Sunday’s sermon: The Hospitality Challenge

all are welcome

While this sermon was already written before the horrible, racist events that took place in Charlottesville, VA over the weekend, I did make some changes to both our worship and the sermon late on Saturday night. To open our worship yesterday, we used the prayer written by Jill Duffield, Presbyterian Outlook editor and resident of Charlottesville. We also sang “We Shall Overcome,” both calling out the racism that continues to run horribly rampant and standing with our brothers and sisters in pain.

Texts used – Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22; Matthew 15:21-28

  • I have to tell you all that I planned these Scripture readings a year ago. I wrote this sermon on Thursday, just 3 short days ago. But so much can happen in a year, let alone 3 short days. Hatred can boil over and march in the streets bearing torches and machine guns and ugly, ugly words. A man can careen his car into a peaceful crowd of protestors, becoming a harbinger of death and destruction. A group of clergy praying for justice and peace can be trapped inside a church by a vicious mob screaming venom and intolerance. Evil and darkness can walk the earth wearing the guises of malice and enmity, prejudice and supremacy – dark words, dark actions, and dark intentions. And yet in the face of all that surrounds us – from Charlottesville to here and back again, we are still called to be people of God, followers of the Prince of Peace, proclaimers of hope and good news – good news that speaks of radical hospitality in times when we feel anything but Really, when you think about it, both of the stories in our Scripture readings this morning can be boiled down to one common and hauntingly-poignant theme: hospitality.
  • Now, I know that our Old Testament reading this morning was a psalm, but as with many of the psalms, this portion that we read this morning harkens back to a story.
    • Purpose/role of the psalms = expressions of the heart made in the spirit of worship → That’s why the scope of topics, emotions, and prayers in the psalms are so diverse.
      • Written by variety of different people
      • Written for variety of different times of worship
        • Joy
        • Lament
        • Thanksgiving
        • Supplication
      • And a big part of that worship is remembering back to the ways that God has already been present in the past. → not so different from what we do today, right?
        • Remember God’s past actions in the life of faith (through Scripture)
        • Remember God’s past action in our own lives
        • Remember God’s past actions in the life of this congregation
    • And telling stories and remembering are somewhat of a cycle. We tell stories … and we remember … and as we remember, we are led to another story … which leads to more remembering. And so on and so on. So it is with the psalm that we read this morning. It is a psalm of thanksgiving and praise for God’s presence and protection in difficult times, and as part of that thanksgiving and praise, the writer of the psalm recalled the story of Joseph.
      • Envied by his brothers to the point of them selling him into slavery
      • Winds up in Egypt indentured in the house of Potiphar → imprisoned after a run-in with Potiphar’s wife
      • Released from prison at the request of the pharaoh → ends up in position of great power under pharaoh
      • Brother’s show up on his doorstep in time of great famine and need → don’t initially recognize Joseph
      • And instead of sending his brother’s away – instead repaying them in kind for the way they treated him – Joseph forgave his brothers and convinced them to move their entire lives and families to Egypt so that he could continue to care and provide for them out of his own great abundance.
    • Our psalm this morning = recalls both the hardship and the blessing that Joseph experienced – text: When God called for famine in the land, destroying every source of food, he sent a man ahead of them, who was sold as a slave: it was Joseph. Joseph’s feet hurt in his shackles; his neck was in an iron collar, until what he predicted actually happened, until what the Lord had said proved him true. The king sent for Joseph and set him free; the ruler of many people released him. The king made Joseph master of his house and ruler over everything he owned, to make sure his princes acted according to his will, and to teach wisdom to his advisors. … Praise the Lord![1] → In recalling Joseph’s story, we are reminded of the protection that God gave to Joseph in his time of great need, and, as we remember the rest of Joseph’s story (beyond what is mentioned in our Scripture reading this morning) we are reminded of Joseph’s radical, merciful hospitality when it came to his brothers.
      • Joseph could have revealed himself for who he was and scorned them
      • Joseph could have turned them away
      • Joseph could have forced them to work as he had worked in order to earn the food they so desperately needed with their blood, sweat, and tears
      • Joseph could have done a lot of things to repay his brothers for the horrible way that they treated him. But instead, he showed them radical hospitality. He welcomed them in. He fed them. He embraced them as his brothers. And he forgave them.
        • Story that we’ve heard in church many times BUT … I want you to let that sink in for a minute – just how truly radical that hospitality was. Joseph’s brothers shoved him down a dried up well. They intended to kill him. They sold him into slavery. These are horrible, atrocious acts! If someone did that to you – anyone, let alone your own kin (brother, sister, spouse, parents … anyone dear to you) … if someone did that to you today, would you be able to welcome, feed, embrace, and forgive as Joseph did? Truly? It would be a hard, hard thing to do. And yet this is the radical hospitality with which God welcomes us time and time again. We make mistakes. We turn away. We try to force God into our own minimal boxes of understanding and expectation without giving God room to move in the unexpected and powerful ways in which God tends to move. We deny. We blame. We mistrust. We disengage. But instead of turning us away … instead of repaying us in kind … God welcomes us back again, continues to care and provide for us in our times of need (both great and small).
  • So in our Old Testament reading, we are reminded of this incredible, inspiring example of radical hospitality: mercy, welcome, provision, forgiveness. And all of these things are certainly things that we expect of Jesus – things that we have seen Jesus embody on one occasion after another.
    • E.g.s of Jesus’ radical hospitality
      • “Let the children come to me”[2]
      • Parable of the Good Samaritan[3] in which Jesus emphasizes that our “neighbor” may be the person that we least expect/desire
      • Feeding the 5000[4]
      • Woman with the alabaster jar (from a few weeks ago) – woman ignored/despised by everyone else at the banquet but welcomed and even honored by Jesus[5]
      • We could go on and on with examples of Jesus welcoming the stranger, eating with people he wasn’t “supposed” to eat with, healing people he wasn’t “supposed” to touch, and so on and so on and so on.
    • But instead, we read today’s story. – text: A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” But [Jesus] didn’t respond to her at all. His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.” Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s table.”[6] → [PAUSE] “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s table.” This. Is. Tough.
      • Not the Jesus that we envision
      • Not the welcome that we desire
      • No hint of the forgiveness or generosity that we expect
      • This is a picture of Jesus that makes us uncomfortable. It’s one of those stories in the Bible that we wish we could look away from – that we wish we didn’t have to see – but also that is so captivating in its unexpectedness and strangeness that we cannot look away.
        • Scholar: At first glance, this story of the Canaanite woman opens with a disconcerting picture of Jesus. It raises a serious pastoral question: if he does not have time for her, does he have time for us?[7] → We are, in fact, not so different from that Canaanite woman. We cannot claim to be those “lost sheep,” those “people of Israel” that Jesus speaks of at first. Like this woman, when we cry out, “Mercy!”, are we to expect “just the crumbs” as well?
      • And Jesus’ selectiveness is not the only challenging part of this text. His language is also troubling. – text: He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”
        • Gr. “dogs” = not a nice word → Jesus is not conjuring pictures of cuddly puppies and beloved, obedient companions with his language here. Frankly, Jesus’ choice of words is insulting. It’s demeaning. It is meant to put this woman in her place.
          • All sorts of history wrapped up in this: Canaanites were ancient enemies of the Israelites → history of idol worship, land disputes, and war (and all the atrocities that go with it) – scholar: The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the land that Israel came into at the time of the conquest under Joshua, so one could assume distance between Judeans and Canaanites. Differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender separate [this woman] from Judean social norms. Further, demon possession marginalizes her daughter.[8]
    • But isn’t Jesus supposed to be above all of these things? Isn’t Jesus supposed to look past all of those things that separate us to see the heart of who we are? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be the embodiment of God’s gracious love extended to all people? Yes. That is who Jesus is … eventually. And therein lies the power of our New Testament reading this morning.
      • Nearly every other story that we have of Jesus is a story of his righteousness, his benevolence, his openhandedness → As Presbyterians, as people of the Reformed tradition, we believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully God, and very often, we see only those “fully God” actions and reactions of Jesus among those to whom he ministered.
      • Today’s story = stark picture of the “fully human” side of Jesus
        • Side that is still growing/learning to understand who he is called to be to God’s people – all God’s people
        • Side that still feels and experiences the full gamut of emotions – compassion and love, yes, but also frustration, anger, resentment → Very often, we see this side directed toward the Pharisees, and when that happens, we say, “Of course Jesus reacted that way. The Pharisees were in the wrong. They were holding back his ministry. They were trying to trap him, to kill him even! The Pharisees are the ‘bad guys’ in this story. It’s okay if Jesus treats them with disregard and contempt.” But in today’s story, that disregard and contempt are directed at a woman seeking Jesus’ compassion and miraculous healing. She is asking for his help, and she won’t take no for an answer.
    • And in her persistence – in her desperation as a mother and the tenacious nature of her faith – we see Jesus changed. – text: She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall of their master’s table.” Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.[9] → This is a powerful moment. We witness Jesus’ own repentance – repentance for his initial reaction, repentance for his prejudicial dismissal, repentance for the hardness of his own heart. We see that even for the Son of God, transformation is possible. Mercy in the face of mistakes is possible. Forgiveness in the face of a fractured moment is possible. This truly may be the most raw and genuine example of grace within all of Scripture.
      • Grace from Jesus, to be sure – woman’s daughter is healed after all
      • More importantly = grace from the woman → She has been ignored. She has been turned away. She has been insulted and belittled. But still, she had faith – faith in the Son of God, faith in his goodness and his ability to heal, faith in a compassion which she had not been shown but which she had surely heard so much about. She could have easily turned away. She could have given up. She could have returned Jesus’ insults and stormed off. But instead, she presented another chance, and in that presentation we find immeasurable grace shown not by the Savior but to the Savior.
        • Scholar: This encounter with Jesus reminds us that there is no one outside the circle of God’s love and compassion. … The height, breadth, and depth of God’s compassion still trouble some people within the church today. … Yet no one can limit the grace of God. … The doors of the church are wide open to the world. It should always be that way. How else would we have ever come in?[10]
  • Now, I will say that this congregation is pretty darn good at hospitality.
    • Open, warm, and welcoming
    • Time and time again I’ve seen various people approach someone new and strike up a conversation. “Who are you? How are you doing? What brings you here?” All in ways that are non-threatening and non-pressuring. And always from different people (not the same person approaching new people every time).
    • And we all know we’re good at food!
    • But friends, the world we live in seems to be turning itself upside down. Instead of drawing closer together, we are drawing more and more lines that separate us from other people, lines that are too often drawn in hatred and bigotry and enforced by guns and violence.
      • Born here or not?
      • Speak this language or not?
      • Think/look/worship/believe/vote like me or not?
      • Line, line, line, line, line – one drawn after another
      • We’re pretty good at hospitality within these walls (and we’ll even extend that out to the parking lot and the lawn) … but how are we out in the “real world”? How are we with the person who cuts us off in traffic? The person who screws up our order in the drive through line? The person at work who drives us crazy? The family member that grates on our nerves? The neighbor with the lawn sign or bumper sticker that’s opposite our own views? How are we when the hospitality is hard? Because those moments – those moments when we are faced with the Canaanite women, the undesirables, the difficult-to-loves, the “please God, anyone but this one”s … those moments are opportunities for powerful, transformative grace – for those whom we welcome, and for ourselves. Amen.

[1] Ps 105:16-22, 45b.

[2] Mt 19:14.

[3] Lk 10:25-37.

[4] Jn 6:1-15.

[5] Lk 7:36-50.

[6] Mt 15:22-27.

[7] Lewis F. Galloway. “Matthew 15:21-28 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 32.

[8] Jae Won Lee. “Proper 15 (Sunday between August 14 and August 20 inclusive) – Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – year A, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 359.

[9] Mt 15:27-28.

[10] Galloway, 34, 36 (emphasis added).