A Place At the Table

Sermon preached August 14, 2011

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Think of a time in your life when you were surprised in a really unexpected way. Maybe you found something interesting that you never expected to find. I remember a friend telling me about how he came to love opera. It had not been a part of his background, but when he heard his first one it sent chills up his spine and he has loved it since. Maybe it was a book you began to read because you were in a book group, and you thought it wasn’t going to be very good, but it surprised you by its power. Maybe it was an event you reluctantly attended and it turned out to be a grand time. Are you thinking about this – about being surprised in some really unexpected way?

I will never forget the day a few weeks ago when our son David told me he was going to be a father this December. I promise not to bring this up in every sermon between now and Christmas! He was home for the weekend and we were in the dining room and he just sort of dropped this bombshell on me, and this is the part I won’t forget. From this red book, a directory of all the state legislators in Minnesota he pulled a picture of an ultra sound.

But something else happened with this news this week. I was in Nashville for a denominational meeting. Wednesday, Julie and Sarah were going with David and the mother of his baby to the doctor – another ultra sound. During my meeting I received a text message just before the morning break. When the break came I checked it out – from David. It read simply, “You’re having a granddaughter.” What surprised me in a really unexpected way is how quickly my thoughts and emotions began to shift. I have been pretty worried about this situation, and there is still a lot to be anxious about. My anxiety has not simply disappeared. Yet with that text message I found myself shifting from a problem to a person, a little girl who is coming into this world and will need love and support and care, as will her mother and father. At times I could almost feel myself carrying her, like I have had the wonderful privilege of carrying some of our church babies during baptisms. I was completely and unexpectedly surprised.

We don’t often think of Jesus as being surprised by something unexpected. When we affirm that in Jesus the very character of God was present in a unique and powerful way, we might wonder if surprising Jesus was not an impossibility. Yet the Christian tradition has consistently affirmed that in whatever way we want to talk about Jesus as divine, it must be consistent with the full humanity of Jesus. Today’s story shows that humanity in a powerful way, for Jesus is surprised here.

Jesus travels take him to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area where he encounters a Canaanite woman. If you remember your Bible history, Canaanite would mean a non-Jewish person, a descendent of those who were in the land before it became the kingdom of Israel. These people were considered religiously impure by the Jews of Jesus day. The woman has a daughter who is suffering – tormented by a demon. She does what mothers have done for centuries, when your children are hurting you seek out help. She seeks out Jesus. But Jesus is pretty cool to the idea of helping this woman. Her initial shouts are greeted with silence, and when she persists, Jesus says he is focused on helping his own people. When she still does not give up, as most good mothers do not, Jesus gets a little petulant. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This mother is not only persistent, but she is religiously deep and intellectually bright. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” She catches Jesus off guard by her intelligence, wit and deep faith. Healing happens.

This story about Jesus provides us with a powerful reason for openness and inclusivity – for inclusivity in our community of faith, for openness in our own thinking. The story tells us that you never know from whom you will learn. The story tells us that you never know where faith might be found. The story tells us that you never know what might expand your mind, enlarge your heart, enrich your soul.

This week, as mentioned, I was in Nashville for a meeting of the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. I chair the legislative committee of that board and we worked very hard this week getting legislation ready for next year’s General Conference – that every four year meeting where the policies for our denomination are determined. I will be a delegate to that meeting next April and May. Our work this week focused on legislation in the area of education for ministry. You know that there will also be debates about social issues, including sexuality.

Currently The United Methodist Church prohibits their clergy from officiating at services celebrating same-sex unions, no matter the legal status of such unions. I will be working to change that policy, and recently I was given yet another reason for doing so.

I don’t attend many weddings where I am not officiating. Our families are not at that stage so much right now. However on July 30, I attending a wedding here in town. It was a service for a couple, no longer so young. The couple had designed the service and it reflected their maturity. It also reflected their deep faith and spirituality. Among the vows they pledged to each other was a vow to help each other in their spiritual disciplines. The language was refreshing and surprising. Another part of the wedding that may be surprising, the couple shared the same first name – Gary.

Gary and Gary’s wedding is not legally recognized in Minnesota. It is not a wedding I could have officiated at given our current denominational policies. Yet there was faith there, deep faith. There are a host of reasons for being more open and inclusive as a church community. Being able to be surprised by the faith of others is as important a reason as any. We are challenged by this story of Jesus to make more room for others, to give others a place at the table.

Yet inclusivity is not only an important value for our life together as a faith community. It is also an important value and practice for our individual lives. What are we open to in our inner life as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ, as we seek to grow in faith, hope and love?

A few years ago, I attended a funeral for a man whose wife was a member of our church. Afterwards I went to the church basement for the luncheon. There I met a man who told me he had been a member here at First UMC one time, but he left when a previous pastor preached that we might be surprised in heaven when we encounter people of other religious traditions, including Muslims. He did not believe that was biblical. In his view, only believers in Jesus Christ will survive the judgment of God.

I felt kind of bad that this person felt he needed to leave our church because of that. I don’t like to see people leave – it always pains me some. Yet there are times when such fundamental understandings of the bible may be sufficient reason for such a change. If it hadn’t happened back then, it might have now. In our own lives, we have things to learn from people of other religious traditions. If Jesus can learn from a Canaanite woman, if he can say of her, “Woman, great is your faith,” what justification do we have for closing ourselves of from people of other faith traditions, from the writings of other faith traditions?

Adam Hamilton is a United Methodist pastor, and he is the senior pastor of The Church of the Resurrection, one of the largest and fastest growing United Methodist churches in the country. I have had the pleasure of working with Adam a bit, though we are not close friends. Anyway, Adam once decided to preach a series of sermons on other religious traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. He read their some of their Scriptures. He interviewed people. Adam says that some people left his church because they felt threatened by these sermons, though more joined because of them. As for his own faith Adam writes: Surprisingly, I found my own Christian faith deepened by this study…. My study of Islam led me to spend more time in prayer and to a deeper desire to give to the poor. The Hindu philosophy of non-injury helped me see love in new ways. (When Christians Get It Wrong, 42-43)

Openness to persons of other faith traditions, and openness to those traditions themselves help us build better understanding so we can work with others toward common goods. They also enrich our own spiritual journeys. Other religious traditions deserve a place at the table in our inner lives. When we are more open to them, we may be surprised at the faith we find there.

Such openness in our inner lives should extend beyond other religious traditions to learning from people and perspectives that are not religiously based at all. Miroslav Volf is a Christian theologian who teaches at Yale Divinity School. In the most recent issue of The Christian Century (August 9, 2011) Volf writes: My Christian convictions run deep…. At the same time I am a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche. Arguably, there are very few thinkers more anti-Christian than Nietzsche…. His philosophy is as far from the way of Jesus Christ as Dionysus, the god of libidinal revelry, is from the Crucified, the God of sacrificial love. And yet I respect not just Nietzsche as a person (with all his warts) but his philosophy as well. Moreover I do so while completely disagreeing with him…. His thinking is imaginative and stringent, his writing is rhetorically powerful; some of his insights are deep, and his overall position is seductively compelling. Even non-religious thinker can have a place at the table of our inner life, paradoxically helping us deepen our own faith in conversation with their non-faith perspectives.

As Christians we need to be deeply grounded in the Bible and especially its stories about Jesus. Yet this very story about Jesus presses us also to be more open and inclusive in our community of faith of people who may be overlooked or traditionally excluded, more open and inclusive in our inner life. With Jesus, there should be a place at the table in the community of faith for all. God’s grace is for all. With Jesus, we need to be open in the table of our soul to learning from a variety of perspectives, knowing that we will be surprised by faith in unexpected places. In recent years I can testify that my own faith has been enriched and my heart enlarged by getting to know gay and lesbian people of faith. I can testify that my faith has been deepened by my inner conversation with the Buddhist tradition. I can testify that my mind has been expanded and my soul enriched by my inner conversation with non-religious psycho-analytic thinkers.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Where will travels with Jesus go next? Who knows, but without openness, without creating more places at the table in our community of faith and in our inner life possibilities for holy surprises diminish. Amen.