Sunday, August 14, 2011

Homily for Proper 15

Matthew 15:21 28                                                                                          Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32                                                                                      Isaiah 56:1, 6-7                                                                                                  Psalm 67

Redeemer, Cairo & St James’, Marion  
If you ever want a dramatic reminder of how the world is passing you by, just pick up a map of the world that is only a few decades, or even just a few year, old. Even my children, who are only in the 30s, can do this. When they started school, there was a country called the Soviet Union. Now we look at a map and certainly see Russia, but also a lot of smaller countries that end in “-stan”. When I was a school child, ther was Yugoslavia, but that’s now long since been divided up several ways. Maybe you’re old enough to remember French West Africa, which is now a handful of separate nations.

Now, unless your map is literally hot off the presses, it’s out of date as of about six weeks ago, when Sudan was divided into Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan. For years, there has been bloody tension between the north, which is primarily Arab and Muslim, and the south, which is primarily black and Christian. Hopefully, by dividing into two, the bloodshed will stop, because literally millions of lives have been lost in the conflict.

Of course, I bring up the situation in Sudan because I believe it stands as a particularly clear illustration of the basic human condition of alienation and division. In the time and place in which our Lord Jesus walked this earth, it was the divide between Jew and Gentile that dominated the social landscape. It was this element that came into play when Jesus and his disciples made an excursion out of their native region of Galilee, which was predominantly Jewish, northward into what would now be southwestern Lebanon, an area that was predominantly non-Jewish.

A resident of that territory, a woman, approaches Jesus and begs him to have mercy on her and deliver her daughter from the demon that possesses the girl. And when she makes that request, Matthew’s gospel tells us, Jesus simply ignores her. He makes no answer. Jesus and his disciples and this woman were experiencing the disconnection and brokenness that defined the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. But it was certainly nothing unique. We are estranged and cut off from one another in countless ways: person from person, family from family, region from region, race from race, generation from generation, women from men, nation from nation, and, sad to say, even church from church.

But, to her everlasting credit, this Canaanite woman seems unwilling to simply accept the status quo of alienation. She persists in her plea. She makes a pest of herself—so much so that Jesus’ disciples seem to get irritated at him for not acting more forcefully to send her away. But she persists all the more. Even when Jesus himself makes his discouraging remark that his mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and not to Gentiles like her, she refuses to take No for an answer. In her steadfast resolve to be in relationship with Jesus, the Canaanite woman stands as a shining example of the kind of faith that moves mountains and changes lives, the kind of faith that sees participation in the life of Christ as the highest good of human existence.

Jesus finally grants the woman’s request. For her and for her daughter, his merciful action is an occasion of deliverance and joy. But for the rest of humanity, it has a much larger implication. It strikes the first hammer blow against the dividing wall of hostility that separates us. The early church took this incident as implied permission—more than permission, actually, but a mandate—to carry the gospel of Christ not only to Jews, but to the whole Gentile world as well. Perhaps they recognized that the seeds of Jesus’ response to the cry of a mere Gentile are found several centuries earlier in the writing of the prophet Isaiah:
The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants . . .
those I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer.

It was certainly a concept that St Paul was familiar with, as he writes to the Gentile Christians in Rome about the eventual reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in Christ:

If you [meaning his Gentile readers] have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted [that is, through faith and baptism] , contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree [that is, the heritage of God’s own chosen people, Israel], how much more will these natural branches [meaning, the Jews] be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Common participation in Christ, expressed in faith like that of the Canaanite woman, is the only source of profound and lasting unity among human beings. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of our Creed— a tree on which have been grafted branches from every people, language, tribe, and nation … every tribe and nation, including both Sudan and South Suday—the Church is the wrecking ball that assaults the wall of hostility that divides one person from another.

I read an article in a church publication back in the time when the former Yugoslavia was torn and bleeding, an article that first warmed my heart, and then disturbed me. It talked about an Episcopal parish on the east coast with a wonderful ministry of hospitality toward refugees from the former constituent parts of Yugoslavia. They supplied housing, food, clothing, and companionship for individuals and families whose lives had been uprooted by armed conflict. This is wonderful, and is of the very essence of the Church’s mission. But one of the parishioners was quoted in the article to the effect that their goal is “not to make Christians” out of the refugees. I think I understand the motive behind that comment, and it’s a good one. It expresses a desire to respect the freedom and dignity of the refugees, to not be coercive in any way or to attach strings to the help they were providing. But it made me sad, nonetheless, because it reflects an attitude that robbed that parish’s refugee ministry of its potential to be a sacramental sign of the ultimate reconciliation that the gospel brings us. It’s like trying to breathe with one lung, or walk around town with only one shoe. It’s better than nothing, but it’s less than the full deal. A dry roof and a full stomach and a helping hand is a good start—probably even an essential start—in the process of overcoming the deep estrangement that divides us. But it falls way short of accomplishing the mission. Without a common relationship with God in Christ, there is only a superficial basis for unity. It is temporary, and will not stand up under pressure.

Under the communist government of the Soviet dictators, the Soviet Union convinced the world—maybe even convinced themselves—that they were one people, one nation. But when that system and that dictatorship fell, the unity of the Soviet Union proved to be a mirage. It vanished like smoke on a windy day. We hear a lot today about “diversity.” It is commended to us as something to “celebrate.” To the extent that this means there will be an array of different ethnic cuisines available for my palate to appreciate, I’m all about celebrating diversity! But celebrating diversity will not cure what ails us as a human race. It simply attempts to make a virtue out of necessity. It throws in the towel on unity and just accepts division. In the end, it only prolongs our agony.

The great faith of the Canaanite woman is a beacon to us today, a beacon drawing us to “holy communion” with Christ, and thereby with one another, calling us to be grafted on to the one tree that is the Tree of Life. In the words of our Psalm:

“Let your ways be knows upon earth,
your saving health among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all . . . the peoples praise you.”


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