Who Gets to Enter the Temple?

Today's readings from Matthew and Isaiah bring into sharp focus some very hard questions. Who gets to enter the temple? That seems to be the question before the prophet Isaiah. Are some people to be stopped at the door? Is the temple really a house of prayer for all people or just for some people?

The Jewish community to whom Isaiah preached struggled with these questions. Was everyone welcome in the temple? The newly restored community in Jerusalem had strong voices that sought to restrict who could enter the temple. Only people who knew the rules. People who knew how to behave properly. Those strong voices would have said something like, "Only people who are like us."

Who is entitled to mercy? That seems to be the question that was before Matthew and his community when the Gospel was written. They must have been struggling with some of those same strong voices. Voices that spoke of who was worthy of mercy and who was not.

As we try to live into the kingdom of God in this place and at this time, we struggle with these same questions. Is everyone entitled to mercy? Who gets to enter the temple?

There are strong voices in our city today that are saying there are some who are not entitled to mercy. Who gets medical care? Who gets mental health assistance? Who gets a job? Who gets a place to live or something to eat? When you get out of jail or prison, who really gets a chance to start a new life?

Many people, many programs and organizations, including our own parish, work on these issues. We need to remember the lesson taught us by the Canaanite woman in Matthew's Gospel. These are not questions of issues. These are questions of real people with real lives. People with names. Real people with real hopes, real disappointments, real dreams. Real people like the homeless who live on our block and come to our parish for help. Real people like the disabled and the sick, who also come to our front door for help. Real people like the uninsured and undocumented families who come to our mobile clinic everyday for help. During the day the clinic operates at a different elementary school, providing health care to families with children who don't have ready access to other health care opportunities. Real people like the young street people and the working poor in the Montrose neighborhood who come to the mobile health clinic for help. The mobile clinic has been operating in Montrose two nights a week for the past seven years. For a long time now, Montrose has been the well known gay neighborhood in Houston. There are a growing number of homeless and working poor in the Montrose area. Real people who also do not have ready access to medical and mental health care.

In the past few weeks, I've heard these people, these real people-some of whom are adults, some of whom are teenagers, and some of whom are children-referred to as cattle, referred to as rats, and most recently referred to as worthless human beings. City council recently convened a town hall meeting to address the growing problem of homelessness in Montrose. Our mobile health clinic had become a flashpoint in this conversation due to the large number of young people who come to the clinic for their health care needs. In addition to the mobile health clinic that we operate, other churches partner with us and provide meals to those who assemble on Thursday nights. At the town hall meeting, a resident of that community, speaking against the presence of social service agencies in the neighborhood, drew a comparison between providing a meal to homeless people and feeding cattle.

You may have seen the recent articles in the Houston Chronicle about an infestation of rats in some downtown parking garages and city parks. Following the publication of one of those articles, a citizen assigned by city council to work on the Montrose Homeless Task Force compared the homeless to those same rats.

And, most recently, a city police officer wrote an op-ed piece for a downtown publication discussing the homeless and near-homeless teenagers in Montrose. In this article, the police officer labeled all the homeless as worthless human beings.

Is everyone entitled to mercy?

We need to remember the Canaanite woman. Her cry for help may have been rejected two times; but, finally, she and her child were seen for the children of God that they are. I'm afraid that we cannot ignore the question that is placed before us today by Isaiah. Who gets to enter the temple?

As is the nature of all clergy, I won't be at this parish for a very long time. When I meet people who have been here for 80 years, for 60 years, for 40 years, or say only for a mere 20 years or so, I'm reminded what short-timers all clergy really are. This is truly your church. It doesn't belong to the clergy.

Those of you with long histories here know far better than I that a downtown church must have open doors. You tell me that we have always had guests and visitors who live under the bridge or on the bench, as we so often say. As the economy and the structures of our society continue to place pressure on the homeless and the working poor, we will likely have even more guests and visitors from that population. I hope so.

This week I invited some of the people who live on the porch of one of the buildings that we own next door to come to church. They said they couldn't come to church here. They said they were afraid to come inside. Are they afraid that they don't know the rules? Are they afraid that they don't know how to behave properly? Are they afraid that we care about things like that? Do we care about things like that?

I hope that they will come to church someday, and I hope that more of us will take the opportunity to walk down the sidewalk and invite them inside. I hope that we continue to be the house of prayer for all people about which Isaiah dreamed.

As we come to the Lord's Supper, we come to the Lord's table with outstretched hands. As we stand before that table, we all stand-each one of us-in the place of the Canaanite woman. Son of David, have pity on me; help me.

For some, maybe those words don't resonate with your own needs today. If that's what you believe, I've got two things to say: First, congratulations on having such a wonderful life. And, second, you are either fooling yourself or you're lying to yourself.

But if you really can't say "Son of David, have pity on me; help me" for yourself today, then maybe you can say those words in your heart for the street kids. Say, "Son of David, have pity on me; help me" for the homeless and working poor here in downtown. Say, "Son of David, have pity on me; help me" for the destitute, for those who suffer from mental distress. Say those words for someone who battles with the demons of addiction or selfishness or greed or self-righteousness.

None of God's children are dogs.
None of God's children are cattle.
None of God's children are rats.
None of God's children are worthless human beings.
Have we created a society where children of God are called such things?

Son of David, have pity on us. Help us.

Let us pray.

Loving God, we come to you today asking that you help us always to have open hearts, open minds, open souls, so that the doors of this church may always be open as a house of prayer for all people as you intended. Help us always to know that we ourselves need your pity, that we ourselves need your help, just as the Canaanite woman and her daughter. Amen.