Have faith! Has anyone ever said this to you, just have faith, it will turn out alright? I usually hear these words when I call Philomena, Dorothy, or Lore. Pastor, we just need to have faith. And I am grateful to hear these words, for even a pastor needs reassurance once in a while – even a pastor has bad days and doubts.
Have faith! How many times do we hear these words in the Bible? How often do we hear Jesus telling his disciples: have faith?
Do WE have faith? How often do we say we believe, when, in fact, we act as if the opposite was true as we try to be the masters of our destiny instead of putting our lives in God’s hands?
But let’s take a step back and think about the following question: What is faith? Faith is an abstract concept – like love and hope. It’s nothing we can really define, it’s vague. And in its vagueness, it’s complex and complicated. And having faith is not always easy.
In my very first congregation, I ministered to a gentleman who lost three wives to cancer – he was the sweetest man, but this broke him. He was angry at God, and, yes, he started to doubt and lost his faith. We had good talks, but he just couldn’t set foot in a church anymore.
I’ve walked with people who, like Jesus on the cross, seemed to cry out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Do you remember Mother Theresa, the nun tirelessly and selflessly caring for the poor and the ill in the streets of Calcutta? In her diary, which was published years after her death, she would describe her own personal struggles with faith in God, and admitted that she had days when there seemed to be no faith at all. And people reading this were shocked. Mother Theresa, of all people!
Just in last Sunday’s gospel story, we heard how the disciples, as they were fighting the waves on the lake in their small boat and while in the midst of turmoil and danger lost their faith (especially Peter), and how Jesus even said them, O ye of little faith! Just imagine: Peter and the others had been with Jesus for some time, they were drinking right from the source, so to speak, and yet they lost their faith at times. Being close to Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean we are safe from doubt and fear.
Today’s gospel lesson is quite in contrast to last Sunday’s gospel lesson. A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter. She, not unlike the disciples a week ago, is in great turmoil because of her daughter’s illness – however, she is commended by Jesus for her great faith. Why her? There are so many things that, on the surface, speak against her. First of all, she’s a woman, and women were expected to be quiet and demure in Jesus’ days, and not go after rabbis, shrieking and disturbing the order and making demands. Secondly, she’s a Canaanite, a pagan, an outsider, and not one of the children of Israel.
The disciples treat her accordingly. Send her away, Jesus, they say, she’s getting on our nerves. And Jesus seems to agree with them: Yeah, you’re right; I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus is basically dismissing any notion that this woman could expect anything from him. And of course this is an image that may make us uncomfortable today – even though this is how WE tend to react when we are confronted with someone who pesters us, who annoys us, whom we don’t want to see: just ignore them. But Jesus – rejecting someone? Jesus not seeing the plight of a desperate human being in need?
Jesus even seems hard-hearted when this woman throws herself at his feet, begging, ‘Help me!’ Dare I say it, but Jesus is quite rude in his response to this utmost expression of submission and desperation. He says the famous words, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Of course he is saying what Jewish society was thinking in those days: that those of other faiths are like dogs, unclean, a nuisance, merely tolerated. In those days, dogs were not pampered pets as they are today, but, in a best case scenario, used as work animals. So basically, Jesus is insulting the woman by calling her a dog, an undeserving person, far below the beloved children of God, merely tolerated, but not cherished.
Let’s stop here for a moment. What would you have done in that situation? You come to Jesus, about whom you’ve heard great things, and throw yourself at his feet, confident that he can help you, and all you get is an insult. Would that have snuffed out your faith? I have to say, I probably would have given up at that point, turned away, disappointed and bitter. My ego would have been bruised big time, and I wouldn’t have liked that. Who does this guy think he is?
However, this story, which is already full of surprises – a pagan woman approaching Jesus, Jesus’ annoyance and rejection – holds yet another surprise. The woman isn’t put off. She persists. She haggles. She won’t let Jesus off the hook. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answers her, ‘Woman, great is your faith!’
Which leads to the question: what is so great about her faith? What makes her faith greater than the little faith of the disciples?
Apparently faith has nothing to do with the right belief system, the right religious observances, the right rituals. Apparently faith has nothing to do with the how close we think we are to God. Faith, it seems, has a lot to do with trusting that Jesus Christ IS Lord and master – as the woman says, ‘Yes, LORD, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from THEIR MASTER’S table.’ The woman trusts that Jesus’ Lordship extends to people like her – that her life matters to God, too.
In addition, the woman never loses sight of him or her goal, to have her daughter restored to sanity. The boldly tears down the barriers of gender and society, and the barrier of religion. She has to overcome her own prejudices against ‘those Jews’, because the animosities between the Jews and the Canaanites were mutual. She had to swallow her pride in the face of blunt insult and rejection. All in all, she has to shed all those things that give her a sense of identity in this world, and, metaphorically speaking, has to strip herself to her core – and to present herself to God as an undeserving, desperate, humble human being, hungry for grace.
And that may be the hardest part of faith: to become vulnerable, to come to God not as who we seem to be, and as who we think we are, but as we really are, and to entrust our fragile selves to God’s mercy and grace, trusting that God will give us enough – and accept us as beloved children.
And then there is the persistence the woman demonstrates. Nothing can deter her from keeping her eyes fixed on Jesus. Which is quite in contrast to last week’s gospel story, in which Peter starts to sink on the raging lake the moment he loses his focus on Jesus. The woman’s persistence isn’t deterred by challenges. I would even call it stubbornness. And this persistence, this stubbornness is not just sitting back and waiting for things to happen, but leads to action. We have to do something because we have faith. We somehow how to show that we have faith, against all odds.
The anonymous Canaanite woman in today’s gospel kept on pleading with Jesus. The gentleman who lost three wives to cancer continued to argue with God. Mother Theresa still took care of the poorest and the sickest in the streets of Calcutta, even on days her faith seemed lost.
We are called to express our love for God and neighbor in all we say and do – even on days we don’t really feel like it or are disillusioned or just want to give up. We have to trust that, in this manner, our faith shows, and we live into the kingdom of God.
This, in the end, is what faith is about. So: have faith! In the end, it will turn out alright. God will see to that.
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