Sunday, August 16, 2020

Infinite Mercy

August 16, 2020 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 20:15.)

It feels pretty good to be on the side of inclusion, doesn’t it? Whether it’s race or gender or sexuality or education level or immigration status or wealth, when you’re on the side of a debate that thinks that everyone belongs, that everyone should have access, that everyone is equal, it feels like you’re on the right side of history. But you know how you can tell if your concept of inclusion is misplaced? If it excludes someone.

For months, now, we’ve been making our way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is his treatise on the gospel—his systematic exploration of the Christian faith. It is his masterpiece, his magnum opus. In it, he has explained how the good news of Jesus Christ is the means by which God has brought the fullness of God’s reign to the earth. And, if you read the first eight chapters, you get a pretty good understanding of how it all fits together. But, when we get to chapter nine, we hit a wall, and the name of that wall is Israel.

Israel is God’s beloved child, God’s first love. And, just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold, God was using Israel to reveal God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. This is one of the reasons that Paul knew that Jesus was more than a prophet—because through him all nations were finding their way into relationship with God. And, as God’s great work of salvation was nearing completion, the same God who time and again had gathered together the outcasts of Israel had now begun to gather the other peoples of the earth to Godself. Isaiah’s prophecy that all would worship on God’s holy mountain—that God’s house would become a house of prayer for all peoples—was being fulfilled. The apostle Paul and the Christians in Rome had witnessed how God had used Jesus Christ to accomplish that great work and bring even the Gentiles into covenant relationship with Israel’s God. But there was just one lingering problem: Israel.

Even by the time Paul was writing to Rome, the way of Jesus had become a mostly Gentile religion. What had begun as a branch of Judaism dedicated to spiritual renewal had become a faith in which non-Jews had begun to call themselves the spiritual descendants of Abraham. All the while, Abraham’s biological descendants had been quite happy to keep to themselves, thank you very much. But, if Jesus Christ were the means by which God had, once and for all, brought all nations to Godself, why weren’t the children of Abraham getting onboard? If Jesus really was who he said he was and who Paul said he was, how was Paul supposed to explain the near universal refusal of his fellow Israelites to adopt the faith of God’s messiah?

For the most part, he didn’t. And, more than that, he seems to have been critical of those who would try. At the beginning of today’s lesson, Paul wrote, “I ask, then, has God rejected God’s people? By no means!” But, in the part of chapter 11 that the lectionary skips over, Paul turned his focus to those who would presume to take Israel’s place: “If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” It seems that some of the Gentile Christians had interpreted Israel’s rejection of Christianity as a sign that God had moved on—that God had withdrawn God’s love for God’s people and transferred it to the new Israel. But Paul wouldn’t have it. “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable,” he wrote. There must be another way.

There is a danger, I think, that, in a similar way, we would inadvertently restrict God’s mercies by casting God’s great work of salvation in the image of our own inclusion, and I think the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman exposes some of those tendencies. How do we hear this shocking story? How do we make sense of Jesus’ words and the woman’s persistence? Whose limited understanding of salvation is being challenged here? Is it Jesus who is being taught a lesson, or are we the ones who have something to learn?

That Matthew would identify the woman anachronistically as a Canaanite and not, as Mark did in his telling of the same story, with the more specific ethnic label of Syrophoenician is not an accident. Matthew wants us to imagine this encounter as if it were a direct manifestation of the conflict between the ancient Israelites who had taken possession of the land that had been promised to Abraham and the Canaanite residents who had stood in their way. In other words, in Matthew’s version of the story, the woman isn’t merely a Gentile; she is, to a faithful Israelite reader, a very real obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s promises. But, instead of finishing the story as if the only possible outcome was a triumph over God’s enemies, Matthew shows us that those who represent impediments to God’s salvation can become the very means by which that salvation is accomplished.

Kneeling at Jesus’ feet, the woman says to him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her faithfulness is not a rejection of the harsh-sounding words that Jesus had said to her but an expansion of them—a twisting of them to make clear an even fuller reality. Jesus had rightly come to rescue “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s the way God’s salvation must work. It has to start with God’s chosen people. It’s what they were chosen for. It would not be right to reject God’s love for God’s covenant people—to take the food away from the children in order to give it to those who would come after them. But, because God’s reign was coming to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, it was now possible to see God’s covenant love expanding to include even those who for centuries had stood in the way of God’s salvation. 

I wonder whether we’ve become so accustomed to being recipients of that salvation that we’ve forgotten whose mercies really determine how that salvation works. We have a tendency to say to God, “We’re the enlightened ones. We’re the inclusive ones. We’ll let you know who truly belongs in your kingdom.” But what we don’t realize is that even our best efforts at being inclusive will always fall short of God’s great and limitless mercies. No matter how wide open our welcome may be, we will inevitably reject some whom God would embrace. Don’t think so? Which political or religious group has members that you find the hardest to love? Whose ideology or platform has convinced you that they are nothing more than an obstacle to God’s reign on the earth? In the end, who do you think gets to decide whom God will love? 

Like the Pharisees, we have a habit of substituting our version of holiness, which we naturally understand to be the fullest possible expression of God’s love, for the real thing. But Jesus shows us that God’s love is always bigger than we think it is. Even if it works on us in reverse, the encounter with the Canaanite mother proves that. Do we really think that Jesus is the one whose vision of God’s kingdom is too small? Do we really believe that we’re the enlightened ones who have it all figured out? The good news of Jesus Christ is that God loves everyone—even those whom we would never imagine that God could love. And, if that truth doesn’t shock us, then we have underestimated not only God’s love for others but God’s love for us as well. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to believe that God’s mercies are always bigger than we expect them to be. Otherwise, we can’t know what it means to belong to the one who loves us that same way.

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