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Sermon – Canaanite Woman

Matthew 15:21-28

Grace to you and peace in God, whose love is for all people. Amen.

Today’s Gospel story is one that I have often wrestled with. Jesus is in the area of Tyre and Sidon, which Gentile cities on the Mediterranean coast, to the north of Galilee. While he’s there, he meets a Canaanite woman, who begs him to heal her daughter. The troubling part of this story is that Jesus refuses to heal her daughter. And what’s more, he barely gives this woman the time of day. He even insults her, when he says, “It isn’t right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” I mean, did Jesus just call this woman a dog?

If this was any other ordinary human being, this story might not be surprising. I mean, Jews and Canaanites were bitter enemies. Remember the song, “Joshua led the battle of Jericho… and the walls came tumbling down…”? The people of Israel fought the Canaanites and drove them out of the land so that they could live there. So for a Jewish person to insult a Canaanite person – or vice versa – might not be very surprising.

But it is surprising, and troubling, because this isn’t just any ordinary human being. This is Jesus. Jesus, who teaches us that all people are beloved children of God, that God’s love is for everyone. So why would Jesus treat this woman so poorly?

I’m not the only one who wrestles with this passage. In fact, even the best Biblical scholars have trouble knowing what to do with it. Is Jesus trying to test the woman’s faith by deliberately offending her? Or does the woman teach Jesus something about racism, and challenge him to expand his understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy? Maybe Jesus is still learning, just like all of us are still learning.

As many of you know, this week I had the wonderful privilege of accompanying our young people to CLAY. If you don’t know what CLAY is, it’s the Canadian Lutheran and Anglican Youth gathering, and this year it was in Waterloo. This was the first year we’ve had an in-person CLAY since 2018, and it was so exciting to gather with youth from across the country to explore our faith, to worship together, to make new friendships, and to be the Body of Christ. The theme this year was Ashes and Embers, and our keynote speakers were Pastor Aneeta Saroop and Pastor Nathan Fong, both pastors in BC.

Both Pastor Aneeta and Pastor Nathan were born in Canada as children of immigrants – Pastor Aneeta’s parents immigrated from Trinidad, and Pastor Nathan’s parents immigrated from China. And both Pastor Aneeta and Pastor Nathan experienced racism growing up – a sense of being different, and often feeling excluded. They shared their call stories with us – what it was like to be called to be Lutheran pastors in a predominantly white church. They were vulnerable with us, and authentic. And the message they shared with us was about a God who welcomes everyone, whose love is for all people, and who values every human being.

Their message resonated with our youth. At the gathering were Anglicans and Lutherans from across Canada, representing all sorts of different skin colours, and ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds, and gender identities and sexual orientations. Young people who were reminded in such a beautiful way that God loves them just the way they are.

And throughout the week, these young people embodied this message of God’s all-embracing love. They accepted one another. They encouraged each other. They welcomed each other. They made space for one another to be their own authentic selves, no matter how scary that might seem. And throughout the week, they opened themselves to new experiences. They made new friends. They shared in the joy of worshipping together.

In our Gospel story, the Canaanite woman that Jesus meets challenges us to expand our idea of who a child of God is – that you don’t need to have a particular skin colour or ethnicity to be a child of God. And in a similar way, our youth challenge us to expand our understanding of who a Christian is, and what the church is.

Some people say that young people aren’t interested in church. That they couldn’t care less about God, or faith, or Jesus.

I’m not sure about that. In fact, I’ll tell you what I saw this week:

I saw young people singing worship songs at the top of their lungs. I saw them dancing and singing with more energy than you’ll ever find here on Sunday morning.

I saw them practicing compassion for one another.

I saw them expressing a hunger for justice.

I saw them asking deep questions about their faith.

I saw them praying together.

I even witnessed our youth going to a church service together at 11:15 at night, of their own volition, because even after a full day of activities, their thirst for worship, prayer, and community was still not quenched.

You may hear folks say that youth don’t care about church. That they’re too busy playing video games or watching Tik Tok videos.

I wonder instead if youth feel distanced from the church because we have not learned to speak their language. What I have witnessed is that when the church learns to speak the language of youth, when we accept and welcome them not just as the church of tomorrow, but as the church of today, they do respond. They respond with energy and enthusiasm, with compassion and a hunger for justice, full of the Holy Spirit and the love of God. When we learn to place youth at the centre of our community, I believe that we will experience a church that is renewed and re-energized to share God’s love with everyone we meet.


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