The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: August 20, 2017
The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Did you see the Saturday Night Live sketch with Tina Fey this week, giving her take on Charlottesville? She started talking about the horrific events there, and the horrible news of the last several months, and said, there’s just one thing to do: you go to the store and you get a sheet cake with an American flag on it, and you get a fork, and you start eating. And she started doing just that, screaming into the cake a litany of all the horror we’ve seen in our country over the last several months. I’m hoping someone brings a sheet cake to the potluck today.
Because this is not a great time in our country, or in our world. Yet another set of attacks in Europe, killing many and wounding many more. The events of last weekend in Charlottesville, and our President’s response to it, and the threat of more to come. It is one of those times when evil seems to be ascendant, the forces of hatred and division to be stronger than ever. Particularly in the case of Charlottesville, to see such virulent evil come so far out into the open, and then to see it relativized and excused by our nation’s leader, has left me more deeply troubled about us as a country than I’ve ever been. Who are we as a people? What do we as a culture actually believe about each other?
At the beginning of August the Times ran an article about a survey of American voters over the past several years. The data showed that Americans as a whole are becoming more inclusive in their understanding of American identity – even though in a minority of the population there has been an increase in intolerance. I keep reminding myself that what we saw in Charlottesville is indeed a minority of the population – but it has been hard to retain that optimism.
Particularly because, although white supremacists are a rare breed, the line of thinking that leads to that extreme is not. We are all of us guilty of beliefs and biases that others are not really all the way equal to us. Racism is just one manifestation of this; sexism, homophobia, ageism, and so on are all at work in this country and this world. And we excuse bias far too often. I confess I had a moment of this myself – when I first heard of what had happened in Charlottesville, and heard President Trump’s initial response about violence from ‘both sides,’ I thought, how divided our country is, that people who think differently are fighting so violently. I focused first on the conflict and the division and not on what the counter-protestors were resisting, because I had become accustomed to allowing odious beliefs to seem normal, my own judgment of them to seem wrong. For a moment, I was there – and then some alarm inside went off and I realized what I was thinking. No, these two sides are not both at fault in the same way. There is nothing that condones or excuses white supremacy, the belief that one color of skin is inherently better than another. It cannot be relativized as a difference in opinion. And my own momentary acceptance of it, and the words from our President, are what sickened me most in this last week.
And so it is with some trepidation that I take up that gospel reading we just heard – a reading where we get into troubling ground about questions of inclusion and exclusion, and just where Jesus is pointing us to go.
Here’s the context: Jesus and the disciples are on a trip to Tyre and Sidon, regions along the coastline of Palestine that were largely Gentile, not Jewish. While they are there, a Canaanite woman shouts out to Jesus, asking for healing for her daughter. She’s also a Gentile, not one of the people of Israel. But she comes to Jesus and asks him for help, calling out to him, Lord, have mercy – Son of David, have mercy. A non-Jew in a non-Jewish land, and yet she calls out to Jesus by his Jewish title, Son of David, and seems to have faith that he can help her. But the disciples want to send her away. She’s not one of them and she has nothing to do with them, and they don’t want her hanging around and shouting after them. And Jesus, at first, seems to agree with them. Without turning to her, he says, I’m here for the lost sheep of Israel. I’m not here for you. She kneels before him and pleads with him. Still he resists, saying, It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. The children are the people of Israel – you Canaanites are dogs. But the woman won’t back down. Even the dogs get the crumbs, she says. And then suddenly Jesus relents, praising her for her great faith and healing her daughter instantly.
Well. There’s a problem here, in case you didn’t notice. We’re used to stories of the disciples acting out this kind of behavior, shoving people aside and barring their way to the Savior. They do this with children and families, they do this with the hungry, they do this with people who are trying to act in Jesus’ name and anoint Jesus’ feet without joining their group. In every one of those cases Jesus rebukes the disciples and welcomes the ones trying to come to him. But in this story, he doesn’t. Jesus refuses to engage with this woman. He calls her a dog. Until finally she persuades him, and then he embraces her. Does Jesus not realize himself who he’s come for? Has he misunderstood his vocation up to this point? Or does he do this all as just a test for the woman or a teaching for the disciples around him? This is beyond troubling.
It’s a bit of a test in itself, deciding how to interpret this story, because it reveals what we believe about Jesus. If we see more of his human side, it makes sense that he too would have to learn what he’s here for, that he might have his mind changed by this woman. Born into the culture of a 1st century Palestinian Jew, he might not have fully realized yet that Gentiles could be part of God’s dream as well. On the other hand, if we believe Jesus is completely in touch with his divinity from the very start, that explanation is problematic – he must already be intending to welcome this woman, and this exchange with her is simply to teach something to his listeners. Which is troubling in its own right – why does he call her a dog before healing her daughter? As a teachable moment?
But the story doesn’t stand totally distinct in scripture. There’s a long debate in the Bible about who is and who is not part of God’s people – through the prophets and the later writings you can see the idea emerging that all people are part of God’s world, not just the Hebrews. Or to put it the other way, that God is not a tribal god, but God of all the universe. That idea gets more clearly defined with the coming of Jesus – think of the Wise Men from the east, and various stories of Gentiles coming to be Jesus’ followers. And it is especially clear after Jesus’ resurrection, when people start having visions and clarity that this new kingdom of God is for everyone.
Wherever this gospel story falls in the progression of that idea, what stands out is what comes at the end of it: Jesus responds to this woman with amazement and healing. She’s the only one in the gospel whose faith is described as ‘great’ – and she is an outsider, not part of Jesus’ people, not part of the group. Not part of the group, that is, until she calls him out on it, and the group realizes that their boundaries have become too narrow, that God’s mercy extends to all, not simply to them. The welcome is greater than they realized.
I can’t say with certainty what Jesus is thinking in this story. His amazement at the woman’s faith seems too real for him to be just playing her as a teachable moment. I don’t want to think of Jesus as limited in his love and inclusion for others. But it sure looks like that’s what is happening in the story. The thing is, he doesn’t stay limited. Hearing her words, Jesus reaches out to the woman, he heals her daughter, he extends the embrace to include her after all. What he does looks a lot like a change of heart. And I wonder if that is where the real teaching might be for us.
Because, back to the aftermath of Charlottesville. This event is yet another in such a long, long list, of times when bias and hatred gets called out and seen for what it is. We can all of us be biased against another. And sometimes, thank God, we get called on it. Our country is being called on racial bias yet again, the malignancy in our culture brought out into the light for all to see. And it is part of the malignancy for us to relativize it, to make it seem less real or less dangerous than it is. But when Jesus is called on his biased behavior, he changes. He turns – repents – and speaks to the woman directly. He expresses awe at her – even, perhaps, gratitude at what she has done for him. And as he does this, he shows us a way forward. He shows us the way to drop our hatred and our history and our core assumptions and see with new eyes. And in so doing, to recognize God at work, what great faith shows us to be true. To see how broad is God’s embrace.
There is something in this to teach us, as Confederate symbols and statues are taken down, as the debate is revived again about our history and identity as a people. Jesus shows us that it is possible to have our eyes opened, to see how limited we are in our sense of history, how fiercely we hold onto the exclusion of others. It is, or could be, a national moment of repentance, another iteration in our long slow changing of heart. But that larger change of heart depends on each of us repenting, each of us turning to someone we had discounted or ignored, and seeing in them God’s messenger of mercy for us. Seeing and hearing ourselves called on our own narrowness, seeing how much greater God’s love is, how much more beyond our seeing is the work of God’s Spirit in the world.
Our hearts need healing. Our country needs healing. No matter who we are, no matter where we’ve come from, no matter our color or creed, God calls us into love, part of the new and glorious kingdom of God. When we cry, Lord, have mercy, God, help us, God hears us. God’s mercy is big enough. May Jesus redeem our hearts, that we also may hear, and love.