All People

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | August 16, 2020

Matthew 15: 21-28

I volunteered for a couple of years as an emergency room chaplain at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. My job was to be a pastoral presence for the friends and relatives of people who came into the emergency room.

One night a middle-aged couple arrived from out-state Minnesota. Their daughter had been in accident and had to undergo emergency, life saving measures.

Entering into a large inner-city hospital can add to the trauma of what people are experiencing. It’s like going into a maze. At every turn there are barriers. There are rules that have to be followed. The people in charge are all busy.

This couple came in and my role was to assist them in finding their way through the maze. Part of my job was to help people feel like they were being treated with respect.

In those situations, it’s not uncommon for people to avoid eye contact. They might talk a lot, or they might not talk at all. They might be overly courageous or paralyzed with fear. The woman who came in after her daughter was carrying a bible. It was if she was holding onto it for dear life.

Sometimes when the chaplain shows up creates another barrier. It says to people that their situation is quite serious. Something might occur in which this holy person is needed. The presence of the chaplain in those situations may imply, “Your loved one might die, might be in the process of dying, or might already be dead.” If the hospital were a casino, the presence of the chaplain might make people wonder if they are at the high stakes table.

When I introduced myself as the chaplain, the woman holding her bible, like many of the folks there, was not all too pleased. I didn’t take it personally; it wasn’t about me. She asked, “What denomination are you?”

That’s good question. A denomination; like money. It implies, “How much are you worth to me?” Was I loose change or a sizable bill? I told her I was a Presbyterian minister. She weighed my answer and the look she gave me implied that she found it lacking the weight she required.

She told me what church she was from. I don’t remember what it was. But it was one of a sort, that when people come carrying their bibles it is as much to ward off evil as it is to find comfort. I got the impression that I was more to be warded off than sought as a source of comfort.

Then again, it wasn’t about me. Their daughter’s life was in the balance and that was the important thing. People act all kind of ways in those situations. An event that brings them to the hospital raises some tough questions. It can make them wonder about the God they spent their lives in devotion to. Why would God let this happen to them? Weren’t they part of God’s chosen people? But those questions come later. When life is in the balance, they don’t want to get angry at God just yet.

Their pastor had been called. The people in their church were praying. Their pastor would arrive in a few hours and they really didn’t need me for anything that a pastor could do. What I needed to do, as part of the hospital protocol, was to lead them away from the emergency room and into the surgery waiting room.

The surgery waiting room was where they would wait. Everyone waited there. When the people working to save their daughter’s life knew something to tell them, they would send someone to talk to them. It was a big room, but even so it could get filled up with people.

They were just a step behind me and when I brought them to the waiting room and crossed the threshold it was as if they hit a physical barrier. They stood in the doorway looking in. “This is the waiting room,” I said. “Someone will contact you here as soon as there is any news about your daughter.”

The couple stood at the threshold to the waiting room. They looked around but they did not move to find a seat. Crowded as it was, there was any number of places where they could have settled themselves. I could see the look on their faces. It spoke volumes. It was the look of people who for maybe the first time in their lives realized they were the only white people in the room.

All around them were people of color. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans. It was a busy night at HCMC. And they were just a part of it like all those other people waiting to hear word of their loved ones.

The woman said to me, “Is there any place else we can wait?”

I thought, “Now you want me to be your ally. You think because we’re the same color, after all, that certainly I understand your plight.”

“This is the waiting room,” I answered. “This is where they will know to find you.” And I left them there to find their seat. I remember the look of that woman standing there, holding onto the word of God like a shield to her chest. The contrast between the word and the reality. I don’t know where they sat down or how they dealt with it. Maybe it was part of an awful endurance test. Or maybe they discovered something in common with their neighbors.

Jesus broke social barriers. He went against the norms of his religion by associating with people who were labeled as unclean. But Jesus was not born knowing everything. Even he had a learning curve.

Jesus was human. Sure, he astounded people. He said things that were brilliant. He did things that were amazing. But when he went to his home-town people said, “Sure, you walked on water; show off. Look how you tracked up the carpet!” 

The story in Matthew’s gospel about Jesus meeting a foreign woman is important for two reasons. It says something about his crossing social barriers. It also says something about his willingness to learn.

One day he was in a town that was outside his comfort zone. Tyre and Sidon. A place where mostly Gentiles lived. Why would he want to be around those people? Why did he go there? Who knows? Maybe it was just to get away from being the Messiah for awhile; to go someplace where people wouldn’t be demanding something from him all the time.

He was in a Gentile town and he didn’t want anyone to know he was there, yet he could not escape notice. That’s the wording of the story. He just wanted to escape notice for a little while. It was too late for that. If King Herod knew his name, then it was no surprise that a Gentile woman would know his name.

She found out where he was staying and came and begged him to do something about her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Some woman he didn’t even know, some little girl he didn’t even know. Not even his people.

At first, he tried ignoring her. Maybe she would get the message. As a Jewish holy man, he was under no obligation to speak to her or even acknowledge her existence. His followers demanded that he send her away. She was a nuisance.

Essentially what he said was, “Madame, I am a Jewish holy man. God’s children are my mission. You people are dogs. I can’t take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.” Some would say he was paraphrasing the common view between Jews and Gentiles. To the Jews, Gentiles were simply unclean, like dogs. The Jews were the chosen people and anyone else was not chosen. Some would say he was speaking in a winsome way, to bring out the absurdity and humor of the situation. It’s impossible to hear the tone of his words, but I suspect he meant what he said.

The woman said, “Dog I may indeed be in your estimation, but all I’m asking for is a crumb. Sir, even dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

There’s no way of knowing how long of a pause there was. In any event, this is an example of Jesus being told off. Not like the Pharisees who were always trying to set him straight; not like how they were always trying to trip him up over some fine point of the purity codes. No, this was a straight up setting the man straight. “When it comes to my little girl, I have no pride. If you say I’m a dog, then so be it. Give me some crumbs.”

Here is the Son of God, shamed by a foreign woman into doing the right thing.

In effect Jesus said, “I guess you told me. And for the telling your daughter is made well.”

This was an important story for the early church for which it was written. Jesus broke some barriers and he had some broken for him. The church could reach beyond the Jewish community to the world at large. They would find some different people out there, but in God’s realm there should be plenty enough gospel truth to feed everybody.

Years ago, the Session of the church I served in Glasgow wrestled with how to put into words the actions we wanted to follow – our “Mission Statement.” There was some discussion about why we need to mention this group or that particular sort of person. We decided because people have been rejected on the basis the labels that have been attached to them, that we would name those labels as a way of empowering their welcome and inclusion. It reads like this:

“We affirm the dignity of all people. We welcome into the life of our community of faith people of every age, gender, race, country of origin, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, mental or physical abilities or condition, education, marital or economic status, cultural, or religious background. All people are welcomed and affirmed at the Lord’s Table and at ours.”

Our statement served as a template for churches all over Scotland. Words are powerful. Actions speak louder.

The story of Jesus meeting a foreign woman is important for us today. We break barriers and we have some broken for us. People matter. People, all people, are God’s children. Amen.

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