Have you ever felt like you were on the outside looking in?
I know I have. When you travel and live in a different place every few years while it’s exciting to be in the new place without fail you always find yourself on the outside looking in. Many times there are cultural walls that divide you. In the States we have all of our own different flavors from: Southern twang to Northern pride, East Coast cool to West Coast Sun, Mid-West Strong and all of the varieties in-between, there are always lines that divide and say “us and them,” or usually “us vs. them,” you’re different from us.
Sitting in Panera for lunch this week in my Midwestern Strong town, I watched a Middle Eastern family enjoy lunch, mom dressed in a full Burka across from a couple dressed to the nines with fine jewelry and impeccable taste sitting by another family in comfortable jeans and t-shirts all the while some college kids were studying and talking about how much they were going to drink that night and outside a man walked down the sidewalk who looked like he didn’t have a penny to spare. All people but divided by the lines that separate us: culture, race, money, social class, status and preferences.
As sensitive as we are to the words equality and equal rights, we are acutely aware of how real divisions exist here and across the world. Listen to the news as thousands upon thousands of Christians in Iraq and other minority groups are being brutalized by the militant group ISIS telling them they belong to the wrong culture and the wrong religion and they must leave, convert to Islam or be killed for their faith. These are very real lines that divide.
In all of these lines that divide people where does Jesus fit in to all of this?
Those first century disciples of Jesus thought they knew when they travelled with Jesus to the outskirts of Canaan after Jesus fed the five thousand with a few pieces of bread and fish. As they travelled a Canaanite women cried after Him, “Lord have mercy, my daughter is demon possessed!” (Matthew 15:21-28) We expect Jesus to turn, say a kind word and heal her daughter. But just out of curiosity, when you heard this account of Jesus and the woman, in your mind’s eye, what race and color was she? What did she look like to you? What language is she speaking? What accent is she using? Does she look and sound a lot like you and me? What about Jesus? I have to tell you, Jesus keeps popping up as a white guy in my head like the actor from the Passion of the Christ, Jim Caveziel.
That is one of the main difficulties we have in understanding this passage is that in our mind’s eye we make Jesus and the Canaanite woman look and talk and act like one of us, in our setting and culture. Like Patti here coming up and asking me a question. But the line that divided them was ten feet tall and plain for anyone in that place to see. It was the line between a very deeply divided inequality between men and women. The cultural and religious line between Jew and Gentile, the line between the age old enemies from Old Testament times whose hatred ran deep dividing Israel and Canaan, the line between her demon possessed daughter and the holiness of God. Lines that seemed insurmountable and obvious to Jesus’ disciples when they said, “just send her away Jesus, she’s not one of us, heal her if you like but she’s doesn’t belong to our group.”
Jesus replies with this statement to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” In essence, Jesus had to put his disciples in their place, they were assuming too much telling Jesus who belonged and who didn’t. Jesus knew his ministry and his mission and what it included and no one tells Jesus who belongs and who doesn’t.
But could the mercy of God overflow past those very real boundaries they were dealing with? The Canaanite woman believed so and kept crying out to Jesus for mercy.
Then Jesus says one of the more disturbing verses in the Bible about not giving the children’s bread to the dogs. Dogs, was a word used by Jews to describe the Gentiles, calling them unclean. The divisions between these people were very real and tangible. Jesus was living in a real place and time, with real divisions and real problems. Jesus doesn’t deny these realities; they were part of the world He lived within. This was the opinion and the deep-seated prejudice that the disciples listening in to all this had.
But could the mercy of God overflow past those very real boundaries? The Canaanite woman believed so and kept crying out for mercy.
The question that this passage asks and answers for you and me is can the abundance and mercy of God overflow past all of those lines that divide us?
The answer to that question has to start with our own realization of the lines that divide us from God. Its seems easier to believe that God’s love is for all people in a broad, philosophical sense but when the rubber hits the road can I really believe that God’s love and forgiveness really applies to me? Because God is holy and I’m not, can God’s mercy cross that dividing line? When I remember my past circumstances, my failures, my sins, my damnable actions that brought Jesus to the cross, can God’s mercy cross that line? Or my sins right now, my actions that I am ashamed of just a little while ago or those that I know I will commit, can God’s mercy cross that dividing line of my sin that I have allowed to willingly separate me from the God who loves me?
Those lines, my sins, your sins, are real. Too deny them or say they don’t matter is to take away the reality and say you can do whatever you want, it doesn’t matter, there is no right and wrong. But when I see the hurt in my loved ones eyes, when I feel the pain in my own soul, when the hurt is something I can touch, we know the truth, it does matter what you do, there is right and wrong, holy and unclean, the lines are real and I’m on the wrong side of the line separated from God by my own doing and I can’t change that.
What else can we do then but believe that God’s grace is big enough to overflow over all of those lines that divide us from God and keep crying out to Jesus for mercy?
And God’s grace flows and never stops. Jesus says, “be it done for you as you believe,” and “your sins are forgiven.” Nothing stops God’s grace from getting to you. There are no walls that we create, no lines that we draw, no depths of sin that can stop the overwhelming flood of God’s grace from pouring over you. That grace that flows from the hands and side of Jesus himself hanging from the cross and showing you how limitless the depths of God’s love really is. You are covered in the cleansing flood of the blood of Christ and God knows your sins no more, erasing forever the dividing line of hostility between you and God.
Let His flood of mercy and grace flow over you. Let His flood of mercy and grace flow through and over the lines that divide us from one another.
Because those lines are still real. We still live in this world filled with lines based on sex, race, money, culture, fear, prejudice and the like. Lines that separate us from each other and lines that stop us from reaching out and loving others. The question isn’t whether or not these lines that divide are real but what are you going to do with these lines that divide?
Because like those ancient disciples we like telling Jesus who belongs and who doesn’t. We don’t mind if Jesus helps them as long as we don’t have to deal with them. Either they must fit in with our norms and traditions and become like us or they can fit in elsewhere, but we try to determine for God who belongs and who doesn’t. Once again Jesus reminds His disciples, both ancient and modern, that’s not how it works. Christianity is not our faith. It is not Western. It is not American. It is not white, or black, or anything else. Our fellowship that we worship within is not ours either, they don’t belong to us. We are not free to tell Jesus who belongs and who doesn’t. Jesus is the Messiah of all people, regardless of their circumstances and God’s love overflows through Him across all of those lines that divide.
Our challenge as we walk in faith is to recognize the depths of the lines that God himself crossed to reach us. If God would love us that much, how can we ever refuse anyone welcome into the love of God? Instead let us let God by His Word bring each of us across the lines that divide us from Him, and us from each other, through Jesus who crosses every line to save us.