Robin, Joseph & a Canaanite

A sermon for 10th after Pentecost, Proper 15

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 1; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

I expect all of us heard of Robin Williams’ suicide last week. Some of us grieve his death. I was surprised and not; I’ve been aware of his depression and other mental illness, for a long time. So this news has always been a possibility, no matter how small, and it generally is small, nonetheless, it was a surprise.

I was also surprised by the public response. Many expressed how deeply his work touched them; others revealed the Glory of God in this tragedy by articulating the truth about mental illness and depression. All of us likely know someone who has depression or a mental illness. You know about Edwin; you may even know about his father’s, mental illness and subsequent suicide. Depression and other mental illnesses are not something that will pass with time. If you have a family member or friend who has depression or mental illness encourage them to get help, as they would with any disease. If you have depression or mental illness please get help, as you would with any disease.

I was really surprised and angered by the torrent of ugly comments towards his daughter; how some tried to build up their own status by using, actually abusing the tragedy. There have been significant boundary violations that have done harm to those already grieving. These trespassers also harm themselves; for as you denigrate another’s humanity you denigrate own humanity; when you deny another grace you deny yourself grace. Beside grace is God’s and no matter how we may want it otherwise we have nothing to say about how and to whom God dispenses Grace.

In healing the man born blind, in John 9, Jesus teaches us to proclaim the glory of God, in any tragedy we encounter. We can proclaim the glory of God in the tragedy of William’s death, by taking a look at ourselves in how we handle our and our family’ mental health; and ~ how we manage the boundaries in our own lives. Joseph’s story has a lot to teach us.

Since last week Joseph is falsely accused of impropriety and imprisoned. He correctly interprets Pharaoh’s cupbearer’s and baker’s dreams. Two years later, Pharaoh dreams; and no one can interpret them. The cupbearer remembers Joseph’s interpretation, and tells Pharaoh. Joseph interprets dreams about fat and skinny cows and ears of corn, is promoted to high office, and essentially runs Egypt preparing for and into the time of famine.

When food gets scarce Jacob sends 10 sons to get food. Joseph plays with them; he demands Benjamin (his only full brother) come to Egypt and that Simeon stays as surety. Jacob refuses until food run out; then he relents, it’s either that or everyone starves to death. Again Joseph plays with his brothers, this time by setting Benjamin up; as he was setup by Pharaoh’s wife. Benjamin is arrested for theft, and sentenced to serve Joseph as slave for his offense. Judah pleads for his life and we enter this morning’s story.

In a theophany like scene, Joseph identifies himself, tells his brother not to fear, and reveals what God has done, and is going to do.  (Fretheim) Joseph says all this is God’s doing. But is it? There are all sort of boundary violations, beginning with Jacob’s extreme favoritism towards Joseph, then the brothers’ murderous scheme, which ends in blatant profiteering by selling him into slavery; and finally, Joseph, who now has all the power, maliciously plays with his brothers, manipulating them for all he is worth. There is no question God is present in all this; but to place all the causality on God, effectively relives, Jacob, the brothers and Joseph of all their responsibility for the harm they’ve done to each other, and likely others. To glean the truth, we have the arduous task of holding human free will and the sovereignty of God in dynamic tension with each other. God does not manipulate humanity. And yes, Divine will prevails, but that is because of God’s indomitable strength, known as perseverance. Ponder God as the widow in Luke’s story of the unjust judge!

In the end, Joseph breaks down. Stepping out of his veneer of Egyptian royalty (NIB, Interpretation) and crossing the boundary back into his place of intimacy and vulnerability of family, he reveals who he is, and the process of reconciliation ~ begins.  (Brueggemann) (Fretheim) There is more to come, finish reading the rest of Genesis and witness the drama unfold.

The Joseph story cycle, shows us both the harm of inappropriately crossing boundaries, and the good of repentance, changing directions, and moving back across the boundary to begin healing the bonds of shattered family relationships. However, there are boundaries outside our families, as a woman from Canaan teaches us.

Before we get to the story of pagan-land, (Hoezee) there is Jesus’ encounter with Pharisees about washing hands. We are all concerned about washing hands, as a matter of hygiene. Keep it up, that is not what this story is about. Washing hands, is really all about a priestly, probably Pharisee priestly discipline. There wasn’t an expectation on the general Jewish population, to wash their hands. This discipline is about cleanliness and uncleanliness, which is all about being pure, or impure, which is all about being holy, and able to enter into God’s presence.  In short, the Pharisee / priest are saying: “We keep this strict doctrinal discipline. Why don’t you?”  (Brueggemann) (Fretheim)

Some Christian scholars read this as Jesus trashing Jewish purity laws; Jewish scholars do not. (Interpretation) Jesus is crossing boundaries, placing ethical behavior, heart stuff, above legal behavior. (Brueggemann) Now we cross a geographical boundary into Tyre and Sidon, and what a difference we see. 

Jesus and his disciples are in thoroughly Gentile territory. To Jewish people it is a spiritual slum. (Hoezee, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 15:10-28) They encounter, are accosted by a woman with a very sick child, she is demon possessed. She uses proper Jewish divine language; “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” Strange for an unclean outsider to know. The only time Jesus ignore a cry for help, he ignores her cry. (Hoezee, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 15:10-28) The disciples tell him to send her away. Speaking to himself, or answering them he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman recognizing his authority and power, (Carter) following proper custom paying homage to him, kneels and once more asks for help. (Hoezee, The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 15:10-28) In one of the most uncomfortable lines in scripture he answers: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Somehow knowing the “Son of David has so much power that there is enough power for the house of Israel and more than enough left over for her,” (Carter) she replies “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus acknowledges her faith, and pronounces her daughter healed.

A couple of things:

  1. Jesus calls her and her children dogs; it’s an insult; there’s no way around it.
  2. The Canaanite woman appears to know about the feeding of the 5000; more than disciples, who were there.
  3. To get caught up in a discussion about what Jesus knows or doesn’t and why he says what he says is a convenient way of avoiding the striking truth revealed here.

Remember what we learned about what defiles? Jesus puts ethics above law in putting emphasis on what comes out of the heart via the mouth. The Canaanite woman’s heart: knows who Jesus is; her heart is clean, and pure. (Carter) She shatters the doctrinal boundary between Gentiles and Jews; and Jesus acknowledges it. The Canaanite woman challenges all our boundaries: around women, around race, around sexual orientation, around nationality, around education, around how we worship or understand God, around any and everything by which we declare that they are unclean, impure, or otherwise unworthy to be in God’s presence. (Fretheim) My colleague Steve Pankey cast the Nones, the twenty percent of largely younger Americans who are spiritual but not religious, as the Canaanite woman. If we want to know where they are, we should look at our behavior first.  (Pankey)

We have crossed many boundaries this morning. I want to be clear that not all boundaries are bad, many protect us. Moreover, you can cross a boundary causing harm, but also to restore hope and begin healing. In the end whenever we approach a boundary we’ve only two questions to ask:

  1. In crossing this boundary do I move deeper into God’s presence?
  2. In crossing this boundary do I invite others into deeper relationship with God?

When the answer is no, stay put. When the answer is yes, mimic a Canaanite woman.


 Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation. Ed. Patrick D Miller Jr and Paul J Achtemeie. Vol. Genesis. Louisville, n.d.

Carter, Warren. “Commentary on Matthew.” 17 8 2014. Working Preacher.

Fretheim, Terence E. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Genesis. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. 1. 2003. 12 vols.

Hoezee, Scott. “The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 15:10-28.” 17 8 2014. Center for Excellence in Preaching.—. This Week Genesis. 17 8 2014.

Pankey, Steve. “A house of prayer for all people.” n.d. Draughting Theology. Word Press. <;.









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