16 August 2020 Ordinary Time (15)
And the walls came tumbling down

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: 10-28

Opening Prayer
When we are shocked or offended, make us curious. When we are riled up, breathe calm into us. When we are fearful and want to turn away, keep us connected. In these ways build us into a house of welcome– a tent big enough to hold all the people you love. Amen.

Reflection:   And the walls came tumbling down
Our gospel reading this morning includes one of the most disturbing stories told about Jesus in the whole of the New Testament. The temptation is to explain it away but it is our loss if we do so.

You may remember it: Jesus is in Tyre and Sidon, Gentile country, for a little rest and relaxation. Yet even there he is recognised and a desperate woman accosts him, begging for mercy for her demon-possessed daughter. She breaks every custom and barrier: gender (women are not supposed to address unrelated men), ethnicity (Canaanites were an historic enemy of the Jews), religion, demon possession (unclean, unclean, unclean).

At first Jesus does as expected and simply ignores her. The disciples urge him to send her away. She continues to shout. He turns to her and using the derogatory term “dog” for Gentiles, tells her I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel….It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

We gasp. We are not accustomed to such rudeness from Jesus’ lips. It is particularly alarming because in the preceding verses Jesus is lecturing the crowd, saying it is not what we take into our mouths that defiles us (a repudiation of the kosher food regulations), but it is what comes out of our mouths that defiles us – what we say and do that harms and diminishes others. And then he goes and does it himself. Diminishes the desperate foreign woman with his harsh words.

Fortunately she is not offended. She asks again, accepting the designation dog, saying even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.

You could hear a pin drop….and the penny. In that moment Jesus is converted. He understands that God’s mercy is for everyone, not just the house of Israel. The barrier between Jew and Gentile is broken; the walls come crumbling down. And there is made a space at the table for people like us….you and me (we are Gentiles) and, indeed, everyone who wants to be there.

I love this story. I love Jesus’ humanity– which is manifested first in his ill-tempered response and second in his capacity to grow and change. And I love the incitement to us to let ourselves be changed by our encounters with “outsiders”. In the eyes of God, there is no us and them, only us. In the heart of God, there is only one race, the human race. In the kingdom of God, there is room for each and every one.

Alongside Matthew we read this morning from Isaiah 56 the vision of welcomed foreigners and the house of God being a house of prayer for all peoples. The psalmist chants Let all the peoples praise God. We hear the good news: let no one be impeded.

Churches are infamous for preferring to attract people like the ones already in the club. But the hard and happy truth is that we grow most as human beings and in faith in our encounters with those who are not like us. A church that can reach out to true strangers entertains angels. We are shaken and stirred. We grow up when we let go of the illusion that there is only one right way to be.

And we, like Jesus, learn more from our failures than our successes. Letting go of guilt and shame and reaching for the learning, we are better able to grasp God’s intention and to flow with the great current of love that is the golden thread binding all of life together.

It feels trite to say and sing All are welcome. But it is not. It requires calm courage and an open heart to lean into differences and extend an open hand. It requires a willingness to be changed by what we experience. It is an act of faith.

In these weird Covid times, when we are unable to gather in the fullness of our community, we practice our welcome everywhere…how we greet strangers in the grocery store, on the street, wherever we encounter them. We listen for stories that aren’t about people like us, put ourselves in their shoes, and consider what it means to love God and stranger as we love ourselves. We reach past our fear about what is happening in the world in order to dream a new world where all are truly welcome and the well-being of all is as important as our personal well-being. It’s a big ask. But then we have a big God.

God guide us and lead us past fear and out of ignorance, so that the kingdom of God may flourish amongst us.   Amen.

Hymn   All are welcome (Marty Haugen, revised, v3 Canon Clare MacLaren)
sung by the Newcastle Cathedral Virtual Choir


Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where prophets speak,
and words are strong and true,
where all God’s children dare to seek
to dream God’s reign anew.
Here the cross shall stand as witness
and as symbol of God’s grace;
here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house that needs no walls –
that bridges time and space;
where the lonely and the suff’ring ones
know a virtual embrace.
Where despite our social distance
we may share God’s healing grace –
held in prayer by all who love and miss them:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter,
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

May every stumbling block become a stepping stone
as we walk forward in the Way of Jesus,
fearless and ready to reach out beyond our own limitations
to share the good news of God who loves all creation.