Sermon: The peripheral kingdom
When Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon, he goes with a specific purpose in mind, and that’s why he responds at first to the Canaanite woman as he does.
Jesus is able to focus very strongly on what he is called to do. This is one of his gifts and strengths that make him who he is. When it’s time, for instance, at the end to make the journey to Jerusalem to be crucified, the Gospel says, “he set his face toward the city” and nothing deters him from his purpose and his destination. We see it also in the very beginning, when he faces the tempter in the desert and is able to stay true to what he knows is God’s way for him. And we see it all the way through his story – this ability to focus and stay true to his calling.
We see it in the story this morning. Like the prophets of old, Jesus is on a mission to draw the people of Israel back to God and help them live more fully as God’s people in the world. The religious leaders of the day don’t agree with how he’s doing it, but Jesus doesn’t let that stop him. He tours all of Galilee – a Jewish territory, visiting all the towns and communities, and showing God’s people that God’s kingdom is real, to inspire them to start living the ways of God’s kingdom right now – to help them really be God’s people of light in the world.
And now he takes his mission outside the Jewish province to reach the Jews who are living elsewhere as well. Tyre and Sidon are Gentile territory, but there are Jews living there – who have left Galilee and Israel and are living in little émigré enclaves and minority communities scattered among the Gentiles. They’ve wandered like lost sheep, but Jesus wants to reach them as with his message about God’s kingdom. For him at that moment it’s all about renewing and rebuilding the family of God’s people.
So when the Canaanite woman shows up at one of Jesus’ gatherings, she’s not the kind of person Jesus is there to talk to and it’s out of this focused mission and his ability to stay on message that Jesus says, “Sorry, I cannot help you. I am here for the lost sheep of Israel. I have something for them and it’s only for them.” He actually says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” showing just how focused Jesus could be on his own people and his ministry to them.
The woman, though, does not give up. She is a nuisance – the kind of person who won’t take no for an answer, who insists on barging in even when she’s not invited, who even though she’s outside the circle expects to be included. The disciples want her to go away. They keep saying to one another, “Don’t make eye contact. Just keep walking.”
But from the ground in front of Jesus where she’s insinuated herself, she says, “But Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words – you’re right. I’m not one of you. But is the love of God that you talk about – the kingdom of God that you say is here, not big enough to have something – even a little something, for me – and for my daughter?”
To which Jesus says, “Oh my goodness, yes. Your faith in the wideness of God’s kingdom is great. Please forgive my narrow focus and my lack of peripheral vision. Your daughter is healed, and you are blessed. Any lost sheep of God’s is a lost sheep of ours; any child of God’s love is a child of ours. Go home, in peace.”
It’s almost as though Jesus is caught changing his focus here. Jesus had no intention of beginning a mission to the Gentiles. Like the prophets of old, his focus is on the Jews. But he is moved by the woman he meets to let go of what his focus has been, and to open himself to what he sees on the periphery.
Peripheral vision is also a gift and a strength. The ability to pay attention to what we see on the periphery is also necessary if we are really to serve God. And it’s one of the things I like about this church.
From the time I came here I’ve seen how focused this congregation can be on particular tasks that serve the well-being of the congregation. It began the first years I was here with the restoration and rebuilding of the organ. Then there’s been the on-going refurbishing and renovation of the whole building – lower hall, upper room and entrances, now the narthex and this fall the roof. Next there’ll be what we need to do to make the lower hall and washrooms fully accessible.
And it’s not only the building. There’s the year-in, year-out commitment to the Peach Festival, and to the spaghetti and lobster dinners, and sales. And all that we do as well to keep our worship and Christian ed program and pastoral care alive and growing.
There’s a lot of focused commitment here at Fifty. Like Jesus we commit ourselves to what our church family needs to be healthy. We “set our faces” towards the goal of our well-being as a congregation.
And – the other side – we also have good peripheral vision. We see what’s around us and take it seriously – changes in the community, poverty in Hamilton and Niagara, the work of Wesley Urban Ministries, City Kidz and Community Care. Next month there’ll be a concert at the church by a choral group from Ottawa in support of FORT in Grimsby and the Downs Syndrome Society’s Buddy Walk – all because we see things out of the corner of our eye, and take it seriously as part of what God wants us to embrace.
And we need to keep building on this – keep exercising this muscle. I was thinking this week as I looked at the work on the narthex – now that the enlargement and renovation of our main entrance is almost complete, is God preparing us to be able to welcome some new groups of people into this place who haven’t been here before? Who might they be? And why would they come here?
I think of it when I think of our Sunday school and VBS. We focus on providing good Christian ed for our children and grandchildren, and it’s important. We dare not stop; we probably need to develop even more creative ways of nurturing our children’s knowledge of God and faith in God. But what about other kids and other people’s children and grand-children, who aren’t part of us? The ones on the periphery? They have as much need, but how do we see them? How do we find them and reach them? “Any lost sheep of God’s is a lost sheep of ours; any child of God’s love is a child of ours.”
This week a lot of people – maybe everyone we know, was deeply affected by the suicide of Robin Williams, and I was touched by something that someone in our community posted on Facebook in response to his suicide:
Please see our struggle and give us a hug, a kind word, hell a dinner, this is how
our walls will become cracked and eventually crumble.
We simply don't ask for help because what if you don't hear us? You see us, but still aren't listening.
We all have a journey, some much more of a struggle than others. Watch out for one another, don't wait for the words, quite often they don't come. And for some, they come too late.
Don't offer [to] help, just do it.
It sounds like the Canaanite woman. I wonder how many there are? Where they are? What their real needs and illnesses and sorrows might be? And how we will see them? Or how they will find us?
The love of God that we celebrate – the kingdom of God that we say is here, is surely big enough to include something for them.
It’s all about having two kinds of vision – each of them necessary as we journey with Jesus. One is the ability to focus on and stay committed what needs to be done here, right in front of us – to stay on task and on message; the other is the ability as well to see what’s around, to have good and well-practiced peripheral vision, and to respond with open and generous hearts to what’s there.