Every bit of scripture we have this morning is about God drawing diverse peoples into fellowship…with God…and with one another.
Now, who says the Bible’s not relevant?
In the gospel, Jesus’ ministry gets challenged and it gets expanded by his encounter with a woman who is ethnically and religiously different. Our brother Paul, writing to the Church in Rome, writes to the Romans about how it is that God remains faithful to the Jewish people…even as God does something new through Jesus and the Church.
And then in the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks to a nation that is rebuilding itself and is wondering just how inviting they should be to outsiders, to foreigners. The Word of God delivered through Isaiah is, “Look, my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” Those words are written in stone on the National Cathedral in Washington. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”
In each of these readings, God is drawing diverse peoples together in fellowship with God and one another. And that is lovely, isn’t it? It’s hopeful. It’s aspirational. And it’s easier imagined than it is realized, isn’t it?
These scriptures are relevant to the moment in which we find ourselves, but let’s ask the hard question of them: How do we start? What’s the first step toward living in that kingdom…where our differences stop impeding connection…and instead begin enriching?
Well then, let’s check in with Jesus, shall we?
Now, Jesus was a Jew. We know that, right? And he had a vocation, a call, to his people. Mary and Joseph were Jewish. Jesus learned the faith in his home town synagogue just as we learn it in our home church. On occasion, he would have gone to the big city Jerusalem to the Temple for big festivals.
His call, his ministry, was distinctively Jewish also. He disciples called him “Messiah,” that’s a Jewish term, right? The Romans were no more looking for a Messiah than they were looking to give up their bacon in the morning. But Jesus’ people…were in need of a Savior. They had no king; the Temple was under squirrely management; they were ruled by an empire with a habit of violence and desecration of the Holy. He was Jewish; his vocation was Jewish.
So, busy with that call…to his people…he hits a speed bump, doesn’t he?
He’s wandering outside his home base in the border country between his people and the rest of the world, and a Canaanite woman comes calling after him. This is a woman who is ethnically and religiously different from him. Shouting, she says, “Have mercy on me! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
And he just keeps walking.
The disciples say, “Jesus, would you please go deal with this? It’s getting awkward. She clearly doesn’t know how we do things around here.”
And Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” that is, my people.
But she persists, still. The nerve, right? She falls down on her knees in front of him and begs, “Lord, help me!”
And our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Now that is an uncomfortable moment. For her, for him, for us disciples who hear it. It is safe to say that in this moment, the differences between Jesus and this woman seem pretty insurmountable.
You ever thought you knew something, only to find out you were wrong? I have!
These brains of ours…they are a blessing and curse. Humans are inquisitive by nature. We try to understand our environment, the world around us. But once we settle on an understanding, good luck dislodging that! Once we decide we’ve got the world figured out, it is very hard to change our minds. Social scientists call this confirmation bias – we are inclined to see in the world information that confirms what we already thought…and discount the rest.
We lived in New Orleans for five years, and in New Orleans, there is a very fine line between art…and vandalism. And one artist had painted these little signs – black border with a white box inside, black lettering – and nailed them to utility poles around the city. They read, “Think that you might be wrong.” And I’d sit there at the stoplight thinking, “Other people sure do need to read that sign.”
This problem – of sticking fiercely to what we think we know – is toxic toward overcoming differences amongst humans. Because you think you’ve got the world figured out, and I think I’ve got it figured out, and neither of us thinks that we might be wrong.
You sit there with your whole life’s worth of experience: where you came from, who your parents were, your work, your schooling, your struggle, your griefs, your joys, your skin color, your sexuality, your gender…a history. And I’ve got mine.
That difference impedes connection, especially when the going gets tough. When the world gets tense, we try to navigate by falling back on what we think we know.
Years ago I heard a preacher say, “There comes a time in every marriage when you’ve got to decide if you want to be right…or if you want to be married.”
So, my question earlier was, “What’s the first step toward living in the kingdom …toward letting differences enrich instead of impede. Step one is: give up the commitment to being right.
And ask the question, “I wonder…”
Jesus, laser-focused on his call from God to save his people…gets caught by the lapels by a woman who was not even on his radar.
He says, “It is not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs,” that is, what I have to offer is for my people, and I can’t go wasting my time with the rest of the world.
She says, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall to the floor.”
What a marvelous expression of her desperation. “Friend, I’m just looking for crumbs. Friend, I think you just compared me to a dog, but I’m still here. Friend, do you see how desperate I am for the daughter that I love?”
And Jesus gets caught – in a good way – right? He loses his laser focus, loses his understanding of what is right, of what his call is about. He gets caught, perhaps, wondering what it might be like to be this woman.
Desperate. Willing to be brushed off, ignored. Willing to chase down a wandering rabbi with whom she had little chance. Willing to grab hold of Jesus and wrestle for dear life like Jacob and the angel.
I think…he gives up on being right – which can blind us all – and instead asks himself, “I wonder what it’s like to be her. Which moves him to a broader view of his call. Moves him to recognize that he’s saving more than just his own here, but all of us too.
All of us who follow Christ want to live in a world where differences enrich the kingdom rather than impede it. But how?
The first step is to ask, “I wonder.” To self-consciously set our own experience, our own ideas, our own sense of how the world works…set it to the side…and try to put ourselves in the shoes of another. To ask, “I wonder what it’s like to be him? I wonder what it’s like to be her?” You know what we call it when we set aside ourselves for the sake of another. We call that love. To love our neighbor enough to ask, “I wonder what it’s like…” That’s the first step.
I wonder what it’s like to struggle with chronic illness?
I wonder what it’s like to be a single parent?
I wonder what it’s like to run a business?
I wonder what it’s like to be a police officer in this moment?
I wonder what it’s like to survive sexual assault?
I wonder what it’s like to be Jewish and see Charlottesville?
I wonder what it’s like to live for eighty years and then watch the world change dramatically?
I wonder what it’s like to be sixteen and gay?
I wonder what it’s like to be proud of Confederate ancestors?
I wonder what it’s like to be black in Greenwood?
To love our neighbor…the first step is to get past the notion that we already know all we need to know, and ask, “I wonder.” I wonder.
This is actually what Mission Mississippi – which I’m always talking about – is up to. Mission Mississippi is not playing nice and pretending that nothing divides us. Rather, it’s about gathering across the divide, telling the truth about what’s real in my life, and then having a person who is different take that ‘what it’s like’ on and pray. And then I do the same for them.
We ask, “I wonder.” It’s the first step. And if Jesus was willing to take that step, I promise you, we’re not too good for it either.
That’s one option. The other option is that we double down on what we already think we know and pretend that we couldn’t possibly be wrong.
So, we’ve got to decide: do we want to be right?
Or do we want to be Christians?
In Christ’s name.