Jesus, Is That You?

The Rev. Tom Baker
St. Stephen’s Church, Horseshoe Bend, Ark.
August 14, 2011
Proper 15, Year A
Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28

As a child every night as I climbed the stairs to go to bed I passed by a picture of The Sacred Heart of Jesus. The picture depicts Jesus standing among the clouds, surrounded by angels, as his cloak billows in the heavenly breeze. His strong arms are outstretched as if He was embracing the whole world. Jesus’ face is serene and yet strong. And right in the middle of Jesus’ strong chest you can see The Sacred Heart. A crown of thorns surrounds Jesus’ heart and beams of light burst forth. The Sacred Heart always has been an image of both love and sacrifice. As a child that picture gave me great comfort for I saw a Jesus who was strong, confident, and always there for me. Each night as I passed by the Sacred Heart I can remember feeling blessed and comforted. No matter what; I knew Jesus would be standing there waiting to wrap those strong and sure arms around me. I knew that His heart would always be filled with compassion. It was a picture of a Jesus who would never turn his back on me or call me a dog.

We all like to believe in a Jesus who loves and accepts everyone; a Jesus who embraces the world with never ending love. We can’t cope with a Jesus who turns his back on us, denies that we even exist. That kind of Jesus is too close for comfort, too much like people we deal with everyday.

But that’s just what Jesus does today; our loving Lord tells a poor hurting woman to get lost. We can try and rationalize Jesus’ behavior by admitting that just by stepping foot into Tyre and Sidon Jesus and the disciples are walking in forbidden land and that they’ll have to go through an extensive ritual washing before setting foot back in the Promised Land. And we can point out that Jesus is, after all, meeting a woman, the lowest of the low in Jesus’ day. Strike two. Not only that – she’s a pagan a non-believer. Strike three. God never promised that her people were chosen. Quite the opposite, she’s one of those people; the kind of undesirable person that lowers property values and forces decent folks out. She is not one of US. She is one of THEM. Calling her a dog – was Jesus just telling it like it is. After all we all heard it before: “A spade is a spade.” “The only good Muslin is a dead Muslim.” “The world doesn’t need another dumb Pollack or a dirty Mick.” “We don’t need their kind around here.” We are sons and daughters of Abraham. We’re not THEM. We’re US and we mean to keep it that way.

Are you squirming in your pew yet? Weren’t you uncomfortable when Jesus, the lover of souls, told that woman she was a dog? How can Jesus be so mean? We can try and explain Jesus’ anger and name calling away. We can even use the best New Testament studies to try and soften the blow. Yet the words still hang heavy in the air: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Can this really be our Lord of love and acceptance? The Lord who just four chapters before in Matthew says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” It makes no sense.

Or does it? In Holland a man kills because THOSE people are threatening his way of life. In Africa people starve because THOSE people are in the way of a war that is more important than food. In America we have red states and blue states. Here in Arkansas we have Hillbillies and Yankees. At work there’s the boss and everyone else. School life—it’s all about who you hang with. Are you with the Smith’s or Jones?

Pain, hurt, rejection, segregation, is everywhere in this world of ours. Can Jesus really get caught up in the same mire and dirt we all can? Is he really prone to the beliefs and thoughts of his day? Did Jesus really believe he was sent for only the sheep of the house of Israel and that he had no time for any of THEM?

Do we want a Jesus who stands serene in a picture or do we want a real flesh and blood Lord? Does our Jesus have to be perfect or can he be human, real and alive. Don’t we proclaim to believe in the humanity of Christ?

The belief that Jesus is both human and divine is one of the foundation stones of our faith. But that doesn’t mean the church never fought over it. There were many who believed that if Jesus is really God then it follows God couldn’t die. And so they believed that on the cross, like a kid playing war, Jesus just pretended to die. People argued and even were burned at the stake for believing Jesus wasn’t really human. Yet the church clung onto the deep belief that Jesus is one like us.

My greatest joy as a hospital chaplain is that I get to meet Jesus everyday. I’m not being pious—in every patient, I meet the Lord. I see Jesus in the face of an 89-year-old man whose kidneys have shut down but still talks about the joy he felt ministering to prisoners like it was yesterday. I meet Jesus in a twelve-year-old girl paralyzed by a car accident who, with a bright smile, gave me candy because she knows Juicy Fruits are my favorite. I encounter Jesus in the soft orange and red, yellow and blue, purple and pink light of a sunset. I feel the power of Jesus as I hold hands with a family in prayer as they say goodbye to their beloved mother dying of cancer.

In every real human experience we can meet Jesus. Even in a world that seems so full of THEM and US we can met the Lord. Matthew’s gospel is giving us the real Jesus instead of a picture of Jesus we can hang on our wall. A real Jesus who’s shaken into listening to the cries of a dog and is brave and aware enough to admit he missed a woman worth noticing. And then he raises those strong arms of his and really blesses her saying, “Woman, you have great faith.” It was the woman’s great authentic presence that turned Jesus around. Yet despite that he faces a woman, a pagan, and one of THEM he recognizes great faith and gives healing. That’s the kind of Jesus we really want to follow and worship.

Do we want a Jesus who stands serene in a picture or do we want a real flesh and blood Lord? Does our Jesus have to be perfect or can he be human, real and alive. Don’t we proclaim to believe in the humanity of Christ?

Although you’d never believe it, we live in a perfect world for our world demands perfection. Think about it—if you’re overweight, don’t wear the latest fashions, are bald, not pretty, or not driving the latest car, there must be something wrong with you. The products we sell are filled with pictures of perfectly toned bodies, happy smiling faces, or perfect wholesome families. We demand perfection in our jobs, where one mistake and you find yourself written up or worse yet out on the street. We celebrate athletes who win the gold medal, the World Series, or the Super Bowl and forget those who finish second. We demand that our political leaders never make a mistake, never lie, and never get caught saying something stupid. Our culture demands perfection and it presses down on us like an elephant sitting on our chest. We are expected to be more than human—for we must look, act, and be perfect.

Thanks be to God that in this madness we can, like the woman, met our Lord who doesn’t demand perfection. A Lord who enters our broken world filled with the THEM and US and blesses us all.

In my home, there by my front door, is the picture of the Sacred Heart that I grew up with. Today I see a Jesus who walks the same twisted path we all do. A Jesus who shows the disciples and the whole world that perfection has no place in the kingdom. Faithfulness, however, does have a place. For to be faithful is to embrace everything we are, warts and all and to discover, within our real and messy lives, the Lord.