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Worship and Sermons
August 20, 2017


“Ministers without Borders” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, August 20, 2017, Year A / Pentecost 11 – Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32  •  Matthew 15: 10-11, 21-28

THEME:  Show Christ’s love by crossing borders that separate us.


          Do any of you speak French?  Would you translate this for me?

          Medicines Sans Frontieres   (Doctors without Borders)

          Have you heard of this organization?

          It was founded in 1971 by a group of French doctors and journalists moved by those suffering form famine in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War. Their purpose was to provide emergency medical aid to quickly, effectively and impartially.

          The founders believed “that all people should have access to healthcare regardless of gender, race, religion, creed or political affiliation, and that people’s medical needs outweigh respect for national boundaries.”

          Over the years the Doctors Without Borders has grown by leaps and bounds.  It’s become synonymous with images of courageous medical personnel providing emergency medical services to suffering people in some of the poorest, most dangerous places on the globe.

          Since it’s founding, Doctors Without Borders has served over 100 million patients.  In 1999, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

          One of the founders, Bernard Kouchner, said “Helping sick people by actually going to where they are seems normal now, but it was completely revolutionary then.”

          It seems to me, however, that this idea didn’t originate in 1971.  It originated almost 2000 years earlier.  And, this morning’s gospel passage is the story of exactly how that happened.

          Here’s the background:  Jesus has been sparring with some visiting Pharisees who have come all the way from Jerusalem to call Jesus to task. They accuse him of allowing his disciples to violate Jewish dietary laws.  But Jesus, in turn, denounces them – and they are not pleased.

          In the wake of that conflict, Jesus has taken his disciples on a road trip.  They’ve walked all the way down to the seacoast, to Tyre and Sidon, the land of the pagans. 

          And as he and his disciples are walking there, they attract some attention.  It’s a Canaanite woman whose daughter has been seized by a demon.

          We have to wonder, why does Jesus not answer her?  Why doesn’t he respond to this Canaanite woman’s pleas?   She shouts.  She begs him to have mercy.  She calls him ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’. 

          Yet, Jesus remains silent.  Why?

          Is it because she is a Canaanite?

          We know Jews reviled the Canaanites.  The Canaanite gods were the idols to whom Jews fled whenever their faith in Yahweh began to falter.  

          Or maybe, it’s because she’s a woman?  Jews, of course, didn’t associate with unaccompanied women.  That was a major no-no, a taboo. 

          Whether or not Jesus is concerned about these things, it’s clear that his disciples were.  Their advice to him:  send her away. 

          But, still, she persists.

          Jesus responds by calling her a dog.  That was a common way that Jews referred to gentiles, but it still seems shocking coming from his lips, doesn’t it?

          Is he testing her?  Or, is he merely saying aloud what any righteous Jew would be thinking?  Or maybe both?

          Regardless, this persisent Canaanite woman shows not only her cleverness but her genuine, heartfelt trust in Jesus.  She begs for the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.

          It’s a remarkable response.  And this isn’t lost on Jesus.

          He says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."  And, jus like that, her daughter is healed.

          I’ve read this passage many times this week.  The question I keep coming back to is “Why has Jesus taken his disciples here in the first place?” 

          Think about it. They’ve just come from home territory in Galilee.  The heated debate Jesus had there with the Pharisees was all about the importance of maintaining ritual cleanliness.

          And what does Jesus do, the very next thing?  He takes them on a 50-mile road trip – a three-day journey – to this pagan place where they are guaranteed to run into gentiles like this woman who will render them all ritually unclean.

          Talk about going out of your way!

          Maybe he thinks they all need some R&R.  Tyre and Sidon are two of the nicest beach resorts in all of Lebanon, if not the entire eastern Mediterranean.  But, I’m pretty sure Jesus hasn’t come here simply for a day at the beach.

          Jesus has taken his disciples far outside their comfort zone for a much more important reason.

          It’s a rebuttal to the Pharisees, a field trip to correct their false interpretation of the law.

          He’s telling his disciples to look at the big picture.  The purpose of the law is to provide a way for Jews to be right in the eyes of God.  He’s brought them all the way down here to pagan country show them what that righteousness really looks like. 

          It’s as if he’s saying, “Contrary to what those hypocritical Pharisees say, righteousness doesn’t come from ritual hand-washing or what we eat.  It doesn’t come from steering clear of supposedly unclean people like this gentile woman. 

          “What makes us right with God is what comes from the heart.  That means our words and our deeds.”

          The heart doesn’t know anything about those man-made boundaries the Pharisees hold so dear.  The heart leads us to cross any and all of them, if that’s what it takes to bring God’s love and healing to those who need it and are willing to trust that Jesus can deliver it. 

          Exhibit A is this Canaanite woman.  She represents everything the Pharisees tell the Jews avoid.  And, yet, see what profound faith she has!

          In fact, let’s compare her faith to Peter in the last chapter.  Remember when he tried to walk on the water, and then had to be saved after his fear got the better of him?  Remember what Jesus said to him?  He said, “Oh, you of little faith.”  

          By comparison, this Canaanite woman’s faith looks exemplary! 

          The lesson Jesus is teaching is, “Don’t let your heart be closed off by those blind, misguided Pharisees and their narrow notions of ritual cleanness.  There are a lot of folks out there who aren’t one of us, and who need and trust God’s healing love.  Go to them!”

          That lesson is for you and me, of course. The question Jesus wants you and me to ask ourselves is this:  ”What are the artificial, man-made boundaries that threaten to keep us from reaching out to folks who are suffering?”, and “How can we motivate ourselves and others to transcend them?”

          We saw a glaring example of some of these barriers last weekend in Charlottesville.  The divisions of race and ethnicity were front and center, expressed in ugly racism and bigotry that fueled the horrific violence we saw there.

          Violence is the inevitable result when we allow ourselves to become separated from others who, on the surface, seem different from us.

          Certainly, racism exists in our part of Central Pennsylvania as well.  In fact, this past year, in the wake of the presidential election, we had racial vandalism right here in Mechanicsburg.

          But maybe the greatest artificial barrier we face is the supposed East Shore - West Shore divide.

          I recently had someone outside this church explain to me that those who live on the East Shore have an entirely different mentality.  In this person’s view, the folks on the East shore are less willing to help one another than we are. 

          And, further, they don't work as hard as people on the West Shore and they certainly aren’t anywhere near as nice as those of us on West Shore. 

          But if we’re going to take Jesus’ message seriously, then we need to be suspicious of opinions like that.  We ought to think seriously about how we can reach out to folks on the East Shore, especially those who are in need. 

          In fact, we can expect that they’re every bit as willing as we are to trust in the healing power of Jesus, working through us.

          We can also expect that our faith will grow by reaching out to them.   

          But we’ll never find that out unless we do what Jesus showed his disciples to do:  go to them, meet them where they are, and offer God’s love through our words and deeds.

          It’s as if he’s calling us to be a new kind of relief organization – let’s call it “Ministers without Borders”. 

          We know how this works because we already do it. We’ve crossed state borders to West Virginia, Maine and Florida.  We’ve even crossed the Equator to minister in South Africa.  And we’ve already crossed the river to feed the hungry and homeless in Downtown Harrisburg at Downtown Daily Bread.

          So, why don’t we follow Jesus in crossing the river once more, this time to minister to the neediest folks in uptown Harrisburg?

          I can’t guarantee you that we’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize, but I can promise you that what we do there will be right in God’s eyes.

          May it be so. 

Last Published: August 21, 2017 9:19 AM
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