Isaiah 56:1,6–8; Matthew 15:21–28

From the prophet Isaiah, “thus says the Lord God, ‘for my house shall
be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’” IN THE NAME OF GOD THE
FATHER, THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.

To remind us of the challenges in supporting this Cathedral’s
mission as a “national house of prayer for all people” one
of the Cathedral staff is fond of telling a story of once taking a tour
with a local company to hear what others had to say about us. On the
appointed day the staff member bought a ticket got on the bus and as the
bus rounded the corner of Wisconsin and Woodley saw the tour leader
point to each area of the Cathedral and with great conviction announce
that over there was the Baptist Chapel and over here the Catholic one,
and over there the Presbyterian Chapel and you get the picture. The
story reminds me of a classic joke about getting to heaven and seeing in
God’s many roomed house every imaginable religious denomination
and tradition and tip-toeing around lest anyone discover that others had
gotten to heaven in addition to those in any given room.

This would all be more amusing had this week not been full of news
such as a library assistant fired from a conservative evangelical
university for believing the baptism is a necessary condition of
salvation or of the challenging work by the area Muslim community to
address extremism among young Muslims in this community, or young
orthodox Jews vowing to commit mass suicide by drowning if evicted from
their homes in Gaza, or mainline denominations wrestling about their
financial investments in companies that make equipment that these
denominations believe is used inappropriately in the continuing conflict
between Israel and Palestine. In my own family my Lutheran relatives
wonder how their own denomination will deal faithfully with issues of
human sexuality at their national synod meeting. Divisions, religious,
political, ethnic, sexual, racial, social and economic are alive and
well and thriving in as many conflicts as ever. As my opening stories
illustrate we imagine that we are inclusive and tolerant. It is easy in
principle to be open. Yet how often in actuality do we embrace our
neighbors in phrases like, “some of my friends are…”
or “not in my backyard” or “don’t ask,
don’t tell” or “as long as it takes nothing away from
me.”

Our Scripture readings today air a fair amount of discussion and
disagreement, challenge and command about how to be in relationship with
those different from oneself. The differences addressed are not the
garden variety differences among people. In each of these readings the
theme is the same, how does one go about being in relationship with
people that religious teaching has heretofore declared evil, unclean and
outcast. We are permitted no abstract conversations here, no easy
gathering in chapels of the like-minded. Instead we are commanded to
struggle as the ancient children of Israel, the disciples and Jesus did
with the great entanglements of belief and experience.

God is not going to give the returning exiles to whom the words of
Isaiah are addressed the luxury of enjoying religious commands and
business as usual. The prophet Isaiah issues a call from God to a
community obsessed with keeping itself ritually and tribally pure. God’s
new word is that the foreigners who have converted to this faith are as
welcome to be the people of Israel as those with flawless ancestry and
faithful ritual observance. (Sadly, we don’t hear the part of the
passage that also invites that caste of men in ancient culture known as
eunuchs also to be numbered among God’s people!) In this passage we hear
that God seeks a temple that is more than a religious clubhouse with an
exclusive membership. Any one who faithfully obeys the Sabbath
observances, who keeps the covenant with God by choosing justice and
righteousness, any one who ministers in the name of the Lord and who
loves the Lord is welcome. This is now what defines a faithful
relationship with God.

In the challenging words of the Canaanite woman, Jesus is not going
to be allowed to limit his ministry to the lost children of Israel
either. In the Gospel of Matthew we journey with Jesus and his disciples
to the outer limits of the territory of Israel. It is here that a noisy,
bothersome Canaanite woman crosses the boundaries of gender, tribe,
religion and arguably even those of acceptable public behavior to find
help for her demon-possessed daughter. We encounter a Jesus displaying a
full humanity that is not very comfortable for those of us who prefer
the compassionate friend and healer who just has nothing but sweet
things to say about everybody. Jesus lives out all the conventional
religious teachings of his day when he refuses her request. He turns her
down not just once, but twice and the second time is pretty edgy, if not
insulting. This woman persists, addressing him by titles that no
religious figure will ever use in this gospel, Son of David and Lord.
This woman risks everything so that Jesus might see her daughter’s
urgent need and address it. She demands and she believes that God will
do what she asks. She does what no one else in any gospel will do; she
wins a verbal sparring match with Jesus. In front of his disciples he
calls her a woman of great faith and heals her daughter immediately.

Today we hear little stories about how we draw boundaries, so often
in the name of true religion to keep out what isn’t within our usual
expectations and categories, to keep apart those who are not in our
defined circle. We ended the last millennium and entered this one giving
new and terrifying meaning to the zeal to draw boundaries to keep out
those who in the estimation of one faith tradition or another are not
pure enough, right believing enough, red or blue enough. We are willing
to let God love universally, but we cling to what we know, understand,
uphold and protect that is purely like us. One would think that if the
Father’s house of many rooms contains anybody not like us it would be
the best definition of hell, not heaven. We are tempted in every way as
Jesus was to live as though God’s vision of a house of prayer for all
peoples has innumerable qualifying clauses, rather than allow ourselves
to be drawn by God’s justice and mercy to new possibilities. As Saint
John of the Cross so aptly observed, it is only at the boundaries of
life that real conversation and change can begin.

Human laws and justice are a necessity and have merit. However these
do not usually change hearts, only sometimes punish some of the more
egregious offenders. A just society can provoke its members to
tolerance, but never teach us compassion, loving the stranger and even
our enemies enough to hold them before God, giving thanks for them,
rejoicing in their presence and offering them mercy and hope. There is
only the community of faith to whom God has entrusted this world
transforming task. Whether these communities go by the names of church,
synagogue, mosque, house church, worship center or cathedral, and in
spite of often being the worst and most miserable offender of God’s
summons to be a house of prayer for all peoples, we are the people to
whom God is forever making the circle of life larger, redrawing
continuously the boundaries of a new creation so that in God’s eyes, and
our own, there never is a wrong neighborhood, a wrong people, teaching
us that love is not a universal sentiment, but the divine compassion for
all.

God is pushing us to see that the best living breathing models of
faith are often precisely those who live right on or over the edge of
what religion deems to be acceptable or right in the eyes of God. We are
invited this day to be the welcoming arms of God to all people, the
model of a life of faith and hope and love, the door that is never
locked, the meal that is more than crumbs begrudgingly given, the
boundary that is defined only by the wide expanse of devotion to the God
of love, justice and mercy. We are to be the chapels not of what sets us
apart, but of the wondrous possibility to grow and change together in
Christ, and finding that what we most dislike and fear in others may in
reality be our saving and mutual way to holiness. Amen.