Sermon for Lent II
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
February 28, 2010
Words are one of the most powerful tools of mankind. We’ve all heard the quotations, that the pen is mightier than the sword, or from the schoolyard, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. If you were to ask an attorney if he spent a great deal of time pouring over the words he uses in his arguments, I’m sure that he will tell you that words are critical in making an argument. I’m sure that a poet will say that she spends incalculable amounts of time selecting the right words to express the depth of her emotion. Words are a part of who we are, and how we interact with other people.
It is no wonder that one of the biggest debates within our church today has to do with the words of Holy Scripture and their meaning for us in our lives as Christians and disciples of Jesus Christ.
This morning’s Gospel lesson has what I think is an interesting parallel to the story of Peter’s walking on water, which appears in the previous chapter in St. Matthew. This is a most familiar story which for me hinged on three words right in the middle – Lord, save me. When Peter began to sink under his own weight of self-dependence, he cries out to the only source of what he needed – salvation. He cried out to the one whose name means ‘The Lord is Salvation’ in his hour of darkness.
This passage about the Canaanite woman also seems to hinge on three words in the middle of the story when she calls out to Jesus with almost the same words that Peter uses when she says – Lord, help me. However, there is a difference that doesn’t resonate quite as clearly in our English translations.
I’m going to ask you think a minute and recall some of those English rules about verbs, and the fact that verbs convey different meanings when you speak about person, number, voice, mood, and tense. These attributes of verbs give clues about time, action, consequence, participants, and so on. With that in mind, I wish to delve into the two three word phrases that I just mentioned – Peter’s words from St. Matthew 14, “Lord, save me” and the Canaanite woman’s words this morning in St. Matthew 15, “Lord, help me.” In both instances the verb is an imperative meaning a command or a most urgent request. In English we recognize most imperatives because it is usually followed by an exclamation point. We certainly don’t have Peter’s voice inflection from the written text, but I’m sure that his plea to Jesus to save him would have had a string of exclamation points!
The woman in the story this morning cries out for help in the form of an imperative, but the verb tense is what truly tells the story. The way in which she asks for Jesus’ help is in a manner of a continuous action. Not only do her words say, “help me today” but they convey the meaning of “help me today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and continue to help me forever.” When Peter cries out to be saved, his plea is right then, and right now.
You may be sitting there going, what difference does all this make? What does the tense of some particular verb in a particular passage have to do with this story, with my life, with what I’m dealing with right now? Actually, it has more than meets the eye.
There is a reason why St. Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recorded the woman’s words to Jesus in the person, number, tense, voice, and mood as we have them. There is a difference, and in this instance, her choice of words adds a degree of insight to the story that might otherwise get glossed over.
This encounter with the Canaanite woman is a very interesting piece of Jesus’ ministry. At first glance one might see Jesus, as portrayed in those words, as a heartless figure, who doesn’t seem to have time for the common man, and especially an outsider like this Canaanite woman. Of course, the disciples chimed in with similar words, and they too appeared cruel and haughty as well. We find here a woman who comes to Jesus in the form of utter humility, who knew her place as an outsider, and doesn’t just ask for help in the form of an exorcism of her daughter, but rather, asks for the continuous help of the Messiah, the son of David.
Her cry for assistance is slightly different what Peter asked when he began to sink. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other, but rather, that they are different. After all, this exact same difference occurs between Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and the one found in Luke’s Gospel. In Matthew, Jesus tells his us to pray to the Father to “give us our daily bread” in the sense that we need only ask for what we need today, and not worry about tomorrow. This makes perfect sense because the Lord’s Prayer is the center piece of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus stresses that same sentiment when he tells the crowds not to worry about tomorrow, for it will take care of itself. He also tells them not to worry about what they are to eat, and drink, or what they will wear because their Heavenly Father knows before they ask. As recorded in Luke, when we call upon the Father to “give us our daily bread” the word “give” has the connotation to keep on giving me my daily bread today, tomorrow, and forever. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, which one are we asking for? The answer is both! We are asking that we be fed today, and only with enough for our needs. Just like the manna in the wilderness, our Daily Bread isn’t to be hoarded, or saved for a rainy day. It’s for our consumption today. Tomorrow we will face new challenges, and we must receive the nourishment needed when the time comes. We also ask God to feed us tomorrow just like He did today. And Lord, after you feed me tomorrow, please feed me again the next day, and the next, and the next.
In a strange turn of events, a Canaanite woman provides an example for us all to follow. First, she approaches the Almighty with a spirit of humility and meekness. She is not hindered when obstacles appear in front of her. She was like the woman who believed in her heart that all she had to do was touch the hem of Jesus’ garment that she would be made clean. This Canaanite woman believed in her heart that she didn’t even have to feast at the banquet table, but only needed to eat the scraps and crumbs left over to receive the nourishment that would satisfy her forever. “We do not presume to come to this thy table O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” Twice in the Prayer of Humble Access we reference God’s never ending mercy. That was what the Canaanite woman asked for in the very beginning. She cried out for mercy, and Jesus showed her mercy.
The story of this woman echoes the collect we heard at the beginning of the service when we rightly acknowledge that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. Our help cometh only from the Lord, and she knew that trusting in her own devices led to more begging and pleading. Instead, she did what we so often do in our greatest times of need, cry out to God for help. I just wish I didn’t wait that long at times. I wish I would seek God’s guidance first rather than waiting until I’ve made mess of it on my own. After all, as we heard in the collect the stakes are real, and the consequences will last for eternity. Our greatest concern must be the strength to wage war against those evil thoughts which can both assault and hurt our soul. Many of the adversities which we encounter in our lives simply happen to the body. These, through God’s grace and protection, we are able to brush aside and bounce back from. However, once those adversities are turned to evil thoughts, then the mind is no longer in command to the thoughts, but the thought has turned the tables and we can come under its control. It is only a matter of time that the mind then begins to justify the things that the will begins to do once those evil thoughts become evil actions. A fib here turns into a whopper of a lie there. An innocent statement here turns into horrendous gossip there. A little fudge on my income tax return here turns into more and more dishonesty there. The evil thoughts which confront us every day soon begin to enslave us, and we are incapable of defending ourselves on our own. We need a source that can actually quench the flaming arrows of the enemy, and that source is God Almighty.
The Canaanite woman was not afraid to acknowledge her low estate to Jesus when she encountered him. We all too often think it immature, or beneath us to cry out for help. The temptation is always there to say, I can do this on my own. In reality, the only mature thing we can ever do is swallow our pride, fall down on our knees, and confess with the depths of our being, that we are in a constant state of need, and thanks be to God that we know where the source of living water is, that we might never thirst again. O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our Eternal home.
With every fiber of our being, may we cry out to God in a spirit of true humility, Lord, Help Me!