This was the message that I presented on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 15, 1999, at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 45: 1 – 15; Romans 11: 1 – 2, 29 -32; and Matthew 15: (10 -20), 21 – 28.
The scriptures for this morning reminded me of a couple of episodes in my own life. The story in the Old Testament of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers after being separated from them for about 20 years reminded me, to some extent, of what happened when I returned to Memphis in 1980 after having left in 1968 to go to school in Missouri.
Now it should be noted that I am the oldest of four children, not the eleventh of twelve sons. And when I moved from Tennessee to Missouri to continue my college studies, I was going of my own accord. Joseph, of course, went to Egypt because his brothers had sold him into slavery.
Like Joseph, my contacts with my family after I left were limited and, after I graduated from college and was married, virtually non-existent. So it was that when I returned to Memphis in 1980, those people who knew my father and my two brothers were somewhat shocked, as were Joseph’s brothers, to discover my existence (the general acknowledgement of my presence was often “My God, do you mean that there’s another one!”). And like Joseph, I recall a great exhilaration on returning to my family.
But the major difference between my story of separation and that of Joseph’s was that my brothers and sister knew that I was alive and, most of the time, where I was living. Joseph’s brothers had no idea that he was still alive and that he had risen to such a position of power and authority.
And it is safe to say that my brothers and their friends was far less frightened that were Joseph’s brothers when he told them who he was. After all, he had far more power than they could ever conceive and their first thought must have surely been that he was going to seek revenge for what they had done to him. And I don’t doubt that Joseph sensed that fear. For as the scripture said,
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
He sought to comfort them and let them know that all was part of God’s plan.
God’s plan is an interesting phrase. For it can suggest that all is ordained before hand. But if that is the case, it also means that nothing we do changes things. Quite simply, then, there would be no need for us to meet today or at any other time, for we would have no reason to celebrate Christ’s presence in our lives; we would have no hope.
And like the woman of Canaan in the Gospel reading for today, we could not seek out Jesus. But that is not the case. God’s plan offers us hope, to know that through our Savior Jesus Christ, we always have salvation. God’s plan is for us to come home to Him. It is that very plan that Paul writes about, “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” God shows us his mercy but we must come to Him seeking forgiveness.
Jesus alluded to that plan when the woman from Canaan came to him that day, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” While that may have meant only the Jews of Jesus’ time, we have come to know that all who are lost can be saved by Christ.
The other episode that the scriptures today reminded me about occurred during the spring of 1969 while I was at college. That year had not been a good one for me and I struggled with many questions. But the one light in my life that year was the presence of Jesus.
Now I grew up going to church on Sunday. So, going away to college meant that I could sleep late on Sunday morning. But I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that. It was important to me that on Sunday morning that I go to church, to a place where I had a home and security.
First United Methodist Church in Kirksville offered me a home and a place of security at a time when it was most needed. So, when it came time for me to go back to Memphis for Easter, I felt that I needed to first celebrate communion at my own church. So I went to Marvin Fortel, the pastor at First that year, and asked if there were some way I could take communion before leaving for the spring break.
Reverend Fortel was surprised by this request. No other student had ever made such a request before but he agreed and we met at the chapel of the church. Rather than a formal observance of the communion ritual, we sat down together and discussed what the words of the ritual meant.
I remember arguing with Reverend Fortel about the words that we find on page 30 of our present hymnal, those words that the Canaanite woman spoke to Jesus so many years ago. It seemed to me, with all the wisdom of a college sophomore, that it wasn’t fair. Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice on the cross mean that we could sit at God’s table? How can we, who were saved by the grace of God, not be allowed to sit at God’s table? Wasn’t that why Jesus died for us? Wasn’t admission to God’s kingdom granted to us because Jesus died for us?
But I had it backwards. It is by Christ’s death and our faith that we are saved. Like Joseph taken away from his home in slavery, sin takes us away from our home in heaven.
Deep sadness and an aching loneliness mark life in exile. The cries of Joseph upon being reunited with his brothers were heard throughout the palace. It is expressed in the words of Hymn 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” which we sing at Advent, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
The feeling of being separated from home and longing for home runs deeply in us. It may be one of the reasons the movie E. T. was so popular. Those who saw the movie can remember E. T. pointing his finger at the sky and saying in a haunting voice filled with prolonged yearning, “Home.” In our own lives, the experience of exile as estrangement or alienation can be felt as a flatness, a loss of connection with a center of vitality and meaning, when one day becomes very much like another and nothing has much zest. We yearn for something that we perhaps only vaguely remember. Life in exile thus has a profound existential meaning. It is living away from Zion, the place where God is present.
But if our problem is exile, of being separated from God and our home with him, what is the solution? The solution is a journey of return. The invitation for communion that I took some thirty years ago starts over with “Ye who truly and earnestly repent of your sins”. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent” originally meant “return”. The invitation to return sounds throughout the second half of the book of Isaiah, spoken by a prophet whose name we do not know.
In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40: 3 – 4)
The beautiful and powerful language of this prophet has become familiar to us through Handel’s use in his work, The Messiah.
But, as Paul pointed out, God does not reject us and He has not forgotten us. The gifts that God has for us are irrevocable. God knows that we have sinned but still grants us mercy when we seek Him.
We may be like the Canaanite woman, thinking we are outcast but by our faith in Christ, we can hear God speaking to us, “welcome home.” It is the longing for home expressed in the gospel hymn (#348) “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me.” The invitation is given to you this morning. If we believe in Jesus, He becomes a part of us. If we open our hearts to Him this morning, then we know can hear God saying to us, “Welcome Home.”