Written by Pastor Ed
August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56: 1-8
Matthew 15: 21-28
On Thursday evening, Gay and I attended Global Fest, which along with having great fireworks, is a celebration of the many cultures that make up the city of Calgary. It’s a great time and shows the broad diversity that is present in our city. Events like this make us think that we are immune to the kinds of activity that happened last weekend in Charlottesville, VA where Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, marched through the streets and one person drove a car into a group of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman. You’ve undoubtedly read or heard a great deal about that this past week.
I think I’ve shared before that I have some sense of what that was like from my own experience in the South in the 70’s, and believe me it’s scary. If you’ve read any of the eyewitness accounts, you get just a bit of the sense, and I’m sure the people I know in Charlottesville could add a fair bit more.
But, as numerous people have pointed out, that kind of racism and bigotry doesn’t stop at the U.S./Canada border. The Aryan Guard are an active group in Alberta, and here in Calgary as shown by these pictures from a rally in 2008 and just this week we learned of threats that have been made against a candidate for the Calgary Board of Education. She has received emails saying, “The Aryan Guard will come for you Muslim scum,” and made reference to Heather Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville.
Now I have tended to stay away from political issues, particularly those in the U.S. but this goes well beyond politics. One of the tragedies of this past week, along with the violence and deaths, is the damage that has been done to Christianity and the church. While I have many pastor friends and others who have condemned the white supremacists and the violence of the groups, some of the more prominent voices, including that of the president and much of his evangelical support have failed to condemn them and have even offered tacit support for an ideology that is antithetical to the Gospel It is interesting to note, as many have, that the business leaders have been more ready to leave and distance themselves than the spiritual council surrounding the president. . Is it any wonder that people are writing off the church as irrelevant, or worse?
Let’s be clear. The ideology of the Neo-Nazis or any white supremacist group is wrong, sinful, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the scriptures. There are many texts one could draw on, but the assigned lectionary texts for today will work just fine. There was always a tension in the Old Testament between those who wanted to keep Israel pure and those who saw a greater vision, based on Abraham’s call to be a blessing to the nations. That tension was even greater when the exiles returned from captivity in Babylon, but the prophet of Isaiah 56 is quite clear. No one is to be excluded who wants to worship. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” says the Lord.
And to make his point he cites two groups that were specifically prohibited from entering the temple previously. Deuteronomy 23: 1-3 reads,
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. 2 Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord,”
But Isaiah says that it is not anything physical or anything to do with their place of birth that will keep them away. Anyone, he says, who keeps the Sabbath and hold fast to the covenant will be welcomed and their sacrifices accepted. The new vision of God’s kingdom rewrote the previous laws of the temple, yes, even what had been written in scripture. It’s a vision that Jesus quoted and exemplified.
Jesus traveled through the district of Tyre and Sidon, what we today would know as Syria, and was approached by a Canaanite woman, pleading for her daughter. And while Jesus initially seems to put her off, citing that he came first to the “lost sheep of Israel,” he acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter.
The message of the account is even clearer in Mark’s telling of the story, because he places it between the two feedings, first of the 5000 on the Israel side of the sea, and then of the 4000 on the Gentile side of the sea. The message would have been abundantly clear to the readers of Mark and Matthew; Jesus was opening the kingdom up to the outsiders, to anyone who had faith. It took them a while to accept that in the early church and it took Peter and Paul to drive the point home, but the message is clear. No one who desires to come should be excluded. All are welcome.
The theme is carried throughout the New Testament, culminating in John’s vision of the throng gathered around the throne praising God, from every tribe and tongue, a mixed group of people. Anyone who wants to make the white race superior in some way to everyone else will certainly not be ready for that scene, and in fact, probably won’t be there, although I’ll leave that judgement to God. As Christians we are part of a world-wide group in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but we are all one in Christ.
And in reality, that extends to how we view everyone, even those outside the church. All people are made in God’s image and are valuable to God. The scriptures are full of “all” and “whosoever” and “anyone.” And, as I have often reminded people, Christians around the world read the same scriptures, so any interpretation you want to give to a passage has to mean the same thing no matter where you live or under what government you live. The Bible was not written exclusively for whites of European stock.
So what are the lessons we should learn from these passages and the news of this past week?
First of all we must be clear that any ideology or theology that elevates one group over another is wrong and should be denounced as sinful. As Jesus told his disciples in the passage right before what we read in Matthew 15, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” (15:18) The groups that espouse such ideas are not Christian, and need to be named for what they are.
Secondly, we need to be aware that what we say matters. Unfortunately, the president of the U.S. does not seem to have learned that lesson, but as Christians we should be very careful about the language that we use, the way we refer to people, and the stereotypes that are so easy to fall into. What we say, as Jesus noted, reveals what is in our hearts, and that is what causes harm, not whether we follow all the traditions even of the church.
Thirdly, we must counter the message sent by too many groups who call themselves Christian and declare that the church is a place of welcome and safety for all who desire to come. I believe it was during my interview process here that someone asked me a question about LGBT persons and the church. As I recall my response was that the most important question for me is not about someone’s sexuality, or ethnicity, or whatever other labels you might want to use, but rather are they interested in learning more about following Jesus.
That, I think is really the message of Isaiah. The distinctiveness of those who followed God’s way was in who they worshipped and who they made their covenant with, period. Nothing else mattered. They may not be at the same place as I am, or you are, but God welcomes all who seek him, and we should too.
And finally, we must stand with those who are the target of attacks. Most, granted not all, but most of those who opposed the Alt-right groups in Charlottesville were committed to non-violence in the face of oppression. We need to condemn violence wherever it occurs, but we must never equate the violence of the oppressed with the violence that comes from a place of power and is used to oppress and harm others, such as that espoused by the neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups.
Perhaps the statement releases by Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA says it best. It reads in part:
“As followers of Jesus, we must speak out against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism that prompted the demonstration. We declare with the authority of scripture that all people are created in the image of God, and that no so-called race is inherently superior to any other. We call all of Mennonite Church USA to be watchful and open to the Spirit of God, inspiring and emboldening us to stand together with people who are the target of hate solely because of the color of their skin, gender, sexual orientation or religion.”
That begins with an examination of ourselves and our attitudes, then moves to our congregation’s openness to put that into practice, and finally it speaks to how we relate to those around us. We sometimes sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Let’s make sure that is the case.
Several weeks ago when we visited our former congregation in Sioux Falls, we sang a hymn that was new to us. And then I recently received material related to the work that is being done toward publishing a new hymnal, scheduled to be ready by 2020. We’ll hear more about that later this year. But the same hymn was included with that material, and it seemed appropriate for this morning’s theme. We were a bit concerned because we didn’t have any accompaniment to go with it, and then Linda said, she knows it, and has music. So let’s join in the hymn you find on the insert. It will not be projected so you can follow the music as well as the words.