Sermon delivered February 1, 2009.
Those of us who live and drive in Minnesota can appreciate the following short story. A hesitant driver, waiting for traffic to clear, came to a complete stop on a freeway on-ramp. The traffic thinned, but the intimidated driver still waited. Finally, an infuriated voice yelled from behind, "The sign says to yield, not to give up."
In the rest of our life, how often do we take the first sign of an obstacle as a message to quit trying? I studied hard, but didn't get a good grade. I must be dumb or stupid. I didn't get that job I wanted, so I'll have to be content with this boring, dead-end one. I tried to exercise and diet but didn't lose hardly any weight, so I'm just going to forget it. Someone ignored me, someone criticized me, my girlfriend/boyfriend broke-up with me, my spouse left me, my friend betrayed me. I must be unlikable or unlovable. God must want me to be lonely.
I would guess that this might be even more pronounced in our faith relationship with God. I prayed for help and I didn't get any. I prayed to be healed from my illness and I was still sick. I prayed for my terminally ill friend or family member and they still died. I attended Liturgy and received communion and I didn't really feel different. I went to confession and I still sinned again afterwards. Why bother? God doesn't love me. I wonder if He even exists. Those who say religion and Church are just man-made, patriarchal systems are probably right.
Before we go down these roads any further, let's take a look at the Canaanite Woman from today's gospel reading, the 17th Sunday of Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus was journey to district of Tyre and Sidon (v.21) and the Canaanite woman comes to Him shouting, pleading for Him to heal her daughter of a demon (v.22). How does Jesus respond to her? He completely ignores her. It says, "He did not answer her at all" (v.23). How often do we bring our concerns, our pleas for help, to God and we hear nothing? No answer, no sign of hope, nothing comes our way. Either in desperation or in anger, we begin shouting at God and still nothing. Do we give-up at this point?
The Canaanite woman does not. Even after Jesus' disciples tell Him to send her away (v.24), she draws very near to Him and kneels before Jesus saying, "Lord, help me" (v.25). Does the Christ help her now? I mean after all, she's persistent, she's humble and she's self-less, asking for someone else's healing. He should heal her now, right? Christ responds by saying, "No." Worse yet, He likens her to a dog, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (v.26). How often has God told us, "No"? How often have we felt that He is even kicking us while we're down? Do we give up at this point?
The Canaanite woman does not. Accepting Jesus' canine label, she does not accept His rebuke but comes back at Him with some profound words, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table" (v.27). In other words, "I'm not giving up. I'll take whatever little you will offer to me." How does Jesus respond this time? Finally, He openly acknowledges her great faith and grants her wish and heals her daughter instantly (v.28).
Someone might ask, why is Jesus playing this game with the Canaanite woman? She's obviously sincere. She came to Him. Why didn't Jesus just heal her daughter right away? St. Theodore of Mopsuestia implies that Jesus, by delaying His answer, is giving her opportunity to deepen her faith. Is it any different than how we raise our own children? Do we give them what they want as soon as they ask for it? No, we usually delay in one way or another to build their character and deepen their appreciation for whatever they receive. Lev Gillet, in reference to this passage, says, "Our Lord often acts in way in order to test the strength of our faith. Even if Jesus seems to put up a decisive refusal, we must redouble our faith, come near to Him, worship Him and beg for His help." We must be like Abraham who pleaded five times with the Lord to spare Sodom and Gomorrah on behalf of the few righteous people that remained among the abominable sinners (Genesis 18). We must be like Jacob who struggled with God and was rewarded for his effort (Genesis 32).
You may have heard it said, I certainly have said it before that God answers prayer in three ways. Number one, "No." Number two, "Not yet." And number three, "Yes." The question we must ask ourselves is do we give up our faith in God after the first answer? How about after the second answer? We must trust God that whatever answer He gives and whenever He gives it, He does it to build our character, to make us stronger, to deepen our appreciation for Him and everything we have. One of my favorite bible verses is from today's Epistle reading for St. Tryphon the Great Martyr, Romans 8:28-39. It's the first verse 28, "All things work together for good, for those who love God." Love God, no matter what answer He gives you, no matter how He answers you, no matter when He answers you. Love God, don't give up. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.