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Us And Them
August 15, 1993

MATTHEW 15:21-28

Us and Them. We sinful humans insist on drawing lines to separate Us from Them. Even in Jesus' day, there were Uses and Thems; huge, wide chasms separating Jews from non-Jews. On one occasion, Jesus called a Canaanite woman a dog! Her likened her to dogs. She shouted, she bothered, she interrupted, she persisted, and Jesus likened her to dogs. To call someone a dog in that time was a particular insult, because dogs were scavengers, haunting the streets and refuse dumps of the towns. They were considered unclean and vicious.

However, the lesson this morning implies that some people were making pets of dogs. When Jesus said "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," she replied, "But, even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table," implying that some dogs were allowed into the eating quarters of homes. In fact, one biblical scholar--William Barclay--feels that Jesus was smiling and teasing her. He might have used a word more like puppy or doggy, a friendly dog.

Lee Greenawalt has discovered another interpretation. During discussion of this passage at the Thursday Morning Men's Prayer Breakfast, Lee mentioned an article in the magazine, Biblical Archaeological Review. A mass grave of some 20,000 dogs has been discovered near the area where Jesus met the Canaanite woman, leading some archaeologists to conclude there was a cult at that time which practiced dog sacrifice. So, perhaps Jesus was referring to her religion; perhaps dogs was a term used to refer to those who sacrificed dogs.

However we seek to establish a context for Jesus' remarks, the incident is a fascinating insight into the growing and developing understanding Jesus had of his mission. Jesus and the disciples had crossed over into Gentile territory, probably a part of present-day Lebanon. A woman, deeply concerned about her daughter's mental state, recognized Jesus. She had heard about his ministry, and believed strongly in what she knew he could do for her daughter.

So she shouted, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." First, Jesus ignored her, but she persisted. Then he said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But, this rebuff did not deter her. She persisted, and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." She had great faith in Jesus' ability and power to help her. She recognized who he was, something those in Israel-- the Scribes and Pharisees, and even his own disciples did not recognize. She called him Son of David and Lord, terms of messiahship and authority.

His next remark seems unkind, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." It is not fair for Gentiles to receive the Word of God, because Israelites were to receive it first. But, she persisted. She was motivated, she was driven by concern for her daughter. She was a mother. She would put up with no nonsense. Remember the status of women in those days. Women had no rights. Especially foreign women had no rights. No Jewish man would even speak publicly to a foreign woman. But, she cut through all the barriers. She jumped across all the divisions. She refused to put up with bigotry, prejudice, racism and discriminatory treatment. She stood up to this Jewish man. She responded with a quick wit, and perhaps Jesus was teasing her with a smile, because she used his imagery and turned it back on him, also perhaps with a smile, "But, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

Jesus was impressed. The woman reached him. The woman's concern for her daughter touched his compassion. The woman's persistence cut through all the traditions and prejudice he had been taught. He healed the daughter and complimented the mother, "Great is your faith!" This incident represents a new stage in Jesus' view of his mission. This incident, and several others where he was impressed with the faith of foreigners, leads him to the global realization--God shows no partiality.

Jesus' self-understanding, Jesus' understanding of his mission was a breakthrough, a breakthrough from an US AND THEM mentality. The breakthrough is still occurring and needs desperately to keep occurring. Why is it we insist on dividing people into US AND THEM? Serbs vs. Muslims, Northern Ireland Protestants vs. Catholics, whites vs. blacks, etc. And, now there is a widening and deepening backlash against immigrants. Immigrants and illegal immigrants are straining the financial resources, and tax payers are rebelling.

Our church is in a unique position to do something about breaking down the barriers between Us and Them. God has given us a mission here. We have a wonderful opportunity to model Christian community, to model how God intends people to live together, to model on behalf of Merced and the entire world. God has brought the Hmong people into the fellowship of this church. We have an opportunity to do God's work here, and show the world how to do it.

But, first, what is a Christian community? What is Christian fellowship? What is a church? A church is a fellowship of believers united in Christ. United in Christ does not mean that we necessarily like each other or socialize together. You are not required to like me, but you are required to love me. Churches that build Christian fellowship on liking, on friendships, are on precarious, tenuous ground, because spats and falling outs can disrupt the fellowship, and tear a church apart. United in Christ does not necessarily mean friendship, where everybody likes everybody.

United in Christ does not necessarily mean integration. First generation immigrants rarely want to integrate. There are too many barriers--language and cultural. The first generation is very concerned about retaining their language and customs, and want to teach them to the children, so the children won't forget their heritage. Often, however, the children are quite willing to forget their heritage, and become more American than Americans, and that is part of the conflict in immigrant families. Sometimes the second generation can't even speak the language, and it takes the third generation to reawaken interest in their heritage. It is usually the second or third generations that integrate with the rest of us.

In Minnesota, where I come from, large numbers of Scandinavians and Germans migrated about a hundred years ago. The first generation retained Swedish, Norwegian, and German speaking churches, and built schools if they could afford them.

For the past ten years in the Palo Alto Church, I worked with a large Tongan congregation, islanders from the South Pacific. There were over 100. The Tongan Methodists joined our congregation--became members--but they did not want to integrate. Efforts to invite the men to Methodist Men, women to the United Methodist Women, youth to the United Methodist Youth Fellowship, and children to Sunday School and choirs failed miserably.

The Tongans did not want to integrate. They wanted a church where they could worship in the Tongan language and in the Tongan way. They wanted a church where they could hold Sunday School classes for their children in Tongan, and retain Tongan customs. Some of the parents realized their children need to be assimilated into American churches and culture, and sent their children to the regular Sunday School, but when I left six weeks ago, there were still very few Tongan children in the English Sunday School.

United in Christ does not necessarily mean integration, and we need not plan or expect integration. Already, I have observed that the Hmong congregation is not interested in integration. They want to worship in their language, and in their way. Just the other day, the pastor--Wang Pang Thao--talked about starting a Sunday School for the children in the Hmong language.

We should encourage them, and help them start a Sunday School, a women's group, a men's group, etc. Ministering to Hmongs does not mean paternalism. Our role is not to do for them, but to enable them to do their own thing--to worship, study, fellowship, and serve Christ in their own way.

United in Christ does not mean socializing, paternalism, or integration. United in Christ means we share a common relationship with Jesus Christ. United in Christ means we share a common loyalty and commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior. United in Christ means we all are on the same journey, with the same mission, and we help one another along the way. United in Christ means we love one another, and love means GIVE. God so loved the world he gave. Love means to give--give respect, treat with dignity and kindness; give what others need so that they might live and serve Christ in their own way.

We have much to give--to share with the Hmongs in love. We have facilities--beautiful, functional facilities. We have resources, and we are generous, because God is generous to us.

We have an exciting opportunity to model unity in Christ. But, we have quite a ways to go. I share two concerns with you this morning about our mission and ministry.

1) The Hmongs worship in the Social Hall, and we in the sanctuary. Surely we do not intend to give the message, but do they perceive themselves as second class? Let's work at scheduling and find a way for the Hmong worship to be held in the sanctuary. Perhaps one of our services could be held in the Social Hall.

2) Let's get our Hmong pastor off welfare. I find it embarrassing that a pastor of our congregation, doing a vital ministry with our people (no Us and Them) is on welfare. We have the financial resources--they don't--to support Pastor Wang Pang Thao, and to set an example for the Hmongs. Existing on welfare is not what this country is about. Let's dig down, and be generous in our giving, that we may do God's work.

What does it take for us to model Christian community, break through walls of Us and Them, and do God's ministry? The Scripture lesson this morning teaches us what it takes.

1) The Canaanite woman had compassion for her daughter. Her daughter was ill, and on behalf of her daughter, because she knew Jesus could help, she defied tradition, customs, class distinction, national divisions, bigotry, prejudice, and racism. She broke through the walls because she cared about her daughter. What it takes to model Christian community and be the church God calls us to be is to have compassion for the children.

2) The Canaanite woman had faith. She believed in Christ's power and ability to heal her daughter. What it takes to model Christian community and be the church God calls us to be is to have faith, a great faith, a tremendous faith in the power of our God to overcome all hesitation, all prejudice, all uncertainty and build a successful ministry here.

3) She persisted. She even took Jesus on. What a woman! Faith without persistence is merely a word. With persistence, with commitment, we can truly be a church for everyone. A church for everyone; there's a great motto, a slogan. Let's celebrate it, let's rejoice in it, let's pray for it, let's do it. Let's be a Church for Everyone, not Us and Them, but all of us together.

In Christ there is no Us and Them. God shows no partiality, and that also includes you. God's love includes you. There is nothing you have done, or can conceivably be done to you that can separate you from the love of God. We are a Church for Everyone, and hopefully, we include you.

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris