The Kingdom of God is a challenging place for people who are nuts about order. That could be me, most of the time, although you wouldn’t know it to see my desk at home. I have a theory that most of us secretly love. If our own lives feel disordered and chaotic, we might fall back on order someplace else, like the shelves at the grocery store or the library.
For me, it’s yarn shops. I love to knit, but mostly, I love to browse at yarn shops. I love the walls of color and texture that someone has carefully put in perfect order. Often the promise of another trip to the yarn shop is all the motivation I need to finish a project. I am not a great knitter, but I do good work when I have good, step-by-step directions. I would probably have made a great Pharisee.
I think the tradition of the Episcopal Church satisfies the need for order that is just part of being human. I came into the church in my early twenties and had the same “struggle with the juggle” of books and bulletins that many of us have, but I eventually got it. I eventually got it because it was the same every week. Each week I could enjoy the fact that I got another part. Like, oh, yeah, this is the music we sing every week, the “holy, holy, holy,” and we always sing a hymn just before the reading of the gospel, but it’s different every week. In the predictable order of our liturgy—hymn, word, creed, prayers, offering, communion—I found such comfort! I felt like I could relax into whatever was being sung or said because of the structure and the container that held it.
Saint Paul, who typifies the motto “once a Pharisee, always a Pharisee,” coined the phrase “decently and in good order.” Trying to do things “decently and in good order” is a good way to cover up for the really bizarre practice of sharing bread and wine that we say is the body and blood of Christ. When you think about it, really, much of what we do when we gather has a bit of the outrageous to it: we sing together, something that most people don’t do in public these days, we sit in rows listening to old stories translated from dead languages, we pray out loud, we greet each other right in the middle, in a sometimes chaotic way, and then we partake of ancient prayers turning bread and wine into something that makes us Christ’s body and connects us with eternity. There is a wonderful layering, every single Sunday, between that which is done decently and in good order, and that which is, when you think on it, outlandish.
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Today’s gospel is all about contrasts between order and disorder, between things in order and things out of order. The Pharisees, keepers of religious order, are unhappy with Jesus’ disordering of things. They take offense at Jesus’ re-ordering of what it means to be clean and what it means to be defiled. It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, says Jesus, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
Jesus makes these outrageous proclamations to the Pharisees, not to say that they have been wrong all these years about God, but to say that God is even bigger than they think, and that God’s agenda is about the intentions of our hearts being the opposite of murder, adultery, theft, false witness, or slander. We proclaim the Kingdom of God when the intentions of our hearts and the words that come out of our mouths are good, and life-giving, and generous, and honest.
For the Pharisees, Jesus has stood order on its head. Faithful and good as they are, they criticize Jesus because of their fear of religious disorder.
Along comes the Canaanite woman, who is very much out of order. It would have been shocking and disruptive for any woman to start shouting to Jesus and the crowd, but it was particularly out of order when the woman was a Canaanite, a gentile, and a religious outsider.
This is where the gospel story gets tricky. The Jesus we know is all about outsiders, right? Pushing the envelope, inviting everyone to the table, eating with sinners, tax-collectors, and foreigners, right? So why is he silent to her cries for help?
The disciples’ response is bad enough. They say “send her away, she keeps bothering us.” This shouldn’t surprise us too much. We just heard them saying this two weeks ago about thousands of hungry people. “Send them away to get something to eat.” Two weeks ago, I challenged us to check in with ourselves and ask: are we, like the disciples, saying: “let someone else feed the hungry”?
Today, it is Jesus’ reaction that we need to look at, and measure our own response. First Jesus ignores the woman, and then he says 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. Jesus is calling this woman a dog! More to the point, he sets limits on the reach of God’s mercy.
The insult would’ve been accepted behavior for a good Jew in Jesus’ context. But with or without the insult, Jesus’ whole interchange with the woman invites us to ask ourselves: when we have done the same? When have you felt that something—a service, a gift, a prayer—should be just for the people within our community?
I have to tell a story on myself: In another parish, some vestry members and I were hosting a newcomer dinner in the fellowship hall. We’d planned it for a long time and it was a classy affair with white tablecloths, candles, and delicious catered food. We were gathered in the foyer enjoying wine and sparkling cider and hors d’oeuvres when a rather rough, scary-looking young man came in. He had clearly been sleeping outside for a while, and looked like he’d been in a fight. He’d come through the doors on the other side of the church where he’d seen a sign saying “Newcomer Dinner” with arrows pointing guests to the right part of the building, and he’d followed the arrows. He said to me: “Can I come to you newcomer dinner? I’d like to be a newcomer.” Someone gave him a plate of cheese and crackers and escorted him to a chair in a far corner. The Senior Warden, a very good-hearted, faithful man, came up to me and said “this dinner is for these people. He’s making everyone uncomfortable. You really need to make him go away.”
I wish the end of the story was that I challenged the senior warden, invited the man to dinner, and we all lived happily ever after. But I didn’t. He was making me uncomfortable, too, and I gave him some more cheese and crackers, wrapped up in a napkin, and sent him out into the winter night.
I was remembering this story, cringing, and imagining what it would’ve been like if we had understood at the time that that cold, unwashed young man was the star of our story? What if we had invited him into that warm, candle-lit room, sat him down, welcomed him as a valued newcomer to our community, and fed him a delicious dinner? That would have been a taste, for all of us, of the Kingdom of God.
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The Canaanite woman is the star of today’s gospel story. Marginalized by virtue of her sex and her religion, she risks ridicule and rejection in order to claim—and proclaim—the mercy of God. In her conversation with Jesus, it is she who surprises him with a new way of looking at things. In her story, it is the one who is indecent and entirely out of order who proclaims the kingdom.
Who are we ignoring or trying to send away who might have something to say to us about God’s infinite capacity for mercy? What disorder is beckoning us into a deeper knowledge of God and God’s kingdom?