Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
August 18, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
As most of you know, I generally preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, that table of readings prescribed for each Sunday of the year by an ecumenical panel of experts that is used in many Christian churches. One of the advantages of using the lectionary is that it gives the preacher a starting point for each sermon. You donít have to start completely from scratch. Using the lectionary also means that you donít return again and again to your favorite texts. You are challenged to use the whole wide variety of texts that make up our Scriptures. Now, on the whole thatís a good thing; but sometimes it doesnít feel much like a good thing to me. Sometimes when I look at the texts for a particular week the feeling I get is much more akin to panic than inspiration. Sometimes I get an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach because the texts for that week say nothing to me. Or maybe they say something, but itís something that Iíd rather not hear and that I sure donít want to preach on.
The texts for this week are such texts. When I saw that the Gospel lesson was the story of the Canaanite womanís faith, I immediately ran to the prescribed Old Testament and Epistle lessons hoping to find something there that would rescue me from having to tackle that very difficult text about Jesus rejecting the pleas of a woman, and calling her a dog, just because she wasnít Jewish. Yikes! What ever are we to make of that? I can explain it, and explain it away, on historical grounds; but I sure canít figure out how to preach on it, and Iím not going to try. I did, however, find something else in that story that I think may be worth preaching on. I found it in Jesusí last words to the Canaanite woman, after she has accepted his characterization of her as a dog and has begged for the crumbs that fall from the Jewsí table: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."
Now, that passage in itself raises problems. You see, because of the womanís faith her daughter was healed. This is a common theme in Matthew and other Gospels: Faith brings healing. Faith makes people well. If we have faith, Jesus will cure our ills, cure our paralysis, drive out our demons, restore our sight etc., etc. Now, I donít know about you, but thatís not my experience. Iíve said here before that faith healing is not a big part of my spirituality and that I donít believe that illness and death are the results of our not having sufficient faith. They are merely the results of our being human. So, if that is our experience, do these miracle stories of the Gospels in which peopleís faith in Jesus results in their physical healing have anything at all to say to us? Shouldnít we just write them off as first century legends or stories made up by the Evangelists to try to convince people that Jesus was God? Well, yes and no. I frankly am not much interested in these healing miracles on the literal level. Maybe they happened, maybe they didnít. Either way, taken literally they donít say much to me. However, taken as metaphor for what faith really can do for us they mean a lot. Let me explain.
And let me start with a little linguistic analysis. Iím sorry. Bear with me. Sometimes my academic bent gets the better of me. Our words "heal" and "health" are linguistically very closely related to the word "whole." One very good way to understand the word heal is as "being made whole." Healing is "wholing." And being made whole is a very good way to understand being saved. Our English word "to heal" is in fact closely related to the German word "heilen," which means to heal. But in German heilen also means to save. When Germans call Jesus Savior, they call Him Heiland, the one who "heils," that is, heals makes whole, saves. So, to me, Jesusí healing miracles, including the one in our very troublesome passage this morning, are about a lot more than mere physical healing. They are about the way in which our faith can make us whole, indeed, can save us.
Now, to understand what that means, we have of course to understand the ways in which we are not whole, the ways in which we need to be saved. Just exactly what does faith do for us? Well, that of course is a huge question that can hardly be adequately addressed in a brief sermon (or maybe you donít think my sermons are so brief.) Let me just suggest one way in which I understand the way faith makes us whole. We are not whole because we are alienated from the entire, integrated creatures God intends us to be. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that our fundamental, primary relationships, the relationships God intends us to have in order for us to be the creatures God intends for us to be, have been broken. There are three such primary relationships that each of us has: our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and our relationship with God, that is, with Divine Mystery, with the Ultimate, the Infinite. In our human condition, all of those relationships are broken. Not one of them is what God intends it to be. All of these relationships need mending, and all of them are worth preaching about. But in the interest of time, let me focus on just one of them, namely, our relationship with God.
Our natural and divinely intended relationship with God is one of utter trust, dependence, and intimacy. Our model of this relationship is, of course, Jesus Himself. One of the many reasons that He is so important to us is that he models a healthy human relationship to God. Oh, to be sure, the tradition has often overlooked this aspect of Jesusí ministry, preferring to say that He is God, not that he is a human living a perfect relationship with God. Without denying the truth and importance of Godís Incarnation in Jesus, however, we can nonetheless truly say that Jesus shows us what human life is supposed to look like. It is perfectly orthodox in our tradition to say that while Jesus is truly God Incarnate, He is also the model of perfect humanity, that is, humanity the way God intends and wants it to be. And an important part of that perfect humanity is Jesusí relationship to God. Our relationship with God would be restored, and we would therefore be made more whole, we would be at least partly healed, if our relationship with God were to mirror Jesusí relationship to God.
So just what was Jesusí relationship to God? Well, it was that divinely intended relationship of utter trust, dependency, and intimacy that I mentioned a minute ago. We can see the nature of this relationship most powerfully in the way Jesus addressed God. He called God "Abba." The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary says that Abba is the Aramaic word for father. [Aramaic, for any of you who may not know, is the language Jesus spoke. It is an ancient Semitic language of the eastern Mediterranean closely related to Hebrew.] It suggests, this resource says, "familial intimacy." That aspect of the word has led many scholars to say that it is quite equivalent to our word "daddy." Jesus called God Daddy. (He could just as well have called God Mommy, but in the culture of his time that wasnít going to happen.) Jesusí relationship to God was that of a little child to his parents. It was that intimate, that close. He was in constant contact with God. The Gospels are full of references to Jesus going off by himself to pray. Thatís how he maintained that closeness. Itís how we can do it too.
Jesusí was as dependent on God as children are on their parents. As children, we are totally dependent on our parents. We can do nothing without them. They must do many things for us that as adults we do for ourselves. With God, however, we never outgrow that dependence. In Jesus we see a mature, strong, independent adult with a clear self-identity who made his own decisions, who followed his own path in life. Yet he never forgot that in everything he did he was nonetheless totally dependent on God. Without God he could do nothing.
And he trusted God completely. He trusted God when he began his ministry of preaching a message that he certainly knew was going to get him in trouble with the authorities. And he trusted God completely when that message did in fact get him in trouble with the authorities. We see it best in the story of Jesus praying in the garden just before his arrest. He prayed to God to save him; yet he also prayed that Godís will and not his own be done. He trusted God so much that he was willing to go the cross if that is what being faithful to God required. Itís pretty hard to trust anyone more than that.
So, how does our faith heal us, make us whole? One way it can do that is to restore our relationship with God, a relationship that I believe is, for most of us, pretty badly broken. Most of the time, most of us donít live intimately with God. We donít talk to God like we did to Daddy when we were small. We donít feel ourselves dependent on God. We think we need to do for ourselves, to be strong, to be self-sufficient. This is especially true of us men in this culture. We donít trust God absolutely. Not the way Jesus did. But if we can strengthen our faith, if we can make our faith more central in our lives, we can learn to live more intimately, dependently, and trustfully with God. When we learn to do that, amazing things happen. We find a peace that the world cannot give. We find a courage we did not know we had. We find a joy we didnít know was possible. I can tell you from recent personal experience that faith in God is the only thing that makes the worst that life brings bearable. Faith in ourselves wonít do it. Faith in false idols like wealth, power, prestige, patriotism, and all the other false idols our culture constantly presents for our worship wonít do it. Faith in God, faith in God in and through Jesus Christ, heals. Even when it doesnít cure illness, and in my experience it usually doesnít, it can still heal. It can still make us whole. It can still restore our broken relationships, even our relationship with God. And in that restoration of right relationship with God we are made whole. Even though we die, we are made whole. Thanks be to God. Amen.