Sunday, August 14, 2011

No Boundary to Grace

We do not come to the banquet because of our righteousness but because of God's invitation. — A sermon for Proper 15a

SJF • Proper 15a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

All of our Scripture readings today point in the direction of healing the division that has existed since the days when God first created a covenant with Abraham and designated him as the ancestor of a special, holy, and chosen people. This was a people separated from all the other nations of the earth. Brother Millard spoke last week of the end-of-Sabbath Havdalah ceremony by which Jews celebrate their “chosenness” and being set apart by God’s covenant with them, reflected in the separation of the Sabbath from the other six regular days of the week. The covenant of separation was cherished by the Jewish people down through the centuries as a sign of their unique status in God’s eyes.

That covenant was also renewed many times down through the years. Moses recommitted the people to obey the Lord their God at Mount Sinai. Joshua recommitted them, challenging them to obey the Lord as he and his household swore to do, when they crossed the Jordan and gathered at Shechem. Ezra and Nehemiah reminded the people of these commandments after their exile in Babylon, and the Maccabees did the same after their liberation from the Greek empire. Time and again that message was hammered home: you are God’s special, chosen people, unique in all the world because of your relationship with the God who made heaven and earth. As for the rest of the world, as the prophet Micah said, each of the nations walks in the name of its own god, but we walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.

That message, as it came to be understood, was that salvation itself was only for the children of Israel — they alone were chosen and precious not only for this world but for the next as well. Among the Rabbis it became a topic of some interest as to whether a non-Jew could even have any share at all in the life of the world to come — that is, was it possible for anyone who was not among the Jewish people to be saved.

In spite of the promises of the prophets, such as Isaiah, that God had a special place reserved for the Gentiles who sought him out and dedicated themselves to righteousness in his name — in spite of these promises, the question of whether Gentiles were worth God’s notice, or God’s salvation, was still a hot topic by the time of Christ.

Jesus appears, by one reading of the incident recorded in this morning’s gospel, to have accepted that stricter view that Gentiles and foreigners (which is all the same thing to most Jewish people of that time), are not God’s concern — God’s interest is in making sure that the children of Israel are looked after, after the mess they’ve gotten themselves into, like lost sheep who have wandered off but who are still valuable to the shepherd. But then Jesus appears to be moved by the Canaanite woman’s persistence, and her chutzpah in talking back to him when Jesus indirectly compares her tormented daughter to a dog. She is bold enough to remind Jesus, who has himself brought up the analogy of food and the dinner table, that even the dogs are remembered and fed — along with the children — from the master’s table, even if it is only with crumbs.

Now, I’ve often wondered if Jesus really was being as cold-blooded as he appears to be to this poor woman with a sick child, or if he isn’t — in keeping with reading this passage as a test of his disciples — seeing whether they would abide by the prevailing view that foreigners are trash and not worth their trouble, or if they would show the kind of gracious openness Jesus himself shows on other occasions. You note that the disciples come first to urge him to send her away...

But that is a topic for another sermon. Because whatever the reason, whether Jesus was moved by this woman or testing the disciples, in the end he broke through that boundary to grace and allowed it to flow freely to a Gentile. And of course, by the end of Matthew’s Gospel it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends salvation for the whole world, as he sends the disciples out to baptize all nations — and we might even translate that as all “ethnics” which is to say all Gentiles — into the faith of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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In today’s epistle, Saint Paul addresses the question of how this might work in the manner of a good Rabbi — which he often reminded those to whom he wrote he was, himself a student at the feet of Gamaliel, who had himself been a student of the great Rabbi Hillel. Hillel had been an advocate of the generous view that Gentiles could be saved, and Paul no doubt believed that in Jesus Christ this doctrine of his spiritual grandfather had come true.

Much of Paul’s letter to the Romans is an effort to explain just how this might work. In the section we heard today the image is almost one of a seating at a banquet. Those who had formerly been seated — God’s chosen ones — have lost their seats because of their disobedience, their misbehavior, and it is only that misbehavior that has opened up the possibility for the Gentiles to take their place for a time. And that “for a time” is important because Paul promises the eventual ushering back in of all of God’s people all whom God foreknew and chose as his own — Jew or Gentile — for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

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In God’s good time, there is plenty of room for Gentile and Jew alike on the mountain that Isaiah envisages. In God’s good time there is no boundary to grace, no limit to the abundance of God’s generosity and God’s patience with Jew and Gentile alike. The ultimate message that Paul is transmitting in his Letter to the Romans is that salvation is the work of God: just as creation is the work of God, so too is the new creation in Christ; it is God’s work.

It is God’s party, and God invites whoever God wishes. It is not for self-righteous party crashers to push themselves forward on the basis of their own righteousness, Nor, even worse, is it right for some at the party to seek to keep those others they judge unworthy out, but for all to trust in the saving of mercy of God as the only basis for admission to the banquet. We are not invited to the banquet on the basis of our righteousness, but his righteousness, and his generosity.

There is plenty of room at the table, and crumbs aplenty under it — but believe me, no child of God invited to that table will be made to eat those crumbs, but will be given the choice and richest portions of the feast. God’s grace is God’s, after all, and our God is a God of abundant blessing and not of parsimonious stinginess, a God not of crumbs and crusts but of marvelous abundance of multiplied loaves and bread showered from heaven. To God be the glory, henceforth and forever more.