Sincere thanks to guest contributor and friend, Darlene Swanson, for sharing her following homily with the KAE Writes community, originally preached August 20, 2017 at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roswell, GA.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever had a teachable moment? You know the kind—where you’re the student and someone or something else is the teacher. You may not like it at the time, but the lesson sticks with you.
I remember a teachable moment in my life years ago. I volunteered to work at The Christian Booksellers Association annual convention in downtown Atlanta. My job was to be a “shepherd;” a chaperon for several of the featured authors. I would pick them up at the airport, drive them to the convention center, and get them to their appointments on time.
One of the authors to whom I was assigned was Dr. Charles Swindoll, a renowned preacher, pastor, professor, Christian talk show host. He had written a book called The Grace Awakening, which had sold half a million copies. My boss reminded me that Dr. Swindoll was the keynote speaker and star of the show. So she told me, “Be a good shepherd and take care of “Chuck!””
I picked up Dr. Swindoll from the airport, drove him to the convention center, we were right on time for his first book signing. But as we were walking across the parking lot to the main entrance, I noticed a large crowd of people gathered outside the main doors. When they saw us, they began to shout, “There he is! There’s Chuck Swindoll! They were waving copies of his book, The Grace Awakening, in their hands. I could see these people were not wearing conference badges. That meant they were not members and hadn’t paid their dues. I thought to myself, “This shepherd wasn’t born yesterday. There’s no way a bunch of unauthorized groupies are going to delay my schedule, much less get a free autograph!” I said, “Dr. Swindoll, keep walking. Security will send them away.”
Then a woman in the crowd did the unthinkable. As we passed by, she grabbed his arm, put a pen in his hand, and said, “Chuck, please sign my book–it’s for my sister and she’s very ill.” Dr. Swindoll stopped. He turned to the woman, and asked, “What’s your sister’s name?” She said, “Sarah.” The woman told him how his book The Grace Awakening had given her sister hope during a difficult time. He wrote a note to Sarah, even said prayer with the woman.
Well don’t you know that opened up Pandora’s box. All of a sudden, a line forms and now every groupie wants a free autograph. Finally, Dr. Swindoll and I rushed into the convention center, and I had to say to him “You know, those people are not members—they have no right to ask you for anything. You didn’t have to do that.” Then he stopped, turned to me and said, “Darlene, that’s what God’s grace is: giving a gift when it is least deserved.” It was teachable moment.
The disciples get a teachable moment in today’s gospel reading from Matthew chapter 15. Jesus and the Canaanite woman give them their own. . . “grace awakening.”
Jesus and his disciples entered the district of Tyre and Sidon the land of the Canaanites, an ancient enemy of Israel.
For centuries, the Jews had called these people “dogs.” It was an ugly insult—the Greek word for this type of dog is kuón. It means a wild unclean scavenging canine. Dogs were despised and avoided.
So imagine the outrage, the scandal, when Jesus and his disciples were walking along, and a Canaanite woman begins shouting to Jesus—“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus remains silent. “He did not answer her at all.”
Why was Jesus silent? This isn’t like him.
Matthew writes earlier that so far in Jesus’ ministry, He’d cured every disease and every sickness among the people—including another Gentile–the Centurion’s servant. He had dined with sinners and tax collectors. He had even taught “Love your enemy.” And yet, in the face of this woman’s desperation, he did not answer her at all. Why?Could it be that Jesus was waiting to see how his disciples would respond to the woman in need. . .the Canaanite woman?
Sometimes, when God is seemingly silent in our lives, he may be putting us in a teachable moment. Maybe he doesn’t want to tell us what to do. He’s hoping we’ll remember what to do. After all, the disciples had been with Jesus for quite a while—had they learned anything about the kingdom of heaven?
They break the silence and say to Jesus, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” “Send her away.” Technically speaking, the disciples were right. As a Gentile, this woman was not a member of the house of Israel. She had no right to ask anything of the Jewish Messiah. And so Jesus echoes what the disciples are thinking. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But nothing will stop this woman. She kneels before Jesus, saying, “Lord, help me.”
Again, Jesus speaks the disciples thoughts: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the. . . dogs.” Only this time, the Canaanite woman heard a Jew use a different version of the word “dog.” Jesus does not use the word for dog which the disciples are likely thinking, kuón, the despised unclean canine. On the contrary, Jesus uses another version of the word dog: in Greek, it’s kunarion, meaning “little puppy;” a beloved pet that not only belongs inside the house, but at the feet of its master. It’s far from being an insult. On the contrary, Jesus was using parody, a play on words, to prove a point: God shows no partiality. He doesn’t have favorites. God offers His grace and mercy to every human being, who comes to him in faith, trusting in Jesus.
The Canaanite woman picks up immediately on the twist of terms and makes a clever reply: “Yes, Lord, yet even the ‘little puppies’ eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “Yes, Lord, I know, I’m an underserving Gentile. But just a few crumbs of your kindness is all I need.” Such humility, such persistence, such trust! That’s why Jesus answered her, “Woman, GREAT is your faith!” “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This so called unclean Canaanite woman—a Gentile from enemy territory–walked away blessed and praised by her Lord, the Jewish Messiah. Perhaps Jesus turned to his puzzled disciples, and said: “That’s what God’s grace is:
giving a gift when it is least deserved.”
What about you? Is there any person or group of people you despise or look down on? Do you think they are so bad, they couldn’t possibly deserve God’s grace?
Several years ago, my friend Jan and I had just finished lunch and were standing at the checkout counter of a local diner. Standing in line in front of us was a large tall man, about 6’5,” 300 pounds. He was dressed in black leather pants, boots, and a studded vest that had a skull and crossbones on the back. He wore black sunglasses, a ragged red bandana, and had a long grubby grey beard and ponytail. He reeked of cigarette smoke and his arms were covered in tattoos.
No doubt, he was part of the motorcycle gang that had noisily rumbled into the parking lot during our meal. I’d grown up hearing about—being warned about–people like this. Words like wild, rebellious, violent and lawless were used to describe them. Just as I started to step away from him, my friend Jan stepped toward him. She said to him, “Wow, I like your tattoo.”
I had not taken the time to inspect the man’s tattoo. Etched into his right arm, was a cross, and the face of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. He explained that he and his group of riders were part of the Crossroads for Christ Prison Ministry. He handed Jan a card, which stated their vision: “Restoring lives through the power of the gospel.” And on the bottom of the card appeared a Bible verse, Ephesians 2:8, which read:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
I confess to you, that was another teachable moment. The story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman confronts our human prejudices. It challenges our bigotry and bias. It warns us not to judge anyone as unworthy of God’s grace. As Christians, we are all recipients of God’s grace. And we are called, every one of us, to be bearers of that grace.
I urge you in the coming week: Be aware of the teachable moments, where you can experience your own grace awakening. Offer God’s love and compassion to the people in your life who have not earned it from you, who are least likely to expect it from you. After all, that’s what God’s grace is: giving a gift when it is least deserved.
Darlene Swanson is a member of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Roswell, GA and serves as a speaker and teacher on Christian topics. She earned her Master of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and was recently commissioned as a Licensed Lay Preacher by The Right Reverend Robert Wright, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.