A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

This morning’s first reading, from Isaiah, comes out of the time when the exile to Babylon had ended and the exiles were returning to Jerusalem.

Their city was in ruins. They faced tremendous challenges. Coming home again didn’t solve everything by a long shot.

In addition to the enormous task of rebuilding the city, they had to rebuild their culture, too. Their community had been fractured. They had to rethink their identity, refocus on what it meant to be a Jew.

One big question they faced was how to deal with foreigners who had mixed with – and married into – their society. And in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find several different answers.

Ezra and Nehemiah were adamantly opposed to mixed marriage. Ezra ordered men to send their foreign wives away, along with the children born to those mothers. Their own children.

But on the other side, we have the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who became King David’s great-grandmother – and thus, through God’s leading, a source of blessing.

Isaiah’s answer here is clear: Foreigners are welcome.

Isaiah says, “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”[1] God’s house “will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”[2]

That passage sets the theme for all of our readings today.

Psalm 67 says, “Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.”[3]

Speaking of Gentiles in the letter to the church at Rome, Paul says, “by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.”

And then we come to this strange story of the Canaanite woman – I say “strange” because how often do we see Jesus seeming to reject a plea for healing?

Matthew calls her a Canaanite – that’s an ancient term for the pagans of this region to the north of Galilee, where Jesus is traveling. IIn fact there were no living Canaanites left in Jesus’ time, but for Jews the word still evoked an enduring prejudice.

This woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter, who is possessed – the Gospel says “cruelly tormented by a demon.”[4]

She keeps shouting at them, and the disciples want Jesus to tell her to go away. Sometimes it’s hard to feel compassion when you hear that kind of yelling from someone who’s an outsider to your group.

Jesus ignores her at first. Then he tells her his mission is to Israel.

But still she persists. Somehow she has faith that God will take care of her. She has called Jesus “Lord, Son of David,”[5] and now she kneels before him.

He essentially calls her a dog, saying, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”[6]

But she comes right back at him: “Yes, Lord. For even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”[7]

And praising her faith, Jesus grants her request and heals her daughter.

So what’s going on here, anyway? Why does Jesus seem to turn her down, then change his mind? To get that, you have to understand this expectation that God’s grace would come through Israel, God’s chosen people.

Israel first, then the whole world.

Grace comes to us through Jesus, a Jew.

In that light, this becomes a story about God’s generosity to all.

So what

The message is that God’s love and God’s justice are for everyone.

“Maintain justice, and do what is right,”[8] the Lord says in Isaiah. To maintain justice, of course, is to speak out against injustice. That message seems especially timely right now.

I’m not going to try here to deconstruct the public conversation in our country during the past week, because quite frankly, I don’t want to fall into the trap of reassuring ourselves that we ourselves are fine, pointing fingers outward and thinking we can put all the blame on someone else.

We know racism is a sin. White supremacy is wrong, no matter how long it’s been around and how deeply it’s ingrained in our society, so that people like us don’t always even notice it.

I think of my father, who risked his life and sacrificed his youth to fight Nazis, and later covered the civil rights movement as a journalist. What would he say if he could see people carrying torches in the dark in our own country, marching under Nazi flags and chanting, “blood and soil?”

For the sake of all who have suffered, and for his sake and the sake of those who didn’t come back from that fight, we must speak out.

One of the points our bishop makes, in the letter he wrote last week in response to the events in Charlottesville, is a request “that we would actively confront racism and bigotry in all its forms.”[9]  We must stand up and speak out about those things. But we also need to look into our own hearts.

Bishop Gutierrez’s letter is long, and I commend it to your study. Another request he makes is “that we would acknowledge the internal work each of us needs to do. We should prayerfully and courageously look deep within our own hearts to identify our own prejudice.”

I wonder if any of us here, given the society we were raised in, can truly say we are completely without prejudice.

I can’t. The best I can say is that I’m working on it.

But the problem we face as a society goes beyond individual prejudice. It’s about systematic racism, which is something different. If you want to say that because you have a black friend, or co-worker, or neighbor, and they seem to be doing fine in life, and you’re pretty friendly with them – if you want to say that shows that racism is no longer a factor in this country … well, no.

So maybe this is a time for us to begin our internal work by listening to the experience of others.

Jesus didn’t send the Canaanite away, despite her unseemly hollering. He heard her. He did talk to her, even if the first thing he said sounds wrong to us.  His first thought was to tell her off, and then he found words of mercy.

Like all people on the margins, she had to be extra smart and clever to be heard.

Then Jesus did hear her. And he responded.

I had decided that this morning’s faith enrichment discussion would be about compassion before I left for my study week – before Charlottesville – because compassion is something we seem to need more of in this world.

Compassion – the root word means to feel someone else’s pain. It means having such empathy for one who is suffering that you are moved to do something about it.

I’m going to show two videos: one with the journalist Krista Tippett, and a another short one that’s a little off-beat and also thought-provoking.

As Tippett says, “Compassion can be synonymous with empathy. It can be joined with the harder work of forgiveness and reconciliation, but it can also express itself in the simple act of presence.” Compassion begins with presence, with awareness.

Jesus was aware. He didn’t send the Canaanite woman away. He was listening, even when she made everyone around them uncomfortable.

Are we listening?

One of the things about being white in our world is that we don’t have to think about race or racial injustice most of the time, if we don’t want to. Of course, that isn’t true for everyone.

Are we listening to their voices, even if it feels uncomfortable?

James Cone is a theologian who has written about the symbolic connection between the cross and the lynching tree in our country. He talks about his own struggle with faith in the face of the struggles of black people when he was growing up.

He says, “personal suffering challenges faith, but social suffering, which comes from human hate, challenges it even more. White supremacy tears faith to pieces and turns the heart away from God. The more I believed in God, the harder it became to sustain any faith. White supremacy was so pervasive that everywhere I went it was there staring me in the face—in the North as well as the South. If God loves black people, why then do we suffer so much? That was my question as a child; that is still my question.”[10]

When we hear something like that, do we tell ourselves, oh, it’s really not so bad as that, and turn away?

Or are we listening?

Adam Christopher is a man from South Florida who was quoted in the news last week. He says he was more surprised by the boldness of the protestors in Charlottesville than by their message.

“You had these white nationalists that were emboldened, walking the streets unmasked and with torches. They looked proud to be there. What it told me about America is that we have work to do.”[11]

Are we listening?

Ta-Nahisi Coates is a journalist whose book titled Between the World and Me takes the form of a letter telling his son, who was then 14, about his own experience of being black in this country.

He says, “ … I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such. It was always right in front of me.[12]

Are we listening?

And what are we going do about it?

It would be easy just to tell ourselves that none of us here has the power to change the way things are. I mean, what can we do?

For now, I’ll answer that with part of a prayer that was circulated on social media last week:

“May God bless us with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.”

That’s compassion.

“May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”[13]

That’s witnessing to the Gospel.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Isaiah 56:8 NRSV

[2] Isaiah 56:7

[3] Psalm 67:2

[4] Matthew 15:23

[5] Matthew 15:22

[6] Matthew 15:26

[7] Matthew 15:27

[8] Isaiah 56:1

[9] “Bishop Gutierrez on the events in Charlottesville, VA,” http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1112711261842&ca=cd642c17-86b2-4b0f-92c1-c84388fbcaee

[10] Cone, James H.. The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Kindle Locations 4466-4470). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[11] “Black Voices on Turmoil in Charlottesville: ‘The World We Live In,’” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/16/us/black-voices-race-charlottesville.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0, accessed Aug. 19, 2017.

[12] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (p. 14). Random House Publishing Group, Kindle Edition.

[13] “A Franciscan Benediction, https://brianmclaren.net/a-franciscan-benediction/, accessed Aug. 18, 2017.