I Will Gather Others

Message for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (8/20/2023)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Psalm 67

Matthew 15:21-28



There is a way in which social boundaries are helpful, even essential. Healthy boundaries are necessary for relationships to thrive. “We can’t connect with someone,” writes Brené Brown, “unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.”[1] Put another way, to quote Prentis Hemphill, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”[2]

But, boundaries can become barriers, preventing human connection from happening in the first place. This so often occurs along racial or national or cultural or socioeconomic lines. We tend to manage difference with distance. That is to say, we’re inclined to self-segregate, forging our identity in opposition to, rather than in relationship with, others. Of course, when we are separate, we are never equal. Division always results in exclusion and inequality, conferring dignity and esteem on the members of the in-group, outsiders be damned. And in this way, we actually create foreigners and outcasts.[3]

What’s more, when this dynamic is hallowed by our sacred traditions, it becomes more difficult to resist. If human distinctions are ordained by God, then who are we to question them? You don’t have to look any farther than today’s Gospel from Matthew to see the power of religious division at work. It’s the famous account of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, the one who begs him for mercy despite clearly-drawn boundaries, and convinces him to rid her daughter of a demon. This woman is a “triple outsider,” to borrow Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s term, on account of her gender, her ethnicity, and her cultural-religious affiliations.[4] Old animosities and well-established norms dictate the rules of engagement– a Canaanite woman shouldn’t dare approach an Israelite man under any circumstances. But, she sees something in him, so she pleads, “Lord, help me.” And at first, Jesus toes the party line: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Long before these two came into contact, the boundary became a barrier.

Even so, the woman refuses to respect it, insisting, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her humility is matched only by her audacity, as she demands for herself and her daughter that to which she is entitled, not on account of her status, but on account of God’s nature. The Canaanite woman understands that mercy, not prejudice, is “the way that God has determined to be God.”[5]

You see, you don’t have to look any farther than today’s first reading from Isaiah to discover a compelling witness to God’s wide embrace: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” I will gather others, God declares, people who don’t fit within the confines of previously-determined boundaries. “Let your way be known upon Earth,” the psalmist echoes the prophet, “[let] your saving health [be known] among all nations.” There is a thread that runs through Holy Scripture avowing that “salvation [is not] the byproduct of ethnicity, nationality, race, or [religious] membership.”[6] God promises not to uphold our categories, but to transcend them; in the end, human boundaries are not divine barriers.

Nevertheless, time and again human communities have tried to restrict the dignity of certain persons on the basis of small-minded distinctions. In her novel Day of No Return, based on true events, Katherine Kressman Taylor tells the story of a German seminarian in the 1930s, Karl Hoffman, who runs headlong into Nazi repression, watching with disbelief as the Third Reich hijacks the German church as part of its strategy to consolidate power. Arrested for disseminating statements of dissent, Karl endures a brief stint in a concentration camp, where he is repeatedly subjected to the Nazi creed:

Every day we were worked and drilled. Every day were lined up to hear a propaganda speech. This last was called a training in proper ideology.


Everything that impeded the triumphant march of National Socialism must be broken down, we were told. Christianity was a doctrine for weaklings, a wily concoction of Jewish minds which served to enfeeble and unman the strong type of Aryan heroes with which the Germany of the future was to abound. The true religion of nature could be discerned by one test: it would strengthen the joyous power of the Nordic blood which was our salvation.[7]


By the time church leaders take the Nazi incursion seriously, it’s too late. Storm troopers infiltrate the pews in Karl’s home church, a swastika flies from the steeple, and the Fuhrer’s portrait obscures the cross at the front of the sanctuary. And, plenty of parishioners are pleased to go along with it.

Why are such blasphemies so seductive? Why do we so readily embrace the promise of racial or social or political or religious or sexual purity? Belonging is a powerful thing, I suppose, and we may be willing to trade the beauty and complexity of human diversity for the promise of a privileged position.

But, God does not abide by the terms of that trade. It’s true that our awareness of God’s expansive love has grown over the millennia. Abraham certainly had God’s assurance that his heirs would be distinctly blessed.[8] Christians, too, have always wrestled with questions of the gospel’s reach– who is in and who is out? Yet, even as “the people of God… have a particular demographic boundary at any given moment in history,” to quote one interpreter, nonetheless “God is always redefining [that boundary] to include those left out.”[9]

From our perspective, the love of God is a spiral growing larger and larger, like a satellite orbiting farther and farther from its source to reach ever more deeply into the cosmos. We shouldn’t be surprised, friends, nor should we be dismayed, when God’s embrace stretches to include people we would never expect and in ways we could never imagine. I will gather others, God has promised, so that I might entrust you into each other’s care. For the sake of that promise, let’s build a longer table, a safer refuge, a broader doorway, because for the sake of that promise, “none can be excluded; all must find a home.”[10]

[1] Atlas of the Heart, 128.

[2] Ibid. 129.

[3] Wendel W. Meyer, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 343.

[4] See Iwan Russell-Jones, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 358.

[5] Ibid. 360.

[6] Meyer 341.

[7] 126-7.

[8] Genesis 12:3.

[9] Michael H. Floyd, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 343.

[10] David Bjorlin, “Build a Longer Table,” All Creation Sings, Pew Edition, #1062.

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“We Come Now to Your Table”; Text and music © Caribbean Conference of Churches

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