“Stretching For Great Faith”
Pentecost 11A, Proper 15 – August 20, 2017
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28.
The events of this past two weeks – Charlottesville, Barcelona, Dallas remind us of the effects brought about from the evil cocktail of hatred, bigotry, and violence. There are numerous groups who have aligned themselves to this unholy lifestyle of hating and viewing other human beings as beneath them to the point of being willing to do violence to them. So whether it is from a racial group, or religious group, or a political group the effect is a lifestyle that is opposite of Jesus’ command that we love God, others, and ourselves. Jesus says we are to love other people with the same kind of love that He has for us – a sacrificial love that takes us out of ourselves, giving ourselves for the wellbeing of others. God loves all people and Jesus came to demonstrate the length God will go to prove the depth of that love.
Last week’s sermon and today’s are supposed to be a two-part series about developing great faith that is able to overcome our doubts. I stated last week that these factions that actively practice hatred, bigotry, and violence are so far away from God that I have doubts if God can heal our society because too many people will not allow God to influence their thoughts, motives, and life styles.
Last week we heard Jesus’ challenge to not have “little faith”. Today, Jesus describes the Syrophoenician woman as someone having “great faith”. If we have the choice of whether to have a “little faith” that is filled with doubts versus cultivating a faith that becomes “great”, then I hope we all choose to go for the “great faith” of the foreign woman petitioning Jesus on behalf of her daughter.
The scene Matthew records of the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is troublesome. On the surface it seems like Jesus is doing everything possible to deny her request for healing of her daughter. He seems, almost, rude. I want to suggest, however, that there is more to the story than meets a casual examination.
In the chapters immediately preceding today’s Gospel lesson Matthew (13:53-14:36), records a period of intense, confrontational, emotional ministry, after which Jesus leaves the borders of Israel with His Disciples. For example, during the prelude to today’s lesson, He goes to His hometown and preaches in the Synagogue in which he grew-up. They were so offended at what He said that He couldn’t do any miracles there and they tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff.
Seeking rest from the intensity of ministry, and to fulfill a date with destiny, Jesus left the border of Israel and traveled northward to the region of ancient Phoenicia – modern Lebanon, but still no rest. In the living laboratory of a foreign nation Jesus lives out the reality of Psalm 67:2, “that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations.”
He is confronted by a local, non-Jewish woman who wants her daughter healed; and all the elements of racial, gender, ethnic and religious bigotry are not only revealed in that exchange, but conquered by God’s love for all and mercy towards those who love God. I wish the people in our country today who are so committed to racial and ethnic hatred and violence as the means to their end would seek God with the same integrity of the woman in our lesson.
Isaiah 56:3, reads: “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’” It may have seemed like Jesus was being cruel to the woman, but I think he was conducting a Rabbinic field-teaching experience for the benefit of His Disciples. He was laying groundwork for their future of going into “all the world”.
In the exchange between the woman and Jesus the Disciples are taught that salvation doesn’t belong to any one group of people. It is God’s gift for all who love and believe in God. If the disciples had to learn that lesson then it also important for us to learn. But a key point is that it apparently takes great faith to be willing for God to save people we are prejudiced against, or hate. This episode teaches us that, if given a chance, many people will respond like the woman did –with faith in God’s love.
What Is Faith?
There are five things I want to say regarding what faith is:
- It is Natural: Romans 12:3, reveals that everyone has a measure of faith. It is a gift God designed into us. Everyone has the ability to believe. It is where we place our trust that matters.
- Faith contains both the ability to trust and the ability to conceive of a future. Hebrews 11:1, states that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Verse three goes on to say that God used this ability to conceive of the Universe and speak it into existence – the Big Bang, if you will.
- Hebrews 11:6, says: “Without faith it is impossible to please God”. Why is that?
- Because, Faith is required by God. God lives by faith and requires us to do the same. That’s why God gives us the ability to believe. Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:15, and Galatians 3:11, all state that the Just shall live by faith. God is requiring that we live the way He lives.
- For salvation purposes, we must use our faith in order to trust in Jesus Christ. Romans 10:13, quoting Joel 2:32, states: “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”; 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”. That’s why we teach and preach and witness – so people’s faith will be released in trust to the person of Jesus Christ. We are all born with “faith like a mustard seed”, and can choose to place our faith in the person of Jesus Christ; but
What Is Great Faith?
Jesus said the woman had “great” faith. What did he recognize in her that caused Him to describe her faith as “great”? You can believe that God exists. You can believe that without faith you can’t please God. You can believe you have an innate ability to trust and conceive of a future. You can even believe that Jesus really lived and is somehow the savior of the world and still not have great faith. I think great faith contains three conditions that go beyond ‘mustard seed faith’:
- Daring to believe that God loves you and will provide for you: The woman said: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Matt. 15:21). You can believe in John 3:16 in a general sort of way, but when you believe it is written for you, you are moving into great faith. “For God so loved me, that He gave his only begotten son.” “That I believe in Jesus Christ and gain eternal life”. Great faith has to be able to believe that if you were the only person on earth, Jesus would still come and find a way to give his life for your sins. It is that personal!
- Great Faith is a willingness to take risks in order to gain a relationship with God. “She came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” A foreign woman knelt before a Jewish Rabbi and asked for his help. That was risky. Look at the scorn given her by his disciples: “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” Then, I think to reflect the disciples prejudice by letting them hear their own attitudes Jesus said to her: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
- Great Faith exhibits great Perseverance: In spite of obstacles great faith refuses to quit believing and trusting in God. The woman said: “… even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (15:27). Her faith was not to be deterred. It didn’t matter what the disciples thought about her; her faith in Jesus was greater than the obstacles. From the Genesis lesson we see great faith exhibited in Joseph. Joseph persevered in his trust of God through long years and great trials. Finally, he is able to reveal himself to his brothers (45:8): 8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. So, my final question is,”Do We – do I – Do you – have Great Faith?”
The issue is, what degree of faith are you and I exhibiting? As we step out of the comfort and safety of a boat, and begin to walk on water by faith, it will be a time to test whether our eyes are fully on Jesus, or on our problems. Even as Jesus took the Disciples out of Israel to show them God’s saving love for all people, so the Holy Spirit is leading us out of our comfort zones because he wants Holy Cross to be a congregation that is willing to open our hearts wide to all people in order to lead some people to a saving relationship with the living God, through Jesus Christ. Will we build relationship bridges to others and to God?
What could happen if Neo-Nazis and Antifa haters knelt in the presence of each other and asked God to forgive them and save the souls of the those they hate? What might happen if Jihadis had Damascus Road experiences with Jesus Christ like St. Paul did? What might happen if we sat down and ate a meal with someone we are not comfortable around and got to know them on a personal level? That’s what Jesus offers us in the Communion Meal each week.
Can we believe that God can change hearts? Can we act like we believe it? Will we serve others like we believe it? If the answer is “yes” then we will have demonstrated great faith. And may we be part of a revival led by the Holy Spirit that might change the hearts and attitudes of so many people in our county that hatred, bigotry and violence would be driven out of our daily life.