Sermon 2020-08-16

There is a video on YouTube I like to watch from time to time called “Cosmic Eye”.  It begins with an image of a smiling woman lying on the grass.  From there it pulls out, straight up into the air, and continues out, encompassing the park and city she lies in, then the continent, the planet, the solar system, and right out of the Milky Way, past our galaxy and its nearest neighbors, to what we can only guess is what the universe looks like, because it is too far away for us to ever see or get to.  The video then zooms back down to the smiling woman again, then carries on into her, through her laughing eye and into her body, carrying on down through her cells and into her DNA, and on down to the quarks we also have to imagine exist, because we can’t see them either!

I’m including the link to the video here, because that’s something I can do now that most of you are participating in worship with me online: 

Cosmic Eye

What I like about this video is the sense of perspective it offers.  Each of us can only see the world from our own individual (and unique) perspectives.  In the grand scheme of the universe, we are infinitely small.  And yet at the same time, the parts that make us up, our quarks, our DNA, our chromosomes, are to us also infinitely small.  I find that this idea helps to reconcile me to my life, both the good and the bad.  It makes me want to celebrate both my own unique experience of life in this cosmos, and also the common building blocks that connect me to everything and everyone around me.

I feel similarly about the breadth and depth of the scriptures the lectionary offers us today.  Just like the smiling woman is the point from which the “Cosmic Eye” video zooms out and zooms in, I find it helpful to picture Jesus, his person and ministry, his (short) time on Earth, as the center of an hourglass.  Everything that came before in scripture – the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Exodus; the kings and prophets of Israel; the exile and return of the people – all of the Law and the Prophets: the purpose of them is to point to Jesus.  And from the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, the story of God’s purpose and work in the world widens out again to include the apostles and the growth of the Church in the book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament.  The stream continues to widen through the last two millennia, until we ourselves are included as well.  But Jesus Christ remains the focal point.  Through Jesus, God is redeeming the whole world, and us along with it.

We heard in Genesis the denouement of the story of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers.  Talk about a dysfunctional family!  No one in that story was innocent.  Their father Jacob played favourites amongst his children. He made no secret of his partiality for Joseph.  And Joseph, for his part, lorded it over his older brothers.  Remember his telling them about his dreams in which they all bowed down and worshipped him?  No wonder his brothers hated him!  Still, to plot to murder your sibling, and ultimately to sell him into slavery!  And then to make your father think he had been violently killed by wild animals!  They gave way to their hatred and destroyed their family.

And then, what to make of Joseph when they come to him, so many years later, looking for food to save their family from starvation?  The way Joseph plays with them, hiding his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack, making them think he would kill, or at least imprison them for a crime they hadn’t committed.  Why did he do that?  This surely wasn’t honourable behavior either.

And yet in this scene today when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, he puts his finger on the real truth, the reason God chose these angry, resentful, dysfunctional brothers to begin God’s chosen people.  Joseph tells them, it wasn’t really you who sent me here to Egypt.  It was God.  God sent me before you so that we would all survive this famine.  And not only the family of Jacob, but all the people living in that part of the world.  Without the bad behavior, the dysfunctional family relationships in Jacob’s household, Joseph would not have been imprisoned in Egypt, would not have been on hand to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams about the coming famine, and would not have been placed in a position of power to prepare, seven years in advance, for a famine no one else saw coming.

Think about this pandemic we are living through.  It sucks, no doubt about that.  People are dying.  And who knows what all the other long-term consequences are going to be?  But where have you seen God working through these times in your own life, in your family and your circumstances?  This story of Joseph and his brothers should remind us that when it comes to seeing the work of God in your life, you need to think long-term and big-picture.  None of us can know what is coming for us in the future.  What might our present experiences be preparing us for?  And if you cannot see what possible good could come of where we are now, remember Joseph and his years of slavery and languishing in prison, and that those circumstances placed him right where God needed him in order to save his whole world. 

And beyond the ways God used Joseph, his brothers, and their choices in their own lifetimes, these dysfunctional siblings were the means by which God raised up his chosen people.  Through them we have Moses and the Law, King David and the Psalms, Queen Esther and Ruth, Elizabeth and Mary, the mother of our Lord.  God built the dysfunctional family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into the nation of Israel, and out of them came the Saviour of the whole world.

Paul raises the question of what becomes of these chosen people, the nation of Israel, the recipients of God’s promises, in his letter to the Romans, as we heard today.  If the Good News of Jesus Christ is for all people in the world, both Jew and Gentile, what then becomes of the special covenant relationship God established with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all their descendants?  Paul speaks elsewhere in this chapter of Gentile Christians as wild olive branches, grafted onto Abraham’s tree, that is, grafted into the saving relationship God promised to have with Abraham’s family.  He says in verse 22 of chapter 11, “Notice how God is both kind and severe.  He is severe toward those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness.”  This is the very big-picture, long-term view of God working in the world.  God gave Moses his Law to give to the Israelite people, Abraham’s children.  What we learn from reading the Law, and from the centuries of stories in the Bible – right up to the Pharisees who challenge Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson – of people trying and failing to keep the Law, is that we cannot be saved that way.  No one can save themselves by perfectly keeping the Law.  That is how the stories of the Israelite people point to Jesus.  He is the only fulfillment of the Law, and faith in Jesus is the only way in which anyone can be saved.  This salvation comes to us Gentiles because Jesus was rejected by the Israelites, crucified and rose again from the dead.  Paul says in verse 28 in today’s lesson, “Many of the people of Israel are now enemies of the Good News, and this benefits you Gentiles.  Yet they are still the people he loves because he chose their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.  Once, you Gentiles were rebels against God, but when the people of Israel rebelled against him, God was merciful to you instead.”

Jesus himself makes this same point about salvation coming from faith and not from following the Law in our Gospel reading from Matthew 15.  He tells his disciples and the Pharisees who have confronted him about the lack of proper hand-washing going on in his group (let’s stop a moment and enjoy the irony of that!) that they are not defiled by what goes into their mouths, but by what comes out of them.  That is, while we can ingest bacteria or viruses, we can’t ingest sin.  Jesus tells his disciples, “But the words you speak come from the heart – that’s what defiles you.  For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying and slander.  These are what defile you.  Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.”

What the Pharisees are insisting on in this passage is that the disciples ought to be following the letter of the Law.  But Jesus is saying that all the ceremonial washing in the world won’t actually cleanse your heart.  The Law of Moses doesn’t save, it just shows us how great is our need for God’s mercy.  Faith alone in the mercy of God can cleanse our hearts and save us.

This is also, believe it or not, the point of the last story we heard today of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman.  This story falls so uncomfortably on our modern ears.  Jesus seems so cold and callous, first ignoring the woman’s pleas for help, and then calling her a dog!  When he tells the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep – the people of Israel,” he is referencing again the special covenant relationship God established with Abraham, and the Law that comes out of it.  This Gentile woman has no part in that relationship.  When the woman persists, he tells her, “It isn’t right to take the food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”  Can this really be Jesus?  

This image of the children sitting at the table, and the dogs lying under it, hoping for scraps, is a Law way of looking at the world.  Some are at the table by right of birth.  The rest have no rights at all.  But in the end, the woman receives what she wants from Jesus.  He heals her daughter.  Why?  Because she has faith, and this causes her to persist in her request, turning his insult around.  She does this not because she believes she has any right to Jesus’ help.  No, she does this simply because she has faith he is her only hope.  What are insults and obstacles in the face of her desperate need?

And Jesus helps the woman because in the end her faith, and not the Law, is the central necessity for having relationship with God.  Maybe there are children at the table, and maybe we are only the dogs lying under the table, but have you ever noticed that dogs always seem to have faith that the scraps are coming their way?  Maybe that’s because God himself is a dog person.  Hope springs eternal in dogs, and God likes that about them.

And so what is the central idea that holds these various Scriptures together?  I think it is that when we look for how God is working in the world, we need to look at the big picture, and take the long view.  We belong to a story that God has been working out for millennia already, a story that ties us and our little church in Regina to Paul and the Roman Christians; to the Canaanite woman and her daughter; to the disciples; to Moses and the Law; to Joseph and his brothers.  God is the central character in this story.  And Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, is the central event of the story.  It is God’s world and his work, and he is drawing us into it.  We may not know what is coming our way this week, or this fall, or next year.  But we can know that God is working his purposes in all of it.  And what is required of us is faith to believe that, whatever is coming, it is in his will, and we are in his mercy.  Amen.