Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 15)

Text: Matthew 15:24-28
Jesus said, "I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel." At this the woman came and fell at his feet. "Help me, sir!" she said. Jesus answered, "It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
"That's true, sir," she answered, "but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters' table." So Jesus answered her, "You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you." And at that very moment her daughter was healed.
Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights"

Faith of a nobody

In 1931 Charlie Chaplin starred in a movie entitled "City Lights". Chaplin plays the role of a broke and homeless tramp. He meets a poor blind girl selling flowers on the streets and falls in love with her. Since she canít see the tramp she thinks that he is a millionaire. The tramp doesnít want to disappoint her; he keeps up the charade and works small jobs such as street sweeping and enters a boxing contest, all to raise money for an operation to restore the girl's sight. He later saves a millionaire from committing suicide. He rewards the tramp with a thousand dollars. Unfortunately the millionaire was drunk at the time he gave Chaplin the money. When he sobers up he canít remember giving away the money and so accuses the tramp of stealing.

Before he is arrested the tramp manages to get the money to the girl. He is arrested and sent to jail for several months.

The ending is widely acclaimed as one of cinema's most touching; released, the tramp ends up on the same street corner where the flower girl with her sight restored, has opened up a flower shop with her grandmother. Every time a rich man comes into the shop the girl wonders if this is her mysterious benefactor. As the tramp was passing by the flower shop, he picks up a flower from the gutter and as it falls apart the girl and her grandmother laugh at the sad looking tramp. She hands him one of her flowers but when she feels his hand, she realizes that it is the familiar hand of the man who had loved her and made it possible for her to see again.

The tramp was the kind of person who attracted scorn and ridicule. No one could see anything good in him Ė he was poor, homeless, mocked by the local kids. Even the once-blind-girl and her grandmother laugh as he stands in the gutter holding a wilting flower. Uncared for and unjustly treated. Everyone took note of his shabby clothes, untidy appearance, funny looking suit and hat and his strange walk swinging his cane - no-one could see the person inside Ė a person who loved and helped others, whose generosity and commitment enabled the girl to see again, who only wanted to be loved and accepted.

A woman came to Jesus and was treated with nothing but contempt. She is a Canaanite, an immoral, irreligious, unclean heathen. Like the tramp - someone worthy only of mockery, ridicule and scorn. To be avoided at all costs.

She follows Jesus crying out, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" You can just imagine the scene. Here are these 13 men walking along with this heathen woman following after them calling out, begging, pleading for help, making a lot of noise.
You can imagine people watching through their windows.
You can hear the disciples scold her saying,
"For crying out loud, woman! Donít you have any sense of shame? Youíre embarrassing us, youíre embarrassing Jesus, youíre embarrassing yourself. Stop this infernal racket now. Canít you see that none of us, especially the Master, want anything to do with you?"
Itís clear the disciples see this woman in much the same way that everyone viewed the tramp in Charlie Chaplinís movie.

But the woman doesnít feel the hurt intended in the disciplesí word. She puts her shame behind her and reaches out to the one she knows can help her.

They keep walking. Jesus doesnít say a word. His disciples keep asking him to get rid of her. Finally Jesus says, more to the disciples than to the woman, "Why should I help her? My main work is to help the people of Israel and sheís not one of them!"

Maybe the woman heard these words but that makes her even more persistent. She throws herself at Jesusí feet, begging, "Jesus, help me!"

Jesus replies, "I came for my own people. Youíre a Canaanite, an enemy of the Jews. Itís not right to take the childrenís food and throw it to the dogs!"

I donít know how that sounds to you, but thatís pretty harsh. Something you wouldnít expect to come from the lips of Jesus. The Jews referred to Canaanites as "dogs" Ė I suppose it would be the same as calling someone a mongrel in our language. Unlike pampered pooches these days, a dog was regarded as unclean and only worthy of contempt. Even house dogs didnít enjoy the status that pets have today. If you wanted to insult someone, call them a dog.

With an insult like that the woman could easily have said, "Well, if thatís the way you feel, forget it! Sorry I even asked!" But nothing is going to stop her. She knows sheís not worthy of Jesusí attention. She knows she is embarrassing this group of Jews and causing even more scorn to fall on her. But who cares when you have a need; when you need help and here is someone who can help!

She follows on from Jesusí comment about dogs acknowledging that as far as Jesus was concerned she may well be a dog, maybe at best, a house dog. As despicable as a house dog might be, at least they get the leftovers that fall from their masterís table!
In other words, "I need help so much that Iím prepared to be like a dog that waits for food when everyone else is finished. Iím nobody. Iím not important. But you can help me. Iím prepared to accept any insult you can throw at me but please help me!" Jesus sees before him a woman of great faith and he heals her daughter straight away.

I think you can see why Jesus calls her a woman with a great faith.
First of all, she knew she had no right to go to Jesus. She was a heathen, a Canaanite, an enemy, a woman. She knew who she was. She knew that Jesus had every right to ignore her but none of this made any difference to her. She needed help and nothing was going to stop her from asking.

Secondly, following these 13 strange men, calling out, making a terrible noise and looking like an idiot, she cops a fair bit of rebuke and scorn. But when you need help, you swallow your pride and ask in such a way that will bring results.

Thirdly, she doesnít give up. Sheís not afraid. Her love for her terribly sick daughter drives her. She will endure anything to make her well again! Her love for her daughter and her belief in that Jesus holds the key to her daughterís future Ė and even though it looks as if Jesus isnít the slightest bit interested this makes her keep going even.

And finally, she is willing to put herself down, to be humble, to beg like a dog in order to get help. Jesus sees kneeling before him a Canaanite, a heathen, a source of embarrassment and the brunt of so much scorn and ridicule. But like the tramp in Charlie Chaplinís movie all that is only on the outside. Looking past the exterior, he saw a woman with so much love for her daughter, a desperate woman looking for help, a woman with so much faith in Jesus and his ability to help her, a woman whose faith caused her to ignore everything except Jesus and what he could do for her daughter. Rightly he says, "You are a woman of great faith".

A well-known speaker started off his seminar by holding up a $100 bill.  He asked the 200 people in the room, "Who would like this $100 bill?" Hands shot up.

He said, "I am going to give this $100 note to one of you, but first let me do this. He proceeded to crumple the $100 into a tight ball. He then asked, "Who still wants it?" Hands shot up again.

Well, he replied, "What if I do this?" And he dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe.  He picked it up, now crumpled, dirty, looking a little worse for wear. "Now, who still wants it?" Again hands went into the air.

"Friends, we have all learned a very valuable lesson. No matter what was done to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $100".

The speaker concluded, "Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by the decisions we make and the circumstances that come our way.  We feel as though we are worthless. But no matter what we might look like from the outside, you will never lose your value; you are still priceless".

We know that from God's perspective each of us is priceless. Each person is a special creation of God, loved by God, cared for by God, saved from our own foolishness and sin by Jesus, God's Son.
We know from the Bible the many times God promises us personally that he will never forget us and that his power is always at hand to help us.
We know that the Holy Spirit is ready to translate our moans and sighs into prayers that express to God exactly what we need so badly in our lives.
We know that God's love for us is not diminished in any way by our own sins and stupidity. In fact, his heart goes out to us to an even greater degree when he sees that we need help to deal with the problems that trouble and upset our happiness.

So why is it that we take so long to turn for help when we know where to get it?
Why is it that we battle alone with our problems for so long?
Are we sometimes too proud to admit we need help?
Are we afraid of being ridiculed when others find out that we had turned to God for help?
Do we have some kind of twisted idea that the trouble we are having has been sent by God and so we have to deal with it the best way we can by ourselves?
Do we fail to ask God to help because we figure we should be able to sort things out ourselves or at least have a go at solving our dilemma?

You see, the way we deal with our problems is a good indicator of where our faith is at. If we believe that Jesus holds the key,
that he is able to make a difference,
that thereís nothing he canít touch, solve and turn around,
then thatís the first place we will go.

Todayís gospel reading isnít just a nice story about things that happened a long time ago. The Jesus we read about in the pages of the Bible is the same Jesus who is in control, who wants to touch your life and mine, every part of our lives, every day of our lives.
He looks past the shabbiness, the dirt and weirdness that sin brings into our lives.
He can see the hurt, the failure and even our lack of trust in him.
He sees all of this, much of which we wish he couldnít see, and yet his love for us and his willingness to help us is as strong as ever.

This woman wanted help so much and knew where to get it, and nothing was going to stand in her way. She believed that Jesus was the only one who could help her daughter. No amount of opposition or ridicule was going to stand in her way. Her faith gave her the boldness and courage and persistence she needed.

We all struggle sometimes. We all need help. Jesus invites us to trust him and ask him to help. His saving death has made it possible for us to come to him with any request as a child comes to his/her father. He invites us to call on him in the day of trouble and promises that he will help us.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
17th August 2008

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