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Surprise, Surprise! – Genesis 45: 1-15 and Matthew 15: 21-28

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15], August 19/20, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA ~ The Rev. Roy Almquist

We often say we like surprises, but do we really? As I have matured, I hope graciously, I find that I like the predictable. When it comes to cuisine, Shannon is much more adventurous than I. She loves to point out, and I readily agree, that I like everything my mother served! I enjoy having a good idea of how the day will unfold. Since we now live in a place with a gate house, I like that I am not disturbed by people knocking on my front door!

Surprise is at the heart of our First Lesson and our Gospel for today:
The story of Joseph reunited with his brothers is a surprise story. You will remember that the Joseph’s brothers found him so insufferable as Father Jacob’s favorite son with his coat of many colors that, in spite, they sold him to a caravan of merchants who carried the cocky teenager into Egypt as a slave.
If anyone had a reason for a grudge it was Joseph toward his brothers. Nevertheless, in our First Lesson we see Joseph, now a Prince of Egypt, through a classic reversal of fortunes, forgive his brothers, who have come to Egypt, pleading for food in a time of famine. Not only does Joseph reconcile with his brothers, but he states his conviction that God has used their cruelty to make something good happen in Egypt: 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. [Genesis 50: 20]
Our Gospel lesson, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, is also a surprise story. In this case the astonishment is Jesus softening his attitude toward this foreigner, granting her request that her daughter be healed. In this surprising action Jesus turned upside down the prevailing sense of who would be admitted to the kingdom of God. Being both a non-Jew and a woman, she seemed to have no status. The disciples had insisted that she be sent away. They wanted to build a wall to exclude her. Jesus, however, was not buying it. He took the disciples by surprise by extending God’s mercy to this urgent mother and her distressed daughter.

The element of surprise is significant in most aspects of life. A criminal depends on being able to act in an unexpected manner in order to carry out a nefarious act like robbery or car theft. Some people are victimized not by a stranger but by a trusted person, who they thought would have their best interests in mind … a person who makes great, glowing promises but does not fulfill what has been pledged. Much elder abuse falls into this category. We assume that decent people will not take advantage of the vulnerable. Sadly, that is not the case. Many Christians and Jews regularly overlook the injunctions of Scripture, like the admonition of the prophet Jeremiah …
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. [Jeremiah 7: 5-7]

Surprise, surprise! I understand that many people, unlike me, love to be surprised. This is what drives people to make a bet in a sports pool or at a casino table, purchase a lottery ticket, or venture a stock investment in some novel offering that might yield nothing or produce a great profit … the element of surprise adds excitement and adventure to the lives of many.

Our Gospel depicts a Jesus who surprises us. Matthew’s account confronts us, initially, with Jesus’s harsh and insensitive words directed toward this woman, whose only offense is her frantic desire to secure help for her sick child. I have always found it difficult to hear Jesus call her a dog.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is also a story of great surprise. We are not prepared for the level of kindness and compassion that Joseph expresses toward his brothers. Most of us, were we in Joseph’s position, would want revenge against the brothers who treated him with such cruelty.

Sadly, many of us are like the heroine, Dulcinea, in The Man of La Mancha, who at one point sings: Blows and abuse, I can take and give back again, Tenderness I cannot bear!  Yet this is precisely what we find in these stories of compassionate forgiveness and persistent love.

Two themes emerge today: forgiveness and persistence.

Like Joseph, we have all been wronged … somewhere, sometime, by someone. We can celebrate our victimhood … make of life one constant pity party, but, you know what … no one will come. What is more, we will find many people who have endured greater injustice than we have known. When it comes to being a victim … many of us have actually caused our own suffering by poor choices we have made and the consequences have created.
In truth, rather than being cheated, most of us have reaped rewards and benefits, simply because of the color of our skin or the good fortune of being born in this great nation.

Today we remember the graciousness of Joseph who mined from his years of pain and separation the urgent desire for reconciliation with his estranged family. Hear again Joseph’s loving words to his brothers:
… go up to my father and say to him, `Thus says your son Joseph, … come down to me … you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, … I will provide for you here … so that you and your household … will not come to poverty.’ … Hurry and bring my father down here.”

Today we also remember the unnamed Canaanite woman and her determination. We need her encouragement to us that we never surrender to the darkness around us, but always remain faithful and determined.
Never before in my lifetime has there been such subtle encouragement to abandon our faith and to give up on the Church. For many Americans, Sunday is simply the second day of the weekend, not a day of worship … it is a time for pleasure, recreation, and self-care … worship and Christian community are deemed unnecessary. We must resist this prevailing spirit!
Never before in my lifetime have I felt, as I do now, that we are falling back … no longer making progress as a nation or providing significant leadership in the world. Once we were the bright beacon of hope in the world … the golden door of promise. Today we seem to be resurrecting old hatreds and divisions.
Children can no longer assume they will do better than their parents. Kindness and compassion are considered weakness … honesty, integrity, and moral character are no longer expected from our leaders. Iconic American values like … give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free … are suddenly being sand-blasted out of our national consciousness.

An old Chinese proverb says: May you be blessed to live in interesting times. We live in interesting times, dear friends. We live at a time of danger and uncertainty, but we also live at a time of great possibility and hope. Do we have the vision and the will to make a difference? I hope we do.

Like Joseph … let our lives by marked by a passion for compassion and forgiveness.
Like the unnamed Canaanite woman … let us be persistent and never surrender our hope that God’s kingdom can be known in our lives today. May God bless us to that end. AMEN.