A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 14, 2017
Matthew 15:21-28 GNT
It saddens me, and perhaps you as well, to see people separated by cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers. It is unnatural—we might even say un-godly—for people to be divided into the haves and have-nots; to be corralled like cattle by barbed wire fences, concrete barricades, and the like. Yet, such has been the way of the world through time.
When I traveled to the Holy Land some years ago, such is exactly what I saw – barbed wire, concrete barricades, etc. Jews can’t go here. Palestinians can’t go over there. There is a place for Christians in this part of Jerusalem, a place for Jews in another part of town, and still another place for Muslims in another section of town. And men go to this side of the Wailing Wall, while women have to go to that side. So one’s ancestry, religion, and gender in effect throw up invisible – yet very real – barriers that tend to divide and separate people one from another. It is that way today in so many parts of our world.
People separated by cultural and ethnic boundaries certainly was the situation in Jesus’ day as well. The gospel reading I chose for this Mother’s Day relates the story of a woman—a mother—who found herself restricted by such gender, cultural, ethnic, and religious barriers. She was a Canaanite, descended from the original inhabitants of the land at the time when the Jews came from Egypt and settled in Canaan. Thus, she was a Gentile, a non-Jew, one of the “have-nots” of that day and time. Her kind were commonly referred to as “dogs,” a derogatory term not unlike some of the derogatory terms that are used to denigrate people today, words that most of refuse to utter. Yet, a mother is still a mother, regardless of her ancestry, religion, or culture. Great mothers are to be found in all cultures, ethnicities, and religions. And the Canaanite woman proved to be one of the great mothers of the world.
For, you see, the Canaanite mother possessed some characteristics that great mothers have in common. Like, for instance, persistence, or perseverance. This unnamed mother in today’s story was one who was persistent in faith. She had persistent faith in the power of God manifested in the ministry of Jesus. She had faith that God wants the sick to be well, especially a sick child. Her faith was tested when Jesus at first ignored her. But she did not give up. And Jesus commended her before everyone in her village: “Woman, great is your faith!”
She was also persistent in hope. In spite of the fact that she was a woman, a Gentile begging at the feet of a Jewish rabbi, and a “dog” in the eyes of many, unworthy of the Master’s attention, she was persistent in hope that there might be enough of God’s grace leftover for her child who was ill.
And she was persistent in love. Her motive was pure—a great love for her daughter that led her to risk reputation and public scorn by falling down at the feet of Jesus and begging for a crumb of grace. Preacher John Killinger describes this woman as “one of the beautiful women of the Bible. She was beautiful in her love for her daughter.”1 No greater force on earth can be found than a mother’s love for her own. It is a love that shows itself in action, that loves without credit, and that leads one to pour oneself out for others for the sheer joy of doing it. This woman would not give up. She would not take “No” for an answer. She was determined and persistent.
Motherhood today requires no less dedicated and persistent faith, hope, and love. Many mothers today, not unlike the Canaanite woman, find themselves facing tremendous odds. Some are enslaved by poverty (often called “the working poor”) that forces them to work two or more jobs to support their children. Others make themselves a human shield between their child and an abusive father and husband. Others take on big insurance companies to get them to cover the medical procedures they should be covering for their children. I cannot help but think of our own daughter who has spent hundreds of hours on the telephone and writing e-mails and letters to insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals on behalf of our grandson and granddaughter, lobbying for the services they have needed. And still other mothers ignore their own hunger, and sacrifice their own nutritional health, so that their children may eat. In faith, hope, and sacrificial love they persevere for the sake of the children they love.
Preacher Killinger tells a beautiful story of one such woman he knew personally who demonstrated such persistent faith, hope, and love on behalf of her child. Margaret Howard lived in Richmond, Kentucky. Margaret was a good, solid woman of the hills who managed a small bookstore in spite of the fact that she only had an eighth-grade education. She had married when she was fourteen. But she was a woman of rare qualities. When one of her daughters had a brain tumor at the age of seven, the doctors removed much of the right hemisphere of her brain. They told Margaret the girl would probably be a mere vegetable for the rest of her life. But Margaret wouldn’t accept the doctors’ judgment. She nursed the child and prayed for her. She saw an article in the newspaper about a special operation being performed in Canada that might improve her daughter’s condition. The operation would cost several thousand dollars. Margaret’s family was dirt poor and didn’t have seventy dollars, much less several thousand. But Margaret prayed some more and told others of her plight. Someone ran an article in the newspaper, telling their story. Enough money was raised for the operation.
When Margaret and her daughter arrived in Canada, they didn’t have the proper papers, so the authorities would not let them off the plane. Margaret persuaded the airport officials to call the Canadian government. She told the government officials that she was from the Commonwealth of Kentucky and needed to get her daughter to the hospital. For some reason, the officials thought she was related to the governor of Kentucky. So they sent an ambulance and limousine to take her and her daughter to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital took x-rays, studied them, and said they did not want to operate. But Margaret said, “There’s a power higher than you that obviously wants you to.” The doctors did operate, and the girl lived an almost normal life until she was a young woman.1 A mother’s persistent faith in God, persistent hope in spite of the odds, and persistent love in action secured a wonderful blessing for her sick child. Mothers often have to overcome great odds to be a mother.
But as we return to the Canaanite woman, it might be said of her that because of her persistent faith, hope, and love she changed the course of world religion. For, you see, we also find this story in the gospel of Mark. And in Mark’s view, it was Jesus’ encounter with this Gentile woman that in part led him to turn to the Gentiles with his message of good news and grace. Up to this point Jesus’ ministry had been limited to the Jewish people. This woman proved to Jesus and the disciples that Gentiles, too, could have faith in God, a sacred hope, and a loving heart. So after his encounter with this Canaanite mother, Jesus began sharing his good news with other Gentile towns.
How many other mothers, after the example of this unnamed Canaanite woman, have anonymously played a part in altering the course of the world because of their persistent faith, unfaltering hope, and sacrificial love? How many mothers today are changing for the better the future of our world because of the faith, hope, and love they exert on behalf of all children? Women in America today are taking a greater role than ever, perhaps, in marching, protesting, and advocating for a better world, better health care and coverage for children, and other things.
The truth is any mother—or any father for that matter—through persistent faith, persistent hope for the betterment of her child, and persistent love in action can not only make a difference in the life of her child, but can possibly change the world for the better. We as parents and grandparents have the power to make a difference!
So, happy Mother’s Day, mothers and grandmothers. In persistent faith, hope, and love, may we all go forth to change the world for the better. May it be so. Amen.
1John Killinger, ”The Mother Who Changed the World,” 1995 Ministers Manual, pp. 95-98.