Sermon: Save the People

Save the People

20 August 2017

Proper 15, Year A, RCL

There’s a scene that opens the movie version of Godspell that, the first time I saw it, smacked me with a shock of longing. It’s New York City in the early 1970s. The sun is beating down on the streets, winking off the surfaces of moving vehicles, lying like a visible pelt on the deep crowds of pedestrians as they walk to the daily round of their destinations. It’s business as usual.

Then what sounds like a toy horn bleats out, piercing the air, and a voice cries out in this densely-populated wilderness. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord….” At first it seems that no one notices. But one by one, a few lonely people raise their heads and stare into empty air — one in a hundred — one in a thousand. As the tide of business as usual carries on, these few shake themselves as if coming out of a trance. They blink, they look around, they step out of the groove they’ve been wearing with their footsteps and go looking for the voice. They throw off their suit jackets; they throw off their shoes; they break into a run, hair streaming out, half-laughing, half-disbelieving the joy breaking over them. This tiny clutch of people, out of millions, finds themselves and one another in Central Park, where their own John the Baptist stands singing on top of a fountain in jeans and a ragged frock coat. And they leap in, splashing like children, clean as if for the first time.

Imagine to yourself what it would be like: to hear for the first time a voice that jolts the tears to your eyes; that draws you up from your desk or away from your kitchen counter or out of your car idling at a red light; a voice that brings you on the run not to stare at disaster but to whoop in joy.

The kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of God has broken in. Caught up in delight, we look around with giddy affection at the others who have joined us. And then a very insidious, very human thought creeps in as we begin to see them. We think: What are they doing here?

Or perhaps we don’t think quite that. We think, maybe, that some of these people we see will be glad to get some teaching from us about what the call of God is all about. We think, maybe, that the singing joy that has broken over us has given us the power to welcome people it would otherwise be difficult to welcome. We think that God has empowered us to be a blessing to these people who have shown up in answer to the voice.

It may — or may not — occur to us that some of the people we see before us are thinking the same thoughts about us.

Twenty years ago I heard a dynamic speaker, a pastor who was invited to the church I attended to give a series of talks. He had traveled extensively in the world and had seen God at work in many places. And he made a great point of quoting Psalm 67 — “let the PEOPLES-SAH praise you; let all the PEOPLES-SAH praise you!” Not “the people,” he pointed out — the psalmist said “peoples,” plural. The kingdom of God is not homogeneous. It is not synonymous with this or that nationality. It does not look like one or another person. The kingdom of God looks like every single person who hears that little horn and that singing voice and raises their head like a gazelle, who braces for flight like a sparrow.

Here’s another thing to note: this call came at the beginning of the movie. The call to the kingdom of God is only the start. There’s a journey ahead, aimed toward joy, but passing through bewilderment and heartbreak. Through death and resurrection. That’s what the taste of joy at the beginning is for: to whet the appetite for the true banquet, to keep us going when times grow so hard they seem all but impossible.

And if we are going to be shaken awake by the call to take this journey, we should take the trouble to look around us. We should notice that God’s eye is on us, absorbed in focus, and on the others in exactly the same measure. “Thus says the Lord, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” God’s house was never intended to be an exclusive joint.

But let’s be real: it’s one thing to say that God’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations. It’s something completely different to get people of different colors and languages and origins under the same literal roof. And even if you get them there, it’s something else again to defuse mistrust and condescension.

So if nothing else, today’s Gospel reading gives us an opportunity to acknowledge that this was never an easy proposition. Matthew’s Gospel takes up and embroiders the story from the one in Mark: in Mark, the woman is identified as “Syrophoenician”; in Matthew she is a “Canaanite.” In either case, her identity represents a point of conflict between the people of Israel and their neighbors: the Canaanites were the ancient enemy of Israel; the Greeks and Phoenicians were major powers who had insulted and oppressed Jesus’ more recent ancestors.

This woman doesn’t wait for an invitation that she isn’t going to get. She is loud. She is unladylike. She barges in, rude in her desperation, and insists on speaking to Jesus directly. Her daughter is afflicted by a demon. And what does Jesus say?

“It’s not right to snatch bread from the children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs.”

Now, there really isn’t any way of interpreting this as something other than an insult. And as Matthew reports Jesus saying that he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, it’s pretty clear that Jesus means that his people are the human children and her people are the sub-human dogs.

Why would a story like this be told about Jesus? Did the gospel writers think he was omnisciently testing the woman’s faith? Did they think that Jesus went through a process of growing into his identity as the savior of the world, and this was a pivot point?

I don’t know, but I think it helps to look at this story as an illustration of the conflicts that were going on as the Gospels were being written. Matthew was writing during the time that the churches were starting to differentiate themselves from the synagogues. As these divisions became more pronounced, the churches had less and less access to the imperial permissions given to the synagogues. They became unprotected from the iron fist of Rome, which was always ready to crush unruly religions that upset the social order. As far as Rome was concerned, the churches were the dogs.

So the first readers of this gospel would have the uneasy sensation of knowing that they fall outside official protection, that they are considered dogs by their former Jewish brothers and sisters, and yet they love Jesus who is a man of Israel and one of God’s chosen people. They would understand from the inside both Jesus’s insult and the woman’s retort.

“Yes, sir, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps from the children’s table,” says the woman. It’s exactly the sort of smart-aleck crack that Abraham would make. It’s right in line with the Jewish tradition of arguing with God, of wrestling the Lord all night for a single blessing. Great faith, to Jesus’ people, includes throwing a punch at God now and again, in full trust that God will take the exchange seriously. And that is exactly the faith that Jesus rewards.

In the end, no matter how you read Jesus’s motives for insulting this woman or Matthew’s motives for putting the story in his gospel, the result is that we take this rude, intrusive, uppity woman seriously. And her people with her. And, we are invited to believe, God takes her seriously too.

And if God takes seriously people we think are dogs, we should be serious about following God’s example.

I don’t mean that we should comfort ourselves with thinking that if only we all honor each other’s points of view, all conflicts will dissipate. It’s not true. Conflicts like these don’t dissipate; they mutate. They move from one contentious battleground to another. What I mean is that we should put our money where our mouth is when we say that God wants to draw every nation to God’s house — both our literal money, and the capital of our self-concept that we like to hoard so closely.

I’m not admonishing people who are different from me here. I’m talking to myself and people like me: white, middle-class people who like to think of ourselves as the uniformed doorkeepers of God’s club. Deferential, always ready to be of service, to show hospitality — and to spot the riffraff before they get too far inside. You know. Weird people. People who don’t fit. People who don’t have the right culture. People who probably are lazy and entitled. People who think they’ve been oppressed by people who look like me.

The thoughts are insidious. All the good will in the world is not enough to keep them out. Let me repeat that: good will is not enough. The structures around us are strong. They keep us walking on the same treadmill day in and day out; talking to the same folks, eating meals with our own tribe, from work to home to activities that somehow steer us away from contact with people not like us.

But these structures of our lives are not the kingdom of God. Listen — listen — listen! The horn is blowing. The voice is singing. We’re being called out of the grooves of our business-as-usual lives, skipping and running beside other children hearing the same voice. We’re not here to teach our fellow pilgrims. We’re not here to condescend to show them hospitality. The same Jesus who insulted this persistent foreign woman, climbed a hill to be executed as a terrorist, and by his death and resurrection broke down the dividing walls. We humans always keep trying to rebuild them, but this is God’s world and the walls always wind up crumbling down.

My prayer is that we let our Lord Jesus break down the walls around our minds and hearts, call us out of the rubble, and give us the humility to walk alongside others, to take a rebuke seriously that comes from someone of another race or class, to call no one a dog and to counter and quench the voices that do.

Over the past several days I have been praying the collect for Good Friday, and maybe for the first time really feeling in my heart the gratitude and grief that is in it. Let’s pray it again today.

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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