I’ve been using the web since the days when there really wasn’t much on it. Back in the days when we were still trying to come up with a name for the whole internet thing (anyone remember “information superhighway”?), I remember logging on to AOL or the local BulletinBoard System digitalNation to share on various discussion boards and forums. I remember “surfing” the web when it was a bunch of fledgling websites with black Times New Roman type and gray backgrounds. Back when speed was a 14.4 modem that made all kinds of squeaks and croaks as it made the connection over your telephone line.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1–15, Romans 11:1–2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:10–28
And in all that time, I have noted that there is one kind of person who is consistently—and perhaps, rightly—vilified in internet forums: the person who spoils the ending to a movie. In fact, no sooner will such a person have ruined the ending to a movie that invariably the comment, “Um, SPOILERS?!?!?” will appear.
In fact, sometimes it is seen as fair game to ruin the ending of a movie for someone if that person has ruined one for you. This is illustrated nicely on an episode of Cheers when the Cheers crowd ruins the plot of a movie Dr. Frasier Crane was looking forward to seeing. He responds:
Well, thank you, one and all, for ruining yet another plot for me. I’ll be off, now, but before I go there’s something I’d like to share with you. In Citizen Kane, Rosebud is the name of his sled. In Murder on the Orient Express, everyone did it, and Luke Skywalker’s father is Darth Vader. Ha!
The gang responds, “Tell us something we don’t know.” Well, all except Woody who reacts incredulously, “Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father?!?” before reasoning further, “You know, Darth Vader can’t be Luke Skywalker’s father. They don’t have the same last name.”
But the point is made: we don’t want the endings ruined because there is fun in the surprise and in the finding out.
Now, that might be the case because in fiction, at least, things might turn out the way we want them, too. Luke is being mortally attacked by the Emperor, when surprise! Darth Vader comes to his rescue. Rick looks like he’s going to betray Victor Laszlo and leave Casablanca with Ilsa, when surprise! he sends them both away to continue the work of the Resistance and finds a new ally in Captain Renault. Indiana Jones is captured by the Nazis who have taken the Ark of the Covenant and all hope is lost when surprise! God’s angel of death wipes all the Nazis out. (That’s still one of my favorite movie endings and one we could use a little more of in real life.)
Perhaps if movies ended more like real life, we’d be less anxious about having their endings spoiled. Oh, did the Empire win in the end? Yeah, I figured as much.
We relish the surprise ending because it plays into our desire to live in a world where anything is possible. It allows us to believe that there are still possibilities. Even the shocking, bad ending gives us a sense that we are not on a relentless march toward a given end. The possibilities are endless. Something surprising can happen.
II. THE TEXTS
And surprises abound in today’s Scripture lessons. In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is confronted by a woman described as a “Canaanite” woman, described in Mark’s version as a “Syro-Pheonician” woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon—modern day Lebanon. She implores Jesus to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Jesus demurs noting that he is only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Nevertheless, she persisted. She drops down before him and says, “Lord, help me.” When he again demurs saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She responds by saying, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This prompts Jesus to respond, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
There are many surprises in this story. First, that a pagan woman would address Jesus with the title “Son of David,” acknowledging his messianic credentials. Second that he would use a metaphor equating non-Jews with dogs. And finally, that she would demonstrate a faith so powerful that it would impress Jesus. It’s fair to say, that this story could have gone a number of far more predictable ways: the woman might not have respected Jewish prophets and sought Jesus’ help. She might not have persisted in her request. And so on. All of those would be far more expected and not terribly surprising.
But it’s the Joseph story that has the greatest surprise. There are two surprises in the story, one of them within the story and one of them without.
First, the brothers are surprised to find Joseph alive and to find that he is the high official that they’d been treating with all this time. That’s the surprise that happens to the characters in the story and that we witness and enjoy. We delight to see their surprise at discovering that the Egyptian prime minister is their long-lost, and presumed dead brother.
But then there is another surprise in the text: this is the surprise on us, the readers. Here’s Joseph, who’s been sold into slavery because of his brother’s jealousy. Thrown into prison because he refused the advances of his master’s wife. Left in prison because of a broken promise. And now, astonishingly, has risen to the second most powerful position in all of Egypt, responsible for the collection and preservation of the grain stores of the kingdom, wielding tremendous authority and power. And here come his brothers begging for food.
If I were just to set up a story this way, you could practically write the ending without much effort: he reveals himself and says, “So! You thought you could destroy me, but as you see, I have become even more powerful! And I will have my vengeance! Guards, take them away!”
I mean, that’s kind of the story we’re expecting. But instead we get a surprise ending. Joseph forgives his brothers before they have even asked. Even as they are standing there dumbfounded and terrified, he offers them mercy. Indeed, he doesn’t even do so grudgingly. He is not bitter about his experiences and chooses to see them in the most positive light: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” And later, after Jacob and the whole family have settled in the land of Goshen, and Jacob has died, he reassures his brothers, who are still fearful of his vengeance:
“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”Genesis 50:19–21
This is the surprise for us—that Joseph, who had every right to be angry, to have carried a grudge, to have exacted some kind of penalty, responds instead with generosity, with open arms, and with care and compassion. Given the state of the world and of human nature, that’s still a pretty big surprise.
III. THE SURPRISE AT THE HEART OF THE GOSPEL
So, why do our stories have these surprises in them? Is it just because God has a flair for the dramatic? Or is it just because the authors of scripture, like the producers in Hollywood, know we like surprise endings that turn out better than they usually would?
Or could it be that it’s an object lesson in grace?
See, the thing about grace is that it’s supposed to be surprising. It’s not supposed to be expected. We’ve gotten so used to our “comfortable reliance on grace” that we’ve forgotten how surprising it’s meant to be.
Imagine being a peasant and being in catastrophic debt—so much debt that everything you had was likely to be taken away, perhaps including yourself and your family. Now imagine that your fellow peasants come to you and say, “What’s your strategy?” and you respond, “The king is going to cancel my debt and transfer title of the land to me.”
They’d put you away.
Let’s modernize that. You’re in debt up to your eyeballs with education debt, medical debt, mortgage debt. “What’s your strategy?” “I’m counting on loan forgiveness and clear title.”
That sounds like lunacy. If a movie ended that way, you’d find it unbelievable. In fact, that’s how you know you’re watching a run of the mill Hollywood movie—when some ludicrous turn of luck comes the protagonist’s way.
And yet, this is the scale of what we’re talking about with God. God, more powerful than any king, owner of all the real estate—this God, extends to us mercy, love, and life eternal.
Consider that for a minute. There is no part of that where a person should reasonably say, “Oh, that’s what I expected to happen.” It’s meant to be a surprise.
There have been some thinkers over the course of church history—like John Calvin—who believed that humanity’s sin had earned us all damnation. That even one person should be saved from damnation was an unmerited favor that was not deserved.
We don’t have to go that far to understand that grace is meant to be surprising. Because that’s the nature of grace. It’s something given freely, that is not required. No one can make the king cancel the debt of some peasant, so if the king does it then it was done freely and surprisingly.
Grace is something unexpected. It’s something outside the normal patterns of the world.
The world says, “It’s everyone for themselves.” Grace says, “Behold, I am with you until the end of the age.” Surprise!
The world says, “Accumulate money and power and status.” Grace says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Surprise!
The world says, “Life will crush you underfoot.” Grace says, “Come to me all you who are weary and bearing heavy loads and I will give you rest.” Surprise!
The world says, “Might makes right.” Grace says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” Surprise!
The world says, “The only sure thing is death and taxes.” Grace says, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Surprise!
The world says, “Christ has died.” Grace says, “Christ is Risen.” Surprise!
One of my pastoral colleagues was trained as a bio-physicist and used to work for the Smithsonian Institution in that capacity at the same time that he was a United Methodist pastor. One day we were having a conversation about the intersection of religion and science—a favorite topic of his—and we were talking about quantum physics, that physics that attempts to describe the strange world of the subatomic where particles behave in strange, unpredictable ways. He said to me, “I think quantum physics is God’s backdoor into the creation.” In effect, because quantum physics allows for the unpredictable and strange, it also allows for the miraculous. It’s like the little programming “backdoor” that programmers put into the code that they write for others, a little code that allows them to get in no matter what.
His point was: the creation allows surprises. That’s the work of God.
It can be easy to be a fatalist. To imagine that the world follows a pre-determined plan from which there is no escape. It’s easy to look at the world and see it as one calamity after another; ruin upon ruin. It’s easy to look at the world and to see it as a constant cycle of the powerful chewing up and destroying the weak. As the perpetuation of structures of injustice that are meant to keep the wealth in the hands of a few and out of the hands of the many. As a never-ending cycle of violence in which force of arms and campaigns of death will forever be used to resolve our conflicts—and plant the seeds for the next one.
But we serve a God of surprise endings. And in that is tremendous hope. For we know that the story is still being written. The ending is not set. There is always room for a surprise ending. There is always room for hope.
Almost two-thousand years ago, in a garden outside Jerusalem, some women went to anoint their dead master’s body with burial spices and ointments and instead found the tomb empty.
That surprise became the foundation for the movement which bears his name and carries his word into all the world. That surprise ending to a story all too familiar—a story of oppression, rejection, violence, and death—is the ground of all our hope.
For we know that God is at work in the world. We know that the grace of God is loosed upon the creation. And we know that the story of God is a story in which pagans demonstrate powerful faith, a story in which a maltreated brother responds with love and welcome, a story in which the blind are given sight, the afflicted are given release, and the dead are raised to new life.
In these surprise endings is a grace that surprises us, but that is capable of transforming the world itself.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Romans 11:1–2, 29–32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?
for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
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.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 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.