August 20, 2017

Even the Dogs

The great theologian Karl Barth used to say that a Christian should have an open Bible in one hand and a copy of the daily newspaper in the other. It's good advice to follow, for our faith is not meant to be something abstract that is detached from our everyday lives. To the extent that our faith is a living faith, it will speak to the situations in our lives and those things happening in the world.

That is why Jesus became incarnate in human flesh--to show us that the goal of our faith is not to escape this evil world around us. Rather, God chooses to enter into this world and into our lives, to take on our flesh and become one of us so that that this world is transformed, so that our lives are transformed here and now, and so that we ourselves might join God in this work and transform the world around us.

This was one point of Barth's statement that we should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. A faith that seeks to be spiritual but has nothing to say about events happening in the world is a lifeless faith and it is certainly not the gospel. Jesus himself said, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly," and he was not only speaking of a life to come, he was speaking of this life today.

Of course, following Barth's advice--holding the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other--will force us to wade into issues that are controversial and extremely complex. One of those, of course is politics. Politics, as we know, is a very touchy subject, one that is best to avoid discussing around the table at family gatherings if we want things to remain civil. In light of this, churches often make one of two mistakes: they either pledge allegiance to one issue or one party or, on the other hand, they make the mistake of avoiding politics all together.

Both responses fail to understand the nature of the church. What we see in scripture is that God calls the church to be deeply engaged in society. In this sense, the church is inherently political. Political is such a loaded term, and it carries a lot of baggage. So perhaps instead of saying that the church is inherently political, we should say that the church is inherently involved in domestic and foreign affairs. For this is what we mean when we say that the church is political. We don't mean that the church joins a political party, for that is a dangerous marriage. We mean that the church has something to say about things that happen in society. The church is called to address what happens to the lives of real people domestically and abroad, here in our own neighborhood and around the world. This is central to our faith. So if it is helpful to abandon the word political and use the phrase "involved in domestic and foreign affairs" or some other phrase, lets do that.

In fact it’s one of the most pervasive and central themes in the scriptures. Time and again we hear God call God's people to work on behalf of those in society who are wronged, oppressed, taken advantage of. Reading through the prophets of the Old Testament, we hear it again and again, for the prophets of the Old Testament were not priests preaching sermons in places of worship encouraging the people to deepen their spiritual lives. Quite the contrary. God sent Isaiah to speak to the king, to tell the king that he needed to change the way society was working. He needed to prevent people from depriving the innocent of their rights. He needed to put an end to nepotism and corruption. If the king was unwilling to do that, then God would remove the king from his throne and put someone else in his place.

Consider also Amos. He was a shepherd living in the rural area around Tekoa. God called him and sent him to the big city to proclaim in the streets that God was not going to stand for what society was doing, for they were depriving the needy of their legal rights, they were burdening the poor with unfair tax policies. This needed to change, God declared.

Consider also Micah. In one of the most memorable passages from the Old Testament, he calls to task the people in the church who think that the only mission of the church is to worship. For he tells them, "God is tired of your offerings and your special music and the preacher's fancy words. What God really wants, what true worship is, is to "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

This call to engagement is not only in the Old Testament. As N.T. Wright puts it in his book How God Became King, “Jesus’ launch of the kingdom—God’s worldwide sovereignty on earth as it is in heaven—is the central aim of his mission, the thing for which he lived and died and rose again.”

Holding the newspaper in one hand this past week, we know that there is much to be concerned about.

But what does the Bible give us in the other hand?

First century Jewish religious teaching is dominated by long and detailed regulations concerning what could be eaten and what was not to be eaten.

There is a strong desire for ritual purity and it was thought that what a person ate had an impact on this state of ritual purity or impurity. These laws placed a high premium on trying to keep the individual person pure.

But Jesus calls us to rethink this notion: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

But as Jesus claims that what comes out of our mouth is what defiles, it is precisely the words that come out of Jesus’ mouth in his encounter with the Canaanite woman that disturb us. How can it be that Jesus can speak this way, to this woman whose daughter is tormented?

Jesus’ attitude and language in his encounter with this Canaanite woman is shocking. She comes to him as a woman in need, as a mother desperate to find someone to help her daughter whose life is in shambles. With all the love that a mother has for a child, she comes to Jesus and begs for help: “Have mercy on me, Lord.”

But Jesus is silent.

How can he do that? How can Jesus ignore the cries of a woman desperate for help?

Even more than that, Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I am not sent to help the Canaanites. I am only to help those who are part of the house of Israel. We have to care for those who are a part of us, those who are in our community. Those who are not a part of us, those who are beyond these walls, are not our concern. We need to focus on our own group, our own needs. We need to take care of ourselves.

And if we have thought that Jesus has been rude up to this point, he goes even further, by saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

How can this be?

How can Jesus, just a short while earlier, say that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that makes a person unrighteous. And yet, having said these things, Jesus now says to this Canaanite woman that he cannot help her because she isn’t a part of his community. How can he say that he can’t help her because it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs? That it’s not fair to divert some of our resources to help those who are not a part of us. How can he say that?

And that is precisely the point that Jesus is trying to make. As he often does, Jesus uses a situation or an encounter to teach us something. In this encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus is showing us that what comes out of us, what we say and what we do, it is these things that defile us, not what we eat or drink.  He teaches us by showing us how harmful language can be.

When we say that we can’t use some of our resources to help others until we get our house in order, this defiles us.

When we say that we can’t give to others until we have what we need--this defiles us.

When we say that we can’t provide food to the hungry because our retirement accounts are a bit short--this defiles us.

Jesus is showing us that our faith is inherently political--it is inherently involved in domestic and foreign affairs--our faith is inherently concerned with helping those in need and breaking down stereotypes and prejudices and injustices, and the church cannot do this if we think church is only about our own personal salvation and our own spiritual life.

Jesus Christ time and again embodied the truth that God values all persons regardless of any aspect of their identity.

Jesus Christ showed us that racism, such as his people had toward the Canaanites and such as is on display in our nation this week, racism stands "in stark, irreconcilable contradiction to God’s intention for humanity, for it rejects part of the human family and is utterly contrary to God’s Word made incarnate in Jesus. It elevates human-created hierarchies over God’s freely given grace and love. It is a lie about the human family, for it seeks to say that some people are less than other people, and it falsely claims that God favors some people over the entirety of creation." (http://pres-outlook.org/2017/08/pcusa-leaders-condemn-white-supremacy-racism/)

Events like these serve to remind the church that we have much work to do. May our faith embolden us with courage as we seek to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. We know and proclaim that Christ is the light that shines brightly in the darkness. We believe that no powers can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Events like these serve to remind the church that we have much work to do so that sin may be expelled and the redemptive love of God made manifest among us.

Amen.