Bring Up a Chair: There’s more than enough room at God’s Table – a stewardship sermon for Lectionary 20A

I had the privilege of being with the good people of United Lutheran Church in Hampton, Nebraska. Thank you Pastor Miles Ruch for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from, based on the Gospel of Matthew 15:10-28, the appointed gospel text for Sunday August 16, 2020, the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, and Lectionary 20A.

Outside of United Lutheran early on a beautiful Sunday morning. A few minutes later I would hear from one parishoner that a tornado went through the area close to the church on this past Friday evening. You wouldn’t know it looking at this.

Grace and peace from God in Christ, who is with you, for you, and loves you. Amen. And I bring greetings today to you from Bishop Brian Maas, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Steve Meysing, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ, who with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I also bring greetings from my family, from my wife Pastor Allison Siburg at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, and our daughter Caroline.

Thank you so much Pastor Miles for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. It’s great to be with you today as we’re church together- growing disciples, walking together, and serving God’s world. I don’t know if there is a better week to share this good news than this week, with the stories we hear from God for us today. And especially with this story about a Caananite woman who will not take no for an answer. This story reminds us of who God is, of all that God promises and of what God does and will do for all of God’s beloved. God does not act just for a select few, but for all of God’s people. And to this truth, we have the joy of being swept up in God’s love with such a gratitude, that joy fills us and leads us out into our lives as stewards and disciples- serving our neighbor, and doing some of God’s work in the world.

The video of the worship service from United Lutheran Church in Hampton, Nebraska, as made available by United Lutheran’s Facebook page.

Rules and Relationships
Our gospel story this week is one kind of in two parts. The first, is one of discussion perhaps about what defiles[1] and it’s part of a longer conversation that Jesus is part of with Pharisees and scribes who have come to Jesus from Jerusalem, and are in some conflict about tradition and authority.[2] What Jesus is preaching and teaching about means a change of understanding. And as we all know, change is hard. We all like to claim that we like change, but when faced with it in our daily life, most of us, would rather do something more familiar and comfortable. So that is part of what is behind this conflict and story at its beginning. So Jesus unpacks and alludes to a number of the commandments in this portion of conversation and teaching. It’s not so much about what one eats, but about what one does and says (or doesn’t do or say).

Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at. If we’re so focused on the rules and about checking off boxes and separating ourselves out from those who do things a little differently than us, that we forget about the people we are called into relationship with by God, and the commonality we all share as God’s children- perhaps we’re still missing the point about God’s goodness and abundance? The point about how there is more than enough and God calls and shares with all- like we heard a couple weeks ago as the thousands were fed, or last week, as Jesus reached out his hand to Peter on the water- saving him and raising him up.

This sense of abundance, and this reorientation of God’s kingdom- toward recognizing relationships leads Jesus out after his conversation and conflict with the Pharisees and scribes. He leads the disciples out to “the district of Tyre and Sidon,” also called Phoenicia, part of the Roman province of Syria.[3] This is an area out on the margins of Israel. It’s “over there” so to speak. Not surprisingly though, Jesus goes. But what happens next, that’s somewhat unexpected.

Pastor Miles and United’s great musician during the prelude.

The Persistence of a Canaanite Mom who Knows the Promises of God are True
Uninvited, and unwelcome at least at first, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and shouted for help. She shouted for mercy. She was basically called a dog. Yet she persists and claims her rightful space and chair at the table. And her persistence and faith amazes. It’s a lesson for the disciples and for us that Jesus’ ministry, that God’s work and promises, and God’s love aren’t just for a few people who might be like the disciples or like us. No. It’s expansive. It’s inclusive. It’s abundant and overflowing. You would think that would be obvious by now with all of the saving acts and miracles done, but the disciples are human. They are slow to learn and believe, just like us. Thankfully God doesn’t back down or give up on God’s people.

Now I have simplified this story. I mean, what kind of response is this from Jesus? He gives her, no answer. And then to her replies, he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[4] How ironic- that Jesus uses scarcity language here after so much abundance before this encounter, and abundance after it. Then Jesus gives another terse statement, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[5] To this, the woman persists. She will not be turned away. She knows who Jesus is. She believes. She will not be dismayed or sent away. No. Today, in front of these disciples in Tyre and Sidon, this woman will force Jesus’ hand and declare to all the world, “I believe. I see you Jesus of Nazareth. You are the Son of David. You are Lord. You have the power to heal and save.” That’s the kind of faith Jesus is trying to grow in these disciples. But they’re not there yet.

Now this woman, a Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman,[6] is different in a few ways from the disciples. First, well, she’s a woman. Second, she is of a different ethnicity. Jesus is calling us to know and see that God’s love is abundant and for all- not excluded or limited to a select few. And as she is a mother, a parent, she will not back down. She will persist. Like any of you and any good parent, she will do anything in her power between heaven and hell to make sure her child has what they need, to do everything humanly possible to provide healing. And when that fails, well, she will keep going to her Lord in prayer, saying “Lord, help me.”

The Canaanite Woman and Us
How many times have we said a similar prayer?

Thankfully my daughter has not been tormented by a demon, at least as far as I know. But she has had some small health challenges like all kids do. Perhaps the most scary being croup- waking up in the middle of the night- coughing, struggling to breathe. We try to calm her down. We increase the steam in the shower. We take her out in the cold of night. If that doesn’t work, after a phone call with our doctor, we have to take her into the ER. There’s nothing so frightening for a young parent as this. We had to do this again just a few weeks ago.

As you are all aware of, that’s scary enough. Add in the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic which doesn’t differentiate at all between people, ages, or experience- it’s enough to drive someone to prayer and then some. Thankfully our lovely Caroline is just fine, though she is still in denial about becoming an older sibling in a few months and no longer being an only child. But those sorts of experiences make this story today all the more believable for me. I can relate with that mother. I don’t have the economic experience of her- someone likely living on subsistence, barely finding enough income to put bread on the table; but her care and concern for her child- that I can relate with.

The congregation gathered for worship. Physically distanced, wearing masks, and ready to worship.

It’s enough that as a young parent, on a first reading of this story I am not happy with Jesus. But perhaps Jesus’ actions here aren’t about the woman at all. Perhaps they are his way of trying to get the disciples to grow and learn? Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey reframed this story for me at a stewardship conference a year ago. For him, this is a story about God’s abundance. It’s a story about inclusion. It’s not Jesus being terse or derogatory. He’s trying to give space for the disciples to act on the woman’s behalf. For them to share about what they have seen God do- and to help her. But their silence is deafening. Their request to “send her away,” echoes their response to Jesus when feeding the multitude. They wanted Jesus to dismiss the crowds because they only had five loaves and two fish. Interestingly, this experience will happen again after this story today. In the last part of Matthew 15, Jesus will feed 4,000+. At least the disciples won’t make the same mistake about wanting to send the people away again. Though they will still say, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?”[7]

God’s Work and Promises for ALL
Really, disciples? Really? Do you still not get it? Alas, they don’t. But this woman today does. Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”[8] Her daughter was healed instantly. This woman knew that her life had value, and that her child’s life mattered too. She also believed that Jesus knew this too. This is Good News. God has come near, and God has saved and healed, yet again. This saving and healing work is not limited, but offered to all- just as Christ’s hands will be open and outstretched to all on the cross. Because in and through the cross and resurrection, we come to know most fully that God really is with us, for us, and loves us.

We all know someone needing healing, and sometimes even all of us, need some kind of healing. During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, of illness, of isolation, of changed plans, of broken dreams because of lost employment for some, of broken hearts because of lives lost, of masks in classrooms and other places, of disappointment and sadness at the thought of no Husker football this fall… No matter the need, we remember in this story, that God is there with us. That, though it may seem like we aren’t seen sometimes, God sees us, knows us, loves us, and has mercy on us. The Canaanite woman knew this, and so she didn’t relent.

Caleb Ruch reading the lessons, next to the altar prepared for the meal with a place for all to receive and be welcome.

A Place at the Table
A truth about God is this- there is enough. This is a central truth of stewardship. God’s love is abundant- and through it God entrusts us with all that have and all that we are. And through it, God entrusts us with all that we need to do some of God’s work here and now. In response to all that God does for us, we live gratefully, joyfully, and serve and grow as disciples and stewards.  

Yes, there is enough. There is enough room at the table for you, for me, for all. There is enough food to share, no one needs to settle for crumbs. Bring up a chair, and join the feast. That’s the truth about God’s work and God’s promises. It’s the truth we know in the meal to come through the bread and wine. That’s the truth I know you know too, by how you respond and serve as disciples and stewards of God’s love here.

You do the work of seeing and knowing your neighbors, and of meeting their needs as you can. Work like supporting the Hamilton County Food Pantry through food donations and financial gifts, so that all may be fed. Like supporting your local school and backpack program, using an Immanuel Foundation Celebration Grant to fund the backpack program and the Hawk Beef program. You welcome your neighbors in so many ways- like even holding an annual Easter Egg Hunt for the community, welcoming 30-40 kids each year. And you support the ministry of Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry through quilting 4 quilts this year and sharing them with the quilt auction at Camp Carol Joy Holling. Thank you for all of this!

You do this work too through your faithful and continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe and changes lives. Through it, you support and raise up new leaders, pastors and deacons of our church.

A beautiful quilt that tells some of the story of United’s past and present. Including some of the past pastors of the congregation.

Through mission share, you help tell youth and young adults that God sees them and loves them, just for who they are- a beloved Child of God, created in the Image of God just like the Canaanite woman- through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry, Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry, and synod Faith Formation resources like LYON, the Middle School Gathering, and so much more.

Through mission share, you share the Good News near and far through supporting missionaries around the globe and new and renewing ministries right here at home across the Big Red State. And through it too, you see your neighbors’ needs and meet them where they are at through supporting our many church serving arm partners like Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, and more. For all of this, and so much more that you are a part of and make possible, thank you!

All of this that you are a part of and that you do, point to the truth of God’s abundance. That you are enough, and that you have enough. Because it is God who entrusts us with all that we have, and all that we are. Because it is God who heals and provides life. And it is God who calls us each into our various lives and vocations, with unique gifts, passions, strengths, talents, and opportunities. Putting this altogether, because God is with us, we have enough to meet our neighbors’ needs- to not only see the Canaanite women among us, but to respond with grace, mercy, love, welcome, and hospitality.

She didn’t give up. Let’s not either. Let us not relent in reaching out in prayer with God. Let us not shirk our responsibilities to our neighbors- to look, to see, to be present with, and respond to each other’s needs through love, grace, mercy, gratitude, and joy. Thank you again for doing some of God’s work here as God’s stewards and disciples gathered in Hampton. And thanks be to our abundant and loving God for making all of this, and so much more possible. Amen.

The beautiful morning before worship- a sign of God’s abundant and beloved creation and community surrounding this church building that the disciples and stewards gathered here are sent out in to serve, live, and grow in gratitude and joy.

Citations and References:
[1] Matthew 15:10-20, NRSV.
[2] As described by J. Andrew Overman in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition, NRSV, Michael D. Coogan, ed., (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 30 New Testament.
[3] Matthew 15:21, and further explanation on provided by J. Andrew Overman in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition, 31 New Testament.
[4] Matthew 15:24, NRSV.
[5] Matthew 15:26, NRSV.
[6] “Canaanite” in Matthew 15:22, and “Syrophoenician” in Mark 7:26.
[7] Matthew 15:33, NRSV.
[8] Matthew 15:28, NRSV.

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