Rev. Wilson’s Sermons

Send Me Your Dogs

Isaiah 26:1, 6-8; Matthew 15:21-28

20 August 2017

I suspect these words of poetry will sound familiar to your ears.

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome . . .

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words, written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, are engraved on a plague on the inner wall at the pedestal base of the Statue of Liberty.  Knowing what little I do of my family heritage, I suspect my ancestors passed through Ellis Island on their way from poverty in their homelands to make a new start in this land. Perhaps that is true for some of your families’ ancestors as well.

Outcasts are the themes for today’s texts.  Let’s turn first to the Isaiah passage.  It comes from the final portion of the book of Isaiah, chapters 56-66.  Scholars have dated this third portion of Isaiah to the post-exilic period.  It was a time when the Israelites were struggling with the questions of who belongs within the nation of Israel and who exactly could be trusted among those claiming Israel as their home.  We can hear echoes of those same questions being asked today.

Those who had been exiled when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians were finally being allowed to return home.  However, the home to which they returned was vastly different from what they left.  Their houses were occupied by others making ownership unclear.  The economy was in ruins.  Israel had truly become the backwater of the Babylonian Empire.  Following the same military tactics that led to the Israelites’ exile, other conquered peoples had been moved to this backwater resulting in a mix of cultures and religions.  There was a lack of order those returning had not known while in exile.  While surely no one sought being thrown out of their homeland, there was stability and plenty of bread and water—the necessities of life—in the places they were forced to make their homes.

Not all Jews were forced to leave Israel.  Only the ones with homes, land, income, and clout were forced out.  In other words, the ones who could pose any opposition to the conquering forces.  Those not important or wealthy enough to ship out had been allowed to stay put.  These people were seeing the exiles return—exiles who had been worth more before their ouster and were still more wealthy and important upon their return.

There were also those who had been forced to resettle in the area—the Gentiles—who, as I said, brought with them their culture and religion.  They had no standing in the eyes of the Jews who had remained, and certainly not in the eyes of those returning.  Many of these newcomers were living in the returnees’ homes and had taken over their livelihoods.  Did they belong in Israel?  Should they become outcasts, forced to leave what had become their home?

So who belongs?  Perhaps the beginning of chapter 56 gives us an answer.  “Thus says the Lord; Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.”  In other words, live in a certain way—the way that God has commanded you.  God will take care of sorting much of it out.  As verse 8 says, “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”

Turning to the Matthew passage, Jesus now finds himself in foreign territory—Tyre and Sidon in the province of Syria.  He is in a place where outcasts, the unclean, and the undesirable live.  He is approached by someone who had two strikes—a woman and a Canaanite.  Yet she has a desperate need—a need we can understand.  She wishes to see her daughter healed.  She will do most anything to accomplish this; even approach a man she does not know on the street.

We encounter here a Jesus that initially seems unfamiliar to us.  He is slow to show compassion.  He makes it clear to his disciples that he is only to minister to the lost sheep of Israel, reminding us of the exiles from the Isaiah passage.  He compares the Canaanite woman and her daughter to dogs—an insult we can understand.  She does not lose her courage however.  She speaks the truth to Jesus, thus opening the door to freedom.  Even dogs eat from their masters’ table.  She is not above redemption.

Jesus’ passage also reminds us that we are to live our faith.  This is not just a Sunday morning thing.  It is not a garment we put on when it is convenient or when it fits us best.  It is something we wear even when it is tight and constricting.  It is also something we wear when it is loose and comfortable.  We don’t take it off for the lives we live outside this building.

Not everyone in this room today would define outcast in the same way.  We all come with our own biases.  They come from the way we were raised, our own experiences that have shaped us, and the way we see the world around us.  Yet each one of us claims to have faith in the same God—the one who has told us to maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon salvation will come, and deliverance will be revealed.

How can we see beyond our own biases?  If I truly had the answer to that question, I probably would not be standing here today.  But, I do know this.  If you take the time to truly get to know someone, particularly someone who is very different from yourself, you can find ways to love one another even when you disagree tremendously.

Let me tell you about a process that was implemented in the Presbyterian Church some years ago.  This is when the debate about the ordination of LGBT folks was truly raging in the denomination.  There was a group of church leaders gathered who represented a vast array of viewpoints.  Included were seminary professors, pastors, and elders in local churches.  Many of these folks had been particularly fierce in slinging mud at those who represented the other side.  Everyone agreed to enter a time of study, reflection, and fellowship.  They met for a few days periodically during what was something like two years.  The professors among them handled the study portion, examining different Biblical texts and their interpretations.  The pastors and elders took turns leading the reflection portions.  What they discovered is that those whom they had vilified publicly and privately were real people.  They established relationships with one another.  They supported one another through the challenges of life and celebrated one another’s joys.  They still disagreed.  Few opinions on the subject at hand were changed.  However, those on each side who had been ready to make outcasts of the other side came to love them and realize that they could not throw them out.

It seems to me that there might be a lesson in this for all us in light of what happened last weekend in Charlottesville and this weekend in Boston, Portland, Hot Springs, and Dallas.  We cannot let hate be the way we approach those who are different then ourselves, particularly when we do not really know them.  They may be dogs at the table of their masters in the eyes of the world, but they are not above redemption.

It does not mean that we condone violence when it breaks out.  I know I am thankful that there were only minor scuffles among protestors leading to a few arrests yesterday.  We face challenging questions around the right to speak freely and when that free speech turns into hate for others, making them outcasts.  If nothing else, Isaiah shows us that these are ancient questions with which we continue to wrestle.

For the faithful, we know what to do and how to live.  God has told us to maintain justice and do what is right.  So, send us your dogs.  We’ll do our best to live our faith as God has instructed and Jesus has shown us.

I leave you with these words from Abraham Lincoln, who said, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God give us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

At the name of Jesus, every knee will bend and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord, to the glory of God.  Amen.