All three of the Bible passages for today address the fact that God says “No” sometimes, but then again, turns back around again to “Yes.”
Our Old Testament lesson addresses people who have returned from exile in Babylon, and they find fellow Israelite men who have married foreign wives. Nehemiah says, “we have to maintain cultural purity, ethnic cleanliness. Therefore every man who has married a foreign wife must divorce his wife and send their children away.” God seems to be saying “No!” to foreigners. But Isaiah turns around and says, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, I will bring to my holy mountain, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” There is a Yes on the other side of the No.
In the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew and John sharply criticize the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day, to the point where the church and people in general throughout the centuries have used those passages to justify hatred and atrocity against the Jewish people. Christians would say, “Well, they killed Christ, so they get whatever’s coming to them,” or “They’re Jewish, they’re going to hell anyway.”
Paul says God’s promise to the Jewish people is irrevocable.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus at first says, “No.” I believe this passage is closely related to the Gospel lesson for last week. Last week, the disciples were in their boat, at night, with a strong wind against them. They didn’t know where they were or what direction they were going. Waves battering the boat. Strong water, stormy water represents chaos, when your world comes apart, when you don’t know what to do next. And Jesus shows up, walking on the water.
Now, in the Ancient Near East, you had many miracle stories. Lots of stories about people being cured of various diseases. Even stories about certain heroes raising people from the dead. Eventually the people died again, of course. But in the Hebrew Scriptures and even in other religions around that area, only one person walked on water. Only one person walked amidst the storm. That was the Deity. That person was God.
In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus shows up, walking on the water. He says, “Do not be afraid, it is I.” “I Am,” the name of God. So Jesus is the embodiment of God’s presence on earth. Jesus walks amidst the storm of chaos.
Peter looks out from the boat and says, “Lord, if it is you.” If you are. This is not a good sign. People ask Jesus, “If you are” three other times in the Gospel of Matthew. First, in chapter four, Jesus is fasting in the desert and Satan comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Later on, Jesus stands trial in front of the high priest and the high priest says, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” And when Jesus is hanging on the cross, the mockers gather as they always do, and they say, “If he is the Son of God, let him come down from the cross now.” Jesus says, “I Am.” We say, “If you are.”
Peter says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
I kind of feel that way sometimes. I feel like, if I can walk on the water, if I can walk on the chaos, then Jesus feels very real. If I am successful, wealthy, healthy, if my family relationships are whole, then Jesus is real, Jesus is the Son of God, for me. If we have a thousand people in church every Sunday, which would be wonderful, which I am willing to work very hard with you to make that happen, if we have a thousand people every Sunday, that would mean Jesus is real, right? Jesus is the Son of God.
And if only we kept our eyes on Jesus, if only we focused on him, then we could walk on water, we could walk on the chaos. We would not be touched by bad things happening. We would be immune to diseases and disaster. We would be like God.
If it is you, command me to come to you on the waves. We will be like God together.
Peter is mortal. He does not see the hands of God beneath the chaos. He does not see the “Yes” of God waiting beyond the “No.” He does not see the grace of God around it all. He sees the wind and waves, and like anybody else, he sinks. And now, instead if “If you are,” he says a much more human thing, from the Psalms: “Lord Save.”
Jesus hauls him out of the water into the boat, says, “Little faith guy, why did you doubt, why did you waver? Why did you have to have proof?”
The Caananite woman in the Gospel lesson for today, lands slap in the middle of chaos. You will understand this if you have a daughter or son who has a mental health condition. If you have a mother or father who becomes very angry without apparent reason, or is crushed by depression or has to hoard things or do certain things a particular way or else they fear something bad will happen. You know what it is like to be desperate.
But instead of walking on water, instead of walking above the waves, this woman has learned how to swim.
Here is how she swims. First, she is persistent, tenacious, loud, even obnoxious. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus says nothing at all. You ever notice that sometimes Jesus is silent? Finally the disciples come to Jesus, say “Send her away, she keeps on shouting after us.” Notice Jesus does not send her away. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Woman comes and kneels before him, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus still does not send her away. He does, however, engage her in theological conversation about the way God works in the world. Jesus says, God’s realm begins with the Jews. He says “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Now we see the second way this woman swims through chaos. And please be aware, this is chaos. Her daughter is ill. She has asked for help. God has said, “No.” That’s chaos.
Nevertheless, the woman persists, without regard for her own status. Without regard for her own position or privilege or pride. She check s her ego at the door. She does not say, “I have every bit as much of a right to a place at the table as you do, you nihilistic meanie!” No, she does not. She says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” This is the third aspect of swimming in the chaos. She trusts God’s abundance. She trusts that even a crumb from God’s table will heal her daughter. She trusts that God’s hands are around her, that God’s grace is here. “Even a crumb.”
Now Jesus says, “Lady, Ma’am, great is your faith.” This in contrast to Peter who is “Little faith guy.” “Great faith lady. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed.
I think in this crazy world, we need to give up the illusion of being able to walk on water, of being immune to difficulties and doubts and dangers. I think that instead we need to learn how to swim. Here is how to swim: First, be persistent, tenacious, relentless, loud, obnoxious in behalf of those God has called us to love. Second, we check our egos at the door. We focus on God’s love for people, not our own status. Third, we hope. We hope extravagantly, ridiculously. Because this is most certainly true. God’s hands do hold the chaos. God’s “Yes” always waits beyond God’s “No.” God’s grace is everywhere always, always everywhere God loves all people, all creation. God loves you.