Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon, Proper 15A, Matthew 15:10-28

Immediately before this passage we just heard, Jesus is questioned by a group of Pharisees and scribes, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of their elders and not wash their hands before they eat?" This may seem like an inconsequential matter today, but the question was of a serious nature.

The details of this scene are a little sketchy, but it is possible that certain pious people looked on hand washing as an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual relationship with God. Hand washing before meals was originally mandated for the priests. Eventually certain people came to see it as meant for everyone since Scripture states that Israel "shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

So this question of hand washing wasn't trivial. The Pharisees who asked about it had some real concerns about the orthodoxy of Jesus. Another way of asking the question, and one heard today, would be, "How is it that you choose to ignore the faith once delivered?"

Jesus answers them and basically says that the Pharisees themselves are in non-compliance with the law of God because they void the word of God by elevating human teachings on power and control to the status of doctrine. The word of God ultimately is more concerned with how we treat others than with keeping the unclean and impure away from God.

To make his point, Jesus talks about what goes into and what comes out of a person. Eating with unwashed hands does not defile. Eating with those we consider impure or unclean does not defile. What defiles us is not necessarily what, or who, is allowed in, but our evil attitude and intentions that come out of us. Things like deceit, backstabbing, racism, sexism, and the limiting of the Other to participate equally because we think they don't belong -- for whatever reason.

That's the lesson Jesus is trying to get across -- it's not our association with people we declare unclean that defile; but it is our attitude towards, and how we speak to, those people of other classes that determines whether or not we have become defiled.

Now . . . can you say, "Irony," because this is the definition of it right here. Jesus rails against the Pharisees and scribes for getting their priorities mixed up and for focusing more on purity codes than on the inclusive word of God. And then what does he do? He goes off and ignores, minimizes and belittles a Canaanite woman. If you ever wondered about the full humanity of Jesus, here it is in all his privileged and chauvinistic glory.

A foreign woman follows our band of heroes crying out, "Lord, have mercy!" What does our great shepherd say? What does this man who said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life," say?

Nothing. The man who stretched out his arms of love so that everyone might come within his saving embrace ignores this woman who acknowledged him as Lord.

Then the disciples get into the act. Those great saints of old -- Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Matthew -- those men who delivered the faith to us, in their saintly compassion say, "Send her away." To which Jesus replies, "I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel."

Becoming bolder she kneels before him saying, "Lord, help me." To which our compassionate Savior, defender of the meek and down-trodden, the man who said that anyone who honors him honors the Father, this man says, "My food is for the children of God; it's not fair for me to take their food away from them and throw it to you dogs."

This man who just berated the Pharisees, scribes and anyone else for elevating exclusionary teachings to the level of doctrine, and who said that it isn't our association with those we label unclean that defiles us but that our attitude against them does, this man commits the same error as the Pharisees. He ignores the woman and equates "her kind" to that of dogs.

"Yes, Lord, but even dogs are given the scraps." Even dogs are fed at some point. Even dogs aren't ignored."

There are two things I want to point out here. First, people of an excluded class, or of a lower class, or of an outside class, aren't always given the opportunity to participate fully and equally, even by those who should know better. One example is the denial by some to acknowledge that God can work through women just as well as through men. The fear of contamination or defilement runs deep when we start letting the Outsiders in.

And it is because of this that those other classes must be bold in seeking relief from their misery. They must stand up to persecution and abuse suffered at the hands of those in power. And we who claim to follow the Lord of all, and of the one who invites all to a place at the banquet, must stand with them. For it isn't their uncleanliness that will defile us, but rather how we treat them that will determine whether or not we defile ourselves.

And second, we must remember that it isn't necessarily holding to the "proper" traditions and purity codes that determine if we are orthodox in our belief system, but how we interpret the word of God so that our hearts follow the true meaning. If all we do is talk down to those who have different opinions, or condemn the outsider because they are different or threaten our sense of how we've always done things, then we are defiling ourselves.

But if we acknowledge their faith, welcome their gifts, share a meal with them, then they cannot defile us. In short, if we seek and serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being, then we are doing the will of God by following his word with heart and mind.

I had the opportunity to see this first hand this past week. We all have heard about the tragic accident that took the life of Ken and seriously injured Dorie. In that ER, Dorie was the outsider. In that ER, there were people of different political persuasions, people of different denominations, people who may not even like her. But in that ER, she was welcomed by everybody. In that ER, the community came together treating another life as sacred.

When we consider the outsider, the other, the unclean and impure, what are we afraid of? In that ER, the only thing people were afraid of was of losing Dorie. What would happen if we treated the Outsider and the Other like Dorie was treated in that ER -- less concerned about being defiled by her presence and more concerned with how she was treated? And isn't that the point of all this -- That God is bigger than our fears and prejudices?


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