The Rev. Noah Van Niel
August 20th, 2017
St. John the Evangelist
11 Pentecost (Proper 15 A): Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
Good morning! I’m glad to be back in this pulpit, and I’m glad you’re here today. Church feels like the right place to be this week as we pray and pray and pray for this country that “our divisions may cease and all may be one as you, Jesus, and the Father are one” (Prayers of the People Form V).
Given the events of the last week which put on full display the threat which newly emboldened hate groups present to our citizens and our country, I think it would be good for us to spend a few minutes being reminded of how God goes about organizing groups of people so that we might do likewise.
We start this morning with Isaiah, a portion from a chapter written soon after the Jews, God’s chosen people, who had been driven out of their promised land by the Babylonian empire and made to live as foreigners in foreign lands are finally, after 70 years, able to return home. Isaiah is preaching to them and what does he say? He makes the point that, after this period of exile that not only will God welcome them back, “gather” them back, but also that God will welcome in those others (“foreigners”) who decide to live by the Covenant. For the longest time you were born into the house of Israel, a chosen people by blood relation. That’s why all those genealogies in the Old Testament are so important. But now Isaiah is saying God is going to open the door to those who convert to Judaism as well. He gathers the outcasts of Israel AND will gather others to them.
I wonder how the people of Israel reacted to the news that after a lifetime in exile their special status as chosen person was now open to others who wanted into the group. I imagine they might be kind of upset. But God doesn’t work like that. God is going to open those doors and welcome newcomers, foreigners, to the fold, Isaiah says. The “chosen people” are going to grow.
Fast forward over five hundred years to Paul’s letter to the Romans and now, as the Christian communities are forming as a related but distinct faction within Judaism they have begun welcoming gentiles who don’t have to convert to Judaism, into the fold. So a different question emerges. There is a question of whether, because of Christ, the old promises, the Old Covenant, that relationship with God and God’s chosen people is cancelled. Has God rejected his people in favor of those who now pledge their devotion to Jesus Christ? It would make sense, right? That this new thing comes along and “replaces” the old thing? A group with a “New Covenant” should, by all accounts be placed above those with an “Old Covenant,” right? “By no means!” says Paul. Jewish people don’t have to believe in Jesus to still remain part of the chosen people. The Gentiles that Paul spends all of his ministry preaching to, are added to the family of God not at the expense of the people of Israel but in addition to them.
This is a bold stance for Paul to take. He’s repeatedly been beaten and imprisoned by the Jewish authorities for his preaching of Jesus Christ. He has something new to offer the believers and you would think he’d be eager to cut ties with his old tribe and fight for the supremacy of the Christian faith. Not so. The Jews are still in, he says, for the gifts and calling of God that was given to them are “irrevocable.” And so, the chosen people grow. They grow, and don’t replace.
And then we come to the Gospel passage. This is, admittedly, not an easy passage to hear. There are no two ways about it, Jesus kind of acts like a jerk to this Canaanite woman. He ignores her, he evades her, and he insults her. Now the Canaanites were long-time enemies of the Jewish people. And they were pagan, not monotheistic. And what we hear Jesus articulate as a reason for evading this woman is that even though he understands himself as The Messiah, that role of “savior” was directly linked to the long history of Judaism. The Messiah was to come and restore the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (aka The Jews) to their Promised Land and promised relationship with God. The Messiah was a Jewish idea and expectation. And yet this Canaanite woman’s persistence and faith move Jesus. I see this as a pivotal moment for Jesus because as he has been developing his ministry, gaining followers, exercising greater and greater power he now seems to realize that the message he brings—That the Kingdom of Heaven has come near–is open to more than just the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to all who come to him in faith. It is not a closed Kingdom. And through this difficult interaction, God’s Kingdom is expanded, the gates of heaven are flung open a little wider to include even those history has cast as the enemy. And so, the chosen people grow, once more.
I spent the better part of this past week trying to figure out how someone turns into a White Supremacist. This was not something I expected to be doing in this day and age, nor was it something I particularly enjoyed, and it certainly wasn’t the way I wanted to spend my first full week back in the office, but here we are.
There are obviously a lot of factors that result in a person so angry that they would light torches and pack weapons and shields for a summer’s weekend in Charlottesville. But as much as anything, I think any sort of racial supremacy movement belies a desire to close down the borders of a group and elevate that group above other groups. That is, after all, the definition of supremacy. White supremacists even want to close up the gene pool of their group so as to consolidate their purity.
But as I hope is now clear, nothing could be further from the way that God makes groups of people. The message of these three readings is that God’s borders are easily traversed, they are open and they are expanding. From the few chosen people born into the house of Israel, to those who convert to it, to the followers of Christ, to the Gentiles, to the pagan enemies, God’s kingdom is swelling bigger and bigger, adding more and more and losing no one along the way.
This kind of openness is harder to maintain than closing down. To a certain extent it runs contrary to our human tendencies. The easy thing to do, and I’m not just talking about white supremacists here, is, once we find our group, once we establish our tribe, once we make up our minds that things are a certain way, that we are a certain way, we close the door behind us. And as a result, a certain ossification of understanding and even belief happens over time. We get set in our ways. Our groups get locked in. Our thoughts about the world become firmer and firmer as we build our life on them until they become immobile. And what happens then is we can’t grow. Our doors are shut and locked and boarded up and God can’t get in to let a breeze blow through our souls and freshen our hearts with new and greater understanding. And so we get stuck thinking “this is how the world works;” “This is who I am;” “This is how they are.” And we get stagnant. And we wither. And we start to spoil. That’s why God is constantly trying to pry us open and then stick a wedge in the door to keep us open. Because with God there is always someone else who could be included, someone else who wants our love, someone else who needs our good news. God is building a kingdom that is getting bigger, not smaller.
Our tendency towards closedness can, in extremity lead us down a pretty dark path. The danger of getting locked into a way of looking at the world, of being a part of a tightly closed group, is that that is the kind of thinking that begets supremacy. And a God whose borders are swelling is the antithesis of a supremacist attitude. Racial Supremacy is based in fear, it comes from a place of weakness (that’s why they have to work so hard to show how strong they are). It’s a fear that as the world gets larger you will get smaller. But that’s using human calculations. The economy of God does not diminish a single person as more people are added. To say my group, my race, my people should be above your group, your race, your people, and we are willing to fight you to push you below us is to live with a locked understanding of the world. And when you lock the doors of your house things start to rot, and fester and sickness takes hold and out spew those evil intentions of the heart that defile your humanity and threaten the humanity of those around you.
What happened in Charlottesville is the result of a lot of evils converging onto one sleepy town. And one of those evils is the evil of closedmindedness. As we saw yesterday in Boston though, the way to battle that evil, to vanquish it, is to speak up for openness, which is the harder thing to do. It’s harder to grow and adapt and change and learn than it is to get set in our ways and understandings. That’s why it was so remarkable that 40,000 people turned out yesterday to show they did not share hate or supremacist attitudes. The 99% of those people on the Common who came in peace and love were people committed to the harder, but nobler task, of staying open. A task that requires us not to shut the doors of our hearts and minds then throw away the key; a task that requires an attitude of humility not supremacy; humility that others have something to teach us. A task that requires strength not weakness; strength of character to resist the impulse to shut out that which is new and different. And a task that requires faith not fear; faith that God is more than what we even understand God to be, and this world can be too.