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All For One and One For All
July 22, 2012
Genesis 12:1-7; Matthew 15:21-28
During the summers when I was a child, it was not uncustomary for me to receive multiple doses of Vacation Bible School. The Presbyterians were usually first, followed by the Methodists; then I would be obligated to attend the Baptist Bible School with my cousins. I didn’t mind this because overall I felt the Baptists had the best music of all three Bible Schools. They didn’t seem to mind if you got a little “Spirit-filled”; unlike the Presbyterians who would rather you sit still and only play the tambourine when the teacher motioned to you.
One of the songs I learned from the Baptists was an aerobic number called “Father Abraham”. You may be familiar with it yourself. It goes like this…
Father Abraham had many sons,
And many sons had Father Abraham.
I am one of them and so are you,
So let’s just praise the Lord!
Right arm! Left arm!
Right foot! Left foot!
Nod your head!
And you’d just keeping singing in this fashion until you either passed out or someone got injured.
Now, these are not theologically rigorous lyrics. From this song I basically learned that all people are somehow descendants of Abraham and for this we should praise God.
But what this catchy little song failed to teach me was how and why this incredible ancestry came to be? Why Abraham? What made him so special?
The song I realize is about Father Abraham, not the Abram of today’s Old Testament story. Our Abram is the prelude to the familiar Father Abraham, and these are the first notes:
About 4000 years ago in ancient Turkey there lived an eccentric man named Abram. Around the time of his Father’s death, Abram began to hear voices. In time, Abram believed that those voices were the very call of God, and so he dared to obey those voices.
“Leave your country,” God told Abram. “Leave your people and your family. Leave all that you hold dear and familiar. Go to the land I will show you.”
So Abram left, as the Lord had told him. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but in leaving Haran Abram would alter human history forever.
He set out in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why he was going, only that God had commanded him.
Now, I think a lot of us at this point aren’t very surprised that Abram responded to God’s voice. That’s what people in the Bible do. Why would someone write a story about an old man who heard voices then subsequently sought out psychiatric help? That’s not the kind of stuff that religions are founded upon.
But we cannot underestimate what a journey like this would have meant to a person living in the ancient world. To leave behind all the comforts of home—at the age of 75—for an aimless nomadic existence? It’s ludicrous!
But Abram’s departure from Haran is about more than a change in geography. In leaving Haran for Canaan, Abram left all that was comfortable and familiar—all custom and convenience, family and friends, all the regularity and rhythm of his life. The only thing he would retain of Haran was what he carried in his heart and in his memory. Abram journeyed from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was conventional to all things strange.
In Hebrews we find this analysis of Abram’s actions, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country.”
In his journey into the unknown, Abram embraced ignorance, relinquished control, and chose to live with confidence in God’s promise to bless him in a new and strange place. But in order for that to happen, it required a second choice on his part. Not only did he have to leave his geographic place, that was choice number one, he had to also leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision of the world. In order to receive God’s blessing Abram must forfeit that fundamentally human tendency to exclude the strange and the stranger.
And if this obsure, Semitic nomad was capable of doing that, then God’s staggering promise would come to pass and Abram would become the benefactor of all the world.
Two-thousand years later, in his letter to the Romans, Paul asks a provocative question, “Is God the God of Jews only? Or is he not also the God of Gentiles?”
In contrast to every attempt to claim God as ours, and ours alone, Paul says that in Abraham God loves all people—equally.
As human beings our default reaction is to fear what we don’t understand, to marginalize those who make us uncomfortable, and to dismiss all that is different from who and what we know. In his book Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson comments on our sectarian narrow-mindedness. He writes:
“We exclude all who don’t suit our preferences. We become a sect. Sects are composed of men and women who reinforce their basic selfism by banding together with others who are pursuing similar brands of selfism, liking the same foods, believing in the same idols, playing the same games, despising the same outsiders…A sect, Peterson claims, is accomplished by community reduction, getting rid of what does not please us, getting rid of what offends us, whether of ideas or…of people.”
Peterson’s analysis of sects reminds me of the lovingly-irreverent writer Ann Lamott who once claimed: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
The bottom line to Abraham’s role in history isn’t that he is the foundational hub around which Islam, Judaism, and Christianity turn. It’s that through Abraham—through this one individual—God enacts universal acceptance of all humanity. This story is one of the great paradoxes of our faith: that through the obedience and courage of one individual, all peoples of the earth receive God’s blessing, from generation to generation.
All for one and one for all.
Yet…since God’s embrace for all humanity was achieved through Abraham, why then are so many among us marginalized, left out, unwanted?
We stand and profess God’s action through Abraham, not as an act of remembrance of what God has done; but because of what God is doing through us.
Through Abraham, we are called to a universal and inclusive embrace of all people.
The story from Matthew’s gospel makes this point especially lucid. Notice how difficult it is for “covenant people” to be inclusive toward outsiders.
But first, a quick digression…
I heard a friend tell a story once, describing how her first grade teacher would assign students into reading groups based on how well they could read. The teacher would name all the groups after birds so that everyone would feel equal. But you could always tell how well you were doing by what bird you were named after. There were the Eagles, the Robins, and the Pigeons. The pigeons, she said, were not reading War and Peace.
When examining this story from Matthew, it’s helpful to think of it as a kind of test given simultaneously to two sets of people: the woman and the disciples. Watch who ends up in the pigeon group.
Matthew tells us that the woman approaches Jesus with the traditional cry of a beggar: “Have mercy on me!” She humbles herself and adds the title “Lord”—a term she will repeat twice more. Because she knows something of Judaism, she calls him Son of David out of respect.
Jesus says nothing, and Matthew deliberately draws our attention to this point. This woman’s daughter is suffering terribly but when the woman appeals to Jesus with humility and reverence, he acts as if he doesn’t hear her.
At this moment the woman must decide if she’s willing to persevere.
Meanwhile, Jesus is testing the disciples. He ignores the woman to see what they will do. “Send her away” they say “She keeps crying out after us.” They are exaggerating a little here—there’s no indication the woman approached them. But nevertheless they’re confident Jesus will do what they say.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” Jesus responds, apparently agreeing with them. The disciples were likely pleased with this response and assumed that Jesus’ next move would be to send her away.
Only he doesn’t send her away, but watches the disciples to see how they will respond. Will any of them say a word on this woman’s behalf? (long pause)
The Canaanite mother will not go away. In her mind she can hear her daughter’s screams. In desperation, she kneels on the ground and utters a single phrase: “Lord, help me.”
Now the tension in the disciples starts to build. Their theology tells them this woman is to be shunned, rejected. They would say the very same thing Jesus did.
And yet . . . they listen to the anguished plea of a heartsick mother for her suffering child. The situation playing out in front of them is striking at their deeply held assumptions about who God loves. Could it be that God is better, kinder, and more merciful than their own theology?
Jesus speaks again—still facing the disciples. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” By saying this, Jesus is not being callus towards the woman, he’s humiliating the disciples. He’s showing them that it’s one thing to have contempt for someone behind his or her back. But it is another thing altogether to hear the ugliness of our thoughts and feelings expressed out loud to a real human being.
The disciples abstain from speaking. Something in them was moved but their theology was just too obstructive, so they did nothing; and their inaction was as good as saying, “Get lost, lady, you’re making us uncomfortable.”
Jesus turns to the woman.
Of the two primary Greek words available for “dog”, Matthew selects Koon-ar-ie-oy (kunariois) – a little dog, a “doggette” if you will—to soften what he says to the woman.
And her response is unbelievable. “Yes, Lord,” she says, calling him Lord for the third time. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She picks up on the diminutive form of the word “dogs” and uses the same form for the word “crumbs”: “even the little doggettes get the little crumbettes from the master’s tables.”
Here is a woman who comes back at Jesus with equal parts grace and grit. This is one of those moms that you don’t want to mess with—even if you are Jesus.
She continues… “You are still my Lord and master. Go ahead and make it look like you’re pushing me away but I’m not going anywhere. By all means, feed the kids, gesturing to the disciples. But I bet you have a crumb even for me. I bet you that do.”
She simply won’t give up.
Finally Jesus turns to face the woman and the mask is off. For a moment Jesus concealed the generosity of his heart but that moment is quickly past.
The test is over. She’s aced the final.
“O woman,” he says, “Great is your faith.”
The disciples look on in astonishment. This woman—their enemy, their inferior—has been given one of the greatest commendations ever bestowed by the one they follow so closely. It turns out that they—they who thought they basked in the exclusivity of what C. S. Lewis called the “Inner Ring”—ultimately belong in the Pigeon reading group. And this pagan gentile woman is one of the Eagles.
Every day, we too are tested: in our offices and cubicles, at school desks and cafeterias, at the boundary lines between nations, race, and cultures. We’re even tested here in the church. Perhaps—because of what we know about God and who God calls us to be—we’re especially tested in the church.
I read a blog post this week about unwelcoming churches. The author posed a question to his readers: If you had a lineup of people you could bring to church, who would actually be accepted by your congregation? Forget trying to “fix” anyone, or change anyone’s habits or opinions or lifestyle. Pretend that these people will never change their ways or become less unusual or “sinful”, but they’ll come to church for years, seeking God, and possibly offending everyone the entire time. Who would really be likely to join your church?
It’s an interesting question, and perhaps one we don’t think about all that often.
He goes on to offer a list of potential church members for readers to consider. After hearing this line up, try to imagine how UPC would score.
A man with really bad body odor.
A woman with a completely irritating personality.
A Christian who exercises her gift of speaking in tongues. Loudly.
An abortion doctor.
A flamboyant gay man.
A flamboyant gay couple.
A flamboyant gay couple with an adopted child.
A schitzophrenic who dresses as a police officer.
A registered sex offender.
A wealthy CEO in a power suit.
A guy whose humor begins and ends with knock-knock jokes.
A pre-op transsexual.
A post-op transsexual.
An ardent and vocal communist.
A porn star.
A gang member.
A Middle-Eastern radical Muslim.
A guy covered in tattoos of demons.
After reading this list, I recalled the very Southern and traditional congregation I grew up in; one that was downright offended if someone dared showing up on Sunday morning wearing jeans.
How did UPC score? What if you were sitting next to one of those people during the Call to Worship and had to give them a hug?
I bet there’s a church out there for every one of us not to feel welcome in. I know I can find a church where I wouldn’t be welcome.
“Church shopping” isn’t just a cute phrase; it’s exactly what people do. When we’re searching for a church we want to find a community in which we feel appreciated, valued, and respected—and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think what we expect, however, is a community in which we can feel comfortable. When it comes to church membership, comfortable should never be part of the deal. I should say it differently: one should never choose personal comfort over and against the inclusion of another. Comfortable, see, flies in the face of what God called Abraham to do. When God calls us to be inclusive, it is a radical call–beyond the conventional and beyond our most deep and powerful fears. To get to the proverbial “promised land” we must relinquish our fear of the unknown and untested, our fear of others whose ways and lifestyle we do not understand, and our fear that we, ourselves, could wind up being excluded.
It’s a beautiful thing when very different people can worship God in harmony. It just doesn’t happen that often.
But it could and it should. Because that bold and dazzling vision of inclusivity is at the heart of who the God-of-Abraham calls us to be.
“Abraham and Sarah had many sons and daughters. I am one of them and so are you. And so are the street youth who woke up in our courtyard this morning. And so are the Muslims who worship two streets away from us. And so are all those whose lives are so incredibly different than our own. And that, THAT is worthy of God’s praise.
In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.