Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
As sometimes happens, all our readings today—including the
psalm—have the same theme. And that theme this morning is a simple one. It has
to do with being inclusive versus being exclusive—that God’s desire is that
believers focus more on what brings us together than on what divides us. That
said, I’m going to begin by talking about a fellow clergyperson I once knew.
He was a member of the ecumenical organization in the city, which was
called the Nashville Association of Rabbis, Priests, and Ministers, the acronym
of which was NARPM. I always liked that sound—assertive ,action oriented
.In reality, only one rabbi belonged to the group, although there were at the
time a total of three synagogues—all along the same thoroughfare.
First, the Orthodox. Second, the Conservative, and third, the Reform
synagogue, which, religiously, is the most progressive of the three branches.
Its rabbi was the one who belonged the association and, in fact, once
served a year as the president. He was both very competent and gracious. During
the Lenten season of that year he invited all of us and our spouses to a Seder
meal—to a Passover meal at the synagogue. Now it wasn’t the one that the
members of his cong. were going to attend. What he did for us was hold a
separate service that was just like real thing. Afterwards, in the fellowship
hall, some of his members served us a wonderful meal that they themselves had
prepared. All in all, it was a wonderful experience. In his own special way, the
rabbi—and those others—had brought us into an important part of their lives.
They had included us and made us feel at home.
Now here’s something else about him, something very different: He
would not officiate at interfaith weddings. He would not do that, because he
believed such marriages inevitably led to the watering down of faith of Jews who
entered into such marriages. And he would not be a party who would contribute to
such an outcome.
These two sides of him—his inclusiveness and exclusiveness—remind me
that in the Old Testament we also see some of each. We see the second especially
in books having to with the time that Israelites returning from their exile in
Babylon again came together with those who had remained. They all needed once
more to define just who they were, and that meant drawing boundaries between
themselves and other groups of people. That presented quite a problem, for a
number of Jewish men had married women outside the faith—Canaanites,
Egyptians, and others. After a night of prayer and fasting, the leader Ezra
addressed the men:
You have trespassed and
married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession
to the LORD the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from
the people of the land and from the foreign wives.[i]
And they did so, sending their wives away—with their children.
We see some of that in today’s gospel, when the Canaanite woman begged
Jesus to heal her daughter. The second time she appealed to him, he answered,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He wasn’t
making that up on the spot. Earlier, when sending out the disciples into various
villages, he said to them: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town
of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[ii]
At the same time, there are in the Old Testament not only examples of
God’s people trying to remain religiously pure and so excluding others, but
also pronouncements that the God of Israel longs to be the God of all the
peoples of the earth. As in today’s psalm:
Let your way be known upon earth,
your saving health among all nations….
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy…[iii]
polar opposites—being inclusive and being exclusive—can also be found
Do not be mismatched with
unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and
lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?...What
agreement has the temple of God with idols?...”Therefore come out from them,
and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean…”[v]
Just like the Jewish people, we as Christians must also live, must also
struggle with the tension of these two opposites—inclusiveness at one end of
our faith and exclusiveness at the other. There are limits to both, especially,
I believe, the second. And I want to address something now that has to do with
that exclusiveness. It has to do with some of the people involved in last
weekend’s protest in Charlottesville.
We read and watched on the news about the various groups coming
together—protesting a decision to remove a Civil War statue from a city park,
as a number of Southern cities are now doing or planning to do. Yet those who
marched on the campus of the University of Virginia included not only
neo-Confederate groups, but also many organizations from other parts of the
The ideology of most of them is that those descended from white
Europeans are inherently superior to those of all other ethnic and racial
groups. One other outlandish thing is that some regard themselves as Christians,
interpreting the Bible in such a way as to justify their views. They are known
as the Christian Identity movement. Here is what they believe: First, that Adam
was the father only of Abel, while the true father of Cain was the devil. The
children of Abel—the true tribes of Israel—eventually migrated and settled
in Europe. The children of Cain, however, are those we know today as the
Jews—literally, descendants of Satan. They control virtually all the banking
systems and media companies of the world, which must be destroyed before the
truly chosen can take their rightful place in God’s plan of salvation.[vi]
Another belief is that other human beings were created before Adam and
Eve, but not in the likeness of God. They are regarded as the “mud peoples”
of the earth, who have no soul, from whom come all the nonwhite populations of
the world. Such people will eventually “be exterminated or enslaved…in order
to serve the white race…”[vii]
One proponent of Christian Identity is currently the national director
of the KKK and
a pastor of a church revival center. Last fall he “wrote [a] front-page
article in his newsletter, supporting one of our presidential candidates and
hoping that America would once again become a White Christian Republic.”[viii]
It all sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Fortunately, the number of people
holding these views are estimated to be no more than 50,000, and probably only a
few hundred ever act on their beliefs.
How are we Christians who believe in a loving, gracious, and welcoming
God to respond to such people—to their racial hatred based on a warped
theology? Trying to enter into dialogue with them would be a total waste of
time. Their minds are made up. They have no interest in what anyone else
believes. Like any number of people, they cherry-pick from the Bible whatever
supports them and reject everything else.
In the end, the only people whose behavior we can directly influence is
ourselves.And that’s the kind of advice coming from three Episcopal bishops in
Virginia. Here are some of the things they said in the wake of last weekend’s
protest and counter-protest.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are admonished to heed God’s call
to love our neighbors through prayer, through speaking out
and through other concrete
action for the sake of all, particularly the poor, the oppressed, the judged,
[and] the demonized….
There will be more rallies
and more divisions. We must be prepared to meet those challenges, not with
violent confrontation, but by [modeling] the power of love….
They also say the following:
Be clear about the issues….All
have a right to their convictions and to speak [them] publicly. Individuals and
groups do not have a right to assault, attack or cause violence against anyone
else based on their views…
As Americans and as the Church, we
believe that inclusion of all persons in our common life is central to [who we
are]. We seek to welcome…
all people….We do not,
however, welcome, include, or legitimize all behavior and all words….
Write to your representatives in
[the state government]. …“propos[ing] how [our commonwealth] can create an
environment that welcomes and offers opportunity to all people of color,
Muslims, immigrants, women, LGBT, and poor white men.”
Pray alone and in groups. Join in
the prayers of those…from different trade’s or styles from your own, [which]
can…deepen our own praying.
Do a moral inventory of
yourself….As Jesus said, “Take the log out of your own eye and then you will
see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5)
In his first inaugural speech, on March 4, 1861—the eve of the Civil
War—Abraham Lincoln spoke about the need to be guided “by the better angels
of our nature,” that we might not be enemies with one another but friends. In
the 1940s, a congregation to that end was founded in San Francisco, inspired by
a group of “persons who were deeply concerned with the absence of bridges of
understanding among the varied races, cultures, and faith…in American
society.” The first worship service was attended by leaders of the local
Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Unitarians, rabbis, the local chapter of the
NAACP, and a branch of the YMCA ministering among Chinese-speaking people.
Two men were then called to serve as co-pastors—Dr. Howard Thurman,
African-American theologian and Dean of the Chapel at Howard University, and an
Anglo-American minister, Dr. Alfred Fisk. Nearly 75 years later, this
congregation continues in its mission as a multiracial and multicultural group
of believers. Its name is the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.[x]
That’s a paraphrase of a verse in today’s first lesson, in Isaiah 56:
…my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will [bring]
others to them
besides those already gathered.
May our congregation always pray to be such a house.
[i] Ezra 10:10-11.
[ii] Matthew 10:5-6.
[iii] Psalm 67:2, 4a.
[iv] Galatians 3:28.
[v] 2 Corinthians 6:14, 16a, 17a.
[vi]https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/christian-identity; https://www.adl.org/education/resources/backgrounders/christian-identity; and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Identity.
[vii] “Christian Identity” in Wikipedia, p. 1.
[ix] John Chilton, “Virginia Bishops on Charlottesville: What We Saw, What You Can do,” Episcopal Café, 14 August 2017.