(Sermon preached at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC, on August 14, 2011, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost)
Some years ago, a priest in Appalachia dined at the home of new converts. All but the family’s young daughter received him cordially. She stared at him unblinkingly throughout the meal.
The priest, somewhat uncomfortable, tried to put the little girl at ease. "Is it my collar you are staring at?" he asked, taking it off and holding it up. When he did so he saw the cleaning instructions on the inside of the collar, and to make conversation, he asked, "Do you know what it says here?"
"Yes," responded the girl. "It says, 'Kills fleas for six months.’"
Sometimes, I feel that Christians and Christianity are, like the young girl, blind to the real significance of things. Today’s readings (Genesis 45:1-15, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28), however, speak directly to several current events.
First, Israel has authorized construction of 1500 new housing units on the West Bank for Israeli settlers, land that the United Nations designated for Palestinians when establishing Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians are organizing demonstrations in support of their claim to statehood to take place during upcoming U.N. hearings on establishing a Palestinian state and Israeli police are preparing to respond should the demonstrations turn violent.
Second, famine in Somalia has become so severe that parents have to choose which of their children to leave to die and which to try to save. Violent political and religious divisions between Muslims and Christians have greatly exacerbated the problems of extended drought. Cholera has now broken out. A cynic might suggest that wealthy nations have made Somalia a low priority for aid because of its lack of natural resources and black populace.
Third, wild stock market fluctuations underscore a growing economic divide and economic pessimism in the U.S. Although the U.S. managed to avoid default two weeks ago by raising the federal debt ceiling, Standard & Poor’s dropped the U.S.’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. Unemployment is down, but many fewer people are looking for work, indicating a growing pessimism about finding work.
Perhaps you wonder what these events have to do with the readings. Social division sets the context for each reading. In Genesis, the narrative contrasts the wealthy Egyptians with the indigent sons of Israel. The epistle reading juxtaposes Jew and Gentile based on religious differences; the gospel reading juxtaposes them based on ethnic differences.
One theme in all three readings is that God lovingly welcomes and embraces everyone. Twentieth century comedian Will Rogers once said that he had never met a person he didn’t like. It is safe to say that God never created a person God doesn’t love.
We Christians are not to draw distinctions between people based on gender, race, nationality, religion, gender orientation, or economic circumstances. We welcome everyone at this altar, symbolizing that we more broadly welcome all into this community and into God's family. No group, no person, is excluded. This includes Israeli and Palestinian, Muslim and Christian Somali, wealthy and poor.
Second, God acts to deliver people in distress. Our feelings of discouragement (how will I feed my family?), dejection (where is my place at the table, my homeland?) and despair (how can I heal my loved one?) may seem overwhelming. But God remains undefeated. We hope because God stands with us, confident that God is acting. Without hope, progress is impossible.
Third, God acts in mysterious, unexpected ways but always through people. In the Genesis story, Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery; he becomes a felon on death row; and then, incredibly, he becomes the second most powerful person in Egypt, managing Egypt’s prosperity in the midst of a global food crisis. Saul the infamous and aggressive persecutor becomes Paul the Apostle. When the Church splits into warring religious camps, Paul bridges that gap, declaring himself both Jew and Gentile, insisting the Church include both. A man from Galilee – Galilee, of all places – wanders the Palestinian landscape, teaching and healing. A desperate foreign woman, boldly breaking the gender, nationality, and religious barriers that separate them, relentlessly insists Jesus heal her daughter. These incidents may resemble movie plots, but they reveal God's mysterious and unexpected acts.
In the early twentieth century, women could not visit Sing Sing prison, not even Catherine Lowe, the warden's wife. But she was a strong-willed woman. When inmates played their first basketball game, Catherine Lowe risked harsh disciplinary action by taking her two girls and sitting in the bleachers to watch. Much to her amazement, nobody chastised her. So, she took bolder steps. She wanted to help the prisoners, believing love could change anyone's life.
A blind African American, Jack, was a tough murderer, the victim of cruel racial injustices. Catherine felt drawn to this hardened criminal. "Hi, Jack," she introduced herself one day. There was no response. The scarred, battered face stared back with icy, unseeing eyes. "What books do you read?" she asked him.
The silence was broken. He spit out the words, "I'm blind, lady! I can't read!"
This was her opportunity. "Oh, what about Braille?" she asked. No one had ever told Jack about Braille, let alone taught him. "You can read with your fingers!" Catherine explained. "Please," she said, "let me see your fingers." She touched his fingertips and said, "You can read with these. I'll teach you." And she did.
Then she found another inmate and discovered that he was deaf and unable to talk. Catherine learned sign language so she could communicate with him. She opened doors to worlds of love for one convict after another. The inmates of Sing Sing called her, "The Lady in whom Jesus Christ lives."
A deaf man learns to communicate. A blind man learns to read. A Canaanite girl is healed. Nomads eat. The Church makes room for those not like us. People are people whatever label they wear. Love always finds a way. Amen.