God’s Abundant Mercy

Sermon for Sunday, August 17, 2014
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost


One of the common pitfalls of new preachers is that they tend to preach more than one sermon at a time.  (It’s hard, to preach just one sermon!)  I remember in preaching class in seminary the professor saying in his warm, grandfatherly way, with a twinkle in his eye, “I really liked all three of those sermons you just preached…” So, Professor, if you’re listening to the podcast of this sermon, I’m about to preach three sermons.  I know I’m doing it.  And not to worry, all three sermons will be short.

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers by Raphael

Here goes sermon #1…  The important take-away for the so-called “Joseph narrative” in Genesis is that the Joseph narrative is an early example of what I call a “Paschal pattern” that pre-figures Jesus. Notice the connections between the Joseph narrative and Jesus:

  • Just as Joseph was one of Israel’s own, so was Jesus was one of Israel’s own
  • Just as Joseph is hated by his brothers, so was Jesus was hated by the religious authorities
  • Just as Joseph was betrayed and sold, so was Jesus was betrayed and “sold” (Judas’ 40 pieces of silver)
  • Just as Joseph “died,” disappearing into Egypt, so did Jesus die on the cross
  • Just as Joseph “rose from the dead” – in the scene that we have in today’s reading, when he re-appears to his brothers, so did Jesus rise from the dead
  • Just as Joseph’s “rising” brought life to his brothers and their families, who were then able to come to Egypt to escape the famine in Israel, so did Jesus’ resurrection brought the possibility of life to all

I want to be sure that we are aware of the “Paschal pattern” because the “Paschal pattern” happens multiple times in the Hebrew scriptures – the story of Jonah and the whale, for example, and also Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt, or Israel’s time of exile to Babylon – and being aware of the “Paschal pattern” can deepen and enrich our understanding of Jesus and what Jesus means for our lives.   I find the Joseph narratives an especially compelling example of the “Paschal pattern.”  For me, the “resurrection” scene in today’s reading really brings home in a way that we can probably all imagine what Jesus’ resurrection power might look like up close and personal – reconciliation with someone with whom we had been estranged.

Apostle Paul writes letters from prison

Sermon #2…  Whereas in his other letters – 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, for example – Paul is “shooting from the hip,” as it were, responding to immediate pastoral concerns, in Romans Paul has the leisure to write a long and developed letter. (Paul has never been to Rome, and cannot therefore respond to the concerns of the Christian community there.  Paul writes his letter to the Romans as an introduction because he hopes to visit Rome soon.)  In his letter Paul tries to define the relationship between Judaism and the early Christian movement.  Chapter 11 is the last chapter of Paul’s argument before a new section of the letter begins, and here Paul delivers his verdict:  “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” – that is, God has not gone back on his covenant with the Israelites – but their failure to accept Jesus – has given God an occasion to show us all mercy: “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”  If when you read or hear Romans you’re not quite sure what Paul is saying, please know that while Paul’s conclusion is quite beautiful – God has mercy for all – the argument whereby he arrived at his conclusion is not easy to follow.  Indeed one of my other seminary professors, Dan Harrington – one of the keenest late 20th– century minds to study the New Testament – said of Romans, “I’m not sure I follow Paul here…”  If Dan Harrington had a hard time following Paul’s argument in Romans, then I think we, too, can be forgiven for having trouble following Paul’s argument.  But do remember Paul’s conclusion:  “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”

Sermon #3…  Today’s gospel lesson tells the troubling story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  The story is troubling because Jesus refuses, not only to help someone in need, but even to speak to her; and not only not even to speak to her, but when he does, he rebuffs her:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

We can only surmise as to why Jesus spoke to this woman the way he did.  Augustine said about this exchange that Jesus pretended not to hear her in order that we might better see her example of humility:  “He made as though He heard her not, not to the end that mercy might be refused her, but that… her humility might be set forth.”  Contemporary commentators, formed by our nation’s experiences of civil rights, frequently use this passage to show how a Christian community ought to be welcoming of all people.  In first-century Palestine, the Canaanites – native peoples who had been there since before the Israelite conquest – were very much discriminated against.   If Jesus can minister to even one of the most discriminated-against minorities of first-century Palestine, these contemporary commentators say, so ought we to be sensitive and welcome those different from us into the Church.  I find, when I spend some time with this story, that I am hurt with Jesus and rooting for the woman:  “Don’t get discouraged,” I want to say to her.  “Keep at it.  I know he’s going to deliver.”  And maybe this is the message this passage has for me:  “Don’t get discouraged.  Keep at it.  Keep looking to Jesus.  He’s going to deliver.”  I wonder, if you were to spend some time with this passage, what message you might hear?

There, three sermons:  Joseph and the “Paschal pattern,” Paul’s difficult-to-understand argument in Romans and his message about God’s mercy, and the Canaanite woman’s persistence with Jesus.  It’s a lot to keep track of, I know – which is probably why my professor insisted that we only preach one sermon.  If it would be helpful to have a single, unifying thread in today’s lessons, maybe all three of these stories can remind us of God’s abiding, infinite mercy.  Look how patiently God worked to save Joseph and his family, using an ostensibly terrible thing – Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery – to bring about good.  Notice how Paul speaks of God’s mercy:  Whether we are Jewish or Christian, “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”  And Jesus shows God’s mercy, not just to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to all, even – to use the woman’s own words – one of the “dogs [that] eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”

I wonder, what have you experienced of God’s mercy in your life?

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