I know it won’t shock you for me to tell you that I have never been “known” for my athletic prowess.
There has never been a time in my life where anyone mistakenly took me for a member of any sports team. Not one. Way back in Junior High School, I gave sports a good try, but I never caught on. Everything about football was uncomfortable: the uniforms, the helmets, the heat of Summer practice, the necessity of constantly being mowed down onto the grass by folks much larger and more athletic than myself. We would have these drills where we all stood there on the field, the coach blew the whistle, and we ran and just hit one another, knocking down anyone standing in our say. “Last man standing,” the coach would say.
One friend (who fared much better at Tennis I would add) and I came up with a plan. When the coach blew the whistle, we would hit each other, fall to the ground, and lie there until the battle was over and the victor was proclaimed. Then, we would stand up, dust ourselves off, and blend back in to the rest of the team.
I always thought it was ingenious.
For some reason, I always ended up toward the end of the pool when we picked teams. I ended up on the last little piece of the B-team in basketball, and eventually became more of a team manager, helping with water bottles and towels and carrying the coaches clipboard.
But it always hurt not to be picked, or to wind up at the end and hear someone say, “Well, I’ll take what is left.” And I felt left out…unwanted…unworthy…more than a bit ‘nerdy’ you might say.
It’s a painful experience to be excluded. My experience orbits around the plight of a pimply white middle-class teenager who was much more comfortable lifting books in the library than weights in the locker room. Many of you, perhaps, and others in the world have been excluded in situations far more dire than Junior High football teams.
Everyone wants to belong. Everyone wants to be a part of some family, of some community, to have someone say to them, “Yes…you are welcome here….you belong here….welcome home.”
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
There is a sign posted on next to the door at the Cathedral of St. Philip that catches my eye every time I go there. Many places have now put this sign up, staking the radical claim of spiritual community in a world which seems so hell-bent on dividing us all. The sign reads, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
We hear it today in the Hebrew Lesson, in the 56th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah—which is, actually, really the second part of Isaiah, having been composed while the Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon.
The Hebrew people were struggling with their identity as the people of God, a people who had been conquered and carried to a foreign land, under control.
How do we understand God’s blessing now?
How do we understand ourselves as part of that blessing, now that we have encountered people who are different than ourselves?
We have to understand that, at that time, the Jews understood themselves to be the focus or the locus of God’s blessing. And, here they encounter these foreigners, and they struggle to understand how God relates to them…
And, Isaiah offers this absolutely marvelous and challenging reflection on God’s grace…on who can participate in God’s blessing…
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord…all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it…and hold fast to my holy covenant…”
All these, Isaiah says….ALL THESE… “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
All peoples… Do we hear resonances with struggles we have in our own day and time? It seems the world around us has gone absolutely crazy…this group excluded…this group rejected…this group building walls…this group lashing out to eradicate that group…
It makes us uncomfortable, to be sure… Good…
And Isaiah the prophet stands and proclaims God’s true intention: “for my house shall be a called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Not that everyone can just come and do as she likes, when it comes to God’s blessing. Not at all. We all have to keep the covenant…love our neighbor, care for the widow, the orphan, the alien in our midst…honor the Sabbath…honor no other gods…love God above all…
Challenging, challenging stuff…this practice of faith…
And don’t think that we are the only ones who have faced this. Jesus himself faced this dynamic of exclusion in what may be one of the most challenging Gospel texts in our canon. There he is, trying to find a bit of quite time, when this poor Canaanite woman (read non-Jew therefore from the other side…unwelcome…) comes out of nowhere and yells for Jesus to help her daughter. The text says that Jesus ignores her at first, and the disciples ask him to send her away, “for she keeps shouting after us.”
No one would give them the Most-compassionate award at this point to be sure.
And Jesus seems so harsh: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Did Jesus just call this poor woman a dog? It doesn’t seem to faze her one bit, as she looks at him and says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
And the two of them share this amazing moment as Jesus turns to her… “Woman, great is your faith!!”
I like to think that Jesus knew all along, that he let this interaction play out, hoping that the poor helpless disciples would see what was happening… Or, maybe Jesus changed his mind? We really don’t know…
All that we know is that God’s point was proven: no one is excluded.
“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
It is, after all, prayer that holds the key in this formula, isn’t it? Not that everyone just gets to pile into God’s house and do whatever they like, sort of like when our parents left home and we had that party we weren’t supposed to have…and our friends came and all the normal house rules went away. Not like that at all.
When the prophet Isaiah says all people are welcome, we are reminded that the purpose for our being is prayer. None of us can be here for our own purposes…no matter if we have been here all along or if we have come to visit the parish for the first time. We are here to pray, to pray together, to pray together and be reminded that God loves us, and calls us to participate in God’s mission in the world around us.
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Psalm 67:1
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 15, Year A
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; St. Matthew 15: 21-28
August 17, 2014