Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
It’s that time of the year. Especially, for many families. Lives are massively changing. The school year is starting up again. In other parts of the country, some have already been back for a few weeks. But this week and next week many of our college students are beginning classes. For the freshmen, it was only a couple of months ago when the seniors in high school were walking across the stage receiving their diplomas. Not only are some going to college but some also going into the workforce, and others into the military.
All of them are starting the next phase, a new phase, of their lives. Do you remember what it was like the first September after graduating from high school? I know for some of us that was a lifetime ago. I will never forget.
After eighteen years it was the first time I had the opportunity to live somewhere else and explore something beyond my own experiences. I’m someone who wants to immerse myself in new areas, not just to visit, or observe a different city or region.
So, when I arrived at the University of Louisville, or Looavul as I would soon find out, for my freshman year of college, that’s all that was on my mind. I was excited to begin a new life. First, I learned, for some odd reason, everyone else in the country has an accent, while we, who live in Western New York, don’t have one. Second, I realized I could do anything I wanted and I had a chance to be a completely different person. Only God knew what the future had in store for me.
After spending the previous night in a hotel, my parents and I made our way to the campus to move me into my new dorm room. Once we arrived, I checked in at the front desk, got my key, and received some last minute instructions. Then I took off, like I was shot out of a canon, ready to see where I would be living for the next nine months. I flew up three flights of stairs, made my way through the hallway door, and found my room.
When I opened the door I discovered that I would be sharing a room, which was about the size of one of the offices, with a complete stranger. Even though I knew I was going to have a roommate, it didn’t hit me until I noticed him asleep on his side.
Once we unpacked the mini van, I made some last minute touches, and then reality set in – when my parents said good-bye. As we walked down the main lobby I just stood there with them, shaking. I knew I couldn’t go home with them. I tried to milk the last few minutes.
Within a couple of seconds that tough guy act melted away. There I stood, with tears in my eyes scared out of my mind as I told them, “I can’t do this.” I didn’t know what to do next. I felt out of place. I didn’t know my role. Even though it was orientation week and the university did everything to make new students feel welcome, I felt uncomfortable.
Even though I made some friends and enjoyed my time there, I eventually transferred to the University of Miami in Florida, where I received my undergraduate degree. Still, this has been a common theme every time I’ve moved somewhere new. No matter where I go when I first arrive I’ve felt out of place. It’s not that someone has said they didn’t want me. It’s just I’m not familiar and I felt like an outsider.
Not only are our college students feeling like outsiders this week, but many of us have experienced being an outsider in other parts of our lives. Maybe it was at a spouse’s work party. Or at a child's back-to-school night. Or on a blind date. Or the first day on a new job. Usually, we feel like outsiders when we don't know people around us. We feel like outsiders when we don’t know our role. We feel like outsiders when we don’t know our place or our responsibilities.
Hence, we might avoid those situations as much as possible and retreat back to being an insider. Perhaps that’s why I’m looking for a call in another part of the country. I won’t have a choice to retreat. All I can do is face being an outsider head on. Being an outsider is not easy and it’s not fun, especially when we don’t have a choice.
The Canaanite woman didn’t have a choice being an outsider either. When Jesus and the disciples came to the district of Tyre and Sidon this outsider came running to them. Out of desperation she cried out for mercy. Anyone who originally heard this story in Matthew’s community would’ve had a deep prejudice towards the Canaanites.
For centuries the Canaanites were considered pagan worshippers. In the Old Testament it is said that the Jewish community had conquered the Canaanites. This would not make the Canaanites very friendly towards Jews or towards God. As a result, within Matthew’s community there was a clear distinction between the insiders and outsiders. It would’ve been incomprehensible for this outsider Canaanite woman to be helped by Jesus and the disciples.
So, we might expect the disciples to send this outsider away. However, it might be a shock when Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” For many of us sitting here today, this is not the Jesus we know. Or, for others of us, is this the Jesus we know? It really depends on where we’ve come from.
For some of us we would never expect Jesus to act this way. The Jesus we know is someone who’s compassionate, loving, and accepting of all people. We wouldn’t expect Jesus to send someone away because she or he isn’t an “insider.” He wouldn’t be exclusionary on who he helped.
Yet, there are many of us who’ve come here today who can finally say, “There it is!” We’ve been just waiting on the edge of our seats ready to catch Jesus at his worst. We’ve grown up in churches and around people who believe Jesus clearly selects who’s an insider and who’s an outsider. As a result, too often we’ve been called an outsider. This has made it difficult to listen and learn more about the love of God.
Regardless where we’re coming from, all of us are probably asking, “How can we believe in a God who sends people away? Ironically, this was what Jesus was talking about earlier when he said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth.” He was challenging the Jewish laws that separate people between insiders and outsiders.
Jesus wasn’t being a literalist. He was trying to teach everyone that we don’t live by the letter of the law; rather we live by the spirit of the law. He was opening up the love of God to everyone.
So, when he tried to send this outsider Canaanite woman away she challenged him. She actually taught the teacher a lesson. This could make us feel uncomfortable that Jesus learned something from an outsider. But it was out of her desperation that she did exactly what Jesus did earlier. She called him out that he wasn’t walking the talk. If Jesus is going to teach the Israelite community about being more accepting, she put it to the test. As a result, she broke wide open what Jesus meant - which is God loves her, her people, and everyone who are not insiders.
This is what we need to hear today. It’s perfect timing in the midst of what we are experiencing in this world. This outsider Canaanite woman teaches everyone that God has come for all of us, not just those who look like us, act like us, or believe like us. This Canaanite woman pleaded to be heard. Although she wasn’t an expert in the Scriptures, tradition, or in research, she actually knew more than anyone on what it was like to be an outsider. This Canaanite woman is asking to have a place at the table, even if it’s where the dogs sit.
I saw this when I went to New York City last year. This was only the third time in my life I had traveled there. The first time I went there was around the age of ten. I don’t remember much. It was a trip I took with my parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. The second time was two years ago.
As I said, the third time was last August. One of the things I wanted to do again, which I had done a couple of decades ago, was to visit Ellis Island. If you don’t know about Ellis Island it was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants. It was the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station for over sixty years from 1892 until 1954. Most of the people who went through there weren’t wealthy. They had to go through agonizing immigration examinations. Most of the time what people went through was inhumane. But they went through there with the hope of creating a new life for themselves and their families.
Even though my family and I went there about twenty years ago, I didn’t understand what the people went through until I was there as an adult. As I went up the steps, the same steps immigrants went up, I felt overwhelmed. When I entered the building I could picture what each person endured. I saw the sterile hallways, the examination rooms, and the holding centers.
After traveling across the Atlantic for weeks, on a boat, many people arrived with little money and few connections. They were unsure whether or not they would be allowed in the country. One little thing - a disease, a wrong look, an ill-tempered move, would force them to be sent back. Sometimes people would wait days, weeks, even months to be released from the island.
It would make one wonder why they would go through this. The reason people went through this was they no longer wanted to be outsiders. In the midst of the fear, anxiety, and agony they wanted a place at the table - not just for themselves but for future generations.
This is true because my ancestors, who eventually settled on the West side of Buffalo, had room made for them at the table. It was the table where others showed them compassion by helping them find jobs, adapting to the cultural, and embracing them. So, it’s difficult for me not to have compassion for those who are outsiders when my family were outsiders themselves.
There are so many people who not only feel like outsiders in this world but are made outsiders. Maybe we’ve made people outsiders. There is no shame in admitting it. If Christ, himself, can admit it why can’t we? What people have we’ve disregarded, ignored, or pushed aside? Could it be people who are of a different cultural background? What about of a different gender? Maybe it’s been people of a different religious background?
Any time we question why someone is pleading for mercy it’s because they are looking for a place at the table. We don’t need to read research or contact so called church experts to understand this. All we have to do is listen to people who feel they are outsiders. That’s why we are seeing so many protests nowadays. It’s why there is so much division in our country. People are crying out in desperation to be seen and to be accepted. It’s our role as the church to listen where others don’t want to listen. It’s our role to see those who are invisible. It’s our role is to make more room at the table.
Each of us can do this in our schools, work, families, and communities. We can make room by approaching guests at church. We can make room by providing for refugees. We can make room by breaking our prejudicial attitudes with our children. We can make room at our business by caring about the whole person not just as a customer.
We do this because it is God who has made room for us at his heavenly table. Later on in our service, we will get to experience this when Christ invites us to his table. At Christ’s table, there is no insider or outsider. There is no woman or man. There is no poor or wealthy. This is no citizen or immigrant. Everyone is invited to Christ’s table as a child of God. So, knowing that Christ loves, accepts, and embraces each of us this much, how will we respond? Will we continue to make outsiders, or will we make room at the table?