17 Aug 2014
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isa. 56:7)
In the name …
I read the other day about a couple who was getting married. This was the second marriage for the both of them, and at least the bride had children. A conversation between the mother and her children was overheard in which the mom was explaining to her kids that they would now have a second house to live in. The children were none too pleased. The mother then explained that it would be like the television show Modern Family and immediately the children began to smile. This is not a priest encouraging divorce, but it is an example of changing attitudes.
In the 1970’s I used to love watching All in the Family. It was also a top-rated comedy and it also offended a great many people back in its day. I remember one episode about women’s rights. Gloria offered a riddle to her college-student husband, dock-worker father and their African-American neighbour Mr. Jefferson. I don’t remember the whole riddle, but it involved a car accident in which the father was killed, a child is wheeled into the emergency room of a hospital, and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this child, he’s my son.” A lot of possible answers were eliminated by the part of the riddle I can’t remember, but the answer that none of the guys got was that the surgeon was a woman. The surgeon was the child’s mother. In the 1970’s a woman surgeon could be that unimaginable.
We look back on that in 2014 and only smile at how old-fashioned it is, but it was a riddle in the 1970’s. 40 years from now we may very well look back on all the stereotype bending portrayals on Modern Family as equally quaint. For me at least, what kept these two shows in perspective was that underneath all of the awkwardness of Archie Bunker’s crudeness or Modern Family’s gay marriage was that these were good, caring people. It’s a lot easier to see in Modern Family, but Archie had a good soul no matter how many times he called his son-in-law meathead, his wife dingbat or how many times he told a Polish joke. These two television programs showed us that things were changing, but still staying the same. The world didn’t end when women were treated as equals, when blacks moved in next door or when two guys were raising their adopted daughter. We were being nudged to expand our circle one laugh at a time, and the laughs made it a lot easier because making the circle bigger is not easy to do.
And yet that is exactly what God calls us to do. It’s tiring to hear so often about God saying “only this way” or “only that way.” It’s tiring to hear righteousness too often turned into self-righteousness. We have to be honest: righteousness is too often the motivation for hatred and violence. I’m having trouble listening to the news sometimes. It gets to be so depressing. This ISIS group now, they make Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts. They’re killing everyone who is not exactly like them. They even crucified two people the other day. And their motive is righteousness. They’re slaughtering innocents because their god wants them to. It’s tiring. In that same part of the world, the ancient Jews were once sent into exile. Jerusalem had been conquered in 587 BC, her city and temple utterly destroyed, and her people driven to new lives in the land where ISIS now fights. For two generations the Jews languished in Exile, and then they were finally allowed to return to their homeland when their conquerors were conquered. As they envisioned the rebuilding of their homes, they also dreamed of building a new temple. And after having experienced exile, of being one of the outcasts and the homeless, they came back a changed people.
Our selection from Isaiah this morning is from that new people of Israel. All will be welcome who embrace God’s covenant, says the prophet. Imagine how hard it must have been to say those words after two generations of being enslaved by foreign empires. Imagine how easy it would have been to hate all of those foreigners. Instead, the prophet speaks about all people coming before God’s altar to make a joyful noise and where “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” It’s never easy to make our circles bigger, but this is what God calls us to do.
Even think about Jesus in today’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel, He seldom travels outside of Israel. This Gospel is where Jesus says that not one iota will pass away from the Law (5:18), and this is where He tells His disciples to go nowhere among the Gentiles and Samaritans, but only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (10:6) Then, today, He is up by Tyre and Sidon, in modern day Lebanon, and a Canaanite woman approaches Him and asks that He heal her daughter. Jesus brushes away her request with uncharacteristic apathy: “‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” (15:24) The woman persists on behalf of her daughter. And suddenly, maybe in her words, maybe in her desperation, maybe in her eyes, Jesus begins to see her not as a Canaanite, but as a person. Suddenly, Jesus engages her and promises that her child has been made well. Even the historical Jesus suffered through the walls we put up so casually. Even the historical Jesus had to experience as a moment of revelation the truth that separation is an all too human creation, not a divine one.
Now more than ever the church and her people need to re-examine this message of inclusion. We need to make God a source of welcome not of separation. To be faithful to God is not about the self-righteousness of damning everyone who is different, but of the righteousness that sees past the differences so that we can try to see others as God sees them. Religion and self-righteousness are instigating so much violence in our world, but religion can also bring so much healing to our world if we can just admit be more accepting in our own encounters like that of Jesus with the Canaanite woman, if we can just try and make our circles bigger so that God’s House, this house, can truly be a house of prayer for all peoples. For this may we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo