For my partner’s birthday we attended a conference for Black Christians called “Rise Up and Flourish: Joy and Justice” in the Chicago area. It was amazing! We loved being immersed in truth and justice, love and righteousness, peace and accountability. I was, however, a bit nervous about intruding since the event was for Black folks and that’s not me. The last thing I want to do is colonize a space that is set up for Black Christians so they can be out of the white gaze. But the first entry in the FAQ section on the conference website said people of any race or ethnicity would be welcome to attend. So we went.
One of the most striking sessions was about the importance of unity in African diaspora churches in the United States. The Black church in the United States is made up of African Americans whose ancestors endured enslavement and still endure the long struggle for civil rights and equity; those who are first- or second-generation immigrants to the United States from Africa and have profound connections to their or their parents’ country of origin; and Afro-Caribbeans whose identities, again, are powerfully nuanced—shaped by multiple migrations (some forced, some chosen) and by their places of origin and parents’ cultures.
The session talked about how the Black church must make space for and welcome the contributions and cultures of all the people who showed up—and must fight attempts to flatten or minimize cultural differences. The people, and their stories and experiences, are important. Our beloved ELCA should hear this message. We don’t do anyone a service by collapsing identities or downplaying diversities already in our midst or by being content with a lack of diversity. This week’s lectionary passages highlight the necessity of awareness, full inclusion and celebration of different kinds of “foreignness” in the kingdom of God.
The Isaiah passage is a favorite of mine. As the prophet looks to the future that God is creating, God seeks to preempt questions about who is “in” and who is “out.” God says to act in ways that will prevent the foreigner from assuming that God will separate her from the holy community. Of course the foreigner is welcome! In the exact same way, the sexual minority is not supposed to be given cause to say that they are incapable of producing fruit for the kingdom (Isaiah 56:3). Of course the eunuch is welcome and will be given a name better than sons or daughters. Foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord will be brought to God’s holy mountain. They will be joyful in their prayers! The foreigners’ contributions to the community and to worship will be valued and appreciated (6-7). And, to underscore the point of God’s expansive, inclusive kingdom, God will add still other foreigners to those already gathered (8).
If we serve God in love, keep holy rest and join ourselves to God’s holy community, we are welcomed into the story of what God is doing.
This is where we are at. Just about every single North American Lutheran Christian is probably in the “foreigner” category, as the prophet writing Isaiah would have understood it. We are, if anything, a partial fulfillment of the prophetic speech. If we serve God in love, keep holy rest and join ourselves to God’s holy community, we are welcomed into the story of what God is doing.
As theologians of the cross, we must engage in that task of “calling a thing what it is” to acknowledge ourselves as welcomed foreigners, rather than as natural-born heirs. We must, therefore, avoid hypocrisy and welcome other foreigners that God is calling, seeing all as the exact position as we are—people whom God welcomes with all our foreign traditions, languages, cultures, preferences, predilections and problems that we are called to work through together. The Psalmist calls “all the peoples” to praise God (Psalm 67:5). When we praise God in unity that acknowledges and embraces various traditions—never bland uniformity—the worship is sweet, indeed.
We then come to Jesus and the Canaanite woman. The detail that jumps out to me in this reading is that Jesus and the disciples were in the region of Tyre and Sidon. The woman was from the area—they were not. The woman cried out for help. The disciples asked that Jesus send her away (in her own region!) because she kept shouting behind them! The positionality is important here. Jesus refused to make the disciples (or us) comfortable by silencing the woman. Instead, he allowed her to come out from behind the disciples to bring her concerns front and center.
What happens next is best understood as a witty game—not hurtful barbs—between two people particularly gifted with words. In any case, Jesus commended the woman’s faith and gave her exactly what she had asked for. Jesus refused to allow his disciples to silence, ignore or shut out the cries of a woman foreign to them.
Indeed, the text notes that Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon immediately before this encounter and returned to the Galilee immediately after. I have to think that the encounter with the Canaanite woman—when she came out from behind the disciples to be in front of Jesus, where her voice was heard and she got what she wanted from Jesus—was the sole point of the journey of many miles.
We aren’t all called to do the same thing, think the same thing or even believe the same thing(s). We are called to follow the one God. Foreignness in worship, in church life and in the kingdom of heaven is good for everyone and is pleasing to God. What diversity in the body is God calling you to notice, celebrate, nurture and protect this week?