August 20, 2023

The 12th Sunday after Pentecost

August 20, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings:  Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28

     From St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

   Today’s Psalm opens with the words, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity.” Those few words are a reminder of the goodwill and peace that can permeate our communities when we choose to be at unity with each other. It is also a reminder of the Mission of the Church as stated in our Catechism: our mission “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 355). Oh, how good and pleasant unity is, indeed! Such is the very promise of God.

     And yet, reflecting on all of this week’s scripture lessons, I came face to face with the reality of just how deeply we are divided not only as a global community and nation, but as the body of Christ itself. And I find that when I trace the source of these divisions, most often they are rooted in a desire not to include, but rather, exclude those who are different from us, and maintain a sense that we are, somehow, more special and everyone else unwelcome outsiders.

This tendency towards exclusion can be traced as far back as the classic division between Jew and Gentile. Somehow, the understanding that an entire nation of people was chosen by God to show and demonstrate the way to peace and unity with God and neighbor and, thereby, be a light, an example, to all the nations of this world, morphed into an elitism that today still fosters division and separation and does so in the Name of God. The result? Rather than being blessed and united, it seems that not only the world, but our very nation so often described as being founded upon Judeo-Christian values, wallows in a despair marked by strife, hatred, threats, and retribution.

    You know, when Jesus, in this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, dismissed the Gentile woman and referred to her and her people as dogs unworthy of the promises of God, he fell right into that old trap of Jew vs. Gentile; that old “I’m better than you” syndrome that we still hear today. And yet, it is through her response, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Masters’ table”, that Jesus came to understand that faith is not restricted to national origin. All are worthy of God’s grace. Remember: All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. What matters is not one’s pedigree, but rather, what is in one’s heart. Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus took the ultra-religious authorities to task when he dismissed their rituals as empty and having completely missed the point. Jesus says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles us, but rather, what comes out of our mouths.” The mouth only speaks what is already in the heart and, in Hebrew anatomy the heart is where our decisions are made. That is why the Prophet Joel (Joel 2:13) said, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Jesus says that evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander – including that feeling that I am better than you - come from the heart, and it is these things that defile and make us unclean, and nothing else. It is not failing to do the right ritual that gets in the way of unity with God and each other, but rather, the attitude, the choices, of one’s heart.

Now this particular story of Jesus and the Gentile woman disturbs some Christians because it suggests that Jesus had to learn something. But in reality, this story affirms Jesus’ humanity, his one-ness, his unity with us. He demonstrates that everyone of us needs to not only learn but be constantly reminded of what it means to live as and be God’s people whether we are Jew or Gentile.

And yet still today, many – even people of faith - do everything they can to suggest they are better and more worthy of God’s grace than anyone else. And sadly, that message is often upheld and proclaimed by the Church. That fallacy was the very issue St. Paul confronted in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans. Paul had heard that some in the Church at Rome were bragging about how good they are and that Christians – and Christians alone - are now the chosen people of God. Paul goes right to heart of such balderdash saying, “Do you think God has rejected his people? By no means!” The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable – they are eternal. He goes on to remind the Church that the entire human race descended from the same creation. And as the same creation, we – all of us - are enslaved to sin not so that God can punish us, but rather, so that every human being can experience the reconciling joy of God’s mercy and do so equally. God’s promises, Paul says, are irrevocable. All who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.  One’s relationship with God is not based upon race, gender, ethnic origin, economic status, sexual orientation, or ritual but rather, like all healthy relationships, unity with God and each other depends upon what abides in our hearts.

     Joseph understood that very well. See, if there was anyone in the Old Testament entitled to seek revenge, it was Joseph. Genesis tells us that through a series of events that would rival any soap opera, Joseph, the one-time slave sold off by his brothers, had become like a “father to Pharaoh (who made him) ruler over all the land of Egypt.” Joseph had everything he could possibly need to exact perfect revenge. But he had learned that God works with one’s choices in life – even the bad ones. His brothers meant him harm and yet, God turned their evil intention into something good. Joseph consciously chooses not to take revenge and that choice – a choice from the very depths of his heart – will enable him to be reconciled to his brothers and reunited with his family. Reconciliation, unity, is always possible when we are willing to set vengeance aside and forgive those who have wronged us. It is possible if we allow God to change our hearts, when we realize that all of us are equal in sin and in our need for grace. Joseph’s example reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins as we; too, forgive those who have sinned against us.” Even when revenge appeared justified, Joseph demonstrated that people of God choose to forgive, choose reconciliation because we know, to paraphrase the Psalmist, “… how good and pleasant it is when” we choose to forgive.

     Imagine a world where every Christian – every Jew, every Muslim, every person of faith - stepped forward, forgave one another, no matter how badly we have been treated, and chose to live differently. Unity among churches, families, and whole communities would be possible because I believe everyone would recognize that, as St. Paul said, we are all sinners in equal need of God’s grace; that we need to forgive and be forgiven just as much as anyone else. Unity requires reconciliation, and yet, reconciliation cannot begin until hearts are changed, hearts forgive. Our lessons today invite us to admit who we really are and ask God to be in our hearts, ask God to truly change how we think and live, ask God to help us forgive each other, be reconciled, and at unity.

     You know, I believe that the greatest example of unity and reconciliation at work in this Parish and every parish is found in an often overlooked or even shunned part of our weekly observance and celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It is found and affirmed in that moment when, having confessed our sins, asked for God’s forgiveness, and received absolution – that assurance of God’s forgiveness, we then turn to each other extend our hand and affirm that we also desire to forgive each other and be forgiven by each other. That is the core message of “The Peace” – that moment when we say, “Peace be with you.” It is more than a gesture when it comes from the heart.

And it is in that moment that we are now ready to gather from south and north, from west and east, rich and poor, male and female, straight and gay, of different ethnic origins and cultures. And for one fleeting moment, we gather as a united family of faith at this one altar sharing the one and the same bread and wine: the undivided body and blood of Jesus Christ through whom we are reconciled to God and to each other as one united community; we share the body and blood of Jesus Christ who said, “I am with you always.” That was and is his promise.

    Friends, God promises are irrevocable. How we choose to honor and live those promises is solely up to us. They are God’s gift and calling to all people of faith. May God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation continue to move in our hearts so deeply that it truly influences our every choice and action until all people of God by faith and faith alone, are united once more with God and each other in Christ. Amen.