Take a Risk and Introduce Yourself Again
Year A, Pentecost 10
Recently I was at a meeting with various members of the church and we were talking about things that we could do to help people get to know one another. One person commented that there were a lot of people whose family had been here for generations and some were born into this church. That is a unique thing about St. John’s. It speaks to a very passionate loyalty and love for the church. That’s a good thing. Everyone should be so fortunate as to have people in the church like that. But it can also cause some roadblocks or maybe just speed bumps for new people to get involved in the church. One person said that he had been coming for over 25 years but it had taken him 15 years to feel like he was a part of the church. Another person had a similar story. What was astounding to me was that both people waited it out and were committed to the church. That tells me two things. One is that their faith is tenacious and they were here for God. If it took 15 years, it took 15 years. It also tells me that St. John’s is a special church. They knew that or they would not have stayed.
I recently heard someone say that, “[Faith] is not necessarily perfect belief or consent to a list of doctrines. Sometimes faith is simply tenacity.”I think faith is a combination of a number of things, but tenacity is a key ingredient and often one that we overlook. It is not part of our creed or most of our prayers. But tenacity is all over the place in other ways like today’s Gospel reading. A women approached Jesus shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord Son of David…” He heard her but he did not answer her. His disciples also heard her and urged him to send her away. She must have noticed that he ignored her and his companions were telling him to send her away. This did not discourage her. She came and knelt before him so he could not ignore her. She said, “Lord help me.” His response is one that bothers a lot of people. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What has bothered people is that Jesus seems mean here. He is denying this woman and then referring to her as a dog. Yet despite this response she persisted. She responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Here is where things get even blurrier. It would appear that Jesus changed his mind. Her response and her persistence had an effect on him. Some say that he was merely testing her or he was testing his disciples. People argue this because to say that Jesus changed his mind would be to say that he was wrong the first time. That is not a fair conclusion. It reminds me of that riddle. Could God make a rock so heavy that even he could not lift it? My answer to that was always, Sure, but why would he? To say that Jesus can’t change his mind would be to say that Jesus did not have the power to change, which seems contrary to what we believe as Christians. Jesus grew in mind and body when he was on earth. He did not come out of the womb speaking in complete sentences with the body of a fully formed man. There is no way Mary would have survived that. So of course he changed.
Some say that Jesus embodied the old way of the Jewish faith as well as the new way which would become the Christian way. He was both the God of the Old Testament and the God that brought salvation through his sacrifice and resurrection. Stories about God in the Old Testament can occasionally depict a God who was more limited in who he accepted. It the Book of Deuteronomy God supported the complete destruction of the Canaanite people because of the evil they had committed. God had a clear preference for the people of Israel which seemed to end in the destruction of their enemies. This is the background of the story for today. The Canaanites were a hated people who were supposed to be annihilated by the people of Israel with God’s full support. But here was a Canaanite woman seeking the blessing of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesy.
She was smart and she took his argument and she spun it on its head. She did not argue whether or not she was a dog, she just pointed out that everyone was deserving of blessing and even a scrap was enough. There was plenty to go around. I am not sure it matters whether or not Jesus changes his mind. What matters are the minds of the people who were present and those of us who read this story now. I believe that this smart and brave woman served as an instrument to model a new understanding of God and God’s love. Remember what story we had only a couple of weeks ago? It was the feeding of the 5000. Matthew made it a point to say that there was so much food that there were leftovers. Jesus had already showed that God’s love was abundant and was meant to be shared with the masses. This interaction with the Canaanite woman continued this lesson for not only the disciples but all of those who hear the story, all of us.
In this story, Jesus displayed a certain tension in how we understand God. He was still the God who had chosen the people of Israel, who loved those people and was loyal to those people. He fulfilled the prophesies. But he was also the God who would minister to the masses, the poor, the sick, the sinful. There was no one who was not worthy of God’s love. Jesus showed that he could do both. The problem was that not everyone could accept that. It was a huge change in the way they thought and acted.
Here at St. John’s, we carry a similar tension. We have a 400 year old history, but we also want a future. If we truly want to welcome people and be that church that shows the abundance of God’s love, then we have to live into that. I have a feeling I know how someone could go 10 years without feeling welcome. Let’s say this person shows up one Sunday. You introduce yourself and get his or her name and then you promptly forget it. Next Sunday you are embarrassed because you forgot it and so you never ask again. Ten years later and you still don’t know that person’s name. We would not want to offend the person by asking their name. As Episcopalians, the 11th commandment is “Do not offend!”
When we do not welcome people, it is usually not an intentional thing. We are not purposefully shutting people out. But that doesn’t make it ok. We have to be intentional about how we welcome people into the church because not everyone is going to give it 10 or 15 years. I have 2 challenges. Find someone you do not know. It might be because they are new or maybe they go to a different service, or maybe they sit in another part of the church. Talk to them. Here is the other side of the challenge. If you are on the receiving end and you have met that person already, don’t tell them that! Forgive them for forgetting and move on because I can guarantee there is someone you have forgotten. Welcoming, real welcoming is risky. Faith will always have risk. That Canaanite woman took a major risk and kept at it even when she was rejected. Take the risk. If even one person feels a welcome they have never experienced, I think it is worth it.
 I am not sure who said it because it was a podcast and there were 4 people talking. The podcast can be found here: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=530