Saturday, August 13, 2011


Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: 10-28

Today, I want to play around with the idea of being welcome – understood as the phrase from which the word “welcome” was derived: “well-come.” It means something like this: When we haven’t seen our family members or special friends for a long time, and they show up in our homes, they are well-come.
I have never been a fan of house-cleaning. It’s not that I don’t want a clean house; it’s just that I seem to have so many other, better things to do with my time. To compensate, we have a house-cleaner come to do the vacuuming and dusting and floor-and-window washing. Even worse, Mike and I are both clutter-ers. Before our house-cleaner comes every other week, we have to clear off surfaces.
If you stop by the house without calling or being invited, you may have to wait while we move books off the sofa, but you will be “well-come.” It only takes a minute to make coffee or tea, and we’d love to have you, as long as you are not using white gloves to check up on us.
At the same time, if I stop by to visit you, I am not looking for a clean, neat house, but a hearty “well-come.” And I don’t even own white gloves. J
... The last time Joseph saw his family, he was seventeen. By the time of today’s story, he is at least 40; it has been over 23 years, plenty of time to build up his anger and resentment towards his brothers. We have skipped over a lot: Joseph has been in prison for at least two years, because he refused to have an affair with the manager’s wife; he has interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh, and correctly predicted that there would be seven years of plenty, and seven years of hunger; he has managed to store the surplus of the plentiful years and begun to pay it out, now that the hungry years have come. His brothers were in Egypt once before getting food, but Joseph allowed them to come and go without letting them know who he was.
This time, he plays around with their emotions a bit, but then he can’t stand it any longer. He announces to them that he is Joseph, their brother. Now, the brothers are afraid of the consequences of their actions. Joseph has the political power to kill them all instantly. But, instead, he says to them, basically, “You are well-come. I’m so glad to see you all. How is my father? Is he still living? I can give you land near here for your whole family. Please let Benjamin, my little brother, stay here with me while you go and get the rest of the family.”
And then he adds, “What you did to me, you meant to be evil. But God meant it for good.” We often use this line to explain some things. We use it to excuse our own meanness, or someone else’s meanness. I think a better way to understand it is like this. “What you did to me, you meant to be evil. But God changed it into something good.” This doesn’t let the meanness off the hook, and allows for God’s intervention against the meanness.
In the intervening years, God has worked in the hearts of Joseph and in the hearts of his brothers to turn the evil act of nearly murdering their brother into a way for him to be part of their salvation. In the end, the brothers are well-come back into Joseph’s life.
... In the gospel reading, Jesus seems to be contradicting himself. First, he declares that it’s what is in the heart that matters to God, not the religious definitions of clean-ness or unclean-ness. When the disciples have no way to wash their hands properly before eating, the hungry group goes ahead and eats.  The Pharisees take note, and offer the usual criticism. And Jesus comments that it’s not how you eat, but how you treat others that matters to God.
Next, Jesus takes the disciples into foreign territory – where probably a lot of people have heard about this Jesus. A woman asks for help, in a dialogue that goes like this:

Woman: Lord, have mercy!
Disciples: Lord, get rid of her! Don’t waste your mercy on those who are unworthy.

Woman: Lord, have mercy!
Jesus: Woman, my mercy is first for the lost sheep of Israel, not the dogs of Canaan.

Woman: Lord, I’m not asking for the whole world, just a few table scraps.
Jesus: Woman, your faith – and your audacity – is great. Mercy has been granted to you.

Woman: Lord, thank you.
Jesus: Woman, you are “well-come.”

This story is so striking for us; it seems contrary to the Jesus we know and love. There are several popular explanations.
Some scholars believe this story was not really said by Jesus, but inserted later by the gospel writers. It certainly does demonstrate the early Christian experience as they remembered stories and memories of Jesus inviting the formerly unwelcome to come and be well-come. 
Perhaps, Jesus was testing the disciples. He wanted to see how they would respond to what he was saying.
Some say Jesus said, “Woman, my mercy is first for the lost sheep of Israel, not the dogs of Canaan,” with a wink at the woman, to let her know he was testing the disciples.
If we take the story at face value, we see that Jesus learned something from this foreign woman who dared him to heal her daughter. Perhaps even Jesus needed to learn to remove the religious boundaries he had been taught by his culture. Perhaps in his vision, his mission was limited at first to the Jews. But that does not fully explain his acceptance and inclusion of the Samaritans. 
So, let’s just leave this story as one of the Bible’s mysteries. In the end, the woman’s daughter was healed, and she was well-come into Jesus’ presence.
... In the texts we’ve been reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, it’s hard to follow a train of thought, the way we chop it up from week to week. A main purpose of this letter is an attempt to help two groups of Christians to become reconciled to each other – and to say to each other, “well-come.”
In the time of Paul, in 49CE, there was an expulsion of Jews from the city of Rome. This included the Jewish Christians. The non-Jewish Christians remained under the radar, and were able to stay inside the city. In 54CSix years later, when Nero became Emperor, the Jews were once more permitted into the city. It was at this time that the two groups of Christians came back together. And they were having a lot of problems with that.
The Jewish Christians were claiming they had it right, because they knew the traditions and the family history. And the non-Jewish Christians were claiming they had it right, because the traditions and family history were not essential to believing in Jesus.  So, Paul uses much of this letter to assure both groups that all are well-come in God’s grace and promises.
What’s more, Paul makes it clear that the Jews who do not believe in Jesus are still loved by God and deserving of that same divine grace and those same ancient promises. So, the Jews, too, are well-come in God’s grace.
... What these texts means for us today is pretty obvious, I believe. It is not for us to determine what is clean or not clean in God’s eyes.
It’s so easy for us to judge others. We judge people for the way they dress or speak. We judge people for the way they maintain their yards. We judge people for the noise their cars make. We judge people for the color of their skin, and their physical ability, and their age, and their employment status, and the way they express their sexuality. Right now, I find myself judging politicians. J
We should instead be careful that what we think, and do, and say, makes all people feel well-come. Let us not say to anyone, “Jesus shouldn’t waste his mercy on you and those like you.” Instead, let’s say to everyone, “You are well-come here. Jesus loves you as much as he loves me, and there’s nothing either of us can do about it.”
Please pray with me: Jesus, we know we are well-come in your presence. Help us to make others just as well-come. Amen