Several people have requested a copy of this sermon, so it has been made available here.
Sermon Text, Proper 15, Year A
August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Note: A recording of this sermon can be found here. (Scroll down to Sermon Audio on that page).
Last week, I was away at a conference for chaplains. The group was made up of several Christian denominations, as well as one Imam. For the first two days, folks in the group wanted to be able to pray in the style they were used to, but were afraid of offending the Imam. Sentences would start, with all due respect to our Muslim brother, I think Jesus would want us to…”
Finally, after one afternoon break, we returned to the room to find the Imam standing next to the moderator. He told us how much he appreciated our trying to be sensitive. Then he said this, “Let me share with you a little about Islam. You honor God, we do too. You honor Jesus, we do too. You honor Mary his mother, we do too. You believe Jesus was born of a virgin by the power of God’s spirit; we do too. You believe that Jesus will return at the end of time, we do too. You believe in heaven, we do too. You believe in hell, we do too. Between Christianity and Islam, there are many more areas where we are alike than where we are different. Please pray in the way to which you are accustomed”. It was a generous speech from a man whose faith group has been targeted, along with Jews, by various hate groups.
We have a long history in this country of marginalizing those we see as other – not just today, and not just during WWII or the civil rights era, but dating back to at least the 1700’s.
• In 1785, to Catholics proposing to build St. Peter’s church in the heart of Manhattan, there was such an outcry that city officials, fearing the papacy, forced the Catholics to relocate outside the city. Twenty years later, on Christmas Eve, protesters gathered outside the church, outraged, and scared by the mysterious services than went on inside, rioted, injuring many and killing one police officer. The mysterious services? What we would call today the High Mass of Christmas Eve.
• In 1845, Americans were fearful of all the Catholic Irish arriving in the US, refugees from the Great Hunger due to destruction of their potato crop. These Irish were desperate for food and so would take any job. The prejudice became so strong that job ads on signs and in the newspaper stated, No Irish need apply.
• By the end of the 19th century, suspicion had moved to the Italians, with their persecution being seen by President Teddy Roosevelt as “rather a good thing”.
We can go further back in history – all the way to the bible. In the time of Jesus, Jews saw themselves as God’s chosen; everyone else were pagans. Without converting to Judaism, the pagans were outside of God’s grace. You could not associate with them; could not eat with them; could not cross the threshold into their homes. Given the time in which Jesus lived, his ignoring the pleas of the Canaanite woman would have been appropriate and his initial response to her persistence, harsh as it was, would have been acceptable by those around him. Remember, his disciples wanted Jesus to tell her to shut up and go away.
This is a hard story. Hard for a woman, brought up in a region known today as Lebanon, to approach and ask anything of a Jew – a race she was brought up to despise. Hard for Jesus to even see this person – a woman and a foreigner. And hard for us to see Jesus acting in a way that is, frankly, uncharacteristic of Jesus. But the woman is desperate to receive healing for her child – what parent here does not know of her anxiety? She does not take Jesus’ initial silence as a final answer – she continues to call out. And when he rudely dismisses her, she counters with a show of faith that commands his attention, broadens his understanding of his mission, and moves him to action. It is a life changing moment – for Jesus, for the woman and her daughter, and for us. It is possible that in this encounter, Jesus understands his mission to be more than he realized. He came not just for the house of Israel, but for us all.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, as the faith of Christianity moved out of Jerusalem and spread across the known world, Gentiles new to the faith would start to see themselves as “chosen” and would look with contempt on the Jewish members of their communities. It is to address the treatment of their Jewish members by Gentile Christians that Paul is writing in his letter to the church in Rome. And contrary to the hold many have on God’s plan of salvation being uniquely for Christians, Paul states that God has not rejected the people of Israel, for, in the words of Paul, the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Paul is not talking about a remnant but the gathering by God of all Israel.
In the irony and mystery of God, Jews believing they are uniquely chosen find God’s mercy goes beyond them to include those they would consider as “other”. Gentile Christians in Rome, believing they are now the inheritors of God’s favor, hear Paul say that in God’s plan, all Israel shall be saved. And if you go all the way back to the writing of Isaiah in the 6th century before Christ, God’s plan to draw the circle wider began long before Jesus. Listen to the words of Isaiah: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants…these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.
So, what’s going on here? It seems like God may have a plan for salvation for humanity that is – well – in a word – inclusive. Jesus’ view was changed by the deep faith of a woman who refused to be silent; who refused to be relegated to the shadows. The church in Rome realized that God did not choose Gentile over Jew, but used Israel to open salvation to the Gentiles so that all the world could be drawn into his love. It seems that the common denominator is not being Jewish, nor being Christian, nor being Muslim. The common denominator is FAITH.
It is people who draw lines of separation: Irish, or Catholics, or Italians, or blacks, Latinos, or Syrians or any one of several groups today. And it is God – consistently – over the ages – suggesting that our view is too narrow – that the wideness of God’s embrace can take us all in. As the Imam said, there are many more areas where we are alike than different.
I hope we can find room in our hearts to believe this. But it is not enough to believe – we need to speak. Note that Jesus was silent to the woman’s first plea. But she did not remain silent – the stakes were too high. They are for us as well. If we do not stand up for the right of all people to worship God in their own way in peace, we risk someday finding our own practices at risk for persecution. Remember, it was only a little over 230 years ago that the Catholic faith was under attack in this country.
Think of it this way – the eclipse is tomorrow – how many are planning to try and watch – either from here or by making the journey to go north? And you will be wearing special glasses, right – to protect your eyes, because you can sustain serious eye damage if you try and look directly at the sun without them. Think of our mission as requiring spiritual glasses, tinted with the grace of God’s love, with which we are to see the world. Without them, we risk judging those who are different from us. But with these glasses, we see in each person the spirit of grace common to us all. AMEN.