14 Aug 2011
“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isa 56:7)
In the name …
An elderly man is sitting on a park bench when a woman comes by and sits down next to him. After a while he asks her where she’s from. “I used to live right around here,” she replies. “I haven’t seen you before,” he says. “Well, I was away for quite a while.” “Where did you go?” the man asks. “I was in prison for 20 years.” “Why, what did you do?” After a short pause the woman replies, “I killed my husband.” After an even shorter pause the man responds, “So that means you’re single?”
That’s a made-up story shared with my by George, but this one is supposed to be written by a real live kid named Nan and it was shared with me by Alice: “Dear God I bet it is very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it.”
Whether these stories are real or not, love is hard, and companionship is not always easy to find. The internet is bringing the world closer together, this is true, but at the same time a lot of people seem more comfortable talking to a computer screen than they do to their next door neighbours. Do you know that we actually have young people from the diocese who opt out of going to our Youth Retreat because we don’t let them keep their phones with them 24/7? Some of them have gone in the past and have had a great time. The program is still the same, but these kids are so addicted to their phones that even when they can talk to 80 other kids around them in person at the Retreat they don’t want to go anymore because they don’t know what to do without texting every other moment.
And you would think that because of all this benign isolation that the church could make some serious inroads into society. Church comes from the word that means assembly. We are an assembly of God’s people, a community; and not only that, but we’re an evangelistic community. We are charged to go out into the world and to then bring them into the community of God’s people. As it is written in First Peter: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” (2:10) In other words, once you were alone, but now you belong. But even for church, it is not always easy to love or to build community.
Let me share a couple of things with you about today’s two readings to help explain what I mean. The first one is from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The prophet is writing while Israel is in exile. Their nation has been destroyed and their Temple-building left in ruins (*). The prophet is speaking to this wandering people and telling them of the future day when the Temple will be restored. Says God through the prophet: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” In the midst of exile, their hope for the future was that they could bring others together so that no one else would have to suffer isolation as they were. When they get the chance to return, however, the exact opposite happens. In Ezra and Nehemiah we read that exclusion is even stronger than it was before. The prophecy of God’s Word was about community, but the reality was something wholly different.
And as central as the Temple was to these ancient Jews so is Christ to us. And the Gospels share with us an absolutely amazing story about our Jesus, one that paints Jesus in a not very flattering light. Jesus of Nazareth has traveled outside of the confines of His Jewish people. And while in what is modern day Lebanon a mother approaches Him and asks for a miracle on behalf of her daughter. Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge her at first. She persists, and then uncharacteristically Jesus offers an almost rude reply: “‘It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’” (Mt. 15:26) There is no way to make the reference to “the dogs” as anything less than insulting. The “children” are the Israelites; everyone else is ‘the dogs.” Jesus is seen here as showing a narrow view of His ministry, a narrow view of those whom He came to serve and save. It may be natural to say such things as this for a man from Nazareth, but it is surprising when spoken by Jesus of Nazareth.
But the mother takes the insult and on behalf of her child still begs mercy of Jesus. This foreign woman takes the higher moral ground. And as she beseeches Jesus’ help for her little girl Jesus Himself begins to see things differently. He begins to see her as a mother and not as a foreigner. He sees her as one to whom He was sent by God, and not as an outsider. He sees in her the commonality of the human condition. This woman’s miracle was granted, but the even greater mystery is that this woman changed Jesus. He begins to see all people as His people. Exclusion may be the natural response, but it’s not the righteous one.
And we as church have to be careful. If it was hard for Jesus to realize this truth, then how much harder for us? The prophet foretold of everyone coming together in worship, but then reality kicked-in. The uncharacteristic story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman breaks down all pious barriers so its message must be even more important for us to hear, and that message is the one that all people are loved by God. The church should, therefore, be a place of unnatural, counter-intuitive, illogical welcome. It is community for all of God’s people. It is the place where even when it is hard to love, love is still practiced. Welcome is still offered. Our eyes are to see God’s truth, just like Jesus saw it when He looked again at the Canaanite woman. God’s embrace of everyone surprised even Jesus. May it surprise us too. When the church decides to deliberately exclude people for whatever reason, then we are not fulfilling our calling as Jesus’ people. It’s even worse than that. We’re working against what church should be. So let us pray that our eyes may open to new realities, to see all people as dear to God. Let us pray that God’s house will truly be a house of prayer for all peoples. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo