Gospel: Matthew 15:10-28
1st Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
2nd Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
As many of you know, Camp Odyssey is very close to my heart. I experienced this camp for myself as a teenager in 1991 and it changed my life. It was my first exposure hearing real stories and getting to know people of different races, to be able to share my story as a young woman, and to learn about the daily lives of people in same-gender relationships. Four years ago, I and a group of former campers restarted Camp Odyssey and have run it every summer since. That’s where I was week before last.
The campers are high schoolers from all over Oregon. We fundraise all year to make sure that camp is free to every camper, so that rich or poor, any teen can afford to come. We’re trying to learn from each other, so we need the most broad, diverse group we can get. When the campers first come, they are shy and quiet. They need a lot of encouragement. It reminds me of the gathering of the outcasts in the first reading, “Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”
The campers build trust with each other. The first day is team-building with a challenge course. The campers work together to complete fun tasks, learn to communicate, learn to work together, and build relationships. When we begin in the morning, we barely know each other. By the end of the day, we know who is a problem-solver, who is protective of the vulnerable, who is bossy and impatient, who is easy-going, and we have forgiven ourselves and each other for countless mistakes and moved on. We know we are capable of so much.
The second day we begin learning so many of the skills and vocabulary we’ll need for the rest of the week. We learn that we share so many things in common with each other. We learn there are many differences. We honor both the differences and similarities. We know each other’s lives aren’t easy. We learn about using “I” statements and how to express our feelings. We learn how to really share our story and listen to one another’s stories.
The third day we address race. We share our stereotypes with those of other racial groups. We deal with the prejudice that others have against us. In my group we reflected on our privilege and our responsibility and our guilt. And we see how these prejudices hurt other groups. Now, instead of a stereotype, we see a person, with feelings, and we know we have to work against all the ways society tries to tell us who these people are and dictate their worth.
The fourth day we address gender. The men and boys listen as the girls and women tell their stories of how they have been treated by fathers and uncles and boyfriends and the effect that has had on our lives. The boys share, too, what it is like to live in world where they are expected to hide their emotions, be tough, and participate in violence. We ask for and make commitments to each other to change ourselves and our communities.
The fifth day we confront homophobia. We share and hear stories of rejection, of teens being told it is just a phase, of girlfriends not being welcome at their sweet sixteen party, of violence and hatred, of parents breaking down in tears when they heard, of being thrown out of the house, of self-hatred, of cutting and suicide attempts,. It is heartbreaking and it makes us all want to stand up and create a better world that can value and accept each person.
Camp Odyssey, although not at all religiously affiliated, is a mini-version of the Kingdom of God, to me. And I think of church much the same way. The Kingdom of God is a mix of all kinds of people, all children of God. We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and in sharing them, we get more of a whole picture.
We come together, at camp and at church, because we see our world and we know it isn’t the way it is supposed to be. This week I especially think of the racial tensions in our country and the focus on mental health and the disease of depression and the symptom of suicide. This world is messed up. We want to be a part of the solution, but we know that we are part of the problem, sometimes. We want to find a way to build a world of mercy and grace.
We come together, at camp and at church, and we get to know each other, sometimes through trust building exercises, or through working together on a project over years, or because of shared experiences. We may at first have preconceived ideas about each other, but we truly begin to see each other as human beings. We share our pain and hurt with each other. We are by each other’s side when we grieve a loss, when we endure our own shortfalls, when are disappointed in each other, when we are at our best, and so on. When church and camp are working right, we see each other not for our outward traits, or based on ideas of what one another is like, but as human beings. Therefore, when someone does something upsetting to us, we can go to them and try to find out the cause of the rift, we can try to understand and forgive. We can share our hurt feelings and be heard. We can know each other’s stories. We can change one another’s lives forever.
But we don’t stop here. Camp is a vision of what life can be like when we trust each other, share our stories, see each other as human, honor our differences and similarities, and truly live loving one another, not loving as a feeling, but as an action. Church is a vision of what this world can be like when we trust each other, welcome everyone, build relationships, share our stories, and truly see each other as human. And all this is to give us the vision and strength to transform our world.
Do we have trust in this world? Do we treat each other as human? Do we honor our differences and similarities? Do we share our stories? Not very often. But seeing how community can work well, can we use the skills we’ve learned to do just that? Yes. And we don’t start with the whole world. Maybe start with your neighbor next door. Maybe start with the person who just moved in down the block. Maybe start with your family or someone you’ve had an argument with.
I love this story of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. Jesus didn’t even see her. What would you do if you had a strange woman yelling after you, everywhere you went? You’d probably ignore her, just like Jesus. What an inconvenience! What would you do if you daughter was ill and no one could do anything for her? You would be persistent. She is in need. Her life is destroyed. All she wants is Jesus’ compassion. All she wants is to be treated like a human being. Jesus is focused on other things. He spouts so automatically the message he’s received from his culture. He’s there for the chosen people. She is nothing but a dog. Why should he have anything to do with her?
She doesn’t shame him. She doesn’t attack him. But she doesn’t give up either.
This woman knows that there is more than enough of God’s compassion to go around. She knows Jesus can help her, if he will only see her. She places herself directly in front of his face so that he will finally see her. He finally sees her and sees her value. He sees her faith is stronger than any of his disciples.
How many of our culture’s messages do we internalize each day that keep us from actually seeing a human being in need in front of us, that keep us from seeing Jesus Christ in our midst. We’ve got dirt on our windows that obscures our vision, messages of who has value and who doesn’t. Every once in a while we have the opportunity to have a light shone on the glass to show us what dirt has collected and that we aren’t seeing clearly anymore. This Canaanite woman is that light for Jesus today. The campers are that light for me every year and I am thankful for the opportunity to see the dirt that’s collected and make a commitment to clean that glass, to see people there instead of stereotypes, to ask people about themselves instead of assuming. And church is the same way. We’re here, admitting the dirt on our windshields in our confession and just by coming here, saying that we’re not complete. We shine a light for each other. We make a commitment to be with people who will shine that light for us, the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry. The scriptures shine a light. Jesus is our light. And we have the chance to wash our windows in the baptismal waters and see anew children of God all around us, even to see ourselves the way Jesus sees us, as precious children.
There is so much going on around us every day. We can’t help every person in need. We can’t stop to hear every story or look in every set of eyes. But are we willing to slowly dismantle the barriers we put up, brick by brick, examine our stereotypes of people and whether they have value or not, treat people like human beings, and give some of our time and compassion to them, as Jesus has for us? When we open ourselves to one another’s humanity, we become more fully human ourselves, we become more compassionate, and God creates through us in those moments the Kingdom of God. God has promised to transform our world ever more into the Kingdom of God through us, our stories, our connections, and our love. The Kingdom of God seems so far away sometimes, yet it is right here in our grasp, so close, so achievable when we take a moment to see a fellow child of God standing before us and to honor that person, to listen, to be affected, to love.