Bagel store evangelism

Pentecost 12, Proper 15A

In the name of God: who as ‘other’ became like us, to show us how to love one another.  Amen.

It’s weird how differently people treat you when you’re out and about wearing a clerical collar.  Michael is always encouraging me to wear it even more often than I do.  He’s convinced that I’ll get discounts at stores, or that I’ll get out of traffic tickets if I get stopped.  I’m not so sure any of that is true – and if anything, it’s about as likely to lead to confrontation as it is to lead to perks.  But one thing is sure: clerical dress will very often start conversations.

In some ways, we priests have it easy.  Our clothes announce to the world that we’re Christian, so it leads to engagement about faith with strangers.  We’re all called to that kind of engagement but lay people don’t get that shorthand, so you have to work harder to have these conversations.

A couple of weeks ago, after church one Sunday, I ran out to one of the area bagel stores to get breakfast for Michael and me.  Standing there, waiting for my order, the man who was in front of me in line struck up a conversation.  He asked where my church was, and I told him, and then he made that all too familiar pivot: “The world sure is going to hell right now, isn’t it?”  He went on to rant about the pitiful state of politics, and about the vulnerability he felt about crime rates and extreme weather events…  I tried to be an active listener.  Finally, when he’d finished his rant, he punctuated it by restating, “It’s just all going to hell.”

Most of the time after these kinds of rants, I’m not exactly sure how to respond.  But I said, “Imagine how different all of that would be if we’d all work a little harder to look out for other people at least as much as we look out for ourselves.”  It was like a light bulb lit up behind his eyes, and he said, “You know what?  You’re right.  It’s not even really that hard, is it?”  And then, as if on cue, his order was ready and he was gone.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, but I wonder how that little conversation might have shifted his perspective.  I wonder if he might find some way to look out for someone else.

In the gospel reading today we hear two sort of disparate stories about Jesus.  In the first one he is teaching the disciples about purity.  For so much of the ancestral heritage of our faith, purity was seen as a sort of exterior thing.  What you touch could make you impure.  What you ingest could defile you.  So, our Jewish forbearers adhered to strict rules about what you could eat and what you could touch, and strict rituals about how the inevitable impurities could be remedied.

But Jesus envisioned another kind of truth.  He taught that the real impurity that we could become susceptible to wasn’t so much about exterior circumstances, but interior choices.  Whatever you eat – no matter how pure or righteous – always ends up in the same place: the sewer.  Discarded refuse.  Waste.

A bigger concern, he taught, was about that deeper impurity.  The impure thoughts that lead to hurtful actions.  He points out a few examples: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  “These are what defile a person,” he says.

The common denominator here is about who gets hurt.  When we eat impure foods or engage in risky behavior that can make us impure: those things are about hurting ourselves.  But Jesus wanted us to shift our focus.  The “evil intentions” he talks about are all about ways that we might hurt others.  The ‘other’ is the point.

Imagine how different the world would be if we’d all work a little harder to look out for other people at least as much as we look out for ourselves.

In the second part of today’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching is put to the test.  A Canaanite woman comes to him, seeking God’s blessing and Christ’s mercy.  She was the essence of ‘other’ to him, and she wanted in.

At first, he ignored her.  But she persisted.

Then the disciples told him that ignoring her wasn’t working.  He needed to send her away.  So he did.

Still, she made her case.

I wonder if his heart was turned by her persistence, or if he simply just remembered his own teaching.  But either way, he came to acknowledge the purity of her faith before sending her on her way with the blessings and mercy she’d originally tried to earn.

In some ways, this is a sort of challenging thing to hear: Jesus failing to follow his own teachings.  And oddly enough, the teaching part at the beginning of this reading is optional for us – we didn’t have to read it.  We only had to read the story of the Canaanite woman.  But that story doesn’t amount to much without the broader context of the teaching.

Jesus’ teaching for us is that our primary objective – the primary way that we can live God’s dream for creation – is to look out for other people.  To bear their interests in mind, at least as much as our own.  True purity – at the soul level – doesn’t come from following arbitrary rules as much as it comes from taking great care to avoid harming God’s other beloved creatures.

It’s a discipline that doesn’t always seem to come naturally to us.  Even Jesus seems to have struggled with it, at least on some level.  And maybe that’s the point of the story of the Canaanite woman.  Maybe it’s meant to show us that human side of Jesus that we are so often too quick to ignore: the side that can learn and grow; the side that can model for us how we are meant to strive on toward God’s dream – even when it’s not easy.

Imagine how different the world would be if we’d all work a little harder to look after other people at least as much as we look after ourselves.

May we be as persistent as that Canaanite woman.  And may we be as willing to grow as our own teacher, Jesus, was.  Amen.