Rector, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 18313 Lappans Road, Boonsboro, MD. 21713
www.stmarkslappans.org, Sunday, August 20, 2017
Who belongs with us? This is a question which determines the boundaries of a group.
Who is a member of the group or club or family, and who is not. Clubs know who belongs according to who has paid their dues; on Wednesdays, our Church group eats at the Redmen’s – we are signed in by a member. Membership brings privilege – in this case a somewhat less expensive lunch! Veterans groups know their membership –those who have been “members” of various branches of the armed forces. Some groups are less formal – such as groups of friends forged in High School or College – the class of ’73! Sometimes the boundaries that mark the edges of a group are not that noticeable – maybe those who have made a Cursillo, or belong to the Daughters of the King. Some groups keep membership lists. Others are known by shared goals or experiences.
Do you know what makes you a member of St. Mark’s? Baptism makes you a Christian, and baptized persons whose baptism has taken place or been recorded from another location in our record book are members of St. Mark’s. Then there are at least two categories of members that are noted in our Church organizational Canons. Members in good standing are those who work, pray and give regularly. Members not in good standing are all the rest – recorded in the book, but not present in worship or any other activity. Then there are those who consider themselves members by the affiliation of their relatives or by past association. All are part of my responsibility as the priest, and all receive pastoral care as necessary. The shut-ins who cannot attend, cannot give and are in Nursing Homes are just as important as the member who is here every Sunday and tithes a full 10%. For centuries the Anglican/Episcopal tradition has been to view ourselves as a Parish – A geographically constituted area--where each individual soul is in the care of the Rector and the Church.
By itself the questions of “who belongs” is not an improper question. The sense of belonging – of being noticed and nurtured and cared for—is very elemental in healthy emotional landscapes. Children who grow up not feeling that they “belong” somewhere can face significant emotional and psychological challenges. The feeling of being “left out” is hurtful at almost any age.
This issue of “who belongs” is imbedded in our lessons today. And to help us view these lessons, I’m taking a quote from theologian Ruby Sales. (Do you remember who she was? Ruby’s life was saved during a Civil Rights march when Episcopal Seminarian Jonathan Myrick literally “took a bullet” and saved her life.) Ruby says that to be a good theologian we have to have “hindsight, insight and foresight.”
Today I want to begin with “foresight” by looking backward – I know, it’s a paradox – to Isaiah.
In a departure from the centering of the Old Testament stories on the people who are descendants of Abraham, Isaiah moves well beyond the “Chosen people.” The prophet predicts a time when
“… the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant--
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples. [Isaiah 56:1, 6-8]
“A House of Prayer for all peoples.” That is the nickname for the Washington National Cathedral – the Episcopal Cathedral in our Nation’s Capital. This is also the quote Jesus used when chasing the money changers from the temple! The role of the money changers was to change all foreign currency (at a profit) into special temple money – which was the only currently allowed for tithes. Jesus’ point was not so much about spending money inside the temple as it was about the profiteering which was exploitive and exclusive.
Now we look back in hindsight, as does Paul. In today’s passage from the letter to the Christians in Rome, [Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32] he makes a case for the full inclusion of the Gentiles, not just those who were descendants of Abraham. He reminds his listeners that he holds a place of privilege! “I myself am an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin!” But Paul asserts, no one holds a special or more exclusive place as ALL have fallen short of God’s commandments, and thus ALL are candidates for God’s mercy.
But it is today’s Gospel [Matthew 15: 10-28] that makes the greatest argument for belonging – and we gain the greatest insight; for even Jesus’ sense of who “belongs” was challenged!
Matthew, (the tax collector, who knew well what it was NOT to belong) tells us that one day Jesus was traveling in the district of Tyre and Sidon --- an area to the north west of Galilee – considered by many to be an area that was outside Palestine. This is in a real sense the only time Jesus went into a “foreign” county. This was a region where Phoenicians and people of the old Canaanite stock – those descended from the peoples Joshua found when the Children of Israel returned from Egypt—lived. These were completely foreign people, not descended from Abraham – who did not worship one God. This ethnic group was hostile to the Jews.
It is near the end of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee; and because Jesus could no longer travel around Galilee without crowds following (and the paparazzi pushing to see him!), he may have wanted to get away with the disciples to teach and instruct them. But no such luck. Even in this remote, foreign region Jesus’ reputation as a healer is known, and he is confronted by a Canaanite woman pleading with him to heal her daughter. We can only imagine her distress; she even asks a foreign rabbi for help! She will go to any length, any source for her child. “Have mercy on my, Lord, Son of David.” She has no agenda except her daughter. She probably had few expectations, but hopes Jesus will listen and respond, for Jesus is literally her “last hope.”
But, as Matthew writes: “…he did not answer her at all.” How unnerving! Can you imagine your finger landing on that passage in a random search? Or making that Bible quote into a wall plaque???? It is the disciples who finally plead with Jesus to make her stop!!! Jesus’ reply is even more curious than his silence. Silence may just be a pause; but speech has the power to convey meaning, and must be used, heard and interpreted carefully! Where else in the Gospels does Jesus refuse to engage? His reply may have been terse:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Talk about not belonging! But the woman refuses to take “no” for an answer And a curious dialog ensues: “She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”
A short digression: In most places in the scripture, the word translated for “dog” means
Feral dogs – dogs that eat trash. But here the word is actually “puppies” more like house pets
So she is really saying, “Lord, even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus gets it –
“How great is your faith!”
Literally, you have MEGA FAITH!
This Gospel passage is, of course, a lesson in love, in faith and in persistence in prayer. But persistence alone does not always yield the desired results. Her faith was great because she knew she had no “right” to ask anything of a Jewish rabbi, And yet she grasped the greater meaning of Jesus’ calling and purpose – to have mercy on the whole world. What is it we say in our liturgy?
Lord, have mercy.
Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
This is a lesson about who belongs --- who is worthy of God’s mercy.
As you can imagine when writing this sermon, I had the events of this past week in my mind –
And maybe you have already been reminded of the great divisions we have seen demonstrated, divisions that go far beyond politics or history; divisions that are created when people decide
Who is worthy of belonging and who is not;
who is worthy of being an American; and who is not;
who is fully a child of God – and who is not.
Thousands of years before Christ, Isaiah began to grasp the universality of God’s love and purpose for the world, and in the first century, Jesus and the disciples found the boundaries of their group and their world stretched almost beyond imagination.
In a time when we are once again reminded of the legacy of racism, in a day when there are battles in the streets over pieces of metal and stone, idolized for their form; in a church built by those who owned other human beings and did not pay them for their labor or recognize their family boundaries; may we once again retell the story of the Canaanite woman; whose story is the same as ours. Even though she was separated from Jesus by race, by gender, by ethnicity; and even though she is separated from us by history and culture, she is the “everywoman” of our faith story, reminding us that the basic prayer of every Christian is
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
For ALL of us belong to the group of humans who need to be forgiven and saved by the Love of God shown through Jesus Christ. Amen.