Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
It’s good to be back. This week I returned from vacation. Kendyll & I spent part of our time in Montreal, part of our time on some day trips here in New England, and part of our time just relaxing and doing projects at home. But this week I’ve gotten back into the swing of things at church. I want to thank your wardens, your treasurer, your vestry, and all of you for carrying on the life of St.C’s while I was away. Our church looks even better now than before summer began.
But there were still one or two surprises when I returned. When you come back from vacation, it’s interesting to see what changes - and also what stays the same. My first morning back in the office I made coffee and I went to the small refrigerator upstairs to check for milk. And I noticed something. Something had stayed the same. It was still the same container of milk, because there had been no reason for anyone to use it while I was gone. But that container had definitely changed. With just one glance I could tell that milk was rotten.
The plastic container was never transparent to begin with but it wouldn’t have even mattered if it was. Because that container had swollen so large - from going rotten - that it was leaning to the side and couldn’t even sit-up straight. I was nervous that it might blow up in my face, so I gently lifted it with a couple of fingers and I carefully tiptoed to the sink in the sacristy - sorry Altar Guild - I opened the window above the sink, and I carefully pointed the milk container away from me as I opened the top. Thankfully there was no explosion of rotten milk, and the tense standoff between me and the container ended quietly, without anyone getting hurt. I won’t describe what actually came out of that plastic container, but trust me, it was rotten through-and-through.
You see, sometimes it’s easy to spot something rotten from a mile away, just like my standoff with the milk. It was so bad that it was physically deformed. I didn’t need x-ray vision, I didn’t need the ability to stare through solid plastic, or even understand the chemical properties of milk. I just needed one glance because it was painfully obvious.
But as we know, life isn’t always that easy. In fact, the refrigerator can be a tricky place to figure out just what’s rotten and just what’s ripe. For instance, you may have noticed there seem to be competing philosophies for how to treat freshness labels on dairy products. I mean, some people won’t touch the stuff if it’s even a single day past the “use by” date. Others will give dairy products a built-in grace period, almost like you’d see from a professor for a school assignment. It’s like they’re cheering for the yogurt or the milk, hoping the dairy will hang in there just a few more days. And then there’s the people who think that expiration dates are just a conspiracy theory. They think it’s all part of a racket by the manufacturers so that you’ll buy their products more quickly. And these people seem to relish every drink after the expiration date, because every sip is just one more piece of evidence that they’re right, and the manufacturers are wrong.
I won’t ask you to confess where you happen to be on that spectrum of freshness dating but it makes the point: it’s not always easy to tell the difference between what’s rotten and what’s ripe. And of course, the whole thing becomes even more tricky when we’re not just talking about produce, but we’re talking about people. Each of our Lessons today are telling a story about what it means, or how to recognize, when people are either rotten or ripe. And in these stories, we discover a spectrum and range of belief at least as big as our spectrum for freshness dating.
In the first and last readings, Genesis and Matthew, food is being used to judge the quality of peoples’ character - to figure out whether certain people are rotten or ripe. And these stories reveal judgments at completely different ends of the spectrum. In the OT story, Joseph’s brothers (and the entire land) are desperate for food. There’s a famine. They don’t care what kind of food they get, they don’t even care how fresh - they just don’t want to starve. In the Gospel story, it’s the exact opposite. There’s no famine, but people are making very detailed distinctions about different types of food. They’re judging the insiders from the outsiders based on who eats what, and when.
Let’s take a look a closer look. In the verses leading up to our reading from Genesis, Joseph uses food to test his starving brothers, to figure out if he can trust them. Joseph is the one with power. He has the food, but he only gives it to his brothers as part of a secret test. He sets them up to look like thieves (more than once) because he wants to see how they react. Remember, these are the same brothers who sold Joseph into slavery more than a decade earlier so he’s got a pretty good reason for testing their hearts. It’s not something we often recommend, but maybe it’s good to recognize that many of the stories in Scripture are interested in the quality of the human heart.
God seems to care a a lot about the “freshness” of people’s hearts. And whether or not we might pull the same kinds of stunts as Joseph, we can see what he’s up to. When he sees his brothers - 10 years after they sold him into slavery - their containers may not look very deformed; they may not appear swollen or falling over, but he’s trying to see just how fresh they are on the inside.
And today’s passage (Gen. 45.1-15) shows what he discovers. He discovers not only that they’ve learned a certain kind of repentance, but he also discovers that God has been at work all these years. He says, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” He doesn’t let them off the hook. But then he says, “Don’t worry, because it was God who sent me.” It’s an amazing statement of faith: “you sold me, but it was (really) God who sent me - for God’s own purposes.” And what Joseph announces is that God’s purposes to preserve life are greater and more reliable than any kind of human rottenness.
And then jump ahead to our Gospel Lesson (Matt. 15.10-20). Get a load of this. It also begins with a conversation about food but this time it’s a debate about the morality of a particular diet. That may sound like a far cry from the world we live in, but believe it or not, it wasn’t very long ago that Americans were having debates about the morality of our national diet. We’re talking less than 200 years ago. According to 19th Century health reformers, not only could a poor diet ruin digestion, it could endanger your very soul. Rich food was thought to arouse animal passions. In contrast, health reformers claimed that, “Christ ate in a reasonable and healthful way. While God was in fresh produce, Satan himself was in the frying pan.”
So whether it’s 1st. Ce. Israel or 19th Ce. America, we can find people arguing about the morality of their diet. And they’re doing something that every culture, every social group has done: they’re drawing lines between the “ins” and the “outs”. In our world familiar boundaries seem to be vanishing every day, and the temptation to highlight differences between “us” and “them” can grow pretty strong. And let’s be honest, if the church is asking big questions – questions like what kinds of beliefs, behaviors, and activities mark out God’s people – perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised if the we occasionally lose our way and stumble into destructive versions of conflict.
But look at where Jesus is in the middle of it. He tells the diet patrol in ancient Israel to back off. He says, “Look impurity isn’t some kind of invasion that jumps down your throat and into your belly. Instead, impurity - things that are rotten - are things we allow to escape from the human heart.”
And I don’t want to split hairs but I think it’s one of those stories where we can even learn something from the specific vocabulary of the Gospel. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that people are impure simply because they have rotten desires inside of them. Twice (vv. 18, 19) , he says people become rotten when they let those kinds of things escape from their mouths. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that we can learn something about human character and healthy relationships by learning to prevent certain kinds of rottenness escape from our mouths. That’s Christian stewardship.
And then right on the heels of this dietary debate, it’s no mistake that we find a story about an “unclean” foreigner (Matt. 15.21-28). Look at what happens. Everyone can see her as rotten from a mile away. They don’t need x-ray vision to see inside of her heart. They can tell from just one glance that she’s a rotten foreigner. She doesn’t do the things that God’s people do.
But listen at what comes out of her heart: “Have mercy, Jesus, have mercy.” And she keeps shouting it. It drives the disciples crazy. And I’m betting that before Jesus even uses the common slang to address this woman, “dog,” he’s already heard everything that’s coming out of her heart. And I’m betting he calls her “dog” just to teach a lesson to those disciples.
“You think this woman is rotten? Do you not see? It’s what comes out of the heart that makes a person clean or unclean?” It’s not a particular diet, or ritual, or ethnicity. It’s a matter of the human heart. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Or we might say, “Let it be done for you according to the condition of your heart.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Let’s be clear, this is no formula to guarantee faith healing. All kinds of damage has been done by pretending that God will just give people what they want - like this woman - if we can somehow make ourselves holy enough. That’s not the point of the story. It’s about the kind of heart - the kind of human freshness - that God desires; about how the human call for God’s mercy can overcome anything else that might be separating us from God.
The Good News is that no matter what kind of rottenness we might feel in our hearts because of what we’ve done or what others have done to us, we can find new life in this God and this Jesus. The human cry for God’s mercy matters more than any test or any ritual. And, like Joseph, we can trust that God has not stopped working in the circumstances of our lives even if it feels like we’ve been sold into slavery. We can trust that God’s life-giving purposes are greater and more reliable than any kind of human rottenness.
May this be our hope. May this be our prayer. And, please God, may this be the foundation for our life together. Amen.