“Breaking Through Is Hard to Do”

Matthew 15: 10-28

Dr. Robert J. Anderson

August 17, 2014

 

 

We learn a lot through the experiences we live through.  We can learn some positive things, and we can learn some negative ones as well.

 

This past week Diane and I observed the 41st anniversary of my ordination as a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor.  It happened in my home congregation, Hiland Presbyterian Church (spelled differently than Highlands Presbyterian Church) to which I came 13 years ago in Daytona Beach.  In some ways the years have gone by quickly; other days not so much!  My mother was an Elder and she participated in the ordination service by Pittsburgh Presbytery.  My dad was in the hospital and could not attend.  A member of the church videotaped the service, so he could see it.  And, because of that, I have the service today.

 

So, I’ve been around the block a time or two, and when I think back to my college days, it is even longer ago.  I attended Houghton College in western New York, a small Christian college.  When I first arrived on campus, the college was affiliated with the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  Not too much later it was decided that the Methodists were too liberal, and the Wesleyan Methodist church became, simply, the Wesleyan Church.

 

Interestingly, when I went to my first congregation in Vanport, Pennsylvania (a township about a square mile in area), the only other church was a Wesleyan Church.  I thought I’d found a brother in the faith.  However, he thought Houghton was too liberal and a relationship never developed.  In a year or two the church moved out of the township.  I later heard that before he gave his children the comic pages from the paper, he cut out the ones he found objectionable!  So the children got a newspaper with a lot of holes!

 

Houghton was a good college academically, and I learn some important lessons in faith and practice.  Card playing was out--although you could play Rook.  No smoking, drinking, or dancing.  Movies were frowned on.  The nearest movie theater was the Fillmore Opera House several miles away.  People were always talking about their Christian witness and the faith of the “weaker brothers and sisters.”  If a married man had to pick up a woman someplace and take her to another place, she was to ride in the backseat.  One student told me one time that he would not walk his girlfriend down a dimly lit street at night, because of what people might think about them!  One Sunday afternoon to take a break from our studies, several of us went out on the athletic field in front of the dorm to throw a baseball.  One of the professors called the dorm to say that was inappropriate Sunday activity.  The staff told us to do behind the dorm where it wouldn’t bother anyone.  I came to think that the only safe thing to do was to sit on your front porch in a rocking chair; and, then, someone would criticize you for that!  My conclusion was that I would do my best to live the life God called me to live and not intentionally lead anyone astray, but I couldn’t control everyone’s thinking.

 

Another thing I learned was what I call basic Christianity.  You see, I saw a lot of people sharing their faith in Jesus Christ and letting people know that they shouldn’t drink, smoke, dance, play cards, etc.  In other words, they shared their faith in Christ and then stayed overly involved in the conversation to be sure that they heard no drinking, etc.  I came to the conclusion that my calling is to introduce people to the love of God found in Jesus Christ and then get out of the congregation.  No, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think we should abandon the new person in faith, and we should stay nearby to help.  But, we should trust God to work in their lives.  For, what I thought I saw was a lack of trust in God in the sharing of faith I saw.  God got it right with them but the sharer needed to stay heavily involved in the new person’s  conversation with God to be sure they heard it right or God got it right.  It was as though they believed God got it right with them but wasn’t so sure he could get it right with others.

 

So the basics for me is sharing my faith in Jesus Christ who as the clearest and best example of God’s love for all humankind and creation--pray with and encourage spiritual growth and trust God to mature the faith of the person.

 

Our passage in Matthew’s gospel today is about not taking God’s love and mercy that is meant for everyone and making it exclusive.  This is a problem in Jesus’ day and ours as well.  We take the things that are meaningful to us in our faith and worship and codify them and use them to keep some out.  Including everyone in our church family is still hard to do. We must try each and every day to make our Christian family include everyone.  But again and again we find ourselves judging whether or not people are real Christians.  The sad reasoning is that there is a litmus test for being a Christian.  One of those might be the view you have of gay marriage.  Another may be to question your views on abortion.  Another may be divestiture—selling stock in companies that have different views than you.  There seems to be a constant push to separate instead of combine different people in our churches.  We seem to look for excuses to separate others into different groups as Christians and in doing so simply separate ourselves.  Down through the years those excluded have been gentiles, women, minorities, people with certain diseases, etc.  It might be a comfort to the preacher and the listener to realize that Jesus saw how hard this goal was to meet.

 

The role is reversed here.  Jesus is the learner.

 

The woman is the teacher.  There is quite a bit of back story to our passage.  The Canaanites, of which this woman was one, were the original inhabitants of the Promised Land into which the Israelites went after escaping Egypt.  So, there is some animosity.  Her ethnicity, religion, heritage and gender all separate her from the Judean social norms.  Add to this is that her unreserved behavior is unacceptable in public.  Jesus sticks with the Israelites as the chosen people and this woman is a gentile.  Her persistence wins Jesus’ approval and his hint that people will come from north and south and east and west to sit at the table in the Realm of God!  The codified laws and traditions kept people out and made it hard to break through.  Her persistence and conviction that God is a God of mercy--a God of mercy for all people enabled to break through.

 

There is disappointment that so few white Christians belong to racially mixed or predominantly minority congregations.  An estimated 5% of U.S. churches are racially integrated a reality hard to square with Christian teachings like this from the apostle Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  I am glad we are part of the 5% and I pray that this percentage will grow; for everyone is richer together than a part!  We are certainly a richer congregation for our diversity!

 

What troubles me about the discussions in today’s church about who can come in and who cannot, is that you can substitute women and blacks in the current argument of who is in and who is out, and it is the same rhetoric as we’ve heard in the 20th Century!

 

I think we should stop arguing about who we think is a Christian or whose faith is better and concentrate on “Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior?”  “Do you trust him?”  “Do you intend to be his disciple and show his love?”  The gospel of John tells us that “To as many as received him (Jesus) he gave them the power to become the children of God.”  Receiving Jesus is the crucial point.  Then let the Holy Spirit cultivate a life of praise and obedience.  Let the church stop calling into question the faith of a person who confesses Jesus Christ is Lord and get on with sharing God’s good news, so that others can become comfortable in the presence of God and around his banquet table.