Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lectionary 20A
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

The Lord Jehovah, who gathereth the outcasts of Israel, saith, Yet will I gather others to him, besides his own that are gathered.

We hear the word “law” and we automatically think in terms of bondage, a loss of freedom. A law ties you into doing a certain thing in a certain way. The speed laws are established to ensure safety for the people and vehicles along a road. The speed is dependent on the conditions. Highway speeds are set high while city streets and suburban neighborhoods are set much lower. It is pointless to drive 30 miles per hour on a four lane highway that is well maintained, long and flat. But it is dangerous to drive 70 miles per hour in a neighborhood where children might run into the street.

It is interesting to note that not every place makes the same judgment about the right speed for a road. In Pennsylvania, where I learned to drive, most country roads were set at 30 or 40 miles per hour. Similar roads, with curves and hills, in England, were often 60, except through the villages. It was hard to change driving habits from England to Pennsylvania, because I was used to legally driving much faster. In that case, the law was a burden. But the law tied me to a certain speed, even if I knew I could handle something faster.

When we talk about the Sabbath, we think in terms of the Law; in other words, keeping the Sabbath means obeying a set of rules pertaining to the day. On the Sabbath, worshippers gather for prayer, people rest and families spend time together. For the Jewish people, the Sabbath is Friday evening to Saturday evening. Other faith traditions have set their sabbaths for other times or days. Some people follow a weekly sabbath while others follow other traditions. The sabbath comes with certain rules: what to eat, where you can go, what type of work you can do. In some cases, the rules seem very extreme. In America, and elsewhere, the idea of the sabbath has led to laws that prohibit stores from opening or for alcohol to be sold before noon on Sunday.

I watched a conversation on Facebook the other day about a restaurant that does not open on Sunday. There is no law requiring them to be closed, but as a Christian owned business, they’ve made the choice for the sake of their employees. Of course, they’ve made it very inconvenient to get your fix if you get a hankering for their food on a Sunday. The conversation led to questions about the Sabbath, the proper day, the proper way to keep it. Some were offended by the idea at all, insisting that not everyone is a Christian. They thought it was wrong for a business to force their faith on others by remaining closed on a Sunday. They wondered about the people who celebrate a different Sabbath day, “Why aren’t their beliefs respected?” someone asked.

We can easily get caught up in the Law when it comes to concepts like the Sabbath. What does it mean to keep it? What rules should I follow? What pleases God when it comes to this aspect of faith? Am I righteous because I keep a certain day or do certain things?

It certainly seems that way when reading our passage from Isaiah. The text focuses on how foreigners are welcomed at the Temple; we are given the promise that God’s house of prayer is for all people. This can be troubling for those of us from a grace-focused tradition. Does God only welcome those who are bound by the Law? Is righteousness dependent on conforming to a certain tradition? It might seem that way if we look at the Sabbath in terms of the Law, but not if we see this passage as a promise, a covenant.

The Sabbath was not given to be a burden. The rules of the Sabbath, the demands of any faith tradition are not necessarily what God has intended, but what man has attached to the promise.

If we consider the passage in light of grace, we see that it is a gift, a promise, a sign of a covenant between God and His people. The Sabbath is the opportunity to rest, to focus just one day of our week to Him and His Word. It is not a requirement in any way, shape or form, but those in a relationship with God will experience His salvation in the obedience of faithful living.

It isn’t about receiving the salvation, but experiencing it. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our works. But doing what is right is just one way to manifest our faith and reveal God’s righteousness. Blessed are those who do these things, not because God will give them something in reward, but because they have truly experienced what it means to live in His grace.

This promise is for all people. All the nations are invited to dwell in His presence. Foreigners and outcasts are invited to enter into the house of prayer, to worship at His Temple. There they will find an everlasting place in God’s family. They won’t be burdened by a set of rules that demand obedience. Instead, the obedience of faith is a sign of the relationship that God’s people have with Him.

In Jesus’ day, obedience to the Law was a sign of righteousness. If people did not do as they were required by the interpretation of the laws provided by the Pharisees, then they were not even worthy to worship God in the community of believers. They were unclean and in their uncleanness had the power to make others unclean. They were outcast and unwelcome. This is why it was unheard of for Gentiles to fellowship with Jews. A Jew would never be seen eating with a Gentile or even with an unclean Jew. They were unclean because they were sinners and the righteous were not allowed to be in fellowship with sinners.

They say, “You are what you eat,” and in many ways that is true. If you eat only junk food, your body will become unhealthy. A good and balanced diet is important for good health. Scientifically we understand that not everything that goes into the mouth actually comes out the other end. Fats and toxins can damage organs and cause dis-ease in the body. God knows this, which is why some of the sanitary laws existed in the Jewish world. Pork was dangerous to eat. Dirty hands can spread disease. The laws themselves were not a bad thing.

However, the traditions of the elders had become more important to the keepers of the Law than the reality of God’s laws. That is not the vision God had for His world. He did not intend for people to be separated from one another by dietary laws and the other rules He gave to His people. The Law was a gift designed to keep them safe. To many of the Jews, the Law set them apart and made them greater than other nations. Though Israel was separated for a special purpose, God did it so that they would draw all people to God. In the beginning, as the nation grew, it was important for them to be separate, so that they would grow strong. But the promise always existed that others would be welcome and saved by God’s grace.

So, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is dealing with this idea that the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders were somehow better judges of people than God Himself. At the beginning of chapter 15, the Pharisees approached Jesus about the way His disciples eat. They apparently did not wash their hands according to the traditions of the elders.

I saw a story about a research study recently that proved how important it is for children to wash their hands. Apparently, according to the study, the students that were taught to properly wash their hands regularly through the day were far less likely to get sick and miss school. As a nurse, Florence Nightingale discovered the advantages of good sanitation. Under her direction, medical care changed dramatically because she insisted on clean hands and working space. They had far more healing success because they had less infection caused by dirt or germs.

We can’t argue that washing hands is a good thing, and the rule was probably a very good rule even in the days of Jesus. Even if they did not understand the scientific reasons why they should wash their hands, they probably knew instinctively that clean hands meant a healthier body. However, they had a twisted understanding of it. They thought people got sick because they weren’t obedient to the Law, not because they were living in unsanitary conditions. So, anyone who was sick was outcast for being spiritually unclean. They were sinners and unworthy to be in the presence of the ungodly.

In chapter 15 of Matthew, Jesus tells it as He sees it. The Jewish people, especially the leaders, were longer living faithfully according to God’s Word, but were following a bunch of self-righteous rules. He condemned the practices that manifested a false piety. The traditions of the elders had become more important to the keepers of the Law than the reality of God’s justice. In 15:1-9 Jesus questioned the Pharisees about a law that actually dishonors fathers and mothers, against the commandment of God. They claimed it was honoring God, but by dishonoring fathers and mothers it was really dishonoring God.

Though tradition can lay a foundation for living out the intent of God’s Word, it can become something completely different when we insert our own interpretation and rules to go along with it. We are sinners and everything we touch is spoiled by our sin. And that’s the point of Jesus’ lesson for us today. God’s creation is not bad; the food we eat is good because God made it. The sin that lives within us defiles us and is manifested in the words that come out of our mouths. It is good for us to teach our children the proper way to wash their hands because it will keep them healthier, but we must be careful not to make eternal judgments based on the rules and laws we define. We might be surprised to find that even those we deem to be the most unworthy and unrighteous are beneficiaries of God’s grace.

God is not looking for those who keep anything perfectly. He is looking for those whose hearts are humble and whose faith is real. He is looking for those who believe in Him and His word, those who live accordingly. The woman in today’s passage does not fit into the mold of those whom would be considered righteous according to the rules of the Jews. She was a foreigner, a woman, a sinner in need of a savior. We know nothing of this woman. Is she married? Is she wealthy or poor? Is she respected among her people or is she an outcast? All we know is that her daughter is possessed and she is desperate.

And we know she believes. In the second half of our passage for today, Jesus has moved on to a new place. We might think that this is a story completely separate from the lessons that come earlier. When the woman first arrives, she yells to Jesus, “Have mercy.” Jesus does nothing. He ignores the plea. If we look at this story through this idea that God welcomes the foreigner that believes, we see that Jesus might just be testing His disciples. How will they react to this woman who clearly does not belong among them? How will they treat her? Will they help her?

The disciples did not help her; instead they told Jesus that He must send her away. They were probably concerned about what the other people might say. They didn’t want to ruin the ministry. They didn’t want to upset the authorities. They didn’t want to chase away the very people whom they were saving.

In response to their concern, Jesus answered her, “I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His words brought her closer; she saw the open door and she entered into His presence. She asked again. “It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs.” These are answers expected of someone in His position. Jesus was being like the Pharisees He’d just rebuked for following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. He was showing His disciples what it looks like to be unmerciful.

But the woman showed what it means to be faithful. She accepted His judgment: she was a dog. She was a sinner. She needed Him. She probably knew what the Jews thought about her daughter’s dis-ease. She probably understood the concept that her daughter was possessed because there was sin in her life. She accepted that she was to blame for her suffering. And she knew Jesus could fix it. “Yea, Lord: for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She sought Jesus’ mercy and had confidence that God’s promises were as real for her as they were for all people.

So, she is lifted as an example of faith. She was not a Jew; she was not marked by the covenant or bound by the Law. She was seen as unclean and unable to have faith in the one true God. The disciples, who were Jews, had the advantage of being born into that covenant. They knew the Law and lived rightly and Jesus has talked about their small faith. The Pharisees that live according to the letter of the Law were rebuked for misusing it for their own benefit. Their hearts are made obvious in their actions which go against God’s intent for His people. But the Canaanite woman was blessed because she trusted in God. Her daughter was healed, not because the woman was particularly righteous or obedient to the Law, but because she trusted in the promise.

It is interesting, then, to see today’s Epistle lesson through the lens of this lesson. Paul asks if God has rejected His people. It might seem that this is so, since Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and then blesses and commends the woman. He seems to rebel against the traditions of His people, to reject the Law and its rules. Paul tells the Romans that though God has welcomed others into His Kingdom according to His promise, He hasn’t abandoned them or forgotten His promises to them. They are still His people, blessed to be a blessing. They have been given His grace for the sake of the whole world. And they will once again experience His presence some day.

Paul is in agony over the question of his people. He knows three truths: first, that Israel is God’s chosen people; second, that God is faithful; and third, something new has happened. People around Paul have claimed that Paul is rejecting God’s Word of promise to Israel by claiming something new has happened. Paul, having experienced the love and mercy of God cannot understand how the rest of Israel has not embraced Jesus. But he knows God is faithful, so he has found comfort in the reality that Israel is, at that moment, wearing a mask. He is certain that the truth dwells within and that one day, when the time is right, their eyes will be opened and they will believe. For now their hearts are hardened, but there is hope. There is hope because God is faithful.

We are no different, no better, because we believe. We were, and are, also disobedient. But He is merciful, transforming us into the people He has created us to be. Now, we are called to be merciful, to live in hope assured that God is faithful. God does not forget His promises.

All too often we think that we have great faith based on that which we have done or from whence we come. We think we deserve the blessings of God because we have done what is right. We think that being a good Christian, attending church regularly, giving our tithes and doing good works is what makes great faith. Yet, even the disciples who gave up everything to follow Jesus had little faith.

Great faith is manifest in the life that recognizes our own sinfulness and need. We, like the woman, have nothing to offer Jesus. Even our worship does not make us worthy of His grace. All we have is faith which leads us to see the grace which God offers through our Lord Jesus Christ. We are sinners in need of a Savior and we have that salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. The benefit of God’s faithfulness—the fulfillment of His promises—is that we are free to take His Word into the world to others, that they too might be blessed.

The psalmist understands that God’s grace is not meant to be confined to a small box, but that it is given so that we might be a blessing to others. God shines His face on ours and blesses us so that we might make Him known to the whole world. This means taking the message to people we do not think is worthy, to the foreigners, the outcasts and the sinners. We are blessed to be a blessing, to draw all people into His heart, to share His promise with the world.

In these lessons we learn what it means when God says, “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” God is not looking for people who are perfect. He is not searching for the people who are obedient to every letter of the laws of our lands or whose life story fits into the right box. He is looking for people who are humble of heart, those who willingly accept the reality that we are merely dogs. We are unworthy of the crumbs God gives, but we are faithful when we believe the promises. God doesn’t bless us because we do what we think is right. He has blessed us so that we will live in the faith we have been given, doing what is right so that God graciousness will be revealed to all.

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