This sermon begins a month long series titled “What the World Needs Now.” Perhaps this title should have a question mark at the end, because I don’t know the answer. It is an exploration, a longing, to discover a way through the mess we are in. The title came to me while looking at the Common Lectionary Gospel passages for September. They are my guideposts as I share my explorations with you. Today we look at how we relate to other religions, followed by how is Jesus still relevant, sharing power and deeper challenges of being an Open and Affirming Church, and at the end of the month on Creation Sunday, Ron Story will share about What Jonathan Edwards Might Have Thought about Climate Change.
We don’t know much about this unnamed woman in our text, other than her hyphenated nationality-Syro Phonecian. Like African American or Asian American, if you have to hyphenate your ethnicity, you wonder if you belong. To the mind of a typical first century Jewish male, the Syro-Phonecian woman represents the inter-sectionality of being an outsider. She is like the Rev. Yvette Flunders, one of our best UCC preachers, who said in a recent sermon, “I am a black lesbian Pentecostal woman, on the wrong side of everything that is the norm.” I’m going to focus today on her differing non-Jewish faith from Jesus and the disciples, but I acknowledge she is at the inter-sectionality of being the wrong everything in this context-a multi-ethnic, single mother who stands beneath Jesus in every possible category of power, status and influence. In other Gospel lessons, the disciples are offended that she is even speaking to him.
Jesus’s negative response to her request is what the disciples might expect him to say. We might think, “What a jerk.” He withholds grace and calls her a dog. There is not one positive reference to dogs in the Bible. First century Jews were not watching cute dog videos on Facebook. It’s an insult. This amazing woman has the presence to say, “Yes, but even the dogs deserve the crumbs.” Even me-hyphenated, single mother, Gentile outsider-is deserving of God’s grace. Fortunately Jesus comes to his senses, remembers he is savior of the world, and whoever believes in him will never perish, and heals her daughter. Otherwise, we might be searching for a new religion, maybe hers.
Here is what just happened. The deep, clear boundary between Jew and Gentile, between insider and outsider, was just crossed, and she is fully human. Its that moment when our brain suddenly realizes, holy moly, I’m related to you. Its like after looking at a globe for years, with all the national borders and then suddenly seeing the Earth from space and there are no dividing lines on it. This recognition of the outsider happens several times in the Gospels, when the Roman Centurian’s son is healed, when the Samaritan is good, when the Ethiopian eunuch is the first to be baptized by the disciples.
I love this story because it is here. It didn’t get erased by editors to make Jesus look good. I love it because I can find myself and my prejudices in it. I too once drew my lines between my faith that I love too and others so definitively. And I just have to ask, why did Jesus take his disciples here to Tyre, foreign turf, to begin with, if not to cross a boundary?
In our era, some religious people are putting great emphasis in reinforcing the boundaries, the lines drawn on maps and the lines drawn between people different than us. This happens in times of crisis and great change. What is the problem? Its not us, it them, so lets reinforce the borders. Stop immigration. Build a wall. Draw your line in the sand. Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has drawn her line in the sand around giving out marriage licenses. She has gone to jail to protect the sanctity of her third marriage from GLBTQ people. It’s a wonder her church lets her have communion since she is divorced. That is a line where she would be on the “wrong” side of in many Christian churches.
People have always done this, reverting to tribalism to protect what they have or fight change they fear. But now it is going global because the globe is in trouble. Thomas Friedman has said that the world is hot, wired and crowded. Global warming, the connection of the internet and rising populations struggling for more scarce resources mean that the world without borders drawn in is asserting itself. Everyone’s way of life is being uprooted with rapid change and crisis, and people are disoriented, ticked off and blaming. Reasserting old boundaries is not going to work, just ask Syria and Europe. You can’t pass laws that will stop people fleeing disaster, you have to solve the problem. I’ve read a lot of political analysis about Syria and refugee problems, but I’ve only seen one article showing that street protests in Syria began after a major drought, and one million farmers moved to the cities seeking work and help, and the Syrian government did nothing. Climate change is going to intensify all political rivalries and power struggles. It is a common human problem and we will not solve it fighting each other.
So it is interesting to me to see that major religious leaders around the world are doing. Pope Francis isn’t just an environmentalist, he is saying that old boundaries have to change in the Catholic Church. He is pushing tolerance for divorced people and gay people, apologizing for past wrongs and trying to unite people, in part because we need to be together to deal with climate change. The Dalai Lama is bringing the same message from the Buddhist perspective. The United Church of Christ has focused on the Integrity of Creation for over a decade. Religious leaders are stepping out and saying, we have to diminish our boundaries against each other and work together because we are all in the same boat. This is the great spiritual work of our time. Whether it is in working on the environment, clergy and churches involved in black lives matter, or supporting marriage equality, it is all the same work. Overcoming the dividing walls of hostility between us, so there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all one in Christ – and maybe in Buddha, Mohammad and Moses too.
The bottom line is we need each other to deal with our common problems, both global and spiritual. People who believe in a just and loving God, a human affirming spirituality, in a planet that shows us awe and wonder, and still hope for peace need to stick together.
John Dorhauer, our new General Minister of the UCC, recently traveled to Jordan, where the refugee crisis from Syria is a great burden. He talked with Habitat of Humanity leaders there who are trying to build thousands of decent houses for Syrian refugees. And when John asked how to help, and could we send more teams of builders, the leader said to him, don’t just send us church teams. Challenge any group coming to form half the team with another religious group you don’t agree with. Go down the street and find people you don’t like and make common cause, and then come and build houses.
Here is another great initiative in Omaha, Nebraska. The was a Jewish golf course in Omaha, because Jews couldn’t get into the country club. As that boundary relaxed, the golf course is up for sale. So the local Temple Israel, Country Side Christian Church UCC , and the local chapter of the American Muslim Institute are seeking to jointly purchase the gold course and move their three housed of worship to the golf course, and make it a multi-faith spiritual center for retreats and dialog. They plan to construct three houses of worship facing each other, and a common education center where their children will grow up knowing kids of other religions and they can promote mutuality.
They are not trying to erase our differences or unique particularities. They will all worship in their own traditions. The goal is not to try to create one new interfaith religion. Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hahn said it best in his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ.” The goal of interfaith dialog is that Christians help Buddhists be better Buddhists, and Jews help Christians be better Christians, and Muslims help Jews be better Jews, and so on. We don’t have to merge our understandings of God to get along, and we don’t have to fear our real and important differences.
Be who we are. Be our best selves, proud to be Christians, and humble enough to know we need each other.