August 20, 2017

Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Isaiah begins by speaking of justice and integrity: “[for] soon my salvation will come and my integrity be manifest.” He goes on to promise foreigners “who have attached themselves to the Lord to serve him and to love his name and be his servants – all who observe the sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain.” He finally promises that their sacrifices will be accepted. Matthew’s Gospel describes a scene where a Canaanite (ie, non Jewish) woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter who is tormented by a devil. Jesus ignores here to the point where his disciples pleaded with Jesus to respond if only to stop her shouting. The woman then kneels in front of him to beg him. Jesus told her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She responded with this: “Ah yes, sir; but even dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus, pleased by her answer, complimented her on her faith and healed her daughter.

Whenever we read Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, we need to understand that much of what we were told as children, and much of what we assumed, may not be as simple as we think. If our imagery of Old Testament events comes exclusively from Vacation Bible School and Hollywood movies we may think of the earliest Israelites as a pure and uncorrupted people.

Abraham married Sarah. They were promised descendants “as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashores” (Genesis 22:17). Abraham’s great grandson Joseph was sold into slavery and taken to Egypt (Genesis 37:1) and was later joined by his father siblings, nephews, and nieces (Genesis 46:8). The next generation were enslaved by Pharaoh (Exodus 1:8), but Abraham’s 4th great grandson Moses liberated them from slavery and began their journey to the Promised Land. But Moses died on the threshold of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:5) and passed the baton to Joshua, son of Nun. Scripture is unclear (between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) but as far as I can tell Jesus was the 37th great grandson of Abraham.

I write this because many of us believe that by the time of Jesus, all the Jews were direct descendants of Abraham, the “chosen people.” Of all the people they interacted with (in Canaan, Egypt, Canaan, Babylonia, and Israel) they never intermarried or bore children of mixed histories. They were pure.

But that’s not even backed up by Scripture. Exodus 12:38 tells us that a “crowd of mixed ancestry also went with them.” The footnote of my Bible identifies mixed ancestry as “half-Hebrew and half-Egyptian.” The author of 1 Kings (Chapter 11) speaks of King Solomon as loving many foreign women who “turned his heart to strange gods.”

I write this to show that claiming purity of our past is not sustainable. We all love the word “purity” because we think of it as a synonym for “goodness” and “sinless.” And it’s true: we live our best selves when our actions are pure. But claiming our heritage is pure doesn’t make us good: it makes us exclusionary.

And so when we look back on our history, on no level can we claim we are chosen because of who we are or who our ancestors were. And that’s where Isaiah begins. As I’ve spoken about before, Isaiah’s writings encompass a great deal of the history of the Israelites. This reading comes to us from nearly the end of the book, and after their return from exile in Babylonia. On the heels of the end of their exile they could easily have crowed about how much God loved them for who they were.

But instead God spoke not only of those who returned, but also for those who “have a care for justice [and] act with integrity.” As a matter of fact, God makes a point of speaking of foreigners who serve him, who love his name, and serve him. Isaiah concludes his reading by describing that “[t]heir holocausts and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Matthew’s Gospel continues this narrative. I have to confess that this Gospel has always caused me to wince because of Jesus’ treatment of the Canaanite woman. She was not a Jew but approached Jesus to beg him to heal her daughter who was tormented by a devil. At first Jesus ignored her, and when his disciples begged him to give her what she wants, Jesus responds by telling them he wasn’t sent to take care of non Jews. When she knelt as his feet he gave her what can only be described as a sarcastic answer: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

To my ears, and perhaps to yours, Jesus is calling this woman a dog. I think most people who heard this would have slinked off in humiliation. But out of faith, or desperation, or anger, or whatever, she responded to Jesus, She stood up to him, in a quote that I still scratch my head over: “Ah yes, sir; but even house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus then honors her faith and cures her daughter.

So what do we do with these readings? This woman clearly was not Jewish by birthrite, but I think we can assume she became a disciple given that Jesus healed her daughter. I spoke earlier that we need to move beyond the narrative of a pure history and accept a certain messiness. An instead of restricting our story, I think it enriches it. Because if we can accept messiness in our past, we can envision a future as inclusive.

I’m writing this on Sunday, August 13th. The headlines this morning center on a small town that many of us love: Charlottesville, Virginia. They’ve been invaded in the last few days by “white nationalists” who turned to violence to “get our country back.” I’ve said this many times, but I don’t wish to wander in political weeds here. Suffice it to say that they espouse a narrative of the United States as belonging to Northern Europeans with white skin, fair hair, and blue eyes. They argue it has always been this way, and it should always continue this way. And if we’re completely fair to ourselves, we can admit that we are most comfortable when we’re surrounded by those who look and think like ourselves. We like avoiding the challenge of meeting, dealing with, and accepting those we don’t know.

But our readings this day fly in the face of that narrative. This land that they claim to love has not been exclusively white. It has been red, brown, and black and our future lies in us being all of them (and combinations of them).

I spoke earlier about purity of action. Our purity, our best selves, lies in the conviction that we are called beyond our comfort zone to embrace those who are called to embrace us.

The listeners of Isaiah had good reason to suspect foreigners. Babylonian foreigners defeated them in battle and drove them into exile. In the same way Jesus’ disciples had good reason to distrust the Canaanite woman. She wasn’t “one of them” and they only brought her to Jesus in the hopes that he would shut her up. I can imagine them cheering when Jesus insulted her and rolling their eyes when she gave it back to him.

But then Jesus complimented her on her faith and healed her daughter. This made exclusion impossible. It made purity of origin impossible.

And it made purity of our future impossible. Jesus’ ministry stands for nothing if it doesn’t stand for this: whether we live in Jerusalem or Charlottesville, New York or London, or some other place, God calls us to exclude nobody and recognize that dogs who eat scraps from the master’s table are just as deserving of God’s love as us.