A Complexity of Beliefs by Rev. Leah Rosso

I feel like I should’ve put a disclaimer in our bulletin this morning. As your pastor there are weeks that are easier to preach than others— Scriptures that speak for themselves; stories that are so beautiful that they are a pleasure to read and talk about.

This isn’t one on of those mornings. In fact, our Scriptures this morning are downright offensive. So just know ahead of time that you will probably be offended this morning in some way— whether it’s from the reading of the Scripture itself, or something I’m going to say as we unpack it.

The first thing we need to always remember, is that the Bible is contextual. It was written in a certain context to a certain people in a very specific time period. What we call the Old Testa-ment— the beginning of the Bible, began to be told thousands of years ago. So the fact that we have this compilation of over 60 books that have been put together and bound under one cover and called the Bible, is pretty amazing. And the fact that these stories span a time period of over 2,000 years is quite an accomplishment. But even more so the fact that we read this book and call it holy because God is still speaking to us through their lives and the ways they interacted and thought about God is nothing short of a miracle. I can’t tell you what my Great Grandfather thought about God or what kind of faith he had. But I can tell you what our Biblical ancestors believed about God because people have been carrying around these stories for thousands of years.

We've been following the story of God and God's people this fall, starting with creation and mov-ing to Abraham and Sarah and their ancestors all the way to the Israelites slavery in Egypt and Moses' leadership to bring them out of Egypt and into the Promised land. And while we love the story of leaving Egypt, we don't often focus on what happens next. The people wander in the wilderness for awhile, of course, but when they get to the land that God is going to give them, they find that it is already inhabited.

And here's the tension. In their minds, God couldn't have brought them this far and not give them the land. After all God had chosen them out of all the people of the world. So Moses gives them a speech about what they are supposed to do in this new land once they conquer the people. And there's nothing compassionate, peaceful, or holy about it. It's a war time script. It’s a speech about how to make sure that the Israelites stay pure, retain the sense of identity that they formed in the wilderness, and keep out the foreigners of the lands that they want to occupy. So I’m going to invite Judy to come on up and read our first Scripture this morning, which are the words of Moses as written in Deuteronomy.

Read Deutronomy 7:1-11 When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Ca-naanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more nu-merous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sa-cred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.

It’s hard to know what to say after a passage like this one. It’s true that this was not a permission slip from God to kill all the people of the world from that day forward who were not part of the Israelite community. This was to be a one-time takeover so they could be in the Promised Land, and many other places in Scripture actually demand that the Israelites be welcoming to the foreigner and kind to their enemies. But even having said that, it is difficult to imagine the God that we come to know in other parts of Scripture— the God that is love as we are told in the letters from John— could lead the Israelites to wipe out seven nations of people and not just take over, but kill them all. It is hard for me to imagine that God would do that.

But it is not hard to imagine that the people would want God to do that. As we look at world his-tory, we see it repeated over and over and over again— that people reading Scripture use pas-sages like this one to defend their own behavior and to call upon God to do this very thing re-peatedly throughout history. We see it in the crusades. We see it in the founding of this very na-tion as our ancestors quite thoroughly wiped out hundreds of thousands of native people— through disease and through violence— because they truly believed that God was giving them this land as the promised land. We saw it this past week as people blew themselves up in Paris, Beirut, and Kenya, all in the name of God. The Israelites are definitely not unique in thinking that God would resort to all kinds of violence to favor one people over another. They are not unique in wanting to trust that what they are doing is right in God’s eyes. And, when we are honest with ourselves, we too can fall into this thinking. How often do we think in our daily lives that things would be better if that one person or one group of people would just go away? We may not wish violence upon them, but we do often fall into thinking everything would be better without them.

So imagine for a moment that you grew up with this particular story about these seven nations being enemies of Israel embedded in your faith. That your understanding of God is that God fa-vors your ancestors over all others—and definitely over your enemies. Put yourself in that place for a moment, as Randy reads our Gospel text this morning. For that was the world Jesus lived in— a world where the ancestors of the Israelites were still thinking that if they could just get rid of the Roman army and rule themselves, than everything will be alright. In the Gospel passage from Matthew, the writer of Matthew specifically names this woman as a Canaanite woman— a woman who is an ancestor of one of the seven nations that the Israelites were told to wipe out.By the time of Jesus people were not designated as Canaanites anymore, but Matthew calls her that so we will know the impact of this story.

Read Matthew 15:21-28 21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Is-rael.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

In his book, The Disappearance of God, Richard Elliott Friedman, a Hebrew Scholar, takes the time to show how quiet God gets as time goes on. That at the beginning of the Bible, God’s voice is all there is and creates everything. Then God speaks to Abraham and his ancestors and then directly to Moses. But after that, things get quiet. There’s a prophet here or there that is able to decipher what God wants, but for the most part, the people are left guessing, wondering, trying to figure it out through the Kings, prophets, and priests that they have. As Friedman says, God seems to retreat. Moses is the last one who sees God. Samuel is the last one who hears God’s voice directly. And even the miracles get smaller as time goes on. And that is the world to which Jesus was born— a quiet, dark world, in which God’s words were remembered, not heard. And then, in Jesus, something changed. Miracles were both audible and visible. People were able to see God in a way that they hadn’t seen God in thousands of years. He breaks bread and thousands are fed; he touches lepers and people are healed; he walks on water in the midst of a storm and calms the sea.

And then this happens. Jesus goes off to a different region— perhaps to get away for a few days, but his reputation has apparently preceded him. For a Canaanite woman calls out to him to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus ignores her— which was most likely more kind than many Jewish leaders would’ve been to a Canaanite, the very people named in Moses’ speech. But she continues to call out and then Jesus responds to her that what he has isn’t for her— it’s only for the people within the house of Israel. But she continues to plead with him and he says it even more sternly, telling her that the food he has isn’t for dogs like her. But she continues to call out. And it is in her perseverence, that Jesus has a revelation. Jesus sees in her— in his very enemy as an Israelite— the light of God. And he responds to her this time saying, “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed.

I consider this one of the greatest of Jesus’ miracles. Because in one interaction, Jesus is able to go from seeing his Canaanite neighbors as his enemy for thousands of years back, to recog-nizing that they too have the grace of God within them.

Our understanding of God and how God works in the world can and does change over time. And it’s vitally important for us as people of faith to follow Jesus in making those changes in our minds and in our hearts so that we can truly follow God. Somehow Jesus was able to see in that moment that which has become so obvious to us today in the 21st Century— that we are all neighbors to one another on this planet; and what we do to each other, we do to ourselves. How we treat our neighbor, even one that we consider an enemy, is how we treat our God.

It makes our faith complex, doesn’t it? When we realize that it’s not as simple as following ten commandments, or taking the Bible literally word for word, or creating a checklist that gets us to heaven. It’s complex because it’s a relationship. A relationship between us and God— which means we have to listen carefully and patiently. And it’s a relationship with each another, as we come together to live in the tension of it all— to live in the joy of it all— to have to rely on one another in order to humbly walk together towards what we think is faithful. And if we had to do it ourselves, it would be impossible. But we have these sacred stories that remind us that we often get it wrong and remind us that God’s grace surrounds us every step of the way. We have each other— companions along this road to challenge us when we need it; to comfort us when we are lost; to encourage us when we think we’ve lost our way. And we have Christ who walks with us on this journey and the Holy Spirit who is still speaking and moving in us today.

I believe God is calling us to a new promised land— a new understanding of how it is that we are all connected and how it is that we can live in God’s love. A promised land in which we recognize God’s reflection in our neighbor and in our enemy and learn a new way to be in community together. With all that is going on in our world, there is no better time than to work for this Promised Land— the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about so often— right here and right now.