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Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 45:1-15; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Psalm 133
Matthew 15: 10-28; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
We complete the saga of Abraham and Sarah’s family, the first great soap opera, with Joseph, having been sold into slavery in Egypt, having gone down into prison and come back to life as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, revealing himself to his brothers, who have come in desperation from the great famine in the land to seek help from Pharaoh, from the very dreamer they once rejected. Joseph, after adding drama to the story by staging a pickpocketing in order to hold his younger brother Benjamin hostage, finally reveals who he really is to his brothers, that he is really alive, and that he bears them no ill will. Hard to believe after the stunt he has just pulled, but he sees that his brothers have really changed. He sees all that has happened to him as a way of saving his family in the end, that God was at work even in the darkest of moments in his life.
We have to be careful not to interpret this story as “God always has a plan” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Those are simple, pat answers for us to give to those who have gone through hard times to make ourselves feel better, and it rarely makes the person who has been through hell feel better. However, there is something to be said that once we get through a tough part of our lives, sometimes we can see how God has been with us. I think there is the difference–not that everything that happens to us is part of some divine plan and we are puppets, or that everything has a purpose, but rather, no matter what we go through, we can still find the presence of God. Sometimes it is only after we have gone through a difficult time that we can see how God was present. I remember reading the stories of women who had survived the Holocaust. There were many Jews that lost their faith in those years of suffering and death. There is no way I or anyone else could say it was part of God’s plan or that God had a purpose in it. In the book Facing Auschwitz by Arlen Fowler, he dismisses any attempt to use those platitudes because in his words, they cannot be said in the face of burning children. There is no way a true Christian could say that everything has a reason or that it is all part of God’s plan when children were burned alive. But I do remember reading stories of women who felt the indwelling presence of God, Shekinah, inside of them. I don’t think we have the right to ever tell someone that God has a plan when they have suffered so much, but there are people who have suffered, like Joseph, who still find that God is present with them. For the rest of us, we can share the story of Joseph, remembering that when we rely on God’s presence, we can find the peace that Joseph had, bearing no ill will, desiring no revenge, but welcoming a reconciliation instead.
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 was Isaiah’s proclamation to the people after the exile who were reclaiming their land that God’s covenant went beyond the nation of Israel but to all people who called upon the Lord, and to be especially welcoming of the foreigners who have joined themselves to the Lord. This past week church leaders in Alabama filed a lawsuit against the state for its anti-immigration laws. While there is great debate in our country about undocumented people in our country, the message of the Bible time and again is to welcome in the foreigner, the stranger, for God is gathering them in. Especially in our churches, we need to be more welcoming than ever of those that God has gathered to us, and find ways of working in our legislative systems and local governments to help undocumented workers get documentation, to help children of undocumented workers gain an education, to work with the people who are already part of our communities.
Psalm 67 is a song of praise to God who is the God of all people and all nations. More than ever, we find ourselves in a global community–we are interconnected with people around our world, and people from all over our world are now living and working in our communities. Our call is to recognize, bless and welcome our neighbors. Psalm 133 is a short blessing of family unity. This psalm is often read at weddings and was perhaps read at ancient Hebrew weddings–a reminder of our common ancestry, our family in God.
Matthew 15:10-28 is a two-part passage and the lectionary lets you choose which part to focus on, or both. The first part, vs. 10-20, is Jesus discourse on the cleanliness codes of the religious elite. Among the Jews, some of the religious elite took an extreme view on the cleanliness codes, using them to keep out the poor and the sick from being among the “faithful.” The cleanliness codes were not based on health or physical cleanliness but on a strict following of the law. The poor who were begging on the street would not have water to run over their hands, nor would the sick. Jesus turns the cleanliness codes on their head, and declares that it is not what you eat or how you eat it, but how you treat others–what comes out of your mouth, what you say and what you do that causes you to be defiled and unclean.
The second part of this passage, vs. 21-28, is the only time Jesus is challenged by someone and changes his mind (a similar story takes place in Matthew but the ethnic identity of the woman is different). Whether or not Jesus hesitated to help the Canaanite woman because she was not Jewish or whether or not he waited to show the Disciples that he had come not only to bring Good News to Israel but to all nations is left for the reader to decide. In Matthew’s version this story happens in public, where the Canaanite woman comes out, crying in public for Jesus to have mercy and to heal her daughter. In Mark’s Gospel, however, the story is in private–Jesus has escaped into a house to get away from the crowds and finds a lone Syrophoneician woman (Mark 24-30). In both stories, Jesus did not want to help the woman right away, and replies to her cries with, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel… it is not right to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”
This is one of those moments in which Jesus is fully human, in that he is tired, he has been healing and teaching all day, and he sends this woman away, calling her a dog. But when she challenges him, saying that she is worthy of crumbs just like any dog, Jesus recognizes the words that have come out of her mouth, words of faith, in the face of his words of discouragement. “Great is your faith!” he exclaims, and heals her daughter. Was this story simply to show everyone else that Jesus had come to the whole world and not just to Israel, or was this a time when even Jesus had to recognize her humanity and his own? Was this Jesus’ most human moment, in which he first turned her away because of human needs of being tired, of wanting to just be with his own people, and then being humbled by another human being in need? It is not what goes in our mouth, but what comes out, Jesus said, that defiles or blesses.
Romans 11 is Paul’s discourse to the Romans about Israel, in order for Jewish and Gentile Christians to understand how both are called to be part of God’s kingdom. Because Paul’s ministry is primarily to the Gentiles, it is important for the Jewish Christians to understand how God has acted throughout their history and to the Gentiles it is important to embrace that history, but that the practices of old, such as circumcision and dietary restrictions are no longer necessary for faith, because those practices were used to restrict and cut out people from God, rather than bringing in and embracing. The Jewish Christians have known faith in God through the works of the law and their ancient scriptures which has led them to Christ; the Gentile Christians know faith in God through Jesus Christ, which has led them to understand the meaning of the law and ancient scriptures. Both faithful Jews and Gentiles are united in faith in Christ.
Many of the scriptures this Sunday reflect on unity, on blessing rather than casting out, on recognizing that God is the God of all people and all nations, and to embrace rather than expel, to encourage rather than discourage–for all of God’s people to be full participants in the reign of God. And while Isaiah and the Psalms and both the passage in Matthew and Romans reflect on embracing the other, the foreigner, the Gentile or Jew, the Genesis passage reminds us that sometimes the people who do the most outcasting are families. We are reminded that the place we can do the most harm is within our own family, especially the church family, when we conspire against, cast out and reject others. So many have been hurt and rejected by the church that it is hard for us within to say “But we’re not like that, come and join us!” Instead, we need to model Christ’s embrace and acceptance, and also Christ’s humility to say “Great is your faith!” when someone comes to us that we would not expect to come to church, especially “our” church! We have a lot of work to do to grow into the reconciling community that Joseph prophetically envisions in his embrace of his brothers, the very ones who cast him out–and that is our call.
Call to Worship:
Leader: You that have been rejected, come!
People: You are welcome here! (welcome your neighbors)
Leader: You that have been outcast, come!
People: You are embraced here! (hug your neighbors)
Leader: You that have been told not to come, come!
People: We are excited that you are here! (give high fives to your neighbors)
Leader: You that were told you were unworthy, come!
People: We are glad you are part of our family. (go sit with someone you don’t know)
Leader: All of you are welcome, loved and part of God’s family.
People: Let us worship God together.
Prayer of Confession:
Loving God, we confess that we have forgotten Your love. At times we have felt we were not good enough. We have despised ourselves, rejected who we are in order to fit in to the world. At times we have ignored others, rejecting the opportunity to share Your love. Forgive us, O God, for not seeing Your image in ourselves. Forgive us, O God, when we do not see Your image in our neighbors. Help us to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, so that we can love You more fully, and know Your love in our lives. In the name of Christ, who reconciles us, we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon:
For where can we go from God’s Spirit? Where can we flee from God’s presence? There is no place we can be rejected, no place we can be forgotten from the love of Christ. We belong to God, and in God we find strength to continue on the journey of faith. We are forgiven, renewed and restored. Amen.
God of Wisdom and Insight, grant us the courage to see the people in need of Your love around us. They may be people begging on the street, or the coworker crying in the corner. They may be a stranger across town or our son or daughter in our own home. Lord, help us to see Your children as You see them–the lonely and lost–so that we might share Your love and be Your hands and feet in our world, in our community, and in our homes. Grant us the courage to reach out to each other, to ask the difficult questions, to embrace and cry with those who are hurting, to be our best human selves with each other, for You have created us in Your image. Help us to reflect that image with all those around us. In the name of Christ, our Savior and Friend, we pray all things. Amen.
“We are the family of God,” comes to mind, as does “I am the church.” Songs about unity, embracing the outcast, family, and welcome are all good themes for the day.
Release Date: October 8th, 2019