A sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green, New Haven, CT, on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A – Matthew 15:10-28.
“Woman, great is your faith.”
For those of you who don’t know – Trinity, along with other Episcopal churches, as well as some churches of some other denominations, follow the Revised Common Lectionary. The Lectionary is a three year cycle of readings from Scripture, appointed to be read in worship. The Common Lectionary was first published in 1983, the result of an ecumenical project of several American and Canadian denominations. The Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992, and officially adopted by The Episcopal Church in 2006. It is a three-year cycle of Sunday Eucharistic readings in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke are read in successive years, with some material from John thrown in each year. We are currently chugging along on Year A, and we have been hearing Matthew’s Gospel. In other words, we don’t get to choose what readings we get to preach on. Some Sundays, we preachers wonder why, oh why, must the readings appointed today be used. Some other Sundays, like TODAY – I think that our readings couldn’t have come at a better time.
The events of last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, were truly beyond terrifying and vicious. Honestly, my own words cannot quite capture what I felt and thought. The language and symbols used by the marching white supremacists made many of us wonder, “is this truly America in 2017?” Meanwhile, it made others say, “yes: of course this is America in 2017 – have you not noticed?”
Since then, many public leaders, including religious leaders, have spoken out, naming the great evil – the great sin – of racism. Dean Hollerith of the Episcopal Church’s National Cathedral named it well when he said: “For too long, too many Americans have falsely believed that the evil of racism is largely a thing of the past. We have failed to take seriously the cancer of white supremacy that lurks beneath the surface of our collective life…The tragic events in Charlottesville, and the hatred that fueled them, grieve the heart of God.”
The heart of God is grieving this week.
In the wake of these events, you may have asked yourself, what can I do? Especially if one is a white person of some privilege, like me, you may have asked yourself, what should I do? What must I do? How can I repent of the racism and white supremacy that exists in our country? What can we do to not only stand by but stand up for our kin who are people of color, or Jewish?
(Well, I hate to tell you, friends – it will require more than just eating cake…)
And this leads us to a collective, or communal question: how can we acknowledge the role the greater Church has played in systemic racism? How can the Church repent?
Jesus provides us an example in today’s gospel. For today, the lectionary has chosen to show us, in the words of our collect, Jesus, as an example of a godly life – so we can follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.
There’s just one small issue:
Jesus doesn’t seem to act so godly!!!
Sure, Jesus first reminds his listeners that it is what comes out of us, not what goes into us, that can harm and defile the world. Our careless words and jokes, our lies, and our actions have the power to harm greatly. And as one writer says, “the pain of those choices is not washed down the sewer like yesterday’s lunch.”* The pain we can cause by one careless word or action, or one premeditated word or action, can last a lifetime.
BUT THEN – Jesus’ behavior with the Canaanite woman is shocking. Where is Jesus’ compassion? Where is his all-inclusive love? Here is a mother, who begs for mercy for her daughter, who is tormented by a demon. This mother is a minority woman – an outsider. She is an outsider because of her gender, her ethnicity, her culture, and her religion. Social norms of Jesus’ day are for her to be silent. Yet she isn’t. She respectfully calls Jesus “Lord,” and she begs for God’s mercy.
And Jesus does not answer. Jesus is silent in the face of an injustice. Jesus is silent in the face of great suffering.
Even worse, his disciples ask Jesus to send her away – given the context, they likely would have said, “Jesus! This woman’s offensive! She keeps shouting at us! She doesn’t know her place! Tell her to shut up and go away!”
Jesus finally answers this woman, and he tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, he is not to help the likes of her. Again, she begs of him – “Lord, help me.”
And Jesus calls her a dog.
Jesus utterly dehumanizes this woman, who is kneeling before him, begging for her daughter to be healed. Calling a Canaanite a dog was a familiar insult of the Israelites of Jesus’ time. Perhaps each of us can think of insults that we have heard, that could be the modern day equivalent – something we’ve heard used, or used ourselves, or something that’s been used against us.
If this bothers you? It should. I am not going to try to soften it, or explain it. Jesus utterly disappoints me in this moment. Jesus hurts my heart with his behavior. Even if Jesus were being, say, tongue in cheek… even if Jesus was just following cultural and societal norms of his time… Even though I know that Jesus is both divine and HUMAN…this passage crushes me every time I read it.
So it’s a good thing I wasn’t that woman, because I may have slumped away crying. But no – not this unnamed Canaanite woman. She doesn’t give up. She doesn’t slump away. She violates societal boundaries, because she believes that she and her daughter deserve God’s mercy. So – she persisted!
Jesus has said to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And she replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
In this interaction, Jesus is forced to confront his own prejudice – his own bias. In this interaction, there is a reversal of roles: the great teacher learns from this ostracized, minority woman. This woman understand that God’s mercy is great – that it doesn’t end with Israel, that it overflows to all the nations and peoples of Creation. She has an unshakable conviction that she deserves God’s mercy – that her daughter deserves God’s mercy.
So then, Jesus returns to being the Jesus that I’d prefer him to be. He says to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
So, what are we to learn? In my opinion, Jesus messed up when he was confronted with something and someone he didn’t understand. But he was able to learn from the experience, and to change. We are to learn by this example of Jesus, that we too are to learn from those who are ostracized, from those that we have ostracized. This lesson can be broadly received, but I hope it can be especially useful to those of us who are white. We need to learn from our kin of color. We need to learn from those who have been disempowered. Sometimes it is indeed quite right for us to say nothing, for it is what comes out of us that defiles – and instead listen. We can listen today – we can do it here in this sanctuary, or out on the Green. We can listen via social media – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and articles. We can listen to colleagues, neighbors, and others around us. And then we can let them lead in the way this Canaanite woman did – and then follow.
May we all follow daily in the blessed steps of Jesus. And as a church community, may we choose to be present to each other, and to positive change as it happens – may we always choose faith over fear.
This sermon needs to end here, but the conversation doesn’t. I look forward to continuing it with you.
*credit to Iwan Russell-Jones for this quote, in David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting On the Word, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, ©2008-2011), 357.