The Rev. Sarah Buteux
August 20, 2017
Proper 15, Year A
We’ve seen a lot of ugliness this past week: racist, anti-semitic, angry, fear mongering words and actions replayed over and over again on our televisions, our Facebook pages, our Twitter feeds. Images of torches, flags, and faces twisted with hate.
We’ve been bombarded with feeble justifications, false equivalencies, and outright lies from the very highest office in our country right on down: words that have served to embolden the wicked, slander the good, confuse the well-intentioned, and divide our country even further.
People are shocked. They are saddened. They are angry and afraid. “I thought we were over this…” I’ve heard people say, “done with this…I never expected to see this…not here… not now…not again…not ever.”
We’ve seen a lot of ugliness this week both here and around the world. Many went to Boston yesterday to pray, march, and stand up against it right here in our own backyard. And friends, it may feel like the world is coming apart at the seams, but the truth is that this is nothing new. Racism, tribalism, nationalism: it’s not getting worse …it’s getting exposed.
The twisted logic of racial and religious superiority and privilege that motivated the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, is the same logic that is motivating terrorists around the globe. It is the same logic that inspired the conquest and colonization of the Americas.
It is the same logic that has been used to justify slavery, segregation, apartheid, and the mass incarceration of bodies of color. It is the same twisted logic that has fueled Church sanctioned and church sponsored violence throughout the ages against Jews, Muslims, Pagans, women, GLBTQ persons, and anyone else who has failed to conform, make sense, or get in line.
But it didn’t start there either. The church has a great deal over which she needs to repent – a great deal – but truthfully this ugliness predates even Christianity.
Racism, tribalism, nationalism – and -ism that taps into the persistent belief that my people by virtue of blood or creed or color are inherently superior to your people, so much so that we ought to be able to choose not just where you live or how you live, but if you should even be allowed to live… these sins are as old as the human heart.
It is an evil we have wrestled with since the very beginning, and an evil we will wrestle with long after you and I are gone. It is an evil Jesus himself wrestled with, as you can see in our passage for today, an evil so pervasive that -at least initially – even Jesus succumbed to it. Did you catch that? Did you feel that?
You can go back and forth and make all the allowances you want, but I don’t think there is any way to read Jesus initial response to the Canaanite woman as anything but racist. He begins by ignoring her in her distress and then, when she won’t be silenced, comes right out and equates her and the rest of her people with dogs. This is one of the ugliest passages in the gospels.
Stephen Mitchell, the author of “The Gospel According to Jesus” has said that he “can never read this verse without a thrill of dismay at Jesus’ harshness.” (p 207). Some scholars try and gloss over this passage or try and justify Jesus’ behavior. There is even a painting of this scene from the Renaissance in which the Canaanite woman is holding a small dog, as if that makes this scene any better.
But I’ve done a lot of research on this passage, and I can tell you there is no way to soften Jesus’ words. He was being as demeaning then as he sounds to our ears right now. Not only that, as you heard, this episode comes right on the heels of a teaching moment where Jesus has just blown up at some Pharisees and then at his disciples for not understanding that impurity has a lot more to do with what comes out of our mouths – the hateful things we say – than anything we could ever put into them.
So how could this happen? How could Jesus be so unkind to this woman who was only seeking healing for her daughter? How could he let her, himself, God, and us down so badly?
I’m sure there are many ways we could answer that question, but I’m going to stick with two for today. And these are in no way excuses for his behavior because I think Jesus himself would be the first to say there was no excuse for his behavior. These are merely explanations that I share because I believe you and I can learn from his experience as surely as Jesus did.
1. I think he failed here because living against the grain of systematic evils in any society – evils like racism and nationalism – is just that hard. And 2. I think he failed because he went up against it completely depleted.
If you look at this story in context it’s clear that Jesus is worn out. He’s exhausted. And no wonder. He has just recently received the news that his cousin John the Baptist has been executed by Herod. In an effort to process this loss he had gone off to a remote place to pray and regroup, but of course people followed him. Five thousand men along with their wives and children to be exact and rather then send them all away he finds it in himself to heal their sick and bring comfort to their weary bodies.
He then multiplies the five loaves and two fishes his disciples managed to scrounge up and he feeds them all. When evening falls, he sends the people on their way, puts the disciples in a boat, walks on water, calms a storm, and still manages to get his men safely to the other side of the sea of Galilee by morning… just in time to meet and greet another huge multitude of people who have gathered.
The truth here, is that Jesus is running on empty. He’s trying to help everyone with everything, because it’s all so important. Sound familiar? Anyone else feeling that way of late? There is so much that needs to be done right now, so much brokenness crying out for repair, so much evil that needs to be countered, so many lies that must be confronted, so much anger to express, so much grief to process, that it’s almost impossible to know where to start, or how it could ever end.
So Jesus finds himself doing what so many of us are doing right now: he does his best to attend to the need right in front of him…but the need goes on and on.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, some Pharisees show up. And I know the Pharisees get a bad rap, but if you think about it, these guys were really on Jesus’ side in so many ways. They are struggling under the same oppressions. They care deeply about so many of the same things.
And yet, what probably began as a fact finding mission on their part all too quickly devolves into a fault finding one. And I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a lot of that in our wider community too; people taking out the stress of this moment on their closest allies rather than preserving our collective strength to fight the bigger battles. And I have to say that this kind of friendly fire wears you down almost more than direct conflict with your enemies.
The pharisees come and witness Jesus helping, curing, feeding. He is restoring the broken to new life, and yet all they can think to ask is why his disciples don’t take the time to wash their hands before they eat in accordance with the purity laws.
It’s a bit like telling an aid worker you’re not going to accept the supplies they just risked their life to bring over the border because they brought it in a jeep with an expired inspection sticker. These guys are just nitpicking; looking for some way to find fault, and Jesus, goes off on them because they are way to hung up on technicalities. He calls them all hypocrites and says, “Listen…what goes into a man’s mouth is not what makes him unclean, but what comes out.”
And then, as if to prove his point, he gathers up his disciples, turns away from Jerusalem – read: all that is good, holy, and pure – and walks away in the direction of Tyre and Sidon – read: all that his people would have considered bad, unclean, and just plain nasty. And who do they meet, right out of the gate, but a woman. And not just any sort of woman but a Gentile woman with a demon possessed daughter. And, as if all that weren’t troubling enough, Mathew identifies her as a Canaanite. Do you remember the Canaanites? Anyone?
Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho…and the walls came a tumbling down.
The Canaanites were the most ancient of ancient Israel’s ancient enemies. They were the very definition of ritual impurity. I say, “were” because they were considered so evil that the Israelites had felt compelled to wipe out their entire race, slaughter every last man, woman, and child…even their livestock, when Joshua conquered the Promised Land. (There’s that twisted logic at work again). Which is to say that this woman shouldn’t even exist and yet here she comes, weeping and wailing for her demon possessed child and she wants Jesus to help her.
Friends, this is incredible. Think about it.
Jesus has just taken a stand, asserted that it’s not our ability to keep ourselves pure but our desire to treat others well that sets us apart as holy, and here before him is the ultimate most objectionable test case you could possibly imagine. And Jesus, poor, tired, beaten down Jesus, fails his own test. “He gets caught,” in the words of one commentator, “with his compassion down.”
I think he fails because he’s exhausted. And I think he fails because frankly, it’s just that hard. Here we have a man who is actively teaching and working against the systems that privilege some over others. He sees the problem and the damage it causes, and yet he still gets caught up in it, because it’s just that pervasive.
When you’ve been surrounded your whole life, as Jesus was, by voices and systems that maintain that there are certain types of people out there who are worth less than you are, even if you have come to a place where you no longer believe that that is true, it’s not uncommon for social conditioning to take over. After imbibing a life-time of assumptions, stereotypes and fears, you’re apt to slip up and say something hurtful or offensive, even though you know better.
In this case, Jesus reacted reflexively when he saw the Canaanite woman. He reacted exactly the way he had been conditioned to react, even though he had just publicly dismissed that very mindset as narrow and hypocritical. He absolutely knew better, but he did it anyway.
And it took a great deal of courage and generosity on her part to bring him back to an awareness of the truth he’d so recently been preaching.
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” said Jesus
“Yes Lord,” she replies, and with a winsome wit he cannot help but admire, responds, “but even the dogs eat the crumb’s that fall from the master’s table.”
It is a moment, one of those AHA! moments, a moment wherein time stops and everything becomes clear. All at once, Jesus hears her and sees her for the first time, not as a problem but as a person, a mother, a child of God. And he hears himself. He sees his own behavior for what it is and he repents, converts, turns himself around, and does the right thing.
He has been so caught up in trying to avoid her because of what she was that he has forgotten, at least for the moment, who he is. In his fear and fatigue and anger he has become that which he most hated. But the beauty of this story is that the Canaanite woman doesn’t let him stay that way. With humor and determination she brings him back to his truest self. He commends her faith and her daughter is made well.
When people help us see our own sinfulness or complicitness, when they point out our privilege, or call us out for being racist or sexist or homophobic or ableist, when they spot our micro aggressions – it sucks…and I don’t use that word lightly.
I hate it when that happens because it fills me with such shame. But rather than be angry at the messenger, I need to find it in myself to not only repent like Jesus did, but be gracious and thankful like Jesus was. She cured him of his blindness in that moment, a blindness we are all susceptible to, because the truth is that our complicity in systems of oppression can be very hard to see.
But friends, in order to have the patience, humility and band width -if you will – to hear those voices we need to be in a good, strong, healthy place with ourselves.
If we’re going to stand up against the evils we see all around us and within us, if we’re going to stand firm and find the strength to resist without betraying our deepest values or our truest selves, we need to be cognizant of our limits and build in a margin – if you will – so we’re not always working at the very limits of our strength the way Jesus found himself doing in our story today, and the way I know so many of us are tempted to work right now.
Wayne Muller says: “Our lack of rest and reflection is not just a personal affliction. It colors the way we build and sustain community. It dictates the way we respond to suffering, and it shapes the way we seek peace and healing in the world.”
This might seem like a strange time to bring up self care when there are so many more pressing issues at hand, but my message for you this morning is to take a breath and make some space. Find the places and things that will nurture, restore, and bring strength to your soul. If it was this hard for Jesus to get it right it’s going to be even harder for us.
We all need to be constantly praying for the wisdom to know when to lean in and when to pull back. We need to find our center and return to it often, because the road ahead will be long and Lord, have mercy, it is already rough.
To which end, I’m going to close with a story that’s been in search of sermon for a long time now. A few years ago, my husband Andrew went to the lumber yard and purchased a bunch of really long 2×4’s, so long that when he shut the back of the van the force of the door pushed them forward and they cracked the windshield.
Well, we got the windshield replaced and the next time Andrew went to buy 2×4’s he was a lot more careful with his measurements. He knew with confidence that these 2×4’s would fit perfectly. He loaded the van with no problems. He very gently closed the hatch without incident. And all was well. But then, as he was driving out of the parking lot he hit a bump and the resulting pressure caused the 2×4’ to crack the windshield again.
There was no margin, and dear ones, we all need some.. heck, even Jesus needed some…some margin for error, no doubt about it…but also, if we’re honest, a margin for love.
Let us pray: O God, as we quiet out hearts now, as the music of the harp swells over us, help us to find the quiet center. May we remember who we are. May we remember whose we are. May we find what we need to be your people in this world. Amen.