Below is my sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017. It focuses on the many ways we try to make God’s love an exclusive thing–and why that’s completely missing the point. In a rare event for me, I actually talk about all three readings from Genesis, Romans, and Matthew.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s been a lot of talk about how divided people are lately.There’s been a lot of talk lately about sides. Whose side are you on? The problem of competing sides has always been a part of our human existence. In some ways it is a product of our sin—our desire to even form groups with us vs. them is sinful in the first place. But recently the hateful groups that love such distinctions have been emboldened and what was once the fringes feels much more mainstream.
Sometimes, it is incredibly easy to pick a side. When one side is Nazi’s and white supremacists, and the other side opposes those things, that is an easy choice. When a group’s entire existence is based around hate, destruction, and oppression of others, it is not a difficult moral decision.
But us vs. them has been going on forever, and a lot of times our decisions are not so morally clean cut. Each of our three readings this morning offers an opportunity to consider this dynamic of who is in and who is out, of who is considered deserving and who is not.
In Genesis, we catch up on the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, the younger and favored son of their father, was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Now, many years later, he has risen to prominence as Pharaoh’s adviser and his brothers have come, in a time of famine, desperate for food and help.
Joseph could have sent them away. He could have never even revealed who he was—they didn’t recognize him as their little brother from so many years ago. After all, they were the ones who created the division in the first place; he could hardly be held responsible for refusing to help the very people who sold him into slavery. Some would call that justice, or karma. You do reap what you sow, after all.
But instead, he shows mercy and compassion and love for his brothers in need. This act begins the reconciliation that will keep the whole family protected and fed through the famine.
In the gospel reading, we meet another outsider in the Canaanite woman. Jesus has just finished a small sermon to the disciples about how it is not any outward thing that defiles a person—these outward characteristics, how or what we eat, what kind of clothes we wear, they cannot defile. Rather, a person will be judged by what comes from their heart.
And right after saying that, Jesus is going to have his proposition tested by this Canaanite woman. She cries out to him for mercy, and he ignores her. He has every reason to ignore her. Men and women weren’t even supposed to speak in public back then. Not to mention she’s a Canaanite—the people who lived in the land before the Israelites claimed it. Not a Jew, not even a Roman, who though they were outsiders at least had power and influence.
Jesus has every reason to ignore her, but she keeps persisting in crying out to him. She violates all the boundaries set up because of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender. And she insists on being acknowledged by Jesus.
And when he does acknowledge her, he tells her that he is only there for his own people, not hers—and then he compares her to a dog. And yet she keeps pushing, brushing aside his insult and demanding at least a crumb—at least a shred of compassion, if not dignity.
This woman’s persistence opens Jesus’ eyes to the reality that the kingdom of God’s love and mercy is bigger and wider than even he imagined. Great was her faith, and greatly to be praised. She would not be kept away from God’s love because of outward divisions.
The situation of Jew and Gentile is flipped in our reading from Romans. The church has spread throughout the Mediterranean and now the question is not whether Gentiles can be part of the kingdom, rather the question is what role do the Jews, the people of God, play moving forward? Do they now find themselves on the outside?
As Paul writes: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” Paul is quick to condemn those who seek to claim God for themselves, and to cast off others they deem not good enough. The Jewish people, Paul goes on to say, are the root of the tree that Christians find themselves grafted onto. They provide the foundation for Gentiles’ relationship with God and are by no means to be cast aside.
In each of our readings this morning, there are those who would put limits on God and on love. Those who would seek to draw lines and keep others out. We still do it today. Those who say that to be a member of the church you must act or dress or live a certain way. Those who say that our LGBT brothers and sisters are not deserving of God’s love, or are not made in the image of the same God. Those who draw lines of race and claim that to be white is to be superior. The subtler racism that infects our institutions and our hearts. We try to draw lines around those we find deserving.
We’ve been taught that if something is exclusive, if something is only for a select group, it is better. And so we seek to exclude, to keep for ourselves what God so freely gives. But anytime we draw a line between groups we need to be prepared to find God on the other side of that line.
God is with the cast-off Joseph, keeping him safe, working through him to keep the land safe through years of famine. God is with the Canaanite woman, demanding just a crumb of grace and receiving so much more. God is with the Jewish people, true to the covenant made so long ago.
God’s grace, God’s love, is never exclusive. There is not a finite amount to be divided, sparingly and with great precision. There is always more than enough to go around. We do not have to be afraid that we will not get any, and there is no need for us to try to ration it for others, either.
But simply knowing that God loves all people doesn’t even begin to get at the abundant life that God desires for us. Knowing that truth and living it are two different things. Living as someone loved by God, redeemed and transformed by the cross and resurrection, letting God’s love work in us and through us and with us—that is abundant life. Letting that love come through in our actions, working to make this world a more just and equitable place for all people—that is abundant life.
I’d like to close with part of a poem, called “Stubborn Blessing,” by Jan Richardson, about the Canaanite women:
Don’t tell me no.
I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
Let the scraps fall
for the life
of my child,
the life of