praying the bigger picture

(A sermon based on Genesis 45.1-15 and Matthew 15.21-28)

Imagine a meeting of the combined US House and Senate down in Washington. Can you picture that room? Oozing with rich wood, usually decorum among the members, particular behavior and speaking protocols to be observed. You don’t just speak up. You wait to be recognized. There are rules to be followed.

Now can you imagine a ragtag group of hungry migrants walking into that meeting? They look like they’ve come a long distance, maybe walked all the way from the midwest somewhere. They are dirty. They are tired. Their clothes are tattered. They are starving. They are scared. And suddenly the Speaker of the House tears his suit jacket and begins weeping aloud. He knows these people. They are his family, long lost.

Today we are brought into another dramatic portion of the story of Joseph, the part of the story where Joseph and his brothers are reunited. In the story of Joseph we hear about divine blessing, the blessings of the land, how wise leadership and skillful governance can save people. We see family growth and tremendous conflict and sibling rivalry, hatred and ill-will.

Remember, Joseph’s brothers sold him off in last week’s reading. Remember Joseph’s first dream with sheaves of wheat at the harvest. And how in the dream, all of the brothers’ sheaves are bowing down to Joseph’s sheave? The brothers really didn’t like that dream! And after they sold Joseph into slavery, Joseph kept dreaming and interpreting, and he interpreted dreams for Pharaoh, and came to hold a trusted and high office in Pharaoh’s household. Because of Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream about the famine, there was advance planning and food was stored, all under Joseph’s direction. So that when the famine arrived, the people of Egypt are prepared.

We see a bigger picture this week. Last week I said I thought it was imagination at work in Joseph that allowed him to continue to see some family connection with his brothers even after they’d sold him into slavery and they were suffering from the famine. And I told you that’s a story for another day. That was just a tease for this Sunday!!

Because Joseph could see a bigger picture, he could hold open the possibility of reunion with these brothers who sold him into slavery. Now let’s be clear. That is not going to happen in most families where abuse has occurred. And it is not up to us to fix abusers. Most of the time, we have to leave that situation.

But in this story in the Bible, all that had happened before put Joseph in a position where he was able to interpret dreams of famine, and use his organizational and people skills to save people who came into peril when the famine arrived. And Joseph attributes this all to God. So in Joseph’s view, God saved not one kind of people, not one sect or clan or nation. God saved Egyptians. And God saved the family of Jacob. That’s a big picture.

There’s a tremendous reversal in this segment of the Joseph story. Joseph, once sold away by his brothers becomes a trusted and powerful advisor to Pharaoh. The story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s Gospel also is a story of reversal. We see a reversal brought about by the woman’s persistent faith.

And we can’t help but notice, can we, her “great faith” compared with Peter’s “little faith” of last week’s Gospel reading. Peter, you’ll remember, said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command me to come to you across the water,” and Jesus bid Peter to come. Peter balked when he became scared of the wind and he started to sink in the water, prompting Jesus to mention his “little faith.”

But this woman from Canaan, a double outsider – a woman and also a Canaanite – doesn’t behave like Peter did. She did not say, “If you really are the Son of God, show me how you’re going to heal my daughter.” No, she engaged and probed Jesus in conversation about what faith really is, what it means to have faith. And Jesus changed his mind! Jesus saw a bigger picture! And in the end of the story, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!”

You see, her faith isn’t some quantifiable set of beliefs or assents. She doesn’t recite something equivalent to a Creed. Her faith is making this relationship with Jesus. Her faith is persistent and questioning. Her faith is bold and creative. She talks back. When Jesus refers to the outsider group to which the woman belongs — the Gentiles – as dogs, she doesn’t stop to be insulted or put off. In fact, she doesn’t miss a beat: “But!” she says. “But!!”  “But, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” She continues to plead her cause.

And do you know what? Jesus changes his mind. Are you surprised by that? Or are you more surprised by Jesus’ first response to the woman? He really just dissed her by saying that he’d come only for the lost sheep of Israel. That sounded more than a little rude, didn’t it? That wasn’t our sweet Jesus weeping with Martha and Mary at the death of Lazarus. It sure seems like Jesus may have been having a bad day, no? In fairness, he had wanted to get away from the crowds. He’s still trying to get some rest and time away that he didn’t get – remember our reading last week, where the crowds had followed him as he tried to get away to rest and pray after having learned of the violent death of John the Baptist.

Are you surprised that Jesus changed his mind? There are stories of God changing God’s mind in the Bible. Jesus would have known these stories. God changed God’s mind after the flood and vowed never to destroy the Earth again. God changed God’s mind in Genesis 18, when God was going to destroy Sodom. Abraham asked: will you destroy the good and the bad? Will you destroy Sodom if there are 50 righteous people there? You would really kill them all, even the 50 righteous? And God changed God’s mind and said, “No, well, I guess I wouldn’t destroy it if there were 50 righteous people there.” And get this, Abraham isn’t done yet, he bargains with God. (I love this story; they used to call me Bargain Brettell back in college.) Well, what if there were 45 righteous people? Just because there were five fewer than 50, would you destroy it? And God said, no God wouldn’t destroy it. Well, what about 30? And the same response. And Abe continues: How about 20? How about 10 righteous people?

God was willing to listen and change God’s mind, and in this story from Matthew, we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus listened and changed his mind. Jesus was willing to listen and to learn from a woman and a Gentile. And Jesus is clear by this story that Jesus’ saving work includes not just Jews, but Gentiles, too. This Canaanite woman has prayed Jesus to a bigger picture.

In the Joseph story, there’s a famine, and that’s where we see God’s activity in the story. That’s one context in that story in which we see God acting. And in that story we see that God’s concern is not just for Joseph and his brothers, but also for Egypt. For the whole world, because Joseph’s good stewardship and governance saved and protected more than just the Egyptians. Part of what we can glean from this story is that God’s care and concern is not just for a particular group of people, but for all people. God created all people and cares for all people. All people, all families, all nations. Not just your family or mine. Not just families that look like yours and mine. All nations, not just the USA. All nations, even those that we don’t like. God’s care and concern is much broader than ours.

This week we’ve heard a lot about a little suburb of St. Louis, Missouri called Ferguson. And there may be a temptation to brush it off. Those people, they don’t look like me. What happened to that boy Michael Brown, that would never happen to me. That would never happen to my son.
And I think you’re right. Because we are all white here. But I don’t think that God looks at the situation in Ferguson that way….

I think God is not so concerned right now whether what happened in Ferguson could happen where we live. Or where anybody else lives. Why? Because the focal point for God this week is that it is happening in Ferguson. It is happening to these people, God’s creation, who happen to live in Ferguson, Missouri.

Now, of course, God is concerned with what happens to you and me in tiny Bartlett, NH. And God is tremendously concerned – broken-hearted – at what is happening in Ferguson. You see, God is looking at the big picture. When we look at images from Ferguson and say “where is God?”,
in our next breath we should say “there is God,” in those African American boys who are gunned down while they have their hands up in the air. When we look at images from Ferguson and say “where is God?”, in our next breath we should say, “there is God,” in those mothers and fathers whose children have been killed. God is not coming to save Ferguson; God is already there in the middle of Ferguson. And God’s heart is breaking.

You see, when people look at all the awful things happening in our world and ask, “Where is God?”, I wonder why they can’t see that God is right in the middle of it. God doesn’t cause famines. But in situations like famines, God is not off on a coffee break, but right there in the midst of the suffering, in the midst of the pain. God is in the midst of the agony of parents whose children have been killed by violence in Ferguson and places like it. Our God knows a bit about those things. Our God knows a bit about a son’s violent death. Our God knows a bit about suffering at the hands of injustice.

Dr. Paul Farmer is right when he says that “[t]he idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” And when we allow Fergusons to happen, or when we turn our backs, do we hear the voice of Jesus say to us: Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me. Whenever you do not help the least of my brothers and sisters, you withhold help to me.

Thinking and praying outside the box, Joseph’s brothers went to a land they thought would be dangerous country during the famine, and they found relief there. In Egypt, of all places! God was there in Egypt, and God’s plans to save Jacob’s family worked through the famine. The Canaanite woman prayed outside the box, too. She prayed the big picture. She knew Jesus was a holy man, and although she was not a Jew, she still made her request of him. Her daughter was possessed by a demon. And when Jesus turned her down, she persisted. Her persistence caused Jesus to change his mind. At her urging and prayer, Jesus saw the big picture, that his life of drawing people closer to God was not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles, too. She prayed Jesus into the big picture.

Friends, make your prayers bold.
Make your prayers persistent.
Don’t let God off the hook.
Don’t let God forget God’s promises.
Hold onto those promises.
And remember our promises, too.
Our promises to be the love of God in our world.
Our promises to follow the one who loved deeply into the big picture.
Our promises to love others as we love ourselves.

Go out this week and pray big!
Then take a deep breath and get started at what you prayed for.
God bless you.

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