Lynne hadn’t been to church for a long, long time. But for some reason, on a cold winter day and a new baby daughter in her life, she decided it was time to connect with the church again. Maybe it was just that she knew she needed to find a church where she could have this baby baptized – her son from her first marriage had been baptized, and she had sent him to the release time program at one of the churches in her little town. But Lynne wasn’t a member of any church and she hadn’t been to church for a long, long time. It takes a bit of courage to go to church when you haven’t been there for so long; but she was determined. She checked the worship time for the church that had her son’s release time classes, she bundled up the baby, and she drove over for the service. But when she got there, the ushers looked at her and told her that this worship service was only for members. Now, I suspect there was some miscommunication here – that it was only the communion part of the service that was only for members, but the impression Lynne got was that she was not welcome to attend that church. She went back to her car, she told me, and just sat there and cried.
Now those are the kind of experiences that pretty much put an end to any kind of involvement in the church, except for those who are very, very determined.
The Canaanite woman in today’s gospel has such determination. Her daughter is tormented by a demon, and this mother knows that in Jesus there is hope for her daughter. She comes, shouting her need before Jesus and his disciples. But the disciples know right away – she is not one of us. She is a Canaanite woman, an outsider, and the healing of Jesus is only insiders – for members of the Jewish community – no outsiders are to be included. And to our surprise, Jesus acts out the prejudices of his community. He tells her that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Now, there are a couple of ways to understand what Jesus is doing here. Some would say that Jesus is simply acting out the prejudice that his disciples live in – that he resists her request so that she will demonstrate her persistence – that the disciples need to recognize that he is intentionally including people that they would automatically exclude out of their long-standing cultural prejudices. This understanding suggests that Jesus intends all along to heal this woman’s daughter, but needs to draw out the woman’s faith and demonstrate to his disciples that they needed to include all people – especially those they would otherwise tend to exclude. Another interpretation argues that Jesus actually learns from this woman – that she convinces him that God’s grace is to be extended to all people. Some people are rather uncomfortable with this interpretation because it suggests that Jesus grows in his own understanding of God and God’s grace through his years of ministry. His first reaction to the woman is his automatic prejudice against Canaanite people, which was just so deeply a part of his Jewish culture. This woman’s insistence on being worthy to receive at least a morsel of God’s grace forces Jesus to go behind the cultural prejudice of his people and remember God’s love for all people and that the prophet Isaiah said of God’s servant, “it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise of the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
But however you understand what’s going on with Jesus in this story, the end is the same – all are welcome! And our work as disciples is to insist that all are always welcome in our churches – that we do everything we can to remove the barriers that make some people feel like that are not truly welcome – that we work diligently to weed out any prejudices we might hold that might exclude anyone from God’s grace – that we strive always to welcome the stranger and those who are different and to bring them into the circle of support and love we share together through Jesus. Yes, that is the point – all are welcome, no exceptions, and we are the hands and voice of welcome that God uses so that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth and everywhere in between.
Ruth Rudnick was one of those faithful disciples who understood this gospel and did what she could to live it. She was a member of the congregation I served in Bovey and she was the unofficial greeter at that church every Sunday. And Ruth’s way of doing that was to make sure that everyone who walked through the door of that church was greeted by her with a hug. She was there on the Sunday that Lynne was crying in her car. And for some reason that Sunday morning, Lynne did not give up on going to church. She perhaps shared some of the determination of the Canaanite woman in our gospel. She cleared her eyes and thought that maybe there might be a church in the next town where she could worship. So she drove to the next town and stopped in front of the Bethel-Trinity Lutheran church Bovey. She was a bit apprehensive as she got out of her car, not knowing whether this church would be any different from the one she’d just been at. But when Lynne came through the door of the church, there was Ruth extending her generous hug of welcome to this stranger and her baby. Then Ruth introduced Lynn to the others already gathered, and then she took little Samantha around to meet everyone in the church. Lynne had more tears that morning as she sat in the pew; but this time they were tears of joy, because she had been welcomed into this church with such open arms.
May we become God’s arms of welcome, and may this house proclaim from floor to rafter; all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. AMEN.