August 20th Sermon: A vision for all peoples (Paul Strike)
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:10-28
There is a paved road,
One lane each way,
That goes through the wooded hills
Toward northwest Connecticut from here.
Maybe I’m referring to most roads that go between here and there.
They’re beautiful roads!
They are full of little twists and turns.
You never have the opportunity to be bored driving on them;
They’re actually pretty difficult to drive.
You always feel tension in the wrists, shoulders, and elbows
As you gently curve the car around and over this little hill
And down the other side.
They feel like tame roller coasters,
Though it might be weird to raise your hands and yell as you drive.
During the summer, these roads are surrounded by tall,
Leafy green trees and green shrubbery.
It’s really dense vegetation,
To the point where you cannot see beyond the next bend in the road
And you have to pay attention!
However, every now and then,
You pop out of the green tunnel
All around you are many tall, gorgeous wooded hills,
Standing against the clear sky above.
Sometimes it just takes your breath away.
A trip in the car immediately becomes so much more beautiful
When you’re able to see these hills fully
For what they are
And not simply things to drive over and around.
Like a drive into the hills of Connecticut,
Each of the readings for today
Give us a glimpse of the
The beautiful Kingdom of God.
This kingdom is a place where all people
Who love and serve God are gathered to God
And receive God’s abundant grace.
But, the view of this Kingdom
Does not come without its tensions, its difficulties.
In the Isaiah reading,
We get a wide open view of the hills
In all their beauty.
This is a vision of what is to come
That is encapsulated in the lines toward the end of the reading:
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
Besides those already gathered.”
All who love the name of the Lord,
All who hold to the Lord, are to be gathered in.
God is still God of the Israelites,
As God has been in the Scriptures to this point;
However, the kingdom of God
Includes more than the Israelites,
But all who call on God and follow God.
People who simply desire to enter and follow God are allowed in.
This is the vision, like the big view of the hilly Connecticut landscape.
In the Gospel is where we feel the tension in the wrists,
The fatigue from paying attention to the road.
This is a tough passage that nevertheless gives us a glimpse
At God’s vision laid out in Isaiah, at the wooded hills.
The tension, of course,
Revolves around Jesus and the Canaanite woman,
Particularly with the words about dogs.
The woman kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord, help me.”
Jesus answers, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The woman answers, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then, Jesus proclaims, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter is healed instantly.
On the face of it,
Jesus seems to be insulting the woman for being a Gentile and not a Jew,
And yet Jesus commends her for her faith and grants her wish.
What do we do with Jesus’ words and actions here?
Keeping in mind the drive through northwest Connecticut,
Let us take this story and look at its context near to us, around the bend, and as a scene.
What is the immediate scene, the foliage that surrounds us?
Jesus is teaching people about what defiles, or makes someone unclean.
Jesus is talking specifically about diets.
His point here is that nothing that goes into the person makes them unclean;
This is an interesting interpretation by Jesus on Jewish dietary Law,
Which separated Jewish people from others.
Instead of food, it is the intentions of the heart,
What comes out of the person, that makes them unclean.
In the process of speaking about this,
He both angers the Pharisees and confounds the disciples.
He calls the Pharisees “blind guides of the blind”
Who lead people to destruction without knowing it.
He gets annoyed when Peter asks him to explain the teaching.
He chastises Peter, saying, “Are you still without understanding?”
Then, he is immediately confronted by the Canaanite woman,
A Gentile’s Gentile,
Someone who would be unclean.
They don’t practice the same religion, they don’t have the same food laws, etc.
Jesus is put to the test: how will he deal with this woman?
Not favorably, as I alluded to before.
She was as ritually unclean as a dog.
But, in spite of this, she persists in her faith in what he can do.
She calls him Son of David,
Both to designate his Jewish-ness and his status as Jewish royalty.
She accepts the crumbs from the table, perhaps feeling that that is enough.
And he commends her, much more than the Pharisees and disciples,
For her faith in what he can do for her.
This is the view of the trees right next to us on the road:
Jesus says harsh things,
but he still applauds her for her unusually strong faith and grants her wish.
Here is the slightly wider context, the bend in the road:
Jesus’ ministry has, so far, been to Jews.
Matthew’s Gospel emphatically paints Jesus as a Jewish Messiah,
One who is coming to Israel, specifically.
He has only traveled in heavily Jewish areas up to this point
During his ministry of teaching and healing.
Now, he is in Tyre and Sidon, very Gentile towns.
A Jewish person might rightly wonder,
“Why on earth is a Jewish Messiah in Tyre and Sidon?”
And, yet, Jesus is indeed there.
He claims in our passage that he has been sent
Only to the lost sheep of Israel,
And we have seen in the Pharisees and disciples that
They are indeed pretty darn lost.
Why try to help more than them?
Jesus finds himself in Tyre and Sidon with a Canaanite woman
Kneeling before him and he tells her that she is not a member at the Jewish table.
Yet, she persists and claims that she is at least part of the household
And receives the scraps.
He commends her for her faith, and her daughter is healed instantly.
The bend in the road might suggest that Jesus
Is more coy about his purposes than the text suggests.
He is in Tyre and Sidon for a reason:
To be God incarnate and provide grace to the Gentiles there,
Not just the Jews.
Finally, let us look at the full scene of Matthew
And determine if we can see any hint of God’s vision from Isaiah here,
A vision that opens the Kingdom of God to all who worship God,
Do we see the gorgeous wooded hills here?
The answer is an emphatic yes.
The genealogy at the beginning of Matthew
Claims three women by name who were not Jewish
And yet contributed mightily to Israel’s history:
Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, as well as the wife of Uriah.
These women are counted as part of the royal genealogy that
Leads to Jesus.
In a small way, the Canaanite woman is talking to a relative
When she addresses Jesus.
Another group of important Gentiles: the Magi!
During the birth narrative,
They pay homage to Jesus as the true king of Israel,
Not to the Roman client king Herod.
We also have the story of the Roman centurion.
He tells Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;
But only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Jesus is astonished at his faith and claims he had not found
A single soul in Israel who had the same faith. He heals the servant.
Fast forward to the final passage in Matthew,
Where the resurrected Jesus gives the Great Commission.
He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Within these stories of Matthew
Are clear signs that God is at work in the lives of Gentiles,
Giving them faith,
And will continue to bless them.
This includes the Canaanite woman,
The persistent woman who insists that she, too, receives God’s grace.
And Jesus, reflecting God’s plan to one day fully include the Gentiles, provides it.
She has faith. Her daughter is healed.
God ultimately shows up for all who
No matter if they’re Israelites or the bitterest of enemies to Israel.
This story, with all its tensions within it,
Still proclaims the Gospel:
God loves you to the ridiculous degree that Jesus
Was sent to this world to save you from sin and death
And all the powers of the world that rebel against God.
No dividing lines in human society—ethnicity, gender, and so many more—
Will divide you from the love of God.
May we, as a congregation, remember this and practice this gospel.
In the wake of Charlottesville,
And in the continuing racism that happens across the country,
We need to proclaim this Gospel.
No white supremacist vision of the world can stand.
They may believe that other ethnic groups are not loved by God,
Do not deserve dignity in life
And do not deserve life itself.
We, too, may have biases in our hearts that do not allow us
To see others as God’s beloved people.
But the Gospel denounces this vision.
Instead, we follow Jesus, God’s Jewish Messiah
Who nevertheless came to the Gentiles and commanded His disciples to proclaim
The Gospel to all nations.
Instead, we see in Isaiah that all people are invited to God’s house of prayer.
Instead, we are called to love our human neighbors as ourselves.
What a vision Scripture lays out.
What a beautiful scene it is. Amen.