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Sermon for August 14, 2011

Boundaries

In the first century, the great question was one of boundaries. Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not. It is a question the church has not yet answered. Marcus Borg writes about this in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time. "The struggle between compassion and purity goes on in the churches today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity."

Perhaps this is what’s happening in our Scripture reading from Matthew 15:21-28. Listen for the Word of God.

Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.” But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.” But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!” Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs. She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall beneath their masters’ table.” “Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.

Think of this as a kind of test that is being given simultaneously to three sets of people, the woman, the disciples, and Jesus himself. The woman approaches Jesus with the traditional cry of a beggar: "Have mercy on me." She humbles herself and adds the title "Lord" -- a term she will repeat twice more. She calls him Son of David. Even though she is a Gentile, she knows a little something of Judaism and she is deeply respectful.

Jesus does not say a word. Matthew deliberately draws our attention to this point. This woman’s daughter is suffering terribly but when the woman appeals to Jesus with humility and reverence, he acts as if he doesn’t hear her.

Meanwhile, the disciples are put to the test. He ignores the woman to see what they will do – how they will react. "Tell her to scram," they say. "She’s making too much noise." They are exaggerating a little -- there’s no indication the woman approached them. But they’re confident Jesus will do what they say. He will definitely act in line with the traditions of Israel. And the tradition says there is no contact between Jews and Gentiles. This woman is unclean. Her presence might contaminate all of them.

Jesus responds, apparently agreeing with them. To the woman he says, “I was sent to save the right kind of people. I was sent to Israel. They are God’s favorites." Only he doesn’t send her away. Jesus keeps watching the disciples to see how they will respond. I wonder if Jesus himself is uncomfortable with this whole exchange. The scene is painful. The woman needs help. Jesus can help her, and he chooses silence. The disciples act out the nasty edge of exclusion. Will anyone say a word on behalf of the woman?

No.

And the woman will not go away. In her mind she can hear her daughter’s screams. Maybe it is desperation. Maybe it is trust. She kneels on the ground and utters a single phrase: "Lord, help me." The tension in Jesus and the disciples starts to build. Their theology tells them this woman is to be shunned. Their religious traditions state that this woman should be rejected. They were brought up to believe that she is untouchable.

And yet . . . they listen to the anguished plea of a heartsick mother for a suffering child. Something in them is moved -- something must have been moved. Does Jesus question his assumptions about whom God loves. Could it be that God is bigger and better than what the disciples were brought up to believe? Jesus speaks to the woman again. "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs." Jews used to call Gentiles “dogs” because dogs were regarded as unclean scavengers, little better than pigs. Nor nice, Jesus. Not nice at all. He responds with curt and dismissive remarks and insults.

Jesus and his followers have another chance to help. Will any of them speak up for her? Will one of them include her? Will anyone move beyond their comfortable theologies to address her real needs?

The woman’s response is unbelievable. "Yes, Lord," she says, "But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table." Here is a woman who comes back at Jesus with grit, grace, even wit. She has some spunk. She says, "You are still my Lord and master. Go ahead and make it look like you’re pushing me away I’m not going anywhere. By all means, take care of your own people. But I bet you have a crumb even for me. I bet you do." She just wont give up.

Jesus finally turns to face the woman. The test is over. She’s aced the final, and Jesus has also learned a lesson. "Ma’am, you have a lot of faith. You may have whatever you want.” Jesus changes his mind. The disciples look on in astonishment. This woman -- their enemy, their inferior -- has been given one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed by the one they follow so closely. It turns out that Jesus and his followers are taught something important about God’s love. Don’t miss my point. Jesus is changed by the end of this episode. His assumptions are challenged, and in response he changes his behavior.

Sometimes, I feel that we’ve gotten into the habit of excluding others from the work and ministry of the church. Sometimes our anger towards others gets in the way, or people come into the church who make us uncomfortable or afraid. I think we all need a reminder of who the church is, and what we are called to do.

Healthy churches learn to expand their boundaries in order to include people in what God is doing. One way to do this is to tell people the simple truth that God loves everyone. This doesn’t mean that God just loves those who are popular, or good looking, or the ones who have it all together. God’s love doesn’t stop with those who look or act the same way. God loves those whom the world labels as ugly or incompetent. For the early church, God’s love was extended to those who were seen as low-lifes; the poor and oppressed, the lame, and even the Gentiles. You see, the church is not supposed to be a club for people who have it all together. The church is for “rejects.” It is a place where people who have been isolated from God can come and hear life-saving news. The church is a place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope. This place is here because all of us have been unfaithful, unworthy, undesirable and unsure, but because of Christ we have never been unloved.

An inclusive vision of the church means that we commit ourselves to preaching and teaching the message of God’s love restlessly. We don’t do it out of pride. We don’t do it to swell our membership roles or bank accounts. The message that people both inside and outside this church need to hear is that God loves you and every person with equal passion and devotion -- that God has made the immensity of divine love known in Jesus Christ. People will never hear this life-saving message if we don’t tell them, and we can’t tell them if they are not welcome among us. Who will invite others in and tell them just how much God loves them? If we want to see the church have an impact in our families and in our community, it can begin with each of us being personally committed to telling others about how God changed our lives, and how God longs to include all people in transforming love.

God needs us not only to tell, but to show God’s love. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel to all the world, and if necessary, use words.” Words alone can be empty and meaningless, unless they are backed with actions. When we come here on a Sunday, do we look bored and fidgety, or do we show that we are engaged in actively worshiping God? If we look like we can’t wait to get out of here, then our actions might show that we are here just out of mere routine. If we act like we love God and enjoy the presence of God and one another, we confirm that our faith has actually had an impact on our lives. The truth is that our neighbors, our families, our children, and even complete strangers are watching you, and they want to know if all this talk about Jesus and church really makes a difference in your life. The church can become an inclusive community when we back up our words with integrity-filled actions.

In 1999 a little church in Decatur called Oakhurst Baptist Church was ejected by the Georgia Baptist Convention for a variety of issues having to do with Biblical interpretation and inclusiveness. In the 1960's this congregation had taken a stand against segregation and had lost two-thirds of its members. In the 1980's the church opened its doors to the homeless, who have been welcomed and have worshiped there ever since. In fact, the pastor tells of the time when he and his young son were visiting another church facility and his son asked, “Dad, where do the homeless live here?” He assumed that you could not have a church without a place for your homeless friends. One day, when the congregation was much in the news, a member of the church, a developmentally disabled young man named John, saw a TV camera and hurried over to offer to be on television. The reporter extended his microphone and asked, “Tell me, John, what do you like about this church?” John grinned and answered, “They love everybody here.”

I have visited similar churches. I think of a church I know that regularly opens its doors to the homeless and developmentally disabled. On any given Sunday you may have business professionals, professors, group-home residents, and homeless people all worshiping together, praying for one another and celebrating each other’s lives. Another church I know sends out what it calls its “Worship Wagon” to drive to the homes of elderly people and others who can’t get to church. They are driven to the worship service and returned home afterwards. Churches like these realize that we are not fully the body of Christ until everyone is included.

Don’t you want to be part of a church that changes the lives of others by modeling love and devotion? Who will invite others in and show them the love of Christ? Who will seek out those who are different from us, those who are disabled or lonely, or hurting, or socially diverse, and show them that we care, that we love, and that we believe in them, because God cares, loves and believes in them?

Do we want to see the church to have an impact on the culture around us? Do we want to see people’s lives touched by God? If so, it means being committed to living God’s vision of an inclusive church. It means more than mere friendliness or hospitality. It means being personally responsible for telling all people about God’s love, and showing them love in action, even if it stretches our comfort zones, even if it challenges our faith, even if it means having the courage to change our minds.

Reference
MArcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time, p. 59
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2899


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