Are Some Boundaries Worth Crossing?
Updated: Sep 16
August 16, 2020
Pastor Jennifer Stamm
In the summer of 1994, I was in Niagara Falls, New York leading a mission trip of middle school youth. Our nights were free, so one night we headed over to see Niagara Falls. As we were all getting ready to leave, the leader at this mission site said to us, “Remember, don’t take the first Main Street you see. Take the second.” So, off we go. Somewhere in the midst of our singing and laughing, I never saw that first Main street sign. So naturally, when I do see a sign for Main street, I thought to myself, “Remember, don’t take the first main street, take the second,” and I continued on ahead. But while I was crossing this intersection, suddenly everything started to slow down. You know the feeling. You start to look around and something just doesn’t seem right. I looked ahead and there weren’t any streets up ahead to turn on. I looked to my left and I saw cars from our caravan driving in that direction. And then, just in time, I looked up and saw a sign just crossing over my windshield that said... Canadian Customs. "Welcome to Canada."
A van packed with middle school youth. No passports, no identification, no permission from their parents saying, “Sure, you can take my child to another country.” We were headed straight for the border with no place to turn around. Nothing about this situation was good. Internally, I started to panic. My knees began to shake because I was so nervous. I knew that we were about to cross a boundary that we were not allowed to cross. There is a boundary between the United States and Canada, and it’s called customs. Unless you have the proper papers and permission, you just don’t cross it. There is also a boundary between taking youth on a trip and illegally taking them to Canada. You just don’t cross it.
Now, the line between the US and Canada maybe an imaginary invisible line, but it is still a boundary that we all know. We have these lines and these boundaries all around us, these subtle and unspoken rules that we are supposed to follow. At a store this past week, I was standing in the check-out line. Just as I was getting ready to step up to the next circle, a person stepped ahead and put their items on the conveyor belt. I thought to myself, “What on earth is this person doing? Don’t they know I am next in line?” This person had crossed a boundary that we all know is there. If you have ever accidentally wandered into the wrong bathroom, then you know what it is like to cross a boundary, as you scurry out hoping no one saw you. Parents and guardians have boundaries for their children. “You can play on this block,” they’ll say, “but no crossing the street.” Democrat, republican. Gay, straight. Citizen, non-citizen. Christian, Muslim. Some boundaries are more subtle, or even invisible. There are boundaries between cultures marked by differences in language and dress. There are boundaries that keep others away from our deepest emotions. There is a boundary that marks the transition from childhood to being an adult. There is the boundary we cross when we die and leave this earth. Boundaries can be barriers or guides. They can mark a dangerous edge or a new frontier. Boundaries can be limits or transition points. They can keep us in or move us forward. Boundaries play an important role in the Christian faith. They are depicted throughout the Bible. In a way, much of Jesus’ ministry is taken up with the issue of boundaries. Jesus was a person who helped us wonder: Which boundaries should be respected? Which boundaries should be crossed? Which boundaries should be removed?
Today’s story takes us right to the heart of that concern. Jesus and the disciples have just entered the place called Tyre and Sidon. Or perhaps I should say, they have just crossed the border into Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile, non-Jewish territory. They don’t belong here. Only five chapters earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles.” And now Jesus is leading them into the foreign and unclean place of Gentile territory. You can imagine the nervous knees as the disciples tried to keep up with Jesus. "We’re not supposed to be here," they think. "This is enemy territory. There is a boundary here."
And then, out of bushes on the side of the road, comes this woman, a Canaanite woman our text says, hollering and waving her arms in the air at Jesus, yelling, “Have mercy on me, Lord. Son of David, it’s my daughter. She is sick. I think it’s a demon.” Once again, boundaries are being crossed, shattering like broken glass. A woman was not supposed to behave this way, but was supposed to be reserved and quiet. That’s a boundary. A woman was not supposed to speak to a man, let alone make demands like she is – “Have mercy on me!” That’s a boundary. And a Canaanite is certainly not supposed to interact with a Jew. That’s a boundary. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Every direction you turn, they are being crossed and broken.
In the midst of the shattered boundaries, Jesus does what he can to keep some civility during this chaos. He does what his society and customs would expect. But he also does what none of us would expect of him and what none of us want to hear – he ignores her. He is silent to her cries. To make matters worse, the disciples jump in, hollering, “Get rid of her! She keeps screaming at us!” Overwhelmed by everything that is happening and all of these boundaries being crossed, Jesus tries to reestablish some order by drawing one clear boundary. Like a kid in a schoolyard fight, who grabs a stick and draws a line in the sand, Jesus says to this woman, “I was not sent for you. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “But, Lord, please, help…” she cries. Then, Jesus really puts his foot down. “Lady, it is not fair for me to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” There it is. A clear boundary in the midst of all of these other broken boundaries. Jesus drew a hard line in the sand, putting a wall between himself and this woman.
But then… then… and I bet this happened faster than it seemed, I bet everything slowed down for this woman too. From somewhere… maybe a whisper in her ear or maybe just from her gut, who knows… this Canaanite woman finds the perfect comeback. One that turns Jesus’ argument on its head. Just as Jesus and his disciples are turning away, she says, “You’re right, I might be a dog. But even dogs get to lick up the crumbs from the table.” She takes the line the sand and she steps right over it. No passport, no permission slip. She breaks right on through that last boundary and everything stops. Either impressed or humiliated, Jesus realized he was wrong and says, “Woman, your faith is great. Your wish will be done for you.” Immediately, her daughter was healed.
This is our gospel story for today, and it is a hard text. It can be hard to hear. Jesus calls this woman a dog, which is not the image of Jesus so many of us carry with us. It’s also hard to hear because, in this story, Jesus is wrong. This is also not the image of Jesus so many of us carry with us. Jesus, our great teacher, becomes the student. He is taught something and changes his mind. Now for some of us, that just might shake our faith. Jesus the student. Jesus the one who got it wrong. But maybe that’s how backwards God’s ways are, that even the Son of God gets it wrong.
Now notice who gets it right. It is the woman. She’s the one with the punchline. The line that stops everything in its tracks. The woman who, in ancient times (and in not so ancient times) has too often been pushed to the margins, left in the corner to be silent, kept out of the business meetings, told not to speak in church… that woman is suddenly the teacher. The brave one who crosses a boundary for the sake of her daughter and for the sake of the world. It is the woman who knows that when God is around there is abundance of grace. God is everywhere.
That’s what this woman taught Jesus. She teaches him that with God, there is enough love for everyone. That Jesus is not called to serve only the people of Israel, but he is called to tear down that barrier, to cross over that boundary and to serve the whole world. Jews and non-Jews. Male and female. And so on.
If this woman can teach Jesus, maybe she can teach us too. Maybe she can teach us that God’s love knows no boundary. That God’s love has no use for customs officers or border patrol agents. That in order to love us, God will break through the walls we build around our hearts. Maybe this learning can have an effect on our lives. Whether it comes from a whisper in our ear or from our gut, maybe we can hear the call to step over and cross boundaries that prevent us from loving and caring for our neighbors.
When I was a senior in high school, over spring Break one year, two well-known students were hit and killed by a drunk driver. It shocked the student body. We couldn’t breathe. At the memorial service, the pastors opened up some space for people to say anything they needed to say, or to pray anything they needed to a pray. As you can imagine, people started to stand up all over the place to pray for these students who had died and their grieving families. Some prayed for the friends. Others expressed their anger and outrage that something like this could have happened. But then, just near the end of this time of prayer, a young woman timidly stood up. You could hear her nervousness as her voice trembled through her prayer. “Heavenly Father,” she prayed, “I would just like to pray for the young man who was driving drunk that night and survived. I can’t imagine the pain and regret he is feeling right and that he will live with for the rest of his. Comfort him at this time, too.” The room was silent as she sat down. You could feel that she had crossed a boundary, one that some of us weren’t sure we were ready to cross. But you could also feel that she had single-handedly stretched the love and compassion of God wider than many of us knew it could be stretched, just far enough to wrapped it around this young man’s shoulders. God broke through a boundary that night in the name of love.
I wonder what boundary God is calling us to break through? AMEN.