August 10, 2020
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.
[Evangelical Lutheran Worship #641]
The readings for Sunday, August 16, 2020, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, are as follows:
Earlier this year (B.C. - Before COVID-19), I visited a congregation that was contemplating leaving the ELCA. The question arose as to whether our church was drifting toward universalism, or the belief that all humankind will eventually be saved, regardless of whether or not they believed that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life."
It would have been a great teaching moment had not the pastor already been grooming the congregation to leave for several months before my uninvited arrival. My response was characterized as heretical by one of the members. The congregation eventually did vote to leave.
It was one of those painful moments that I will recall about my time in this office. And as I read the upcoming Sunday lessons there are several verses in the readings that bolster my conviction that there is no one outside the circle of God's love and compassion.
In the reading from Isaiah, for example, the words practically jump off the page when God, speaking through the prophet, says that, "my house shall be called a house of prayer for allpeoples." [Isaiah 56:7b]
Our psalm expresses the hope that God's ways, "beknown upon earth, your saving health among allnations." [Ps. 67:2]
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, talks of God's boundless mercy in pretty inclusive terms: "God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all." [Romans 11:32]
But then we get to the Gospel and we find Jesus apparently rejecting a Canaanite woman's plea for help, and we ask ourselves, "What's wrong with this picture?"
There are just too many hard questions raised in this passage - questions that make it difficult to understand, and even more difficult to explain. Questions like...why would Jesus have rejected the Canaanite woman? Why was Jesus so focused on ministry to Israel, to the exclusion of others? Isn't that exclusion just the kind of narrow-mindedness Christians are battling today?
It calls to mind a quote from writer Anne Lamott, who jokingly quips, "You know you've created God in your own image when God hates the same people you do."
Part of the problem in understanding this reading is that we have separated it from the rest of chapter 15, and most commentators advise that it's necessary to read the entire chapter to put the passage in its proper context. Throughout the chapter we read of Jesus healing many others, and we are delighted with another feeding story. Apart from all that, we would find this interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman startling, if not downright inconsistent, insulting, and contradictory to our sense of welcome and inclusion.
Though he ultimately reconsiders, it would be easy to criticize Jesus for not caring, for being insensitive toward the plight of this woman and her daughter. But in our struggle to understand this encounter, one helpful approach may be to view it as Jesus holding up a mirror to us and saying: "this is you!"
Interestingly, the last time this reading came up in the lectionary was on the heels of demonstrations by a group of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who was there as a counter protestor.
This time around, our society is even more racially polarized. People have taken to the streets to protest against racial intolerance and injustice.
On top of that, we are ravaged by a pandemic that has disproportionately affected poor and marginalized communities.
And if that weren't enough, we are in the stretch run of a presidential election campaign that promises to drive a deeper wedge into our already, and almost hopelessly, fragmented political divide.
The exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman calls us to be aware of placing our politics, our race, our traditions, our status, our social class, our possessions, our sense of security, or anything else ahead of God's word and God's will.
In some ways, the novel coronavirus has driven that message home. It has strained our healthcare system to the point that we have little room to boast. People are struggling to stay afloat economically, psychologically, spiritually. Our resources are practically drained, our emotions nearly depleted.
We are desperate. Like the Canaanite woman, we have nowhere left to turn. Thus, this reading also asks us to reflect on how eager we are for God's mercy; how willing are we to risk our very own pride to follow Jesus, to fall at his feet and beg for help?
Faith is what we have when we have nothing else left.
The Canaanite woman's faith was demonstrated in her persistence. When we are desperate, no matter what obstacles we are faced with, our faith will break down those barriers that we as humans have created for ourselves and for others.
The Canaanite woman is a vivid example for us.
This is a reminder that registration for the Northeastern Ohio Synod Assembly will close this Thursday, August 13, 2020. For more information see our Synod Website for Assembly Registration Information, or click on the hyperlink. This is an historic assembly in that everything will be online due to the risks of COVID-19. We are also electing a new synod bishop,a new synod secretary, as well as several synod council and committee members.
My electronic meeting schedule this week is as follows:
Monday: Staff Meeting
Ohio Faith Leaders Prayer Gathering
Tuesday: NEOS Deans Meeting
Thursday: Conference of Bishops Weekly Check-in
Zoom Educational Forum - Strategic Diversity
The next Rostered ministers monthly gathering will be Wednesday, September 2, 2020, beginning at 10 a.m. Please contact the synod office or your conference Dean for the link.
Last week's closing reflection by Howard Thurman was so well received that I decided to use another meditation from his book, Meditations of the Heart(Boston: Beacon Press, 1953, 1981). You'll note that this book was originally published in 1953, so please pardon the lack of inclusive language. Today's meditation is titled "Prayer for a Friendly World." (p. 187)
Our Father, fresh from the world, with the smell of life upon us, we make an act of prayer in the silence of this place. Our minds are troubled because the anxieties of our hearts are deep and searching. We are stifled by the odor of death which envelopes our earth, where in so many places brother fights against brother. The panic of fear, the torture of insecurity, the ache of hunger, all have fed and rekindled ancient hatreds and long-forgotten memories of old struggles, when the world was young and Thy children were but dimly aware of Thy Presence in the midst. For all this, we seek forgiveness. There is no one of us without guilt and, before Thee, we confess our sins: we are proud and arrogant; we are selfish and greedy; we have harbored in our hearts and minds much that makes for bitterness, hatred and revenge.
While we wait in Thy Presence, search our spirits and grant to our minds the guidance and the wisdom that will teach us the way to take, without which there can be no peace and no confidence anywhere. Teach us how to put at the disposal of Thy Purposes of Peace the fruits of our industry, the products of our minds, the vast wealth of our land and the resources of our spirit. Grant unto us the courage to follow the illumination of this hour to the end that we shall not lead death to any man's door; but rather may we strengthen the hands of all in high places, and in common tasks seek to build a friendly world, of friendly men & women, beneath a friendly sky. This is the simple desire of our hearts which we share with Thee in thanksgiving and confidence.
+Bishop Abraham Allende