August 16, 2020 The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From Psalm 133, “O, how good and pleasant it is when brethren” (when people) “live together in unity.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Psalm 133 is one of my favorite Psalms in holy scripture. Besides the fact that its opening words in Latin, “Ecce Quam Bonum”, form the motto of my Alma Mater: The University of the South at Sewanee, TN, the Psalmist affirms that when people commit themselves to truly work together for the common good of all people, peace and unity abound. And that resultant peace and unity, the Psalmist says, can transform not just a community but, like oil flowing down upon the beard Aaron and then his collar, and then like dew upon the hills, can transform an entire nation. I hear in the words of Psalm 133  our Episcopal understanding that the Mission of Christ’s Church is “to restore all people” – and all means all – “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 355). Oh, how good and pleasant unity is, indeed!

    And I find that message, that hope, timely for us as a community of faith and as a nation. While we might wonder, with all the strife and violent division that continues to grip our nation this morning, if the Psalmist was rather naïve to suggest such a way of living is possible, those words “Oh how good and pleasant it is, when brethren (when people) live together in unity” offer hope, a dream, a vision for what could be. In fact, they call us to step forward and make that dream, that vision, that hope a reality.

    St. John the Divine in “The Revelation Jesus Christ” spoke of a similar hope and dream for the future. In chapter 7:9 he writes, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from alltribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…”. Unity is possible when people grasp God’s vision of what the world can look like when and if God’s people choose to live differently, choose to not only embrace God’s hope, but share it, demonstrate it in every word and action; when God’s people choose to live it.

    Hope and choosing are at the heart of today’s scripture lessons. Our reading from Genesis offers the hope, the promise, that reconciliation with those who have wronged us is always possible, no matter what the crime. We might remember last week’s reading from Genesis where Joseph was betrayed by his brothers who sold him into slavery. That story from Genesis continues as Joseph ends up in Egypt where he is sold to Potiphar. In Chapter 39, Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, but he flees from the scene. Nevertheless, he is falsely accused of attempted rape and imprisoned. In Chapter 40, Joseph emerges as an interpreter of dreams. In chapter 41, he is brought forward to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He predicts a famine and urges Pharaoh to start storing up food. He is correct in his prediction and, therefore, Pharaoh puts him in a place of absolute authority over the entire nation. In Chapter 42, Joseph’s brothers appear pleading for food and he messes with them a lot! For in Chapters 43 and 44, we read about all the tests Joseph gave his brothers to prove themselves worthy of his government’s assistance.

But now, in Chapter 45, when Joseph is in a position to do with his brothers whatever he pleases to do; when he is given the chance to exact vengeance upon these men who have become foreigners to him, who speak a different language, worship a different God, and dress differently than the Egyptians who have become his adopted family; Joseph chooses the higher road. Our reading tells us that rather than exacting understandable revenge, he is overcome with compassion and longing for unity. The story concludes with Joseph and his brothers being reconciled with one another as forgiveness and grace abounds, and their lives are made whole once more.  Joseph acknowledges that while his brothers meant him evil, God meant it for good. This doesn’t mean that God meant for this whole situation to happen, but rather, that God took an evil situation and turned it to good.

See, the promise in this reading from the Old Testament is that God works with our choices – even bad ones – to further God’s purposes. And what are those purposes? To restore all people to unity with God and each other, just as we once were when the world was created. But, reconciliation with each other, restored relationships and unity, requires a choosing on our part. A choosing, like Joseph, to forgive and be merciful. A choosing to act and be catalysts for hope, change, and reconciliation.

     Our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans touches upon the age-old argument about whether or not God’s back has turned against the Jews for rejecting the Christ. Such teaching has been so grievously propagated by so many Christian churches over the centuries, it has become the source of antisemitic rhetoric and fascist violence by those who despise and vilify our Jewish brothers and sisters still today. Paul confronts that false teaching reminding his hearers, and us, that we are all under the power of sin whether we are Christians or Jews. We all descended from Adam and, therefore, we all share in sin and death. Paul urges these Gentiles, and us, to remember just how far outside the covenant we were. And he says, if we have received grace and mercy to become children of God, then so have the Jews. We are all created in the same image of God. All of us are imprisoned in disobedience – even God’s chosen people - and need the mercy of God: the mercy and grace of God proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul says that God’s promises are irrevocable. God’s promises are eternal. So, Paul says, choose to embrace the promise, the gift, you have received: the incredible reconciling power and grace of God’s mercy and then, share it, foster it, and live it.

     In this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew we hear two distinct and yet, very connected stories. Our lesson begins with a reminder that it’s not what we eat that defiles us, but what comes from the heart. What comes out of our mouths – the vitriol and hate and disdain for others - begins in our hearts. And we need to remember that in Hebrew biology, the heart is not where emotions are, but rather, where decisions are made. The mind and the heart are synonymous in Hebrew teaching. So, to tell that racist joke, to utter a slur, to insist or even think that your particular race of people is superior to any other, is to deny the Creator who has made everyone in his own image. Again, I am reminded of that passage from the Revelation, “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”  As we might remember from last week’s lesson from Romans, “All who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” And “all” beloved means all! Jesus says that what comes out of our mouths reveals what is truly in our hearts and minds; reveals who we really are.  And Jesus says that either brings glory to God or defiles us.

      Our gospel lesson then shifts to the story of the Canaanite woman who comes pleading for mercy and is rebuffed by Jesus because she is an outsider – a Gentile. But here is something unique in this story, she calls him Lord because she recognizes who he really is: she recognizes Jesus as the Christ. And that is something about Jesus that the religious elite standing all around her could not grasp. This story reveals that she is not an outsider at all, but rather, an insider, a child of God. She is a believer and, in citing that even dogs get to eat the crumbs under their master’s tables, she reminds Jesus that all who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved. And Jesus agrees with her.

     This story and each of our lessons this morning challenges the very mess we find so alive in our culture and communities today. It challenges our sexism, racism, and any thoughts of superiority – that tendency to consider those who are different as somehow, distant from God. And therein this story and all of today’s lessons offer hope. They offer a foretaste of what God’s kingdom is like: Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, standing before the Lamb acknowledging Jesus is Lord and all of them, working together to be at peace and unity with God and one another. But, as we have discovered before, making those words, “Thy Kingdom come” more than a prayer requires that we – each of us - choose to live differently, choose to repent of any past complacency or silence, and choose to speak up for God’s values, God’s ways, God’s hope. Because, beloved, God’s ways, God’s values, God’s hope, God’s dream for this world, must be our vision, hope and dream, our ways and values, as people of God. The choice, once again, is ours alone to make.

     The Psalmist proclaims, “O, how good and pleasant it is when brethren – when people - live together in unity.” May God grant us the grace to step forward and make that dream, that promise of unity a reality – a reality in our hearts, this community, and our nation. Amen.