Had I known it was going to be this long, I would have started reading War and Peace. Or at least finished Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s great novel that knows a thing or two about desperate people doing desperate things.
The story begins with the protagonist, Jean Valjean, being released from prison; having served his time for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family. Because of his criminal past he is forced to sleep on the cold streets, at the mercy of anyone who will help. When he is taken in by a kind priest, a desperate Valjean steals away in the night with the man’s silverware. But that’s when a great miracle happens.
Immediately after he is caught, the priest tells the police he has given the silverware to the criminal even pressing him to take the two silver candlesticks he had left behind. When the coast is clear, Valjean is told that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use the money from the silverware to make an honest man of himself. For the next thousand or so pages, our hero’s journey move from desperation to grace and finally, to his redemption. His is a story like so many that begin with someone screaming Lord, have mercy.
In her book The Miracles of Jesus, Jessica LaGrone realized there is a common thread that runs between those who are healed by Jesus. “They are all desperate.” In today’s reading, we get one such story about a woman at the end of her rope. She’s run out of ideas and options. All she can do is beg for mercy. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Read Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just 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.”...He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-28
Can you imagine approaching Jesus with a dire request only to be flat-out ignored. This isn’t the Jesus we know and love, is it?
Our Jesus would never diss you or tell you that you’re not his problem, would he? What would you do if he did? Would you run after him? Plead and beg your way into his good graces?
What if he called you a dog, and not in a good way either? Would you still persist and pursue after him?
Apparently, this is what happened when Jesus and his disciples go to the district of Tyre and Sidon. We don’t know why his itinerary took him there. This was the side of the tracks upright Jews wouldn’t dare go.
This was Gentile country. So, it’s not surprising that they’d run into a Canaanite or two. What’s unusual is that this particular Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is. Moreover, this gentile received compassion from Israel’s Messiah.
I mention this because the Canaanites were Israel’s biggest enemy in the OT. Their idolatrous religion was seen as a threat to the religious purity of God’s people. In fact, God empowered the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites. Which they did. Given the acrimonious history, I doubt this woman was shocked to be met with silence and some verbal abuse.
Nonetheless, she persisted – ignoring the history and social norms of her day to get Jesus’ attention. And can you blame her? Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I’m sure if my family were starving, I would steal food, like Valjean. Or if one of our kids was suffering like her daughter was, I wouldn’t think twice about setting aside my pride and prejudices if I knew she would be healed.
I think it’s safe to say her story is ours. It’s about us and the communities in which we live. There are people and areas in our lives possessed by the demons of systemic racism, poverty, and inequality. It’s causing anger and rage to boil over onto our streets and into our homes.
There are so many of us throwing our hands in the air, wondering what we can do.
When you’re the desperate or feel only hopelessness, there’s no telling what you will do. Given the spiritual, emotional, and cultural suffering we’re experiencing today, this woman’s story offers a great example to follow.
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Notice what she does. First, she recognized Jesus for who he is and turned to him for help. How she knew who Jesus was remains a mystery, but she called him Lord, Son of David. Clues that point to some kind of royalty perhaps.
Remember she is a Canaanite. And probably leans politically with Herod and Rome. But she is also a mother with a troubled child. My guess is she’s heard things about this particular Jew. In the desperate cry of a concerned parent, she is willing to set aside any animosity and run after the one whose reputation proceeded him.
Perhaps this is why LaGrone sees “Desperation is a gift from God because it teaches us we can’t do this on our own. We’re all in need of Jesus’ help, but the truth is it’s only the desperate who go looking for it. And they are the ones who receive it.”
I‘m sure we’ve all experienced some kind of suffering. But sadly, not everyone recognizes and seeks the One who always meets us in our brokenness, in our places of pain and anguish. He chooses to heal our woundedness. And restore us to our belovedness.
If there is something that you are facing today, something that you can’t seem to control or handle, I invite you to seek Jesus…and run into the open arms of God’s love. Embrace the plea of this desperate mother and shout “Kyrie Eleison” - Lord have mercy.
As Stanley Hauerwas taught, this unknown Canaanite woman, is not only “the forerunner of our faith, ...[she] teaches us how to speak.” Lord have mercy.
Whether that was said boldly or desperately, in speaking those two words, this unknown woman leapt over the chasm created by centuries of animosity and violence. In doing so, she would come to discover that God’s mercy may have started with Israel, it doesn’t end there.
In Christ, she saw and recognized the very nature of God’s love. A love which overflows to all; even the dogs. As mutts and mothers, this is our wake-up call.
Even as he ignored or rejected her, nonetheless she approached Jesus with an unshakable conviction, knowing in her heart that God’s mercy and grace was enough to restore her daughter and save her family. Jesus recognized this as faith, and immediately her daughter was healed.
What does this mean for us today? I think it’s a pretty clear indication that God’s love is not exclusive. It’s for anyone who comes in faith. What that faith looks like or sounds like is not up to us to decide, but to Christ who was entrusted with God’s loving heart.
This woman joins the countless other desperate people who seek out Christ. The blind, the lame, and dying. The thousands who are hungry, but there’s not enough food to feed them all. The demon possessed, and those with leprosy who have been cast out from their families and community. A woman with a crooked spine. A man whose hand is withered beyond recognition. A woman who has been bleeding for twelve years (LaGrone).
The Roman centurion who tracks down Jesus to heal his beloved servant. His story is like this one in that both of these healings are request made by someone other than the sick, and both take place far away from Jesus (Mt. 8:5-13)
How blessed are we that God loves to bless the desperate, reach the broken, and heal the wounded?
Perhaps that’s why this story speaks so well to us in this historic moment. Because right now, Americans are struggling with how to approach racial inequality. It’s affecting families, eroding friendships, and dividing communities. Now, more than ever, let us cry, Lord have mercy.
From our biggest cities to the smallest townships, tens of millions of people are out of work, businesses are losing revenue and small shops are closing their doors forever. Now more than ever, let us shout, Christ have mercy.
Right now, as our nation’s leaders fail to come together for the common good, the U.S. continues to average around 1,000 deaths/day from COVID alone, not to forget all the countless others who are dying from cancer, heart disease, suicide and overdoses. Now more than ever, let our screams be heard, Lord have mercy.
As temperatures soar above their yearly average, the world’s ice shelves are melting at alarming rates. Kyrie eleison.
As millions of God’s children lack clean water, have inadequate health care, and suffer from malnutrition caused by famine and violent conflicts. Christe eleison.
As we gather together to worship God and learn how to be Christ like our neighbors are worrying about how they are going to make their mortgage, or simply make ends meet. Kyrie eleison.
It’s times like this we shout out to God for help. Desperate times call for desperate measures. May we never forget that “Jesus is the miracle worker of those in despair, the Savior of desperate people.”
But here’s the ironic thing. Jesus is the one calling out to us. He is the one begging us to go out to the streets. He's pleading with us to go to the other side of the tracks to meet people where they are, to share God’s love and mercy with one another. And to do it so much that mothers and fathers no longer have to worry if their child will come home after jogging around the neighborhood or going to the store to buy some candy.
By recognizing Jesus and leaning on him, we too can embrace his life of inclusive love as our own – engaging in courageous conversations, adopting an open-minded heart; practicing tolerance and living in mutual respect with one another.
Because he is merciful to us, so too can we show mercy to one another. LaGrone writes, “Your desperation is a gift if you’ll let it be.”
Like St Paul wrote, “My strength is made perfect in my weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
So let me ask you this: What will your desperation cause you to do to further the kingdom of heaven? Who will you reach out to in love, as a bridge builder and peace seeker?
As you leave here today, I invite you to embrace your fear, your worries, you anxieties and desperation. Because this is where you’re going to meet God in Christ.
By turning your eyes upon him, and by giving your faith over to his mercy you’ll discover that no one is a “dog."
And that everyone is a beloved child of God, deserving of God’s grace and of God’s holy name.
Let us come together and sing out loud to divine creator, to shout from hearts, “Kyrie eleison.”
Bartlett, David L, and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.
Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Canterbury Classics, 1862.
Kesselus, Ken. What's Wrong? August 10, 2020. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/whats-wrong-pentecost-11-august-16-2020 (accessed August 14, 2020).
LaGrone, Jessica. Desperation: What Miracles Are Made Of. April 16, 2019. https://wesleyancovenant.org/2019/04/15/desperation-what-miracles-are-made-of/ (accessed August 15, 2020).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”