The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:10-28
Over the last few weeks there have been two worldwide gatherings taking place that have highlighted the global nature of our humanity. The Olympic Games in Beijing is a grand spectacle of color, story, technology, and athletic accomplishment witnessed on television by millions of people throughout the world. The Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in Canterbury has been a small, quiet conversation among several hundred bishops about poverty and the challenge of living with our differences, witnessed online by a few thousand church geeks like me.
But both of these gatherings attempt the same kind of thing. Chinese gymnasts, American swimmers, Jamaican runners; bishops both male and female, young and old, from South America, New York City, rural India, and Hong Kong: in Beijing and Canterbury, people from vastly different cultures and experiences all come together in order to celebrate the richness of human life on earth. We are one world, animated by one Spirit.
And yet sometimes the Olympics get divisive, when one nation’s team accuses another of cheating, when host judges are suspected of weighting scores towards their own athletes, when national medal counts become more important than our common humanity. Similarly, some used the Lambeth Conference to highlight differences, to drive a wedge between true believers and apostates, with a few bishops even boycotting the event.
Every sincere human effort to bring diverse people together in global harmony and cooperation produces a contrary force of fear, division, and pride. It’s just the way some of us react when faced with difference. Our readings today from the scriptures reveal this tension between expansiveness and exclusion.
The Jewish prophet Isaiah uttered a grand vision of the sweeping nature of God’s love for all creation. Gentiles, foreigners and outcasts in Israel will join with Jews in joyful worship, offering acceptable sacrifices in the temple, which Isaiah calls “a house of prayer for all people.” Why would he share this expansive vision? In order to counter an anti-immigrant, self-protective tendency among some of the Jews of his day. He lived in the tension between expansiveness and exclusion.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul answers some of his fellow Christians who were convinced that God would condemn the Jews who didn’t accept Christ as Messiah. “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!...God is merciful to all.” Throughout his ministry, Paul will continually hammer on this universal theme – that God’s love is freely available to all who seek it. He also lived in the tension between expansiveness and exclusion.
And in the gospel, we have two related stories; both of them explode the myth of religion as separation from others. Jesus first makes it clear that spiritual purity is not about a few chosen people observing a special set of dietary rules that were revealed only to them. Spiritual purity has to do with the condition of one’s heart, anybody’s heart.
And then, in an utterly unique moment in the gospels, we see a very human Jesus grow out of the limitations of his own religious constraints into a broader vision of the kingdom of God.
A Gentile woman wants him to heal her daughter, and at first Jesus refuses, calling her and her kind “dogs.” This is shocking for those of us who don’t really accept the full humanity of Jesus. She comes back at him, saying that even dogs get some of the crumbs from God’s table. Jesus relents, and in that moment he grows. He grows out of an exclusive view of Jewish religion to a more expansive understanding of God’s mercy and love for all people, including Gentiles.
And so, in all of our scriptures today, we see a tension between those who claim a tight hold on truth and divine love and those who experience God and humanity broadly. It is a tension woven throughout Christian history, and we see it in places like the Lambeth Conference and the Olympic Games.
A good friend of mine recently asked what I thought about her daughter marrying a Jew and converting to his faith. Behind her question I could sense a lingering whisper of fear suggesting to her “What if the fundamentalists are right? What if my daughter is placing herself outside of God’s grace?” Or perhaps she only wondered if her good friend the priest thought her daughter was making a big mistake. This is how I answered her.
Religion is just a form. All of religion – its doctrines, scriptures, and practices – is a human form, inspired by God and influenced by culture and history. Religion is a form that expresses, in incomplete and imperfect ways, encounters with the formless. To put it another way, religion is a map, but life in God is the territory. Don’t mistake the map for the territory.
Picture the earth, its deep forests and open deserts, its clouds and oceans, cliffs and valleys. Then picture the different kinds of maps: political and topographical, maps of roads and photographs taken from satellites. Every map has a limited way of illustrating something about the earth. Similarly, every religion has its own limited way of mapping the infinite and mysterious territory of God. None of them is the territory itself. They can only give some useful pointers about the reality. You have to go there to experience it.
Recently I saw a film that featured the Dalai Lama. He went even further than I have so far. He said that there are two kinds of spirituality. One is religious, and one is not. Secular spirituality may not be concerned with religious belief, but it is concerned with the same themes as all historic religions: compassion, happiness, peace, justice, and harmony. Secular spiritualities may be grounded in psychology, political action, service projects, or philosophy, but if they are authentic, they take their practitioners into the same territory that religions do.
This is the sweeping vision of Isaiah, Paul, and Jesus: that if we are truly in touch with God, we will be concerned about purity of heart, love and mercy, not about dietary laws, theological convictions, or whose religion is better than another’s. If we are in touch with God, we will not be content to hover around on the mapped surface of religiosity; we will go into the multi-dimensional territory of the Spirit.
You’ll notice that I have not said that it doesn’t matter what you believe or what you practice, that everything is the same. That’s the excess of liberalism. That’s the fault of blind self-affirmation. Instead, I’ve used the condition “if we are truly in touch with God.” Well, how do we know if we are in touch with God or not? How do we judge the authenticity of other maps, other religions and secular pathways? How do we know the truth?
I put my trust in those pathways that are seasoned over time – the historic religious traditions, psychologies, and philosophies that have been tested by millions of people in many different eras and cultures. This is the key: if the same map can be used over and over again by all these diverse people and consistently lead its pilgrims into the regions of compassion, happiness, peace, justice, and harmony, then it is driven by the force that we call God. As Jesus said, you shall know the tree by its fruit.
When we have this view of both religious and secular spirituality, we can step back from our own tradition and appreciate the sweeping beauty of God’s creation. We can honor the integrity of every authentic and time-tested tradition, and learn from one another. We can also confidently discern between true and false pathways, because we know that the fruits of the Spirit are consistent and recognizable.
And we might, like Jesus, on that day when he was confronted by an assertive Gentile woman, have our minds blown open to the all-encompassing Spirit who blows into every nook and cranny of creation.
I am grateful that I have been given the map of Jesus Christ. I treasure it. This map has guided me faithfully for many years, and by now it is written in my heart. But I am even more grateful that, as I have followed its direction, I have been taken into the territory of the Spirit, where I stand alongside so many others who have arrived there by other means.