wondering if she'd go away if he threw rocks at her. Judas is sitting in the corner, quietly wondering how much money she'd give him to convince Jesus to go talk to her.

But most of the others are just getting antsy. They're looking at Jesus, but Jesus is just looking back at them, as if daring them to make a decision, give an answer (Matthew 15:23)! So they ask him, “Won't you go out there and tell her to go away? Won't you go deal with it?” And all he says to them is, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:23-24). Which they already knew – the other month, when he sent them out to preach in the villages, he warned them that it wasn't yet time to go preach in Samaritan or Gentile towns (Matthew 10:5-6)... though of course that hadn't stopped Jesus from blessing a Samaritan woman (John 4:7-42), or speaking words of healing for the servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). And, they'd heard, Jesus is the One who proclaims justice to the Gentiles and in whom Gentiles will hope (Matthew 12:18-21).

So the disciples looked at him. James thought to himself, “Well, if you're only sent to lost sheep from the house of Israel, would you get out there and send her away?” But Jesus didn't budge like they wanted him to. He just sat there... looking at them. Well, if they couldn't send him out, they supposed – and they said this with the utmost reluctance – they'd have to send her in after all. So they opened the door and waved her in.

The woman wasn't privy to any of this. She barely even noticed the looks of irritation on the disciples' faces when they waved her into the house. She ran in, tears gushing from her eyes, and fell at the teacher's feet. Sobbing on her knees, she begged him again to leave this house, leave his disciples, and come tend to her little girl, her precious daughter, who was tormented by some foul breath of hell. She begged him to overlook who she was, overlook the centuries of bad blood. “Lord, help me!”, she cried in her distress (Matthew 15:25).

The teacher looked at her with compassion, but his words were a challenge, a test. “It isn't right to take bread from the children and throw it to the pups” – the word he used, mercifully speaking Greek to her, reminded her of the puppies nipping and whimpering at her feet as she left the house that morning. As his disciples heard the words, they thought in the grand scheme of things – it wasn't right for Jesus to prematurely abandon his mission to the Jews and desert them to feed the Gentiles en masse yet. As she heard the words, though, she heard Jesus telling her it wouldn't be right to steal his care from his disciples to go to her house to feed her (Matthew 15:26).

And like the Pharisees, she could have been offended by his challenge. She could have stormed out in rage. She could have gotten her hackles up, could have let slip an anti-Semitic slur, could have insulted the disciples, could have scorned Jesus. But she didn't. As she looked into his eyes, she saw love. She saw compassion. She saw the Lord... the Son of David... the healer for the house of Israel and for her people too, in their time. And so in his words, she saw an invitation.

It's true, even in her house, she didn't go feed the puppies before she'd made a meal for her daughter. But since when do puppies sit quietly and patiently in the corner to wait their turn? (Carl, Grace, does McDougall do that? I know in my house, like clockwork, before we even sit down at the dinner table, my cat Sampson is already seated on a chair of his own, stretching out his paw on my mother's arm to beg.) So even in this woman's experience, the puppies are always frolicking under the table, pawing at this leg or that leg, begging for a morsel that the children might drop their way before the puppies even get their official feeding time.

So the woman humbles herself. If she's in the role of one of those puppies, she can deal with that. She won't demand feeding time. She hasn't come to steal Jesus away from his disciples, or from the Jewish mission. He's right, she says, that would be wrong. But what's right is for Jesus to feast his disciples so sumptuously, to feed them with such abundance, that there's more than enough to fall over for a pesky pet who otherwise won't stop pestering the children at their Lord's table (Matthew 15:27)!

She believes – she believes now with all her heart that Jesus is the one, Jesus is the Lord, Jesus is the Son of David, Jesus is the Master of Mercy. Jesus can bless with greater abundance than she can imagine. If he speaks a simple word here, her daughter will be set free. What others in Tyre saw as a feat beyond their capacity, to Jesus would be the tiniest scrap – the Son of David has authority! She doesn't need to drag him away from his disciples, doesn't need to burden them, doesn't need to monopolize Jesus to get what she needs. Jesus is more than enough to relax his disciples and help her at the same time. She sees such power in Jesus that she begs him to bless all who come to him with even greater abundance – such abundance for the children that mercy-morsels spill over to persistent puppies like her well before the appointed time!

And you can almost see the grin on Jesus' face as he sees the woman's great faith – she trusts him more than his own disciples usually do – and he says he'll gladly knock a scrap over for her: “Be it done for you as you desire.” She'll get her wish – no, she's already gotten her wish, already had her prayer answered, whether or not she's yet laid eyes on it. She doesn't need to keep begging. She doesn't need to worry she's letting her little girl down by stopping short. The mercy-morsel has fallen to her. So she dries her face and walks confidently out the door, her fears allayed by faith, knowing that she'll find her daughter at home, resting peacefully in bed and living in freedom at last, to wait for the day of the full feeding for puppies and children alike (Matthew 15:28).

This woman loved her daughter – loved her with a mother's love. In the face of this mother's love, no obstacle could stand. There's no price she wouldn't pay, no distance she wouldn't go, no humility she wouldn't assume, no independence she wouldn't surrender, no potential offense she wouldn't overlook, to see her daughter well again. Had she had to walk a thousand miles, she would have. Had she had to spend her last half-shekel, she would have. Had she had to spend years toiling as a slave, she would have. Had she had to deny every last thing about her heritage, everything she held dear, she would have. That's what a mother's love looks like – willing to go to any lengths for the real welfare of her child, in whom she delights.

In this case, it's also what a mother's faith looks like. She's scarcely even met Jesus, but she knows he's the one. She trusts this foreign teacher to be the True King. She trusts him to be, not just the Lord like Caesar is a lord, but a Lord who can win a war with one word a world away. She trusts that behind this frowning providence there is indeed a smiling face. She trusts him to be too good not to help her, too good not to look on her with mercy, too good not to spread such a feast that any persistent puppy is guaranteed to find rich, delicious morsels plopping left and right ahead of schedule, only by begging 'round the Lord's table. Because she loves her child and trusts Jesus, no darkness, no demon, no unclean thing, can infect their home forever – not for a moment after the table spills over.  And to us, the Lord's table is open on equal terms.

To the mothers of this congregation, who are mothers to those they bore, to those they adopted, to those they raised, or even became spiritual mothers to those younger in the faith – to all who have loved someone enough to come in faith to Jesus' table for them, thank you. Bless you. May you and your love never be deterred. May the abundance of the Lord, the Son of David, reward your love and your faith with plenty. And may your children always appreciate and emulate the love and faith you model. Amen.

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