As many of you know I travelled to Europe this summer. My first week there I attended a conference in Italy outside the city of Siena. The theme of the conference was science and spirituality and was held in a hotel which was once a medieval monastery. Speakers discussed research, discoveries, and theories on consciousness, neuroscience, astronomy, and quantum mechanics. And how it all relates to philosophy, theology, religion, and spirituality. People of different faiths and worldviews came together to explore the mystery of life and what we know about reality. At events like this, it becomes clear to me that people searching for truth are on the same path. The Hindu monks there from India, the Roman Catholics from literal Rome, the Buddhist meditation teachers, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ college students, and others who identified as very religious but of more than one. People like them all over the world are working to advance human knowledge, exploring new insights about the mystery of existence, and introducing a new paradigm that moves beyond secular materialism.
People from all walks of life coming together in such a way reminds me of what we encounter in today’s scripture readings. First, we heard from the prophet Isaiah who is very clear that it’s not just his own Israelite religion that God cares about, but those of all the nations. People of other religions and ethnicities and nationalities. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” God says through Isaiah. It’s an idea that is stated over and over again in the latter part of Isaiah, that God is the God of all people and not just one religious or national group.
In our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul addresses the idea that if God now accepts all nations, it must be because God rejected Israel. And Paul emphatically says, “By no means!” Just like Isaiah felt the need to explain that God accepts non-Israelites, now Paul feels the need to explain that God accepts non-Christians. In this section of the book of Romans Paul goes into great detail about how the Jews are loved and accepted, even those who don’t follow Jesus.
Our first two readings lay the groundwork for what appears in the Gospel. Isaiah says that God is the God of all nations, all religions, all ethnicities. And Paul says that even though God is the God of the Christians, God is still the God of the Jews too. God doesn’t need to reject one religion in order to be present in another.
What would make us think that way anyways? It’s the human tendency, the human sin, to want to be part of the special inside group at the expense of others. It makes us feel safe and accepted and right when others are outcasts and rejected and wrong. It can be unconscious, or it can be very evident in our actions.
This sinful pattern is what Jesus addresses in the first half of the Gospel reading. He’s pointing out how the Pharisees of his day saw eating with unwashed hands as something that made others unholy. Now we modern people know it's a good idea to wash our hands before we eat. It’s good hygiene and keeps us healthy. God certainly knows that and so a lot of those laws may have something to do with hygiene. But Jesus does not like to see these laws, which were meant to help the people, instead being used to hurt people. Being used to reject people, to make people outcasts, while lifting up insiders up as the most holy and righteous.
But when we read this text, we shouldn’t just think, “Yeah shame on those Pharisees” or think that Judaism is at fault for their misunderstanding of it. Professor Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary said about this passage: “The Pharisees aren’t people for us to hate. [We should see] the Pharisees are people like us. The religious insiders who have somehow warped a liberating message and a liberating religion into something that creates burdens and casts others out.”
His point is that this text should invite us to reflect on the ways our own religious worldview might create burdens or cast others out. And there’s lots of Christians who do that to lots of people these days. It’s a good practice to ask ourselves how we might be like the Pharisees. To ask God to reveal how we might have the same sinful pattern at work inside us.
The final scene of the Gospel today is Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. This is a challenging scene for many. The woman begs him to heal her daughter and Jesus resists. It seems Jesus is acting contrary to everything he’s just said. Contrary to everything we heard in Isaiah. Contrary to everything he taught about the love of God for all people. Some scholars suggest that this is the point when Jesus realizes, because of this woman, that his mission is for the whole world and not just for Israel. That Jesus changes his mind here and learns something. Although Jesus had already helped a Roman officer and two Gentile men possessed by demons earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. So some scholars suggest that this isn’t a learning experience for Jesus but rather is some kind of test to see if the woman’s faith is strong enough to warrant her daughter’s healing. That’s problematic in its own ways, as if she needs to earn Jesus’ approval or pass some test before he helps her.
But a third way of looking at this is how Thomas Keating understands it in his book Crisis of Faith, Crisis of Love. He explains that on the spiritual journey we will all have moments when it seems like God is rejecting us. Moments when we no longer feel God’s presence in our life. Moments when our faith is challenged by the hardships of life. In this story Jesus is giving the Canaanite woman such a moment. Not to test her, but to push her to grow to new levels of faith and trust and love. She trusts Jesus in spite of all evidence to the contrary that he will heal her daughter. She trusts in the face of apparent rejection that Jesus loves and accepts her. And even after Jesus insults her people as dogs, she demonstrates trust in him beyond anything we’ve yet seen in the Gospels. And so Jesus says “Woman great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” and her daughter was healed instantly.
The story invites us to trust Jesus in the face of apparent rejection. In those moments when it seems like God’s not there for us. In those moments when we feel like outcasts, rejects, the ones God doesn’t care about. In those moments when we feel like God doesn’t care enough to help, or like God might not even be there at all. In those moments when our faith is challenged, remember this story, and invite the Spirit to guide you through your own crisis of faith.
The lesson that God doesn’t reject those who we think are rejected brings us back to the rest of the passages we read this morning. We see that God welcomes and accepts and loves all people. The different nations and religions Isaiah describes. The Israelites as Paul makes clear. People who don’t follow all the purity codes as Jesus tells the Pharisees, and people like the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus for help. God loves all people. Jesus’ mission is for the whole world. And we are all one in the Holy Spirit—invited to embark on the holy adventure of having a relationship with God.
It is this holy adventure that Hannah Grace Swanson will enter into today. In a few moments she will be baptized into Christ Jesus. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism embodies the promises present in these scripture readings. The promise of God’s love for all people. And not just a vague ‘all people’ but specifically Hannah and you and me. Each of us is individually, personally loved and cherished by God. This God who pervades the whole universe, who is mysterious and awe-inspiring, is also close and personal and deeply cares for each of us. This is the promise that washes over us in the waters of Holy Baptism.
And so let us thank God for the gift of Baptism. For Jesus who died and rose again. For the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. For God’s love and grace and acceptance given to all people, and to each of us personally. Let us remember this day and always that we are God’s beloved children: welcomed, accepted, and unconditionally loved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian | August 20th, 2023