Monday, March 20, 2017

Sermon: "Unlikely Companions (Third in a Series on “Hitchhiking with Jesus”: Who Do We Travel With?)", Matthew 15:21-28 (March 19, 2017)



Picture this: the world is in crisis, a bad guy has the upper hand, and the powers that be have tried everything they can think of to fix the situation. But nothing’s worked. All resources have been used, all heroes have been sent, and now there’s nothing left to do but wait for death and destruction to rain down upon the world.

But wait a minute; what about that rag-tag bunch of misfits? You know, the ones that nobody believes in and might not even get along with each other, but are the only ones left willing to fight the good fight? What if…what if we sent THEM?

Everybody loves a rag-tag bunch of misfits. Some of the most popular movies of all time rely heavily on this trope. There are so many, in fact, that I went down a bit of a rabbit hole looking them up while I was writing this sermon. The outcasts-as-heroes theme transcends generations: today we cheer for the Guardians of the Galaxy and the X-Men on the big screen, but in the ‘80s it was the Goonies and Ghostbusters, while the ‘70s gave us Animal House and Star Wars, and even before that was the gang from Charlie Brown and The Wizard of Oz. This theme isn’t confined to one genre or another, either; aside from the slew of recent superhero movies with misfit ensembles (including some I already mentioned), there are plenty of sports movies that fall into this category (like The Mighty Ducks and the Replacements), and even Disney movies make use of it (A Bug’s Life, Winnie the Pooh). It’s a pretty safe bet that everyone’s list of favorite movies includes at least one that falls into this category.

People adore a loveable band of misfits. As predictable as these movies tend to be (and they tend to be VERY predictable) they make us feel good. Maybe it’s because it gives us hope that there’s a place and a purpose for everyone. Maybe it helps remind us that all of our gifts are valuable, even the ones that seem weird or useless don’t make much sense to us right now. Maybe we see ourselves as the underdog and can relate.

I spent more time than I’d like to admit this week imagining the disciples in a movie theater, watching one of these movies. Ignoring the obvious anachronism, I amused myself by inserting a non-canonical trip to the Imax theater between last week’s scripture and this week’s. Tyre and Sidon are really far away from Jerusalem; maybe Jesus went there because they had the only theater that was showing The Wizard of Oz at the time.

Anyway, I gleefully imagined Jesus and the disciples shuffling into the air-conditioned theater in their sandals and robes, filing into a row of seats (I’m sure there was some jostling to figure out who got to sit next to Jesus), putting their feet up on the chairs in front of them, and preparing to follow the yellow brick road together. I pictured them grinning as Dorothy met each of her new companions, sympathizing (and maybe empathizing?) with their heartless, brainless, and courage-less lot in life, and cheering as each character discovered their own value on the journey. In my mind, the disciples were obviously enamored by these mismatched misfits who found comfort, support, and purpose in each other’s company. They completely understood why Dorothy would have chosen to take these companions on the road with her. Even though they all had little in common with one another, they shared the journey, and that was what was important. Heartwarming, imaginative, and powerful: they’d have given it 24 thumbs up (two for each of the disciples…)

And then, they stumbled out into the bright sunlight and encountered the Canaanite woman. (A little context: the Canaanites’ paganism had historically been a problem for the Israelites, who, it seems, were easily led into idolatry. Hearing about a “Canaanite woman” probably would have evoked a similar feeling in Matthew’s audience as hearing “a Samaritan” would have in Luke’s audience.[1] Namely: we don’t like this person. We aren’t SUPPOSED to like this person.) Obviously, the disciples felt this same way; they immediately tried to peer-pressure Jesus into sending the woman away. Not because there was nothing that they could do to help her or because they had somewhere else to be. Nope…they wanted her gone because she was annoying them. She didn’t fit into their plan or their group, so they didn’t want her tagging along. The outcast should remain cast out. There was no room for a scarecrow or a tin man or a cowardly lion on THEIR journey as they continued hitchhiking with Jesus.

Why, I wonder, if human beings find so much joy in movie misfits, don’t we make a place for them in our real lives? Why don’t we go out of our way to include them on our journey?

Obviously, the blatant irony that I’ve set up here isn’t exactly scriptural, but I think it reflects a very human tendency that the disciples illustrate beautifully, one that we all have. We love to think about misfits finding a place to belong when it comes to the movies, but we’re deeply uncomfortable with making a place for them in real life. In the movies, it’s a tale of redemption and real life, it’s an annoyance and an inconvenience. Somehow, we forget that in real life, Jesus is all about the former and not at all about the latter.

Too often, we believe that it’s okay to leave outsiders on the outside, as long as we’re nice enough to them. We can get behind the story of the Good Samaritan, but at the end of the day, we assume that the Samaritan returns to Samaria and the traveler continues on his way, their paths never to cross again. But what if the traveler wasn’t just going on vacation or to visit his family, but was on the most important journey of his life? A journey that could transform his very being for the better? Would he have invited the Samaritan to join him, knowing what was at stake?

Seeking to follow Jesus is probably the most important journey we’ll ever make—so certainly there must be some requirements for who should be permitted to accompany us on the road. Surely, not just any Samaritan or Canaanite or misfit is qualified to join us. They’re welcome to wave congenially as we pass, of course, but hitchhiking with Jesus requires a certain type of person…right?

Well, it turns out that there ARE some requirements. And I’ll list them for you. You might want to get out a pencil and paper. Are you ready? Here we go:

You need to have faith, and

You need to desire to follow Jesus.

Yup, that’s it. Really. As long as you meet these criteria, even the most out-of-place misfit belongs on this journey.

You might be wondering how I arrived at this conclusion. After all, even Jesus doesn’t seem very impressed by the Canaanite woman’s credentials at first. Even HE seems to want to leave her in the dust. This woman clearly knows who she’s talking to—she immediately identifies Jesus as “Lord, Son of David”—as the Messiah—EVEN BEFORE THE DISCIPLES DID (we have to wait until the next chapter for Peter to figure it out), but that alone isn’t good enough to earn her a place alongside the disciples on Jesus’ journey. What changes Jesus’ mind isn’t her KNOWING the right things, but her INSISTENCE on being a part of his journey and her FAITH that he would include her. In what is easily one of the sassiest passages of the Bible, the Canaanite woman implies that Jesus’ power is so great, he can save the lost sheep of Israel and STILL have plenty of mercy and healing left even for the dogs who long to be at the table with him.[2] She has faith—without any evidence—in who Jesus is and what he can do. The disciples, on the other hand, aren’t able to make that leap until they observe it—which they do just a few verses later. They see for themselves that Jesus’ power is indeed so great that he can feed any and all who come to him, even 4000 people, with nothing more than a few loaves of bread and a few fish. But it was an outsider who was able to take this on faith. And so, she became part of Jesus’ journey. Seems to me like maybe they should have made room for her in their scrappy band. Would have made for a great movie, anyway.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m definitely not saying that every misfit member of a ragtag crew is an unqualified role model. I’m not saying, for example, that we should take Lucy from Charlie Brown or Bluto from Animal House as paragons of virtue. I’m not saying that the Canaanite woman should have replaced Peter as the rock upon which Jesus built the church. But I AM saying that if there’s room for them at Jesus’ table, there should be room for them to travel with us on OUR journey.

In case you’ve never experienced it, it really is a gift to walk with those who are different from you in many ways, but who choose to wander the path with you anyway. It’s a gift to find companions based on shared values and desires, willing to be molded by the experience rather than molding the experience to fit their own desires. God has tried to teach this to us since long before the Word became flesh and walked our path with us. From the moment Adam and Eve were evicted from Eden, to the time that Abram was called to leave his home and become Abraham, to the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, God’s people have been journeyers. And from the very beginning, some of the most transformative points on those journeys have come about because of unexpected travel companions, ones who chose to persist even when they didn’t seem to “fit in”.

Ruth was a Moabite, an outsider, who held little in common with her mother-in-law besides a dead husband. But she chose to walk the road with Naomi. She put her faith in the God of Israel, and although she had no claim to God’s promise based on her history, nationality, or identity, her faith and devotion—her choice to go on the journey with Naomi—led her to a place in Jesus’ ancestral line. She became a part of the journey in her own right. Great things happen when unlikely companions walk together. I thank God that Jesus includes the misfits, the outcasts, and the outsiders as his companions. Through our varied backgrounds, our conflicting perspectives, and our disagreements, we remind each other of what’s really important on this journey. Not our pedigree or history or orthodoxy, but our faith and our desire to follow Christ.

At some point or another, perhaps you’ve felt like the outsider to God’s family. Perhaps you’ve questioned if the underdogs really deserve the food intended for the children. Even those of us who are confident in God’s claim on our lives can feel like this at some point or another. Hear the good news: we ARE the loveable band of misfits. There IS room for you at this table. There IS a place for you on this journey, you and ALL who come to Christ in faith. No matter your past. No matter your background. No matter your doubt or fear or quirkiness or outsider status. And not only that, but in a world that values champions and superheroes, your simple faith and your desire to follow Christ are the most important things that you can offer. We need you on our team. We can’t do it without you. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Keener, Craig S., The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p. 415.

[2] Keener, p. 415.

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