St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church


St. Bart's Blog

Wake Up!

Posted by The Rev. Mary Lynn Coulson on

The Rev. Mary Lynn Coulson's sermon from Sunday, August 20.


Do you ever hit snooze on your alarm in the morning? I do. Every. Single. Morning. At least five, or ten, times. The bed is just so soft and warm! When I lived in Minnesota, in the winters there was that much more incentive to stay in the bed, when it was fifty degrees in the house.

Well the moment we are not challenged by the gospel, we have fallen asleep. The very moment when we settle into an understanding of our call as a Christian, settle into the folds of church like a great big quilt – that very moment is the moment when we’ve fallen asleep. It’s nice there, wrapped up in the church – people are nice, we raise our children to sit quietly, I feel better about myself when I leave. But the gospel is contentious. The gospel is challenging. The gospel is about what’s going on in the world.

What’s the good news? There is always, always, a voice crying out. A voice calling us to WAKE UP! A voice calling us to open our eyes, throw off the covers, and put our feet on the floor. It’s never too late.

The Canaanite woman calls out to Jesus - Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!

She calls out, and she keeps calling out.

Not only does she scream – help me! The word used here for scream means “the call of the raven.” It’s an onomatope – the word itself sounds like a raven, cawing. A good translation would be – she screeched, or she squawked.

Have mercy on me! Have mercy on me! Have mercy on me!

The narrator tells us something interesting – Jesus said nothing at all. Nothing at all.

So she keeps crying out – she’s persistent, she’s desperate, she’s a mother, and her daughter is ill. She’s strong and brave and she gets herself in front of Jesus of Nazareth.

She will not be silenced.

The disciples, of course, don’t address the woman at all. Hey, Jesus! Can’t you get this woman out of here? She’s bothering us, dirtying the place up. We’ve heard enough of her screeching.

You see – this woman from Canaan – she is not supposed to be in the story.

She has no place in the ministry of the disciples. Even Jesus can’t see her place in his ministry. Even Jesus. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

What can this mean? How can we stomach a Jesus who, as he encounters suffering, says no? Jesus had fallen asleep. And the Canaanite woman – she called out...Wake up! See me!

But first, it gets worse. Jesus answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Let’s pause here a moment. If you’ve still been holding on to a nice, peaceful image of Jesus – today’s the day to let that go. We see Jesus today in perhaps his most vulnerable, most relatable moment. Jesus speaks out of his own cultural, religious, and racial bias.

Even though the chapters before and after the text show Jesus radically welcoming all - feeding thousands, healing whole crowds of non-Jews, criticizing the exclusivism some hold to – even with all that theology of abundance for all people, Jesus is asleep. I can think of nothing more human-like. Even Jesus’ wide view of the kingdom of God, which includes all people, does not, at first glance, include this particular woman.

Have you ever had the experience of having a belief challenged by an encounter with another?

Jesus encounters the other, and he is changed.  His teaching about the love of God for all people – that idea takes on flesh in this woman from Canaan, standing right in front of him, who won’t stop squawking about what’s wrong.  In her resistance, the woman shakes up Jesus’ own understanding of his ministry. She wakes him up.

And – he hears her. He hears her response – yes, Lord, she says, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

She takes his own words and turns them around, waking him up – waking us all up – to the reality that every human being is a beloved child of God.

We, the church, have work to do. We need to take seriously this woman who is calling out to Jesus, and to us. We, like Jesus, can be bound by our culture and held hostage to our fears of the Other. Like Jesus, we can get it wrong.

And then, like Jesus, in close encounters with the Other, God can change our minds, and God can change our hearts.

This is a story of a miraculous healing. As soon as Jesus wakes up, sees the woman, and affirms her – her daughter is healed. But is that the only healing that happens? The Canaanite woman, ignored by some and called a dog by others, is also healed. She is seen, she is heard, her faith makes her whole.

There’s one more healing, though. One more miraculous healing. Jesus is healed of his bias as he encounters this person, and he grows. He learns. She is the flesh-and-blood, staring-you-in-the-face injustice that Jesus has been talking about.

As followers of Jesus it is our call – our baptismal promise – to seek out those on the margins, and enfranchise the disenfranchised.

Jesus, the ultimate teacher let someone else be his teacher. Jesus models humility – the Rabbi – capital R – allowed himself to be taught, by the least likely person. By a woman! By a foreigner! By someone who doesn’t even worship the God of Israel!

This story is so important to us gathered here today. Jesus’ very theology is transformed by the theology of a Canaanite woman. He encounters her in her own vulnerability, and is transformed himself – because he was willing to be vulnerable, too.

Will you be vulnerable, and listen – really listen ­– to what the marginalized are saying? Will we listen and allow God to change our heart?

The Canaanite woman is asking: Can you look at the events in Charlottesville and not try to decide the best answer for a debate, but actually let it change you? She is asking: Are you capable of not trying to decide who is to blame but letting the gravity of the problem push you to seek out people who feel marginalized and unsafe and scared, just like her? The Canaanite woman, like millions of people today, is crying out – because they are afraid, unheard, and in pain. And as long as they are, so are we. As long as the Canaanite woman is marginalized, so is Jesus. The woman asks: Are you opening your heart, every day, to how God is transforming your life – even your very understanding of God – by the most unlikely people?

Are we opening our eyes to have our theology and lives transformed by the most unlikely of people? Who are we dismissing, individually and as a community?

I know people don’t like talking about this at church. But this is what it means to be baptized. To experience our lives – events, relationships, challenges – and let the gospel speak to our actual lives. And if we can’t reflect on this at church, then where? If not at an assembly of confessing Christ-followers, then where? And if we, the church, don’t take up the mantle of maintaining justice, who will?

Today, God’s commandment in Isaiah is – maintain justice. Not – do justice, but maintain justice. If we are called to maintain justice – or to guard it – doesn’t it follow that there will always be threats to justice? Yes. The fight for civil rights was not won decades ago. We are called to be vigilant – vigilant in hearing the call of the Canaanite woman, waking up, being honest about our own biases, and be open to change. This will make us uncomfortable, like Jesus was with this Canaanite woman. But it will bring about the kingdom of God right here on earth. This story is stark. It gives us a challenging picture of Jesus. But this picture of Jesus is also one rooted in the gospel message that all things are being made new.

So let us hold fast God’s command in Isaiah.

For thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,

for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord –

these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.