The Rabbi and the Pagan: 20th Sunday OT

I had a teacher in seminary once who lamented with disgust that he’d never once in all his life heard a sermon about racism. Well, I don’t think I have either. But you know, I’ve never heard a sermon against murder either. Some things you sort of take for granted, I guess. I’d feel condescending and insulting if I stood here explaining to all of you people that racism is bad.

But if we get behind racism a little bit, I think we’ll find that the basic problem with it, the bigger picture of which racism is a part, is something every one of us deals with. And it’s something that all three of our readings tackle directly: the question of who’s in and who’s out. Who counts. Who’s one of ‘us.’

There are so many types of prejudices that it starts to seem like no one can avoid them all. We’re incredibly good at not even realizing we have them. I love that scene in a movie where Mike Meyers says “there are two things I really hate in this world: people who are intolerant of other cultures… and the Dutch.” Separating into tribes or cliques or classes or races is something we do so naturally, so automatically, that fighting against it can almost seem like a waste of time. I mean it’s hard enough to get NASCAR fans to play nice with Formula One fans. What chance do we have of getting NASCAR fans to play nice with, I don’t know, ballet fans?

A silly example, there, trying to keep things light. But on second thought, let’s not. This isn’t light. Our world is burning. Israelis and Palestinians. Russians and Ukrainians. This Islamic State outfit seems to be killing Christians in more systematic ways, and in more awful ways, than we’ve seen since maybe the early 20th century Communists. And if that all sounds awfully sad but also awfully distant, let’s get in my car, and by lunch we could be in a town called Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t know what’s really going on there, or whether it’s really about race, but a lot of people say it is and that’s enough to make my point.

But even that’s too far away for a sermon. I want this to be about you and me. And while we may feel a long way from racial wars and burning cities, that devilish work that turns people against each other is always with us. Devil, remember, comes from the Greek diabolos, which means ‘divider.’ It’s one of his names.

It’s also important to remember here that there’s a difference between a temptation and a sin. A temptation is something that presents an opportunity to sin, or an opportunity for grace. Sin is a choice you make. Sin is always a choice. If there was no choice, there was no sin. And you don’t choose, for instance, how your gut reacts in that first instant that you see someone. You do choose whether you accept or reject that gut reaction. You do choose how you treat people.

And let’s be honest about this: it’s kind of a constant battle. I mean classic old racism may or may not be something you’re tempted to, but we are constantly tempted to things like it. Breaking up into tribes is something that runs very deep in us. Biologists would say it’s pretty much part of our programming. If you remember that sermon about our animal nature needing to be ruled by our spiritual nature, this is one of those times. There’s this weird modern idea sometimes that what comes naturally to people is necessarily okay. But nothing comes more naturally than exclusivism, tribalism, and these are results of sin. They are enemies of the Kingdom of God. I’m not sure, off the top of my head, that the Kingdom of God has a greater enemy.

Remember, we named the devil after this.

So what’s the antidote? In the first reading we have Isaiah insisting to Jews that gentiles are part of God’s plan and concern just as much as they are. In the second reading we Paul telling gentiles the same about Jews. And in the Gospel we get an object lesson. The Rabbi and the Pagan.

The dialogue between Jesus and this woman is troubling, and I’ve preached on that here and how we might take it. Today just notice this: all the ugliness of division and exclusivity comes into play. Difference in race. Difference in religion. Difference in sex. And it comes to the surface. The question is asked, and we all gasp to hear it — from the mouth of Jesus, no less. Does a Canaanite woman count?

I wonder if part of what Jesus is doing is to unmask, to uncover the ugliness that we always keep hidden. As long as we keep it under the surface, we don’t have to repent. We mask our prejudices, whatever they are. You don’t hear someone saying “I don’t trust that guy because he’s got a lot of tattoos and that makes me assume he’s a shady creep.” You don’t hear someone saying “I don’t want to be around her because she drives an expensive car and that makes me assume she’s a superficial snob.” Things like this are usually disguised. So when Jesus brings it right into the open, it’s a shock. Maybe we need that shock.

The asking of the question is so scandalous that sometimes we kind of get hung up on it and don’t catch the more important thing, which is the answer. This woman, Jesus says, has faith. Great faith, the real thing, exactly that thing whose absence he constantly laments among his own Apostles and countrymen.

OK, so let’s make this about us. I have two tasks to propose to you.

The first task is the simple baseline, the basic task of repenting of sin. First of all, admit that you’re capable of prejudice. If you think of yourself as being above that, that’s actually an indicator that you’ve got a particularly severe case of it. You think you’re better than all the rest of us who are capable of prejudice. Ironic, yes? Next, get after some self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is absolutely crucial to spiritual growth. Who do you react negatively to, at least in that first moment of unchosen gut reaction? Who are you tempted to think of as being some lesser type of human than you and people like you? The poor? The rich? People who are more privileged? People who run around sanctimoniously telling everyone to ‘check your privilege?’ People who put ketchup on hot dogs? That one’s more of a Chicago thing. Anyway, work on getting over those things.

That’s not simple to do, but it’s simple to understand, so let’s move on to the second task. The first task was to reach a baseline of turning away from sin, or, if you like, to work on not being part of the problem. The second task, then, is to be part of the solution. That means joining in the work of Christ in bringing people together, actively, intentionally. You and I and everyone we’ve ever met feel a profound need to belong. And not everyone’s need to belong is being met. Not by a long shot.

In my very very crazy week I made time to watch two things on screens. I had to make a run to Home Depot so I took the opportunity Friday night to catch Guardians of the Galaxy. Fun film, not trying to be real serious about making us all better people really, mostly just trying to entertain. But if you were going to describe a deeper message coming through the film, it would absolutely be exactly this: belonging. Finding people who accept you, people among whom you feel at home. And also the devastation on a personal and on a civilizational level when that doesn’t happen. The second thing I watched was a documentary on Netflix about the Bones Brigade, the most legendary skating team in history. Early in the film, they cut in a bunch of interview clips about why they first got into skateboarding as kids. Every single one of them talked about feeling like they didn’t belong anywhere else, weren’t good at sports, didn’t look right, didn’t talk right… and when they discovered skateboarding they discovered a place they fit. A place they felt they belonged. A place they felt they were good at something. A place they felt they were good for something.

Wherever you are in life, there are people who need you to help them find that. If you’re at a place in life where you maybe only really get out a few times a week, maybe you can begin to imagine what someone nearby feels who gets out never. Or there’s someone at work who isn’t really in with the others. Or someone who moved to your town who doesn’t know anyone, in a small community where it seems everyone else knows everyone else. I was at a parish council meeting once where the topic of introductions came up and someone dismissed it with a laugh, because “we all know each other here.” I noticed that right then the one person who didn’t know everyone looked very sad.

If you’re in school… oh my goodness. If you’re in school, you have the chance to be a total Christian hero when it comes to this. Reaching out to the people who most need a friend… let’s be honest, kids, it will cost you. The first cost is in the simple awkwardness of it. You don’t know what to say, how to reach out. But to someone who feels really alone, if you walk up and find any stupid excuse to start a conversation, even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable and you walk away thinking “well, that totally bombed,” I promise you — someone who feels really alone will walk away from that conversation with unspeakable gratitude, and joy, and most important of all, hope. And if you pick the right person, there may be further costs as well. There may be a painful price to pay in your own social standing. If that happens, then know this: you have never been more like Jesus than in that moment. I’m telling you, young people, this is your chance to take up a Cross and make this Christianity thing real.

Turn on the news and you’ll see our world burning. That fire has been raging for more thousands of years than anyone’s been keeping histories. Are you as tempted to despair as I am? But maybe you and I aren’t called, right this minute, to solve all the ancient conflicts in the world, except insofar as prayer and fasting can help. We are called to reach out to the people nearby. That’s how it happens, person by person. The Rabbi and the Pagan meet in the street. And that’s all most people saw that day… the Jew and the Canaanite. But he saw someone who loved her daughter. She saw someone who could help. He saw a deep and beautiful faith. 

And we all saw not only a miracle of healing, but the miracle that happens when people come face to face and finally see each other.


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