The Rev. Canon Mary Sulerud
In an otherwise sunny, breezy, and delightful vacation cruise, this had been the day at sea that everyone hates: stormy, windy, cold, and foggy. In response to our growing cabin fever we braved the rolling of the ship and ventured out of our room and to the main dining room for tea. Tea time was nearly done so the staff were shoe-horning the late comers into large tables with others so that they could begin the transformation of the dining room for dinner. This is how we came to be seated with a couple from Turkey and another from Florida. We quickly discovered that we were our own Abrahamic round table as the couple from Turkey who live and work in Kusadasi, what we know as Ephesus, identified themselves as Muslims, the couple from Florida as Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we disclosed that we were Christians and I was ordained. Then as quickly as this immense personal disclosure was made silence fell over the group. It was broken by small talk about families and occupations. It is when we began to talk about the excursions that we had taken and hearing the story from the couple from Florida about visiting Berlin for the first time since the 1930s that the conversation deepened. In our time together on that afternoon amid enormous differences of language, experience, and faith we had a wide-ranging and profound conversation about our shared fears and concerns about religious and political extremism, our commitment to keep alive the stories of human injustice not as the source of vengeance, but as a crucible for learning about human dignity and respect and love. We wondered how it was that amid so much shared experience of injustice we had learned to desire justice and mercy. In that reality we all found much hope.
The encounter moved me in significant ways because in the course of the last six years what has governed much of my reading, prayer, and reflection is what I have enshrined as the consummate civic, if not religious, virtues: tolerance and inclusion. For me part of the excitement and hope of this year’s presidential election has been that we might be compelled as a nation seriously to engage these civic virtues and ask ourselves the tough questions about the depth and meaning of tolerance and inclusion in our lives.
At first glance it would seem that this is exactly what is being urged as our spiritual and theological agenda in our Scripture readings. A quick glance at many commentaries would show that these words—tolerance and inclusion—are the summary of the moral message of the day. What could be a better summary of the prophet Isaiah’s word from God that membership in the covenant community is based on maintaining justice and observing the Sabbath as opposed to family of origin or sexuality. Matthew’s story of an all too human Jesus who resists the entreaties of a Canaanite woman, finally overcoming his own resistance to her pleas and healing her daughter is a pointed reminder of our call to be inclusive as a community of faith.
I wonder based on my shipboard encounter and these lessons today if in seeking tolerance and inclusion we are asking or expecting enough from our faith? If you look up the meaning of tolerance for example only one definition is positive. The remaining definitions all have to do with the extent to which one will endure discomfort, pain, or limiting conditions. In other words, I’ll tolerate the fact that you are a royal pain in the butt because the Bible says that I am supposed to. It’s a starting point I suppose, but not very transformative. What is at stake in today’s readings and in our journey of faith with Jesus is the extent to which we will substitute for tolerance and inclusion the divine commands to repent and be reconciled to God, loving all as our neighbors. Tolerance and inclusion have merit as civic virtues and good intentions. God expects more! I experience too often that tolerance in particular functions as a sort of insulation from confronting the real hell of our deepest fears of those who differ from us. It is only when we face the real hell of our fear of those seemingly least like us that we get anywhere near reconciliation and truth, justice and mercy, hope and love. This is the real content of salvation.
What Isaiah is calling for from the people of Israel is not a new inclusion but understanding in the deepest way possible that they have the God-given call and responsibility to enlarge their membership. This is because God’s redeemed community exists in response to God’s invitation and on God’s terms, not ours. However worried the people of ancient Israel were about being set apart as a community and regardless of how inclusive and tolerant we may think we are, the membership of the redeemed including foreigners and eunuchs is God’s radical statement about the grace and universality of God’s love. To be God’s house all communities of faith must truly be households of prayer for all people.
The community of God’s people is not without standards! Demands are placed on all who would live as God’s people to minister, love, and serve others without qualification, to keep the Sabbath, to holdfast to the covenant and love of God, to worship with offerings and sacrifices. It is clear from the prophet Isaiah that a community that truly worships the living God does not do so without inevitably becoming an open community to all in specific and challenging ways. The missionary call of the church is that it cannot ever be prejudiced against those who stand outside of it, nor patronizingly inclusive of them. We sit at God’s table as children of grace. Grace is always a gift, not a right, nor a privilege.
Lest we believe that Jesus is not human, or super-human, we are presented with this gospel story of Jesus acting fully as a product of his cultural and religious upbringing. Here a woman alone with no man, no male relative to speak for her, calls on Jesus to heal that most expendable of commodities in the ancient world, a daughter. This alien, pagan woman addresses Jesus three times as Lord and with equivalent titles used by Peter in his own confession of the identity of Jesus. The disciples respond by trying to shut her up and send her away. Jesus responds with silence. This woman’s trust persists in her insistent questions even when Jesus cuts her to the quick by his aphorism about the dogs at table. Jesus finally recognizes her faith and heals her daughter. This nameless woman is the only person ever to get the better of Jesus in the Gospels.
We are given in this story a powerful and realistic story about how difficult it was even for Jesus, let alone the exiled people of ancient Israel, to reach across deeply ingrained differences. It is no different for us. We live in a world of differences defined right down to the laundry soap we use and our trash-handling practices. This is on top of profound differences in race, culture, nationality, religion, and income. We live in a world in which one writer wisely noted, “the use of the words tolerance and inclusion increase [too often] in direct proportion to the proliferation of bias and prejudice these words are intended to address and maybe correct.” Perhaps our lessons are suggesting that our refuge in these civic virtues is preventing the very conversation and engagement, hard as it is, that Isaiah was urging and that Jesus forced himself to have.
The difference between civic virtue and real faith is about going to the boundaries of our religious, cultural, and political, and class tolerances with these questions as our constant, if not nagging, companions. Who is my neighbor? Whose house is this? Whose world is it? The faithful answer to these questions will always be those who do justice, observes the Sabbath, and, regardless of how much patience, forbearance, and charity it takes, will share the same planet, country, county, city, neighborhood, and church with anyone who comes calling upon the living God. True faith shows us that tolerance is not love; inclusion is not reconciliation, and when we engage in substituting civic virtues for our godly work we protect our deadly illusion that somehow we really are different or better.
As I learned again a few weeks ago and perhaps as our national election will show, true faith is an act of engagement and struggle with our human limits, risking everything as Jesus did in Tyre and Sidon and on the cross in order to be available to the only growth and change that matter: being part of God’s rule of love. I believe with all my heart that such a rule of love is so much better than God’s tolerance and inclusion, putting up with us until something better comes along. Amen.