August 21, 2017

No Boundary to Grace

A sermon for Proper 15a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Church of the Advent, Federal Hill Baltimore

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others...+
All of our Scripture readings today point in the direction of healing the division that has existed since the days when God first made a covenant with Abraham and designated him as the ancestor of a special, holy, and chosen people. This was a people separated from all the other nations of the earth. The covenant of their separation was cherished by the Jewish people down through the centuries. The covenant was also renewed many times down through the years. Moses recommitted the people to obey their God at Mount Sinai. Joshua recommitted them, challenging them to obey the Lord as he and his household swore to do, when they entered the Holy Land. Ezra and Nehemiah reminded the people of these commandments after exile in Babylon, and the Maccabees did the same after their liberation from the Greeks. Time and again that message was hammered home: you are God’s chosen people, unique in all the world because of your relationship with the maker heaven and earth.

That message, as it came to be understood — or perhaps I should say misunderstood — was that salvation itself was only for the children of Israel — a people chosen not only for this world but for the next. Among the rabbis it became a topic of debate as to whether a non-Jew — even a righteous one — could have any share at all in the life of the world to come.

Of course, the rabbis were good lawyers, so they focused on the Law, but in the process neglected the Prophets. For the prophets, such as Isaiah, had revealed that God had a special place reserved for the Gentiles who sought God and dedicated themselves to righteousness in God’s name. In spite of these prophetic promises, the question of whether Gentiles were worth God’s notice, or God’s salvation, was still a hot topic among the rabbis by the time of Christ.

You could even read Jesus in this morning’s Gospel as a supporter of this theory of Israelite exceptionalism. He appears to adopt that stricter view that Gentiles and foreigners are not God’s concern — God’s interest is in caring for the children of Israel, maybe as part of a plan to “make Israel great again!”

But then Jesus appears to be moved by the Canaanite woman’s persistence, and her chutzpah in talking back to him when he indirectly compares her tormented child to a dog. She is bold enough to remind Jesus (who has himself brought up the analogy of food and the dinner table) that even dogs are remembered and fed — along with the children — even if only with crumbs.

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Now, I’ve often wondered if Jesus really was being as hard-hearted as he appears to be to this poor woman with a sick child, or if he wasn’t perhaps testing his disciples — seeing whether they would abide by the prevailing view that foreigners are second-class interlopers, unworthy of God’s attention. Was he testing them to see if they would show the kind of gracious openness Jesus himself shows on other occasions? You note that it is the disciples who first urge him to send her away...

But that is a topic for another sermon. Because whatever the reason, whether Jesus was moved by this woman or was testing the disciples, in the end he broke through that boundary to allow grace to flow freely to a Gentile. And of course, by the end of Matthew’s Gospel it is abundantly clear that Jesus intends salvation for the whole world. By the end, Jesus sends the disciples out to baptize all nations — which is to say all Gentiles — into the faith of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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In today’s epistle, Saint Paul addresses this question in the manner of a good rabbi — which, as he often reminds us, he was, a student at the feet of Gamaliel, himself a student of Rabbi Hillel the Great. In the rabbinic debates of those days, Hillel had been an advocate of the generous view that Gentiles could be saved, and Paul no doubt came to believe that in Jesus Christ this doctrine of his spiritual grandfather had come true.

Much of Paul’s letter to the Romans is an effort to explain just how this might work. In the section we heard today the image is almost one of a seating at a banquet. Those who had formerly been seated — God’s chosen ones — have lost their seats through disobedience. Only that misbehavior has opened up the possibility for the Gentiles to take their place — for a time. And that “for a time” is important because Paul promises the eventual ushering back in of all of God’s people, all whom God foreknew and chose as his own — Jew and Gentile — for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

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In God’s good time, there is plenty of room for Gentile and Jew alike on the mountain that Isaiah envisages. In God’s good time there is no boundary to grace, nor a wall around it, no limit to the abundance of God’s generosity and patience with Jew and Gentile alike. The ultimate message that Paul is transmitting in his Letter to the Romans is that salvation is the work of God. Just as the original creation is the work of God, so too is the new creation in Christ; it is God’s work. It is God’s project.

And it is God’s party — and God invites to it whoever God wishes. It is not for self-righteous party crashers to push themselves forward on the basis of their own righteousness. Nor, even worse, is it right for some at the party to seek to keep others they judge unworthy out, but for all to trust in the saving mercy of God, and God’s invitation, as the only basis for admission to the banquet. We are not invited to the banquet on the basis of our righteousness, but God’s righteousness, God’s generosity.

God has cried out the invitation to the ends of the earth, and cries out still: it’s God’s party and he’ll cry if he wants to! And through the prophets and apostles, through the church, God cries out: Come! There is plenty of room at the table, and crumbs aplenty under it — but believe you me, no child of God invited to that table will have to live on crumbs, but will receive the choice and richest portions of the feast. As I said, this is God’s party. God’s grace is God’s, after all. And our God is a God of abundant blessing and not of parsimonious stinginess, a God not of crumbs and crusts but of marvelous abundance, of multiplied loaves, and bread showered from heaven enough to feed a people forty years. The table is set, not in a cramped and crumbling hut, but in the grandest wedding banquet hall, in the house of prayer for all nations. The invitations have gone forth to the ends of the world, to people near and far: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” Happy are those who are called to this supper.+

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