Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, August 17, 2014

Does Mercy Have Limits?
[Romans 11:1-2a; 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28]


            Driving home from visiting my daughter this week, I was scanning radio stations and fell upon BBN, the Bible Broadcast Network, based out of Charlotte.  I picked up the station in the middle of an interview with Elisabeth Elliot Leach, one of my earliest sheroes of the Christian faith!
            I met Elisabeth Elliot Leach when I was visiting Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the late 1970s after having read some of her books.  She and her first husband, Jim Elliot, worked for Wycliffe Bible translators. They had both studied linguistics and Elisabeth had majored in classical Greek at Wheaton College, specifically for the purpose of being able to translate the Bible into unknown languages. She and Jim met in Quito, Ecuador and their daughter, Valerie was born in 1955, the same year I was born.
When Valerie was 10 months old, Jim and 4 of his male partners were killed when they made their first face-to-face visit with the Auca people.   In Elisabeth’s own words on her website, she describes what happened:  “Jim had always hoped to have the opportunity to enter the territory of an unreached tribe. The Aucas were in that category – a fierce group whom no one had succeeded in meeting without being killed. After a friendly contact with three of the tribe, they were speared to death in their first visit.”
            She goes on to say: “Our daughter Valerie was 10 months old when Jim was killed. I continued working with the Quichua Indians when, through a remarkable providence, I met two Auca women who lived with me for one year. They were the key to my going in to live with the tribe that had killed the five missionaries. I remained there for two years.”
            Those five men had spent much time and prayer preparing for their first visit to the Auca tribe and went with a feeling of God’s blessing. And yet, their visit ended in an untimely death for all five of the men. How many of us would view this experience in the same way that Elisabeth Elliot viewed it?  If you go to her website, you will notice that the words at the top of the page are these: “You are loved with an everlasting love. And underneath are the everlasting arms.”
            When I perused Elisabeth Elliot’s website, I stumbled on a book written by her daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepherd, who lives in Southport, NC. Her book is called:  Pilipinto’s Happiness: The Jungle Childhood of Valerie Elliot. The website explains that Jim’s death did not stop Valerie and her mother from moving to live with the same Auca Indians when Valerie was 3 years old to complete the Elliot family’s evangelical mission:  to eclipse the tribe’s savagery with the unconditional love of Jesus Christ.  Now, if that is not a mission of mercy, I don’t know what is.  The Bible Broadcast Network began re-broadcasting in April of 2014, 13 years of Elisabeth Elliot’s Radio Shows, called:  Gateway to Joy.
            On the same station a little later, I heard a message from BBN’s President. His theme was:  “The Fervent Unction of Evangelism Helps Orthodoxy Function.”   Since I was driving, I didn’t have a notebook to jot down that interesting title, but I kept repeating it in my mind, so I wouldn’t forget it.  I couldn’t wait to get home and look up the word “unction” in the dictionary. I had heard it before, but I wanted to know exactly how this particular preacher was using the word.
            “Unction” literally means: 1. An act of anointing, especially as a medical treatment or religious rite; 2. An unguent or ointment; salve; 3. Something soothing or comforting; 4. An excessive, affected, earnestness or fervor in manner, especially in speaking; 5. In Religion: the oil used in religious rites, as in anointing the sick or dying, the shedding of a divine or spiritual influence upon a person; the influence shed on someone; or extreme unction, which is the Roman Catholic rite of anointing the sick; the manifestation of divine or spiritual inspiration.

            The preacher’s main point was that fervent evangelism is the unction, or the anointing of the church.  Right beliefs without a fervent desire to share, care and evangelize those beyond or outside of our churches is sterile.  Elisabeth Elliot’s faith was truly put to the test when she was called to LOVE the ones who murdered her husband.  That is fervent faith, washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, anointed by the Holy Spirit and bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God.  The Auca people did hear the good news of Jesus Christ through Elisabeth Elliot, her daughter, Valerie, and another widow, Rachel Saint, who returned to share the unconditional love of Jesus Christ.  Does mercy have limits?  It didn’t for them.

            I began with the story, but I now want to look at our Scriptures.  The Romans passage is short but in a nutshell summarizes the New Testament. As I mentioned in an earlier sermon, the Jews had been banned from Rome for a period of time, so the Christian Church in Rome was led by Gentile Christians, who had become proud and haughty towards the Jews.  Paul reminded them that God NEVER rejects God’s people, whether Jews or Gentiles.  He reminds them he himself is an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham and a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He has all the right Jewish credentials and God never rejects the people he chooses, for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
            HOWEVER, God allowed those who were chosen by God, including Paul himself, to become disobedient, so that they wouldn’t be puffed up with pride or a sense of entitlement and would come to discover that God’ mercy is higher, deeper and wider than human understanding or accomplishment.  ALL who walk with God are recipients of unlimited mercy…

            This brings us to the controversial story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.  In this story, we see Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, LIMITING mercy to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt. 15:24)  The Canaanites were the people that lived in Canaan before the Israelites arrived.  The Canaanite woman comes to Jesus crying out:  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  At first Jesus ignored her altogether, which would have been the “cultural norm” of his day.  Just as we are taught not to pick up strangers on the road or not to roll down car windows for people begging on the street.  The disciples urged him:  “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  In Rembrandt’s sketch on the cover of our bulletins, we see the disciples trying to dissuade her and send her away.

            Then Jesus says, which gives me chills to hear:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Many Bible commentators try to “explain away” these harsh words. Surely Jesus was not prejudiced, was he? In this story, it is actually not Jesus who teaches. He does not have the punch line.  It is the woman who is socially marginalized that breaks through the barriers between her and Jesus to claim God’s mercy for her daughter.

            I won’t even attempt to explain Jesus’ words, since none of us were there. We can’t hear the tone of his voice or be sure of his intent; however, he compares the woman and her daughter to “dogs.”  Why?  If we look at her status in Jesus’ culture, she has many strikes against her.  Differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion and gender separate her from Jesus according to the Judean social norms.  Furthermore, her daughter was possessed by a demon, which puts her even further on the outside.  Finally, the woman’s behavior is unacceptable. She is not only taking the initiative, she is shouting demands at Jesus and it appears that Jesus is doing exactly what the social rules of his time required. He ignored her and withheld his attention. Ignoring someone is a powerful statement.

            However, Jesus “learns something” in this story, and we can learn something too, if we open our eyes and ears to what happened.  Jesus explains that his mission is to the “lost sheep of Israel.” Then the woman changes her behavior and falls at his feet with a gesture of reverence and respect.  “Help me!” she cries.  She humbles herself, but doesn’t give up.  Even though Jesus’ words and metaphor were dehumanizing, she continues to “hang on to Jesus” undeterred, saying:  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

            The moment of transformation is within Jesus himself, who witnesses GREAT FAITH in this woman, unlike faith he had seen in his own people.  Jesus responds:  “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly (Mt. 15:28).

            At some level in Jesus’ Palestinian human existence, even Jesus was “awakened” to God’s unlimited mercy.  Even Jesus Christ our Lord had his “eyes opened” to the faith of the Canaanite woman, who would ordinarily be invisible to him, because of his culture and upbringing.  Even Jesus Christ had an “Aha! Moment” – when God the Father surprised and astounded God the Son… when the Canaanite woman humbly, yet persistently hung on to Jesus for a blessing, just as Jacob struggled with the angel for a blessing. This Canaanite woman wittingly responded to Jesus’ words about throwing the children’s food to the dogs, by saying:  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 

            Suddenly, Jesus sees her, as if for the first time!  Touché, he says!  Good for you!  Jesus knew in his heart theoretically that God’s mercy has no limits, but in this case a real, yet culturally invisible, woman becomes visible to him. Instantly he sees her as a child of God: equal, loved, valued by God the Father. And she receives her healing!

            God loves NOT JUST IN THEORY, but in practice, one person at a time. God’s mercy is wide, deep, high, & infinite in its goodness. This became real for me through the Lyon family.  Lucy Lyon called the church numerous times and finally pursued me on my cell phone until I stopped, listened and learned who she is and what her family was going through. The Lyon family opened my eyes so that I could see, and then God opened all of our hearts so that we could love this family with unlimited mercy. And we are the better for it!  Thanks be to God. Let us pray.