The scripture referred to are Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:10-28.
I am reading neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky's new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In it he looks at everything that influences what we do: our brain structures, our hormones, our environment, our culture, our DNA, etc. And so far one of the most surprising things I have learned is about oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” I knew that secretion of this natural substance causes us to bond with our romantic partners and with our children and to trust other people. But I didn't realize that it promotes in-group bonding at the expense of our relationship with outsiders. It makes us more empathetic to those who are like us but less so towards those who are not like us. Oxytocin also has a part in our telling lies when those lies benefit our group. So oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is implicated in both the lies political parties tell as well as in mankind's persistent racism, most recently on display last week in Charlottesville. Comedian Dave Chappelle said racism is a drug. And it turns out he is literally correct.
The idea that if you love your own group you must hate all other groups goes all the way back to humanity's beginnings. And it may have made some sense when we all lived in clans and tribes made up of about 150 family members. Everyone in your life was related to you and physically resembled you. They said and did things the same way you did. In general you could trust people like you, whereas you might not be able to trust those who belonged to other clans or tribes that did not look or act or speak as you. They might kill or rape or kidnap you. But as humans started to settle together in cities, people had to get used to living with folks not like them. Loyalties had to shift from families and clans to cities and later nations. In other words, we had to become civilized. Yet social classes evolved, so there was still within such larger groups an “us” and a “them.”
Scientists says religion was a vital and even a necessary way to unite various peoples in a larger group. In fact, the word “religion” may have been derived from the Latin for “bind” or “connect.” A tribe, an ethnic group or a nation would all worship the same god or gods. This becomes a problem, though, when you move from nations to empires. When you are conquering other nations, what do you do about their local gods? Alexander the Great's successors usually tried to introduce Greek gods and Greek culture. This was a non-starter with the Jews and triggered the Maccabean revolt. The Romans on the other hand let everyone keep their gods and just had them add to their pantheon the divine emperor. Again this wouldn't do for the Jews. So they let them keep their monotheism, though that made things tense in that corner of the empire. But for the first couple of decades Christianity got a pass because it was initially regarded as just another Jewish sect.
But Christianity was different. It may have begun as a movement within Judaism but it very quickly started to attract outsiders, Gentiles. And the church had to come to grips with the fact that the good news Jesus preached was not just for Jews and that Christ had died to redeem all of mankind.
Paul is often given credit for turning a small ethnic sect into a universal religion but as we see in our passage from Isaiah, this was God's intention all along. God reaches out to foreigners and non-Jews who believe in him. He says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Further back, in Genesis 12:3, after promising Abram that his descendants would become a great nation, God says, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God didn't choose the Hebrew nation merely to be the object of his affection but to be the instrument through which he would show his love to all of humanity. This becomes much more obvious in the ministry of Jesus, who offers salvation to the Samaritan woman at the well, who heals the slave of the Roman centurion and in today's gospel, heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman.
And shortly after Jesus' ascension and Pentecost, the question of whether Gentiles are to be included in the church arose, first when Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch and then when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his household. And, yes, it all comes to a head in Paul's ministry. Paul initially was going to synagogues in the Diaspora, the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. But he noticed he was having particular success among the so-called Godfearers, Gentiles who came to synagogue, were interested in the ethics of Judaism but hadn't gone so far as to be circumcised. When they accepted Jesus as Messiah, Lord and Savior, he saw no reason to exclude them from the church nor to demand that they convert to Judaism before becoming Christians. This became a big controversy in the early church. But Paul's vision of the gospel being for all, and his teaching that our salvation comes by grace through faith and not by following Jewish ceremonial law, won out in the end.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And in Ephesians 4:4-6, he says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Following Jesus is about love and inclusion and unity that does not require uniformity. God created all humans, all races, nationalities, sexes, and personalities. Jesus died for all. We are to love all, both our neighbors and even our enemies. There is literally no one left that we can hate.
We need that message because a lot of people have a very constricted idea of what is good. They think that goodness is “what is good for me and mine.” The implication is that it is irrelevant if that is also bad for those who are not me or mine. And as Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” But God so loved the world that he sent his son Jesus to redeem it. And all we need to do to receive redemption is to trust him to save us, as you would a surgeon who proposes to knock you out, cut you open, cut out your heart and put in another. You can't do heart surgery on yourself. You can only trust a good physician to do so for you.
And our hearts are messed up. Left to themselves, people will act on what is good for themselves and those they love and to hell with everyone else. As Jesus says in today's gospel, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” That's why we have rules, like the Ten Commandments, against those things. And if there is a rule against something, you can be sure that someone at least once did that very thing. If the lawyers of the company that made your hair dryer put on there a warning not to use it in the bathtub or shower, you know that means someone actually tried to do that. So we make rules.
Of course, rules only stop some people some of the time. If having rules stopped everyone from doing what's wrong then traffic laws would ensure that nobody speeds, nobody passes where they shouldn't and everybody has their seat belts buckled. You just have to drive on US-1 to know that's not true. Rules can't really solve the problem. The problem is internal; the solution has to be as well. We need a change of heart.
And it begins with faith. When Jesus visited his hometown, Mark tells us that he was not able to heal many because they didn't believe in him. (Mark 6:5-6) A doctor can't cure someone who won't trust him, who won't let him do what needs to be done and won't follow his orders. God can't save those who won't trust him, won't let him do what needs to be done and who won't follow his orders. But if we do trust him, everything changes.
If we trust Jesus, he will enter our hearts. He will send his Spirit to remake us from the inside out, to be the person God intended us to be. He will change our way of thinking, speaking and acting. He will transform us from a creature of God into a child of God. We will become more trusting, more hopeful, more loving, more Christlike everyday.
The first step is baptism. It is not a magical rite but a physical act that signifies a spiritual reality. In his Word God promises that, in baptism, a person's sin is forgiven, the person is redirected from a trajectory leading to death to the way of everlasting life and they become part of God's people and a joint heir with Christ to all of God's treasures. And that's what is happening today with Kailee.
Kailee, usually we baptize babies. For them it's like a spiritual vaccination. Parents decide they want this good thing for their baby. The baby doesn't really understand. But you can. So I want to give you an idea of what this is all about.
In this world people do bad things, things that harm others. They can do it with their words; they can do it with their actions; they can even do it by not helping someone when that person needs help. We all do bad things at times. We make things worse rather than better. We mess up things in the world God made and we mess up things for the people God made. Sometimes we don't even understand why we do it and we are sorry.
The good news is God wants to change that. He wants to make things better. He wants to make us better. You know why? God loves us. The Bible tells us God is love. And in Jesus we see that love in human form. In Jesus we see what God is like: loving, forgiving, helping, healing. We also see what we can be. We can be like Jesus. We can be people who make the world better. We can help people become better.
By being baptized, you are saying you want to be one of the good guys, one of the people following Jesus. And God will help you follow Jesus. At your baptism, he will give you his Spirit to help you be more like Jesus.
There are a lot of good things about being a Christian. For instance, Jesus said he will never leave us or abandon us. He will be with us forever. Wherever you are, whatever happens, Jesus will be with you. Even if you mess up, Jesus will not leave you.
As a Christian you can talk to Jesus. You can tell him anything. If you have problems, you can tell him about them. And he will understand. He lived on this earth as one of us and he knows all about the problems we have. He had problems too: problems with his parents, problems with his brothers and sisters, problems with his friends, problems with people who didn't like him. Jesus is a friend you can talk to and trust.
As a Christian you will be part of God's family. Not just the people in this church but people in churches all over the world. They will help you too. And you will help them. All who follow Jesus help one another.
Jesus loves us just as we are. But he loves us too much to leave us that way. He wants us to grow up as Christians in the same way your parents want you to grow up from a little girl into a woman who can do things for herself. As you grow up you will find that certain things will become more important to you and you will want to work hard to make them come true. It's the same when you grow as a Christian.
As a Christian you want things to be fair. You want people to be treated equally. If things are not fair, Christians work to make them fair.
As a Christian you want the best for everyone, not just for yourself. You want people to be their best. Christians work to make sure everyone has the chance to be their best.
As a Christian you realize that you won't always do your best. You will mess up. We all do. But you know that God will forgive you. And that means you have to forgive others when they don't do their best. And then afterwards you will try to do your best again.
As a Christian you want people to have enough food, enough water, enough clothes, to be welcome when they are strangers, to be helped when they are sick or when they are not free. Jesus said that people who need these things are his brothers and sisters and how we treat them is how we treat Jesus. Christians treat everyone as they would treat Jesus.
As a Christian you want everyone to know about Jesus and God's love for them. God created everyone you meet in this world. Everyone you meet is either already your brother or sister in Jesus or could become your brother or sister in Jesus. Christians let everyone know about God's love and what Jesus has done for them.
In just a few minutes we are going to say some prayers. We are going to ask you and your parents and sponsors and everyone here some questions. We are going to ask if you renounce some things. “Renounce” just means “reject.” We are going to ask if you reject the things that harm people and make the world worse. We are going to ask if you believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. “Believe” means “put your trust in” someone. We are going to thank God for water of baptism. And then we are going to baptize you and seal you and everyone here will welcome you into God's family.
Are you ready? Let's go.