Sunday, August 17, 2008

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

Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

It is hard to believe, but school begins in just a few weeks. We have been doing some back to school shopping, trying to figure out what the kids will need for their classes. I’ve noticed in our local stores that they have spirit merchandise for our local schools. You can buy blankets, stadium cushions and clothing with the colors and mascots of both high schools and colleges that are nearby. We buy these things so that we can show our school spirit and so that everyone else will know to whom we belong.

Once school starts, we’ll have to purchase more school spirit items. In the next few weeks, Zachary will come home numerous times with requests for money to pay for organizational t-shirts. These shirts are specially designed for the students to help define them as part of that organization. The students will receive points whenever they wear their t-shirts at meetings and events, giving them incentive to purchase the shirts. Now, the students are not required to purchase the shirts. They can be part of the group without the t-shirt. But it is so much more fun to have the t-shirts so that everyone in the school knows which groups with which each kid is involved. I don’t think Victoria wore anything last year except organizational t-shirts.

For the people in Isaiah’s day, the identifying mark of God’s people was national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where and who they came from, not who they were. At least, that’s what they thought. Through Isaiah, God tells them that it is not their race or nationality, or any other outwardly identifying marks, which makes them people of God. The ones who do justice, who wear righteousness and obedience, are those who will be found joyfully worshipping in the Temple. They are the ones whom God will embrace, whose sacrifices God will accept. It doesn’t matter what they wear, whether or not they can pinpoint their genealogical line. God sees their hearts, and the world sees that they live according to the ways of the God of Israel.

Unfortunately, by the time Jesus lived, the identifying mark of the Jews was whether or not they could obey the laws, or rather the interpretation of the laws. The laws became the rules for identifying someone as righteous and only the righteous were part of God’s people. 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. God did set His people apart, to make them a witness to His loving kindness in the world. In the beginning, as the nation grew, it was important for them to be separate, so that they would grow strong, but foreigners that loved the Lord were welcome in their ranks.

Isaiah looked forward to a time when Israel would be as God promised to Abraham. “Also the foreigners that join themselves to Jehovah, to minister unto him, and to love the name of Jehovah, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from profaning it, and holdeth fast my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. “ God’s people would be from many nations and Abraham's seed would reach to the four corners of the world.

Through Isaiah, God was promising that there would come a time when heritage and tradition would not be the identifying mark of His people. In the verses that precede our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus indicates what has happened to the religious life of His people. It was no longer a life of faithful living, but a life 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 begin as a way of living out the intent of God’s Word, it can become something completely different because we insert our human frailty into all we touch. 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 manifests in the words that come out of our mouths. Let us remember, however, that God is not offended as we are. They things that offend us do not necessarily offend God. God is offended by injustice and a lack of mercy.

A few weeks ago we looked at the parable of the sower. If you recall, in that story some of the seed fell on the path and were quickly snatched up by the birds. Jesus told the disciples that the birds were like the evil one who comes to snatch away what was sown in the hearts of men. The seeds on the path didn’t stand a chance. As I was listening to the reading and the sermon that Sunday, it occurred to me that God can do the impossible. Though it is a bad thing for the birds to steal the seed that fell on the path, many plants grow because a seed has passed through a birds system and ended up in good soil. When I was sharing this thought with others that day, I said, “It would be really hard to preach ‘bird poop,’ wouldn’t it?

Jesus doesn’t talk about bird poop, but leave it to Jesus to work such a natural human (creation) function into a sermon. Leave it to Jesus to reference a sewer. That’s what Jesus does. He takes the things about life with which we are very familiar and shows us how it fits into the life He is calling us to live. He said, “The food we eat just goes out the other end.” It is shocking, almost offensive, to think about human waste as a topic for religious discussion. Yet, we learn a very important lesson in this passage. It isn’t what goes into our mouth that makes us unclean. What comes out of our mouth is an indication of our sinfulness.

The psalmist today joins with the congregation of believers singing the praise of God. They seek God’s blessing on them, but unlike many of our prayers, they wanted to be blessed so that they could be a blessing. They wanted God to share His blessedness with them so that they could share it with the world. They wanted the entire world to sing His praise. This is the prayer that Jesus lived. He wanted to the entire world to know God’s grace so that all would sing His praise.

Jesus did not radically rebel against the faith of His fathers in this Gospel story. As a matter of fact, when the woman approached Him, He refused her at first. His pointed out that His ministry was for a specific group of people—the lost sheep of Israel. Even after she worshipped Him, He said, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.” She became bolder, but at the same time became more humble, by saying that the dogs eat the crumbs. She doesn’t let Jesus go, she continued to pursue His help, while accepting her place in the world. She is not one of the lost sheep. She is one of the dogs. Even so, she says, “Please help me.”

Jesus did not send her away; He continued the exchange. He was also leading her into a powerful moment, a moment of confession 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 yet last week Jesus said they had little faith. The Pharisees that live according to the letter of the Law are 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.

I bet the woman in our story today looked much like the average Christian in our world today. Though a relatively high number of people in the United States claim they are Christian, a relatively small number of people actually appear to be one. Most Christians do not stand out in a crowd. As I look out my window at the homes in my neighborhood, I can’t say whether or not they are Christian homes. I am aware of a few who go to church. I know some of them do really great things in the community. Most would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. But I doubt I would ever say, “Great is thy faith” to any of them. I’m sure my neighbors would think the same of me.

The woman in today’s Gospel story was not part of the faith community. She was an outsider who came to Jesus to be healed. She must have heard about His power, perhaps she was even in one of the crowds who had heard Him preach. Maybe she was in the crowd who ate the fish and the bread in the miracle of the feeding of five thousand. The community (or at least the leaders themselves) thought that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were the faithful ones because they obeyed all the religious rules and did what tradition demanded of them, but they aren’t the ones to whom Jesus says, “Great is thy faith.”

It is to this woman that Jesus says, “Great is thy faith.” We might never know those whom Jesus calls faithful because they won’t fit into our idea of how faithfulness should appear. We think in terms of the things that are manifest in their lives—and there is some truth to that. They will, indeed, know us by our love. However, some of the most faithful people are not those who live with their Christianity on their sleeve, but are those who at the point of their greatest trouble are bold and humble enough to turn to the only one who can bring healing and transformation.

We may not ever know what God has done in the lives of our neighbors. Was there a crowd around Jesus when the woman appeared before Him? We do not see a response from the crowds or the disciples. This may have been a private conversation between a woman and her Lord. The same is true of people in our community. We can’t see their faith and may never know about their miracles. We might prefer to linger amongst those whose faith is obvious, but sometimes we’ll see the greater faith in those who don’t fit into our idea of faithfulness. It would do us well to remember we dwell in a world that does not always understand faith, or God, but in which God is always active in ways that are hidden to our eyes. We might just be the ones to whom God has given the gift of sharing His grace with those who need it.

Do we concern ourselves with the state of our neighbor’s hearts? I think in our day when a person’s faith is a personal and private thing, we go out of our way to leave them alone in their own beliefs. We are even disturbed by some of Paul’s language because we don’t want to offend anyone and we want to prove ourselves tolerant of other people to the point of ignoring the spiritual needs of our neighbors.

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 can not 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.

We might be disturbed by talk of bird poop, but God is disturbed by the real things that defile us: evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and railings. We might be disturbed by Paul’s understanding of Israel, but God is disturbed by our lack of concern for neighbor’s deepest needs.

All too often we think that we have great faith based on that which we have done or from whence we come. 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 only little faith. What makes great faith is not what we do or how we live, but our recognition of our own sin 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. We need not be of a certain nationality or gender, for God welcomes all those who join themselves to the Lord.

He blesses us with His grace so that we will be a blessing. Sometimes we will be shocked by the people to whom we are called to share God’s message of hope and peace. Sometimes we’ll be offended by the way we learn the lessons of faith. Yet we, like the psalmist, praise God in our worship and pray that He will bless us so that we might be a blessing to others. As we recall our own sinfulness we will treat those who are ‘like dogs’ with mercy, knowing that we too are unworthy of the crumbs we have been given. Yet, God gives to the dogs with the same love and mercy as those who appear to the world as one of the righteous. And so it is, in this life of faith, we learn what it means when God says, “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

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