8.16.20 | The Rev. Rainey Dankel


Proper 15, Year A: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 | Psalm 67 | Matthew 15:21-28

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel!” But she came and knelt before [Jesus], saying, “Lord, help me.” (Mt 15:24-25)

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Is 56:7b)

I remember when they built a new church on the corner of a highway leading into Wilmington, North Carolina. Five lanes one way had been blasted through a neighborhood, passing convenience stores, some dilapidated houses, and two large public housing complexes. The street bore the ugly marks of urban decay and white flight. The new church was impressive: a multi-story brick building with stained glass and two large statues of lions on either side of the front door. And the sign in front of the church boldly proclaimed, “A House of Prayer for All People.” I didn’t think about the source of the name of the church at the time, and I never went inside.

We hear that phrase in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah as God says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The prophet is speaking to those returning from exile in Babylon and the remnant who are still living in the ruined city of Jerusalem. They are planning to rebuild the Temple, the center of Jewish worship. The prophet offers a surprising picture of the new worshiping community to be welcomed into God’s house.

Foreigners—Gentiles—were previously excluded from Israel’s covenant with Yahweh God, and therefore not included in temple worship. But Isaiah is offering an expanded view of those to be welcomed into the new place of worship. He stands in contrast to the writings of Ezekiel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, from the same historical period, which tended to reinforce the “ethnic purity” of the Lord’s people, and the necessity to exclude foreigners in order to re-establish Jerusalem. Here God says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” God promises blessings to those who have been previously excluded.

I hope you hear this passage resonating with us at St. Paul’s. We are now in a sort of exile, locked out of the church and able to be in touch with each other only in limited ways. We are praying for the day when we can return to our beautiful place of worship. And in the midst of this, we are wrestling with our history, which includes painful stories of ways in which our forebears have built a church based in part on privilege and oppression. We have taken some steps to interrogate that history and to remove some of its artifacts, as we continue to ask “How is God calling us to be a house of prayer for all people?”

And then we read today’s Gospel story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, raising more troubling questions for us. It looks like Jesus is guilty of racism. “Jesus, what were you thinking?” I want to ask. What an embarrassing story! What is it saying to us?

Jesus has been having a tough time of it. The Pharisees keep trying to trap him with their questions. He needs a vacation. Matthew says he goes to the district of Tyre and Sidon—a place beyond Galilee, north—on the coast. Sort of like going to the beach or the river to get away from it all. Maybe there he will find some privacy and relaxation.

But there’s to be no peace. Some woman keeps pestering him. She’s a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, not Jewish. Her daughter has a mental illness, and she wants Jesus to heal her. She follows him around, shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” The disciples want her sent away. Jesus loses his cool. He tries to blow her off, but she persists and even demonstrates her cleverness. Jesus is impressed with her faith and her persistence. He gives her what she wants.

On its face, this story certainly conveys a different image of Jesus than the one we usually see. Jesus seems unconcerned with her suffering. He tells her that his mission is not to her people. (Doesn’t that remind you of some people’s infuriating reply when asked to do something they don’t want to do, “It’s not in my job description”?) And he refers to the woman by a crude racial slur: Jews used the term “dog” to refer to Gentiles. But the woman looks beyond his words. She continues to refer to him with terms of respect, and she kneels before him even as she offers a clever reply.

It’s possible to see this story as Jesus’ own wrestling with his personal mission. What is God calling him to do and to be? How broadly should he travel, how much should he reach beyond his own people? Especially when it seems that his own people are failing to understand. How much thinner can he spread himself?

So maybe we can rationalize Jesus’ initial response to this woman. But we also have to admit that Jesus is frustrated, and he responds with excessive harshness. Then, to his credit, he realizes it immediately and takes corrective action. Poet and translator Stephen Mitchell says that this story “shows us a Jesus who makes a mistake and admits it with humility and good humor, a Jesus who is flexible enough to learn. From a Gentile yet. From a woman!” (Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 206).

Jesus grows from this encounter. Here he says that his mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. By the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is sending his friends into “the world” with a command to “make disciples of all nations…” Certainly, the mission has broadened. We go from a narrow definition of mission, only to the Jews, to an expansive view of bringing the name of Jesus to the whole world. And it’s a personal encounter that is part of this transformation. The Canaanite woman helps Jesus acknowledge his exclusion and enlarge his mission.

Personal encounters are important in helping us rethink our position, to learn to confront our prejudices and fears and move beyond them. In his book entitled The Vanishing Neighbor author Marc Dunkelman argues that we Americans have lost the opportunities for such encounters, and the effects are profound in our communal life. He draws a picture of increasing isolation in our lives as technology, politics, economics, and geography make it possible for us to tailor our lives and encounters to those with whom we are intimately connected (an “inner ring”) and those on an “outer ring” of impersonal transactions.

What has been lost is what he calls the “middle ring” in which we directly encounter those who are different from us, with whom we may disagree. It is in this ring that we learn to hold conversations, to argue with respect, and to learn from each other. Examples of this ring include neighborhoods in which peoples of a variety of ethnicities and class are casually but frequently thrown together along the street, in the park, or at school. Another example is a house of worship which draws peoples from diverse backgrounds. It is in such places, Dunkelman observes, that we learn how to respect each other, and in some cases gain enough trust to share our personal stories.

Is St. Paul’s such a place? As we come together to worship the God who welcomes us in, what are the opportunities for life-changing encounters with others? How has it happened for you? Perhaps in meeting someone through Bible study or Zoom coffee hour. Maybe it was serving together on Altar Guild or as an Usher. Maybe you have participated in EFM or Faith on Tap. Or read a testimonial in Stories of St. Paul’s. Or volunteered with Emmaus or attended a virtual RISC rally on criminal justice. Or offered water to young people gathered at the Lee statue. There are many ways in which we encounter one another and are changed. And the coming months will provide more ways to raise our awareness about the importance of having such relationships, both inside these walls and in our larger community.

We don’t get to know very much about the Canaanite woman as she encounters Jesus. What we do see is a woman with enough courage and tenacity to challenge Jesus’ definition of his ministry. Presumably, her concern for the welfare of her daughter outweighs her adherence to social conventions. She helps him see her needs as real. And it changes him.

Helping each other see our blind spots is risky and challenging work. In an antiracism workshop I was attending, I remember hearing a person of color speak movingly of the burden of being the one who is always expected to call out evidences of white privilege and unacknowledged racist behavior. “I sometimes wish that my white friends would do some of this heavy lifting,” she sighed.

Becoming self-reflective and alert to the oppression in our society are challenging matters. At St. Paul’s we are looking for ways in which to move beyond our prejudices and our habits. And we need to be persistent and forgiving with each other in helping to identify the marks of racism and bigotry. We frequently get it wrong. It’s a life-long process. In today’s Gospel Jesus—the one we believe is the perfect demonstration of divine love—shows his human side. He too is learning as he goes.

In today’s passage from Isaiah, the prophet speaks to returning exiles with a vision of God’s desire for the New Jerusalem. In the new temple, everyone will be welcome, including foreigners who had been previously excluded. God wants a “house of prayer for all people.” In such a house we can learn to live together, to respect and celebrate our differences, and work together to challenge the insidious effects of exclusion. As we grow in our love of Jesus, we learn what it means to welcome all into God’s embrace. We realize that God’s care for us extends to all of God’s people. We experience that love and healing as we share it.

God challenges us with a mission to move beyond fear, to reach out to others, as Jesus does with the Canaanite woman, and to welcome all into God’s house, as Isaiah urges. Our mission is to proclaim Christ in the heart of the city. But too often the gospel that we preach with our lives is still based on segregation and exclusion. May God have mercy on us. And may Jesus continue to open our eyes to the injustice, suffering, and oppression around us. May we learn what it means to help build the New Jerusalem, both inside these walls and in the world around us.