Strangers and Salvation

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, September 9, 2012
Blair Pogue

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

            Some of you have met my dad Bill.  He’s a wonderful man and quite the character.  My dad is a big kid with a house full of toys, candy, magic tricks, and a crazy hat collection.  The front bumper of his car is tied on with a shoelace.  He often eats or drinks coffee out of a mug without a lid while driving, steering the car with his knees – which makes my stress level hit the car roof.

Once my dad retired from his work as a radiologist he became a clown and returned to his hospital as Dr, Pokonose with an oversize nose and shoes, a crazy wig,  a stethoscope, a life-size shot in his hand, and his small therapy dog named Thunder.  A number of years ago he decided that he wanted to work as Santa Claus.  He bought a red Santa suit, grew a scraggly looking beard, and bought some sort of hair product at a beauty supply store that turns his hair and beard white. Over the years he has come to visit me in the churches where I have served sporting his scraggly beard, and the two shirts and one pair of pants he travels with.  My dad has never been one for fashion, and the shirt and pants tend to be quite outdated and, to be honest, a little tight.  If I can be frank, it’s not unusual for people to think my dad is a homeless man.

            Today’s reading from James holds special resonance for me, not just because it’s all too easy to size people up and immediately place them in specific categories and act accordingly, but also because doing so prevents us from seeing what lies beneath.   In James the writer reminds us of how easy it is to treat people differently based on external appearances.  We make superficial judgments before we have a sense of others’ hearts and souls.  Sometimes we just avoid people who are different from our normal orbit of family and friends.  Out of sight, out of mind.  James provides an important corrective: “has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”  Our reading from Proverbs reminds us that “the rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.”

            In 2008 and 2009 the people of St. Matthew’s participated in an eight month wondering process about the future God was bringing forth.  At least twelve focus groups pondered what sort of future God was birthing here by looking at our communal gifts, playing with Legos, reading children’s books that said something about God, painting pictures and planning menus that gave a taste of what God is up to.  By the way, the menu included food from around the world and Pomegranate sorbet!

            While the vestry decided that most of the focus groups would consist of already extant groups – the Social Justice Ministry Team, the Art Ministry, the Worship Ministry, etc. – they decided to hold four open sessions anyone could attend.  At the final open session the group was beginning to dwell in scripture when a homeless man named Pat poked his head in the Library and asked if he could participate.  Pat showed up at church a couple months before the focus group.  He began participating in worship services, coffee hour, and a weekly Bible study.  I tried to help him with a few things and Marilyn Grantham drove him to some doctors appointments.  When the temperature plummeted that October, and there was no shelter space available for single males, he slept at St. Matthew’s.  During the focus group Pat shared what the St. Matthew’s community had come to mean to him.  He no longer felt alone and forgotten.  He was treated like a human being.  He had a chance to pray with others and to learn more about God’s plans for him.  He had help with some of the paperwork and bureaucratic hoops that make the life of the poor miserable.  At one point he told the group, “I am part of the future God is bringing forth at St. Matthew’s.”

            When I began to wrestle with today’s Gospel from Mark, I thought of Pat.  In it Jesus travels North, to the coastal city Tyre.  A Gentile woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Jesus, went to where he was, and bowed down at his feet.  She begged Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.

            At this point the story becomes deeply troubling to those of us who love the compassionate Jesus portrayed in so many other Gospel accounts.  Jesus initially tells her that he wants to feed the children first, rather than giving their food to the dogs.  What?  Is Jesus calling this woman and her child dogs?  What about “love thy neighbor as thyself?”  What about promoting the dignity of every human being?

            As you can imagine, scholars have wrestled mightily with this text.  Some of them have emphasized the fact that the Gentiles of Tyre were dominant and not only exploited the minority Jewish population economically, but occasionally persecuted them.  Another scholar said that “dogs” here is better translated “pets.”  Still, it is hard to hear the Jesus I know and love referring to a Gentile child as a pet. 

            In response to Jesus’ disturbing answer the woman replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Interestingly, she didn’t protest his use of the term “dog” but rather used it to try to beat Jesus at his own argument.  Her response clearly made Jesus think, and changed his mind.  He responded, “for saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

            What in heaven’s name is going on here?  One thought is that the Gospel writer is trying to show another side of faith.  Having faith in and an authentic relationship with God sometimes involves struggling with God, being tenacious.  If we don’t agree with God’s plan we don’t have to just grin and bear it.  We can tell God how we really feel, even argue with God.

            To me, the most interesting angle on our Gospel is the fact that it’s a woman outside Jesus’ religious, social and cultural world who challenges him to expand his mission.  A Gentile woman refuses to accept this rabbi’s answer, and in doing so, expands his understanding of the work God is calling him to do. 

            These past two weeks we’ve heard very different visions of life in America presented by the political conventions.  As I listened to speakers coming from many different perspectives I thought about our vision of community life here at St. Matthew’s and how God calls us to go beyond what was presented. 

            As Christians we believe that our salvation is caught up with others.  When the Holy Spirit draws us closer to one another and we allow this to happen, we are changed.  Whatever our differences – country, culture, ethnicity, socio-economic background, race, gender – each of us is a priceless treasure created in God’s image. Being connected to, challenged and stretched by others is critical to our faith development and spiritual maturity.  In the days ahead may God give us the faith and desire to welcome the stranger, and to let the stranger welcome us. Amen