"Surprised by Grace"

A Sermon By:

David D. McDonald

Texts: Matthew 15: 21-28

Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32

August 16, 2020

NRSV Matthew 15: 21-28

21Jesus 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 Israel.” 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.

NRSV Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2aGod has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

... 29for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.


The book The Dollmaker was also produced as a TV miniseries a number of years ago. It is a story about a family during the depression years. In one scene the mother, portrayed by Jane Fonda, is riding a horse carrying her young son who is going into respiratory failure. A military vehicle meets her on the road and despite the officer's protests, forces herself into the vehicle against military regulations and demands to be taken to a doctor. The soldiers object, but this mother is not to be dissuaded from her urgent mission. The boy's breathing all but ceases and she orders theses soldiers to help her perform a makeshift tracheotomy on the spot. She oversteps her bounds. Her behavior is outrageous - a part custom made for Jane Fonda - but the child lives. Life for her son could not wait. Military orders were seen as no excuse for letting a child die.

When the life of a child is at stake, a mother will confront heaven and earth; if necessary. A Canaanite mother will come to a Jewish teacher if she thinks her child’s life is at stake.

What is striking about this passage and its location in Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus follows in the footsteps of the prophets who were rejected by Israel. Yet, his message is received by foreigners. Like the prophets, Jesus was deeply distressed by the faithlessness of Israel; even so, he found faith alive and well in the world among those whom we would not expect it. Moreover, the faithful were welcomed in spite of the fact that Christ, like the prophets, was more or less in exile from his homeland. The fact that faith crossed ethnic and social boundaries, while not expected, was uncovered and blessed by God.

What we see in this story is that remarkable ability of people to focus on what is most important. Such is the case in this story of Matthew's healing of the daughter of this Canaanite woman or of the centurion's son in another passage. While God is deeply involved in the course of history; so is he involved in the daily lives of human beings. The faith which sustains life is growing in the hearts of men and women who are struggling to help those they love in their hour of need.

While this Canaanite woman is ignored, belittled, and humbled; she refuses to let go of the essential goal of her quest - the saving of her daughter's life. We should be clear that this woman does not heal her daughter - Jesus does. We should be clear that the future is not this lady's responsibility - it is God's. Whether or not her daughter is healed is not a matter for her decision - it is the Savior's. In fact, the only thing which this lady can do is draw near to Christ. Her faith compels her to do that on behalf of her daughter in spite of all the bad blood between Canaanites and Jews.

She is not driven by a motive to be financially blessed. She is not driven by a motive to find herself religiously approved. She is not driven by a motive to be politically correct. She is driven by the terrible state of her daughter's health to seek the one who can change the course of it from death to life.

As I reflected upon this passage, my thoughts were drawn to some of the continuing education work I did with Dr. William Brown of Union Seminary who lead a seminar on Ecclesiastes.

There is a remarkable saying in Ecclesiastes which drives to the heart of this story in Matthew. It is found in Ecclesiastes 9:4:

"But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion."

The children of David, the people of Israel, may be lion's whelps, but if they are dead in the faith hope is a mist that floats away. Hope is found in the faithful. Better to be living like a dog, receiving the scraps from the master's table; than to have the blood lines of a lion and rotting in faith; forever lost in the wilderness.

This Canaanite woman truly believes there is hope. She has found Jesus. She has set her eyes on the one who has the power to save life. He can do what she can not. She can trust into His hands the life of her daughter who is beyond the hope of her saving. She will swallow her fears, she will swallow her pride; she will swallow her doubts; and she will continue to petition the Lord and Giver of Life. She has found the pearl of great price and she is quite willing to give all that she has for it.

A Presbyterian Minister representing the Presbyterian Medical Benevolence Foundation tells the story of an African family who came to one of our hospitals; I believe it was in Zimbabwe. One of the children was critically ill and in need of surgery. A pint possibly two of blood would be required. The child's younger brother was a blood match and could be a donor. They approached the little boy and explained what they wanted to do. He was asked permission to take blood. He hesitated and then said he would do it for his brother. When they had finished; he sat up rather surprised and said:

"Is that all you want?"

"Why, yes,” the doctor replied, “what did you think?"

"I thought you needed it all." he said.

A child of great faith, indeed. He was willing to give it all for his brother whose health meant everything to him.

In Matthew's Gospel, those who are willing to go to the ends of the earth are the faithful even if they are outside the chosen. Recall that early in the Gospel, Matthew recalls the coming of the Magi to see Jesus. These who were from afar; not of any of the tribes of Israel had seen His star in the East. They came to worship him and brought presents of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Costly gifts. Yet, his own countrymen in Herod's court and most especially Herod did not come. Instead, they plotted to kill this new King of the Jews.

The family of Jesus took him to Egypt to save him for His appointed hour. It is perhaps most ironical that the symbol of the Egyptian mortuary god, the god of the dead, Anubis, is depicted as a dog lying down with its head lifted up or as a man with a canine head. Better to be a living dog than a dead lion. Better to lose one's life to save it; than to save one's life to lose it.

As Matthew draws his gospel to a close we find the resurrected Jesus calling upon his disciples to go into the entire world and teach all that he has commanded to the end of the age. That is what faith in Christ calls us to do. As Craig Barnes says in one of his sermons:

"The Gospel is about one sick person telling another sick person where to find a little bit of healing."

We are all sick unto death. All of us have the fatal disease of humanity - sin. None of us can be saved without Jesus Christ. We are all redeemed by the blood of our Lord, not our own, which was shed for many. Faith is not the work of our hands. It is not a matter of simply believing the right things. In fact, there is only one thing which faith is about and that is Jesus Christ. This Canaanite lady has placed her faith in Christ and nothing else in heaven or on earth matters.

I suspect that many of us have a hard time believing that. We would rather faith be about something that we do or say or give or contribute - it is not. It is about Jesus Christ the Lord and giver of life whose very crumbs are enough to sustain life and cause it to flourish.

I suspect that is why we find the feeding of the five thousand precedes this story and the feeding of the four thousand follows this story. The loaves and fish are broken and distributed and the multitudes are filled and there are baskets of pieces - crumbs left over. The faithful, like this Canaanite woman who seek to live shall be satisfied and those who thirst shall drink and the abundance of life sustaining crumbs and drink shall be more than enough for those who desire to join Jesus at the table. That is the wonderful, sustaining power of the Gospel. It is found in Jesus who seems to appear everywhere to the great surprise of those who seek Him.

He was in a manger in Bethlehem.

He was a refuge in Egypt.

He was with the fishermen in the storm.

He was with the multitudes in the wilderness.

He was in Tyre and Sidon.

He was in Pilate's court.

He was with two thieves on the cross.

He was with parents who thought disease had claimed their children.

He was with Paul in prison .

In the days that Paul penned his letter to the Romans Paul was confronted with Jewish communities that were declining to embrace the spiritual renewal of the Gospel and communities that were often predominantly pagan that embraced the Good News of the Gospel readily. Recall the way our morning text from Romans begins:

1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2aGod has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

Paul’s argument is long and involved, but highlights the fact that if God can save pagans that accept the Good News; then God can save the people He chose generations ago, the Jews, even if they are sinners. Both Jews and pagans are sinners he argues. If he chose Jews as His people to carry the commandments from Mt. Sinai; to bear, nurture, and teach the prophets; and ultimately to give birth to the Messiah – the Savior of the world: then His grace is sufficient to save the newest members of the Kingdom – the pagans who heard and followed the Lord. In short, God is capable of raising prophets from desert rocks and messengers for God from despicable heathen. There is no one so far beyond the pall of grace that God cannot redeem their lives with the blood of Calvary, nor is anyone so Holy, so close to perfection that their sins are not a fatal flaw.

People need God. People are saved by God. People never take the place of God. They may point the way to God. They may lift and even carry those who are weak, stumbling, and headed into the wilderness; but let no one be deceived!!! It is God who does the Saving. Therefore, we can only humble ourselves in the presence and worship of God! Therefore, we can always count on God to seek out the lost and offer Grace! We shall surely be surprised by Grace!

In the book, Same kind of Different as Me , a well-to-do art dealer, his compassionate, Christian wife on a mission to help the homeless, and a no count son of a share cropper beat down by society and turned to crime as a way of life are surprised by grace. A terminal diagnosis of cancer, turns two men with hardened hearts towards each other and this unlikely duo builds a community will to address and reduce the problem of homelessness in a bustling Texas city.

So to the point of today’s sermon, has God abandoned His people or his churches in Clarkton? By no means! The Lord is waiting for His people to cry out for help! He is extending grace to people who are different then us that His glory may be revealed and His salvation offered to all. In truth, He is with us now; not because I say so or even because the church proclaims so. He is with us now because He has promised that wherever two or three are gathered in His name; there He shall be. To this ever present God let us pray and be surprised by God’s grace.