Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 16, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 45:1-15+Psalm 123+Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32+Matthew 15:21-28

I came this close to sending out a message this week to all of you to tell you to watch Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1972 classic musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Our lectionary skipped eight chapters between last week and this one, and the musical would have been a very entertaining way to catch up.

Barring that, however, I will give you the somewhat less entertaining highlights.

When last we saw Joseph, he had been sold into slavery to some traders on their way to Egypt. Parents, whenever you think your kids get along worse than anyone else’s kids, just remember: your kids never sold a sibling to some passing merchants.

Some unsavory things happen with 4th-son Judah in chapter 38, and then it’s all about Joseph in Egypt. Potiphar, an official under Pharaoh, bought Joseph from the Ishmaelites, and Joseph soon proved his worth, rising to the position of overseer in Potiphar’s household. That lasted until Joseph attracted the attentions of Potiphar’s wife who, by the way, is not given a name. All we know is that she supposedly tried to seduce Joseph who righteously refused, so the Mrs. claimed she had been misused by Joseph, and that landed him in prison.

Yet even there, he made a name for himself, so much so that the guards hardly watched him. His dream-interpreting skills helped out at least one of his fellow-prisoners who happened to be a member of Pharaoh’s household staff, and when this prisoner was restored to his position, he eventually mentioned to Pharaoh that he knew someone who could interpret Pharaoh’s troubling dreams. And that is how Joseph wound up in the royal household, gaining great power and prestige.

Joseph had correctly predicted that a severe famine would come upon the land, and it was this same famine that drove Joseph’s brothers, still in Canaan, to go down to Egypt in search of food. It has probably been more than twenty years since these sons of Jacob had seen their little brother, and it is likely that he now dressed and groomed and talked like an Egyptian rather than one of the family, so they didn’t recognize him. Joseph tricks them and takes advantage of that as a way of paying them back, but in the end, he can’t restrain himself, and this is where our story picks up today.

The brothers are undoubtedly shocked at Joseph’s revelation. They were probably also a bit terrified, since this powerful Egyptian official could have done whatever he wanted in repayment for their mistreatment. But Joseph is adamant that God used what happened so that Joseph would be able to save his family from the famine in Canaan, relocating all of them to the Land of Goshen in Egypt, where they survived and thrived. Of course, we know that this took another negative turn when, according to the 1st chapter of Exodus, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (1:8). And that launches the long Exodus narrative.

Joseph, like his great-grandfather Abraham, was a stranger in a strange land. They both could have been rejected, mistreated, and turned away, and yet they thrived, gaining great influence and power and wealth. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, we read admonitions to remember that the people were once strangers and are therefore to treat the alien with welcome and love. The source of these commandments is here, in the origin stories of the people of Israel.

There is another outsider in our readings for today. She’s a Canaanite woman.

 Jesus is still trying to get away from the crowds. His cousin John was beheaded by Herod and the people just keep pushing in on him, looking for what he has to offer, for healing, for wholeness. Now, when my husband, Tim, and I go on vacation and really want to unplug from work, we grab our passports and leave the country. It works pretty well for us (or it used to), and it seems to be what Jesus was trying to do. He left his own country and went to a land not his own.

The region of Tyre and Sidon is what we know as modern-day Lebanon, and if you remember your Hebrew scriptures, you will know that this was a region of unclean idol-worshippers. So when this woman comes up to Jesus, he owes her nothing because she is not a Jew, she’s not clean. And she’s a woman, so she has utterly no standing. She speaks, and he ignores her. Culturally, there is no reason for him to even notice that she is there. He gives her a half-hearted explanation that she’s not like him so not worthy of his attention.

But there’s an interesting thing here. She then falls on her knees and addresses him as Lord. She knows who he is. We don’t know how, but it’s clear that she does. The last time outsiders fell on their knees and recognized Jesus as Lord, they were bearing some very strange gifts for a newborn king in a manger in Bethlehem.

If our gospel writers had wanted to put forward only a rosy picture of the savior of the world, they would have left this next part out. That they left it in there is a pretty good indication that it actually happened.

And here is that cringe-worthy part: It is not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.

I just wish he could stuff those words back in his mouth.

But the woman – and I love this woman like no one else in the bible – she ignores what he has just said and even turns it against him. Fine, call me a dog. Call me anything, but just because your mission is to some select, privileged few doesn’t mean that there isn’t something left over for the rest of us, because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that God is a God of mercy and hears the cries of the poor and oppressed.

I would have loved to see the look on Jesus’s face at that. Part of me thinks that he probably busted out laughing at this persistent, bothersome woman. The important part is that he did what she asked. He didn’t even ask that she bring her daughter to him for inspection or to lay hands on her. He just declared her healed. And she was.

It would be enough to say that Jesus decided that, in this instance, he would heal an outsider, even if it was just to get rid of this annoyance. But there’s a larger significance to this story.

Back in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, he sends out the Twelve and tells them to only go to the “lost sheep of Israel” (10:6). By the end of Matthew’s gospel, he’s telling them to go out and make disciples of all the nations (28:19). All of them. His encounter with this outsider, this foreigner, is a turning point.

It is also an invitation to us. Until we seek out those who differ from us, who have gifts we can’t imagine, stories to tell and talents to teach, God’s vision for creation will never be fulfilled. We get so accustomed to staying close to home, figuratively speaking, surrounding ourselves with like-minded and similarly situated people. We need to go to those outside of the House of Israel, as Jesus called it, seeking out strangers and sojourners among us, not just the ones from other places, but those for whom this country, their home, is not a welcoming place.

Joseph and his brothers and their father Jacob and their families were made welcome in the land of Egypt. They were strangers in a strange land. The Canaanite woman was outside of the House of Israel, and yet Jesus gave her the healing that she sought. She was a nobody, and yet she changed the trajectory of Jesus’s earthly ministry.

Our encounters with those outside our immediate circle can teach us something about empowerment, about standing up for basic human rights and decency, about claiming authority from a position of marginalization. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to stand with the outsider. Because in God’s reign, there really is no such thing.

ASEPSermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 16, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas