The Rev. Bob Holum
Matthew 15: 21-28
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Today’s gospel tells about an encounter between preacher Jesus and an uppity, determined foreign woman he met at the border. A woman who refused to stay in her place. It offers guidance on how to engage with people who are different from ourselves. I’d like to begin with a rather long quote from Barbara Brown Taylor, an awesome Episcopal priest and theologian who lives on a farm in Georgia. Here’s Taylor:
Sunday mornings a great division takes place among American people, as some go to church and most stay home. Those who stay home are not taking a week off; church is simply not part of their lives….It is one of the most peculiar things twentieth-century human beings can do, to come together week after week with no intention of being useful or productive, but only facing an ornate wall to declare things they cannot prove about a God they cannot see.
Our word for it is worship and it is hard to justify in this day and age, but those of us who do it over and over again begin to count on it. This is how we learn where we fit. This is how we locate ourselves between the past and the future, between our hopes and our fears, between the earth and the stars. This is how we learn who we are and what we are supposed to be doing: by coming together to sing and to pray, to be silent and to be still, by peering into the darkness together and telling each other what we see when we do…(we keep) continuing to wait on the Savior in our midst.
That’s the first boundary I have in mind as I read this Gospel story, the boundary between worship and ordinary life, between time and eternity. There are many others: the boundary between the United States and Mexico, where children are imprisoned and a wall is being built to keep people out, where dreams of a better life crash up against fears of losing that better life by being overrun. The boundaries between the U.S. and other developed, industrialized nations, where WE are not welcome. I can’t go to Canada! … Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter and White Lives matter - the increasingly visible boundaries between northern European - relatively privileged folk and those whose ancestors came from the darker-skinned south, who have historically been viewed as more suitable for hard labor and restricted to less advantaged neighborhoods. Boundaries abound. We’re learning that human sexual identities are shaped along a continuum from heterosexual to homosexual with many variations in between. We’re learning that there are ways of being masculine that are toxic and destructive as well as expectations of being traditionally feminine that are abusive and exploitative. So much to learn about boundaries, so many ways to be confused and conflicted, but also so many ways to grow and expand and live into our full and diverse human potential. Climate change believers, climate change deniers. Summer people at the lake. Year round people in the towns. Republicans, Democrats, Independents. And as I list these boundaries, it becomes apparent that boundaries are often — too often —experienced as barriers and as places of risk and danger, of vulnerability and of wounding.
That risk and danger is why I want us first to be conscious of the boundary Taylor calls going to church on Sunday or staying home, which is really the boundary between us as temporal beings and us as souls with transcendent potential. We are people who live between the bookends of birth and death, but we are, also, Godly beings traveling a timeless journey between the universes’ immaculate beginning and its infinite end. This is how we locate ourselves between the past and the future, between our hopes and our fears, between the earth and the stars. If you see yourself as limited to that span of years and concerns between your birth and your death, why bother to care about traversing those boundaries, taking down the barriers, converting the fears to friendship? It’s belief in some version of “church,” some version of “heaven” that allows us the courage to live beyond our fears, yes? And we don’t have to limit “church” to one version, one denomination, one religion, one name for God or any one set of creeds. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.”
It’s in experiencing that “wideness” we get our batteries charged to live at the boundaries.
Our scripture readings today all invite us to explore that Godly wideness, that merciful generosity. “Foreigners will join themselves to the Lord. All nations will live together in justice and equity. There will be multinational joy, a shared house of prayer for all peoples, including the outcasts - the refugees - of every nation.” Isaiah’s vision of God’s love is all-embracing
“Let all the peoples praise you,” sings the psalmist, “for your saving help among all nations. The earth shall yield its increase.” There will be sustainable abundance, and all the peoples from every corner of the earth will be united in gratitude. Many colors, one rainbow, many language, one poetry, many musical scales, one harmony.
In the Romans passage, the apostle strikes a blues note: “ God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”. The blues as I understand it is a musical tradition created within the Black community that makes suffering bearable by making pain shareable. Sometimes even Lutherans get the blues. And Paul says, when you come up on one of those barriers, like the one between Israel and Syria, between Rome and Judaea, between mask wearing Fauci believers and Smash Mouth virus deniers the first thing to remember is there are sinners on both sides, Nobody is righteous in and of themselves. We’re all dependent on the grace of God. There’s sin and there’s suffering on both sides of the barrier, both sides of the aisle.
The vision is universal. Every culture brings its gifts. Every culture brings its vulnerabilities. Whatever setting you call “church” is not an awards ceremony for spiritual all stars; it’s a chronic care facility for broken souls.
Sometimes the sin is personal, individual, easy to discern and diagnose, like the speaking of a racial slur. Or the robbing of a store. More often the sin is covert, systematic, structural like the low wages paid to people who do the hardest and least “dignified” jobs. It’s easy to be repelled by newsreels of violent people breaking store windows. It’s harder to make a newsreel of the damage caused by tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. So we need to be careful about drawing equivalencies. But we all share a common, human fallibility and a need to be held to account for our failures.
And that’s how one uppity women on the border between Syria and Galilee broke open the Kindom and the Kingdom of God for you and for me. The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 is our refugee immigrant ancestor at the border between salvation and damnation making an asylum claim. Jesus is the immigration judge and the disciples are the Border Patrol.
“Sir! Son of David! Have mercy on me please! My daughter is being tortured by an evil spirit.!” Mental illness is the unseen plague more widespread than the virus. Researchers say depression and anxiety, too common in the best of times, are epidemic now. All of us are affected, but it is severe in communities of color and poverty. This woman’s daughter stands for all the children dying before their time, the little lives gunned down by stray bullets, perishing in life rafts, or lost in the southwestern desert, and she stands for our own children, captive to the covid, isolated from their friends and from schools and from normal activities.
“I know you have the power to help, Sir Jesus; you are a Jew, heir to the promise; I am a pagan nobody: you a pious rabbi, me a scorned and degraded single mom, but, sir, still, I’m asking, I’m desperate, and I’m deserving, please help!”
“Send her back,” say the disciple border guards, weary of her cries, indifferent to the boring problem of one more foreigner.
“My mission is only to our own people,” says Judge Jesus. “To help you would be wasting the blessing on a dog, on a filthy, drooling flea ridden cur.” Yes, Jesus, our role model, throws down a racist, sexist slur, the “B” word. Three times refused, the woman’s unlimited love for her daughter helps her stand up to Jesus’ insulting “no,” and also makes her strategic: “yes, sir, that would be wrong. But when the children are eating, the puppies under the table get to eat the crumbs and scraps that fall to the floor.”
Blessed woman who discerns the wideness in God’s mercy! “Amen! Hallelujah!” says Jesus, “Your faith is so great, your daughter is healed.”
Boundaries can be barriers, but they can also be places of healing, new insight, and transformation.
Here’s what I know: the Biblical vision of one earthly family living justly and peacefully together in planetary prosperity requires us to be courageous at the borders and to approach the stranger who will be our neighbor with humility and self confidence. Humility because we know we come with flaws. Self confidence because we know we come with gifts. Honesty to acknowledge our needs, weaknesses, and mistakes. Shrewdness to use language and skill to find the place where our energies can combine to achieve mutual benefit. Above all, great faith to believe that a power greater than ourselves will use our offering of self at the border to create a new, healed, and higher reality.
Do you see the threefold mutual miracle? The woman’s dignity is enhanced, her daughter is healed and Jesus’ vision of his mission, which had been too narrow and limited, is revived and revolutionized. I’m not Jewish. Chances are, neither are you. But, because of the courage, the persistence and the shrewd proud humility of this Canaanite (read “Palestinian”) woman, we are here, in God’s house, today. And, for all its faults and sinful failures, a house on the way to being the prophets’ dream, a house of prayer for all nations.
In the 1980s I was a participant in the Baltimore Jewish-Christian dialogue and the great scholar, author and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel was our guest speaker. “Our technology has outstripped our humanity,” he said. “Unless the great religions find a way to stop making war on each other and find a common cause, humanity will perish.” To me that common cause is connected to that Jewish preacher-carpenter who found renewed vision at the border. I think I’ll head there too. Care to join me?
“…facing an ornate wall, declaring things we cannot prove about a God we cannot see” may we find courage to turn boundaries into bridges and foreigners into friends, in the Name of God,