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Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

 1Thus says the Lord: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” 8The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”


Psalm 67

1May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. 2Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. 3Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. 4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations upon earth. 5Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. 6The earth has brought forth her increase; may God, our own God, give us his blessing. 7May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.


Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32

1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2aGod has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. … 13Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 28As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.


Gospel: Matthew 15:21-28

 21Jesus went away from {Gennesaret} and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


In or Out, It’s up to You

Today we live in a world that is forever setting up barriers that shut people out.  In a polite way we say, “By invitation only” or “Reserved.”  Books and media are copyrighted so that no one, except by permission, may duplicate any portion of them.  Trade names, such as “Coca-Cola” and “Orkin,” are registered to prevent others from copying them.  Gated communities are designed to keep out anyone who doesn’t live there or isn’t specifically invited.  Country clubs are for members only.  We constantly erect obstacles to exclude people whom we don’t want in close fellowship.  And in some ways, this exclusiveness, for good reason, can applied to religious organizations.

We profess and teach God’s word, and those who choose to live otherwise are warned that God’s mercy cannot be received unless they live as the Bible prescribes.  And while we are welcoming to any who would desire to come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, we condemn sinful behavior.  And while we accept people into membership here at church, membership is by a profession of the Christian faith and a desire to live the life of a disciple.  In truth, because we affirm these beliefs, we too draw a line that shuts people out of membership.

But we must be careful in how we apply our rules.  If we’re not careful, we could become guilty of being too closed off, and thus hindering Jesus’ command, that “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  In all four Gospels, Jesus is reported to have repeated this text when He cleansed the temple.  And when we consider this statement in context, we must conclude that this is an important point in His understanding of what it means to be the church.

Since baseball season is in full swing, we often hear the phrase, “You’re out!”  This is a question we must ask ourselves anytime we encounter visitors or consider rules surrounding membership.  And while we must always guard against our teachings devolving into any doctrine that would espouse universal salvation, we must always remember that God’s grace is available to anyone who would “believe in their heart and confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10).  Jesus was also equally clear, “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Jesus was always clear about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior, however, Jesus never said, “You’re out” – out of my Kingdom, out of my love, out of my good grace.  The ultimate choice to be in or out of God’s kingdom is up to the person.  Each person must choose to follow God’s commands, or to follow their own desires.  God doesn’t force His will on anyone.  Jesus made it clear, “any who call upon [His] name will be saved” (Joel 2:32).  Even from the cross, the thief was told, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  It has nothing to do with race, or sex, it’s about each person’s choice.

God from Old Testament times has been open about the fact that no one was to be excluded from His promises.  Yet the people of Israel oftentimes believed that God was for the Jews only, that God was restricted to the land of Israel.  Accordingly, Jonah thought he could escape God’s directive to preach to the Ninevites by fleeing the country.  The point of the book of Jonah is that God is concerned about all people, even Israel’s enemy, the Assyrians.  And when you stop and think about it, God’s message through Jonah is the same for Chinese Communists as well as American Capitalists.  It’s easy for people to become exclusive, that God is for us, but not them.  The Jews oftentimes concluded that they had a monopoly on God.  They were God’s chosen people from the time of Abraham, a people whom God called to be special, for a special purpose in life.  The problem was, they kept forgetting that the purpose of God choosing them, was that they were to be examples and priests for the other nations.

Unlike the other nations, God entered into a covenant with Israel in which God promised to be their one and only God and they promised to be His special people to carry out His purpose for them in the world.  This bond was signified by the rite of circumcision.  From the Exodus, God instituted rules to set them apart from other nations.  For example, the temple was reserved for Jews.  And unless one became a proselyte, non-Jews had to worship outside the temple in the court of Gentiles.  Other than those who converted to Judaism, a Gentile wasn’t allowed to enter the temple.  For anyone who violated this rule, death was the penalty.  Even among Jews, there were places in the temple that were not open to everyone.

Women and children were in a court farthest from the Holy of Holies.  Then came the Court of Men, the Court of Priests, and then the Holy Place.  But in the Holy of Holies where God’s presence was manifest, only the High Priest could enter once a year.  All people, except for one man, were excluded from the first-hand presence of God in the temple!  In light of this practice, we can see how radical and revolutionary Isaiah’s text must have been when it was first pronounced, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  God was announcing that all were allowed to “join themselves to the Lord.”  But the people didn’t get it and this same exclusionary attitude carried on into New Testament times.  We see an example of this exclusionary attitude in our gospel reading for today.

A Canaanite woman comes and begs Jesus to heal her daughter.  To the Jewish mind, this Canaanite had three strikes against her, she was a woman, she was a Gentile, and she was a pagan.  The question running through the mind of the disciples was, what right did she have to call upon a Jewish rabbi to help her?  But she was persistent, so the disciples ask Jesus to shut her out.  And in a surprising twist, Jesus appears to reflect the prevailing attitude of the Jews: Jesus responds by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  In response, she kneels before Jesus and persists.  To this Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

To the listeners that day, it was as if Jesus was saying that the “children” were the Jews, and the non-Jews were “dogs.”  But as we read further, we realize this was merely a test for both her and His listeners, a test that this Canaanite woman passed.  In humility, she replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  Praising her faith Jesus said, “O woman, great is your faith!  Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28).  In this encounter, as in others, Jesus overcomes the popular Jewish exclusiveness by praising her and granted her request.

The Apostles faced this exclusive attitude of Judaism after the resurrection, even though for three years they heard Jesus teach and practice the inclusivity of God.  The early church faced the question, “Can Gentiles become Christians?”  St. Paul dealt with this question directly and became an Apostle to the Gentiles.  Peter faced the problem when a Gentile, Cornelius, asked him to come to his house to tell him about Jesus.  In a dream God taught Peter that he was to call no one, “common” or “unclean.”  The great insight was that “God shows no partiality” to Jews or to the Gentiles.

The issue of whether God wanted Gentiles as His people continued in the Apostolic period of church history.  There was a party of Christians who maintained that to be a Christian one had to first become a Jew, be circumcised, and abide by the Jewish laws.  The early church almost split over the issue.  The very first conference of the church was held in Jerusalem.  The Apostles, Paul, and James were among those present to debate the matter.  The conference resulted in an historic position that included Gentiles in the kingdom.  The decision was that all people were saved by grace through faith in Christ alone and not by becoming Jews or keeping Jewish laws and customs.  The question for us is, are we guilty of an exclusionary attitude today?

Are we limiting our evangelism outreach to certain people while excluding others?  Or, do we really believe that this building is, “a house of prayer for all peoples?”  As I cautioned before, we must never allow our teachings and beliefs to be watered down.  We must confess and teach the authority of the Bible in our church and live this belief out in our everyday lives.  We must remember that Jesus never excused sinful behavior.  Even when dining with tax collectors and sinners, He never compromised His message.  And we must do the same.  The Bible is the source and norm for all our teaching, and we can never view the Bible through the lens of culture.  Culture must always be viewed through the lens of the Bible.

A certain man was looking for a church to join.  He went from one to another, but none satisfied him.  One Sunday he came to a church where the people began the service with a corporate confession: “We confess that we’re in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We have sinned against you in thought word and deed…”  The man responded, “Thank God!  At last, I have found likeminded people who profess their faith dependably!”  Yes, Christians are both sinners and saints in constant need of God’s grace, but we must admit that there are some who will refuse to follow God’s commands and statutes.

In this world, prejudice and pride will draw a line that excludes people from God, but the very nature of God is love, and truth draws a line that leads one to say, “You’re in”, if you choose to take up your cross and follow Jesus.  Our text points to the openness of God’s Kingdom – “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”  Furthermore, in John chapter 10, Jesus told the disciples, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (vs.16).  God’s house must always be a place open to all who believe.  It’s in prayer that we establish and maintain our relationship and communion with God.  God wants all people to be in fellowship with Him, regardless of the things in this world that divide us.

God is for everyone and wants everyone to be His child.  In an age of separation and segregation, God’s open invitation, which seems so simple and fundamental, needs to be heard by all of us today.  This truth is emphasized in the life and teachings of Jesus.  He included the excluded.  Take, for instance, his attitude toward the Samaritans who were hated and despised by the Jews of His day.  A Jew wouldn’t speak to, nor enter the home of, a Samaritan.  When Jesus’ enemies wanted to insult Him, they called Him a Samaritan.

Yet, Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of His parable about the man robbed on the road to Jericho and left half dead.  Again, the only one of the ten lepers healed by Jesus who returned to thank Him, was a Samaritan.  At Jacob’s well, Jesus offered living water to a Samaritan woman.  And despised more that the Samaritans were the publicans or tax collectors.  They were seen as traitors, yet how did Jesus treat them?  He called Matthew the tax collector, to be one of the Twelve.  Jesus applauded the prayer of a publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  When he saw Zacchaeus, also a tax collector, Jesus invited Himself to dinner in his house.  As a result, salvation came to Zacchaeus and his family.  There was other outcasts Jesus befriended.

When a prostitute, Mary Magdeline, washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair at a dinner party in a Pharisee’s house, Jesus was criticized for letting a sinner touch Him, but Jesus pointed out how much she loved Him, and assured her of forgiveness.  Add to this, Jesus’ embracing of “foreigners.”  One time Jesus pointed to a Roman centurion’s faith as the greatest he had found in all of Israel.  In today’s Gospel lesson, a Canaanite woman’s prayer was answered.  Not because of her nationality, but because of her faith in Jesus.

In His first sermon at Nazareth, Jesus was rejected by His hometown people for pointing out that Elijah performed a miracle, not for a Jewish widow, but for one of Zarephath.  And Elisha, he continued, healed the pagan, Naaman of Syria, rather than a leper of Israel.  God has an open door for all peoples everywhere for all time.  St. Peter, in his second epistle, reminds us, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (3:9).  But there is a “but” to this open-door policy!

God does indeed love every person and wants each to be His child.  And although God’s invitation is to anyone who will listen and respond, people need to admit their need for God’s saving grace.  Remember the words of 1 John 1:8-9?  “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  In other words, we’re not automatically saved because God is good and because we’re good people according to worldly standards.  Works righteousness is nothing more than heretical teaching.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God lays out six things for us to consider.  Beginning in verse 6 we read, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain …” Six things are required: Join ourselves to God, be ministers to God, love God’s name, be servants of God, keep the Sabbath and not profane it, and hold fast to God’s covenant.  Nowhere in scripture will you find a passage that teaches universalism, the view that all people will ultimately be saved.  This heresy denies judgment, eternal punishment, and accountability to God.  We all must answer to Jesus for our own decisions.  Who will God bring to His holy mountain, into His kingdom?  Our First Lesson tells us that they are those who love, serve, and obey God, these will be gathered into His kingdom.  And those who respond to God’s invitation will be blessed and rewarded.  Isaiah assures us that God will “make them joyful in my house of prayer.”  Moreover, in this passage, Isaiah tells us our sacrifices will be accepted by God.

The sacrifice that is acceptable to God is a broken and a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).  Paul urges us to present our bodies as living sacrifices acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).  In other words, God will never turn down the sacrifice of our hearts or our consecrated service.  It’s by a proper sacrifice that we show God that we love Him.

The problem we have isn’t that of God wanting us and all people, but of our wanting God.  Since God invites all people, why aren’t all peoples in His kingdom or church?  Only one-third of the world’s population is Christian.  Yet, God wants three thirds!  Listen to His words in our lesson, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”  In his final words on earth, Jesus commanded, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”  “Go and make disciples of all the nations …”

By these words, we’re given the task of bringing all people to God that they may have true life in Him.  This calls for evangelism to be the primary task of every Christian.  Are we witnessing for God and His Christ?  It’s estimated that ninety-five percent of an average congregation makes no attempt to witness.  As a result, mainline churches are declining in membership.  And this is at a time when the American population is growing!  Contrast this with the fact that forty million Americans have stopped attending church in the past 25 years.  That’s something like 12 percent of the population.  But look at what witnessing can do!

In 1905 two African farmers went to the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro where there wasn’t a single Christian.  While their wives worked the farm, the two men went about telling of the love of Jesus.  Today there are 20,000 people in four Christian congregations there.  Yes, it’s important for us to send and support missionaries to spread the Good News around the world, but our focus must also be at home as well.

Because God loves everyone, we must take the Great Commission seriously.  Jesus promised, “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me” (John 12:32).  Furthermore, St. Paul reminds us that one day, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).  On the isle of Patmos, John had a vision of heaven where “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” are praising the Lamb of God” (Revelations 7:9).  For that vision to be realized, we must all be instruments of the gospel.

The promise of taking our place on God’s holy mountain means us fulfilling six things.  We must, join ourselves to God, be ministers to God, love God’s name, be servants of God, keep the Sabbath and not profane it, and hold fast to God covenant.  God’s promises are sure, and God’s mercy is for all.  It’s up to you and me to share this truth with all who will listen.  However, the choice to be in, or out, is up to each individual.


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