Even the Dogs


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

August 9, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 40:1–11; Mark 7: 24–30

      Sitting in front of the examiner, Don Marco struggled to answer the questions in English. He had been a legal resident for almost thirty years, having been petitioned by his U.S. citizen daughter but he still felt like an outsider. The officer smiled as he looked at her and said George Washington was the father of “our country,” a phrase that almost had him in tears, responded that the Bill of Rights protected freedom of speech, and knew the names of the two U.S. Senators from New Jersey. But after being naturalized, he had one last request: he wanted to vote. I took him down to City Hall and helped him to register. Holding his naturalization certificate and his voter registration card, the 92-year old was practically in tears: “They killed my father because he wanted to vote,” Don Marco said. I nodded, knowing the reference to the Matanza, the massacre of almost 30,000 during the 1930s in El Salvador. Don Marco voted in the very next election, a primary for a mayoral candidate. “Now I am a real American; now I can die in peace.”

      For so many years the old man had felt like an outsider in the country he had chosen. He had worked the menial jobs he was given until he was almost eighty, not uncommon among many immigrants even though he had reached the basic 40 quarters making him eligible for Social Security many years before. He shuffled about in restaurants, sweeping the floors, enduring insults from locals who were impatient with him when he did not clear tables quickly enough. But he was always grateful for even the crumbs he received in our society. 

      Historically, societies have always divided themselves into two groups: the insiders and the outsiders. The insiders are the chosen ones; the outsiders do not belong. Scripture is replete with references to certain groups of people being “chosen” by God; in fact, up until the time of the prophets, the chosen insiders are not only permitted to exclude but are commanded to exclude and even destroy any threat to their purity. God tells Abraham he will make of him a great nation; Joshua is commanded to destroy the inhabitants, all of the inhabitants of the conquered cities as he invades the land now known as Israel. 

      When the Jews returned from Babylon, Ezra commands them to put away their “foreign wives” for fear of impurity. Our insider vs. outsider mentality continued into New Testament times with a theological justification, separating believer from unbeliever, and then true believer from heretic. 

       Theologically, who is an outsider? Think of all the verses attributed to Jesus that have been used to exclude others: “No one comes to the Father except by me” in John is a good example. Since Christianity became an official religion, sanctioned by political power, that verse and others have been used to spread the word of the Lord by the sword. Most other religions are not so different from us Christians. Islam, another proselytizing religion, spread by the sword as well. Hindus attack Christians and Muslims in India, Buddhists take on Muslims in southern Thailand, and West Bank settlers evict Palestinians. How sad God must be at our divisiveness, at the way we exclude those we consider “the other.”

      Theologian Miroslav Volf explores the world of the other in his book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Volf discusses the tough theological issues we face as Christians. He is not satisfied with only a sociological analysis of how we distinguish ourselves from “the other,” the outsider, the person we do not include in our circle; the root, he writes, is in theology itself. 

      Born in the experiment known as Yugoslavia, he saw his nation dissolve into the destructiveness of hate as Serb killed Croat, Bosnian women raped and murdered by Chetniks determined to purify what they considered to be their land, and each little ethnic enclave building walls to exclude the outsider. Religion played its part well as Orthodox and Catholics were pitted against each other and both pitted against Muslims. We fear the different, what we do not know and that fear turns into hatred.

       But we here in the United States, the bold experiment of a multiethnic stew, we just say, that’s not us. But it is in so many ways. In our heart of hearts, we separate ourselves from the other. We just have different definitions of the outsiders. As a church, we proudly say we are an inclusive community, welcoming people excluded by other churches on the basis of sexual orientation or disability. But what about those who are religiously or theologically different from us?  

       And we don’t even have to think of the other Abrahamic faiths: how do we relate to Pentecostals or Evangelicals? How do we engage in dialog with people who think we are going to hell in a handbasket? What are our lines of demarcation? Who is the other in our minds? Other than the usual suspects, such as Sean Hannity or other right-wingers, I should add.

      Theologically as a church and sociologically as a society we need to rethink how we cast others we define as outside our mainstream. A good example of casting others can be seen in the antipathy toward Ocasio-Cortez. So-called mainstream politicians rail against her, calling her “outside the mainstream.” Whose mainstream?  

      Defining those we cast as “the other” really says a lot more about how we define ourselves. Categorization, the ability to differentiate, is important to our construction of reality and not just from a sociological point of view. As one of my professors at Hartford Seminary, Mahmoud Ayoub, once said, we are not and cannot be an undifferentiated mass of humanity. We are divided religiously and ethnically, and religion is not separate from culture. They are mixed. 

      However, in this postmodern world, we are required to think more critically about how we define our relationships within and outside the “group,” that is, the insiders. This morning’s reading from Mark challenges us to consider these issues. Jesus has to confront his own prejudice in reaching out to the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile whose very contact was defiling.

      We live in a polarized society, one where people can buy guns to kill others they see as outsiders, as evil, whether they are doctors providing needed services or instructors in a YMCA gym. There is a deep residual anger and fear here in America, emotions that are being manipulated to even disrupt meetings with elected officials on health care. On the one hand we say we want change; on the other, we fear it.        There’s more than politics at work here. There’s something deeply unsettling about the rank fear that we express through people like Stephen Miller who hates immigrants and bombings of mosques and the destruction of Jewish cemeteries.

       Theologically and societally we have become unglued.

I say both theologically and societally because one is not separate from the other and we need to put our religious house in order making our belief system inclusive rather than exclusive. This is not easy but it must be done if we are not just to survive but grow and develop into a mature people of God. 

        Let us pray: Eternal Creator who made us all different from each other but at the same time as sharing an essential humanity, help us move beyond our fears into a new season of hope and dialog where we embrace all as your children within your loving arms. In the name of him who realized that even the outsider is welcome, Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.