“A Story We’d Rather Not Tell”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 20, 2017

Matthew 15:21-28

 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t much like the story we just heard.  Every time this passage comes around in the lectionary, I will admit that I cringe and wonder if I can find a better option, a more tasteful option, an easier option, somewhere else.  It’s an uncomfortable story at best, a horrifying one at worst.

A woman, a desperate mother of a seriously ill daughter, came seeking help from Jesus as he traveled through Gentile territory.  The woman is described as a Canaanite, which is a term that evokes centuries of historical conflict and animosity between the Israelites and the other inhabitants of the land.  This woman was a member of a different ethnic group.  She would have followed different religious practices.  She was, in many ways, the Other with a capital O—so Other that when they wrote down the story, her name was not important enough to bother recording.

She came to Jesus seeking help, seeking healing.  And his response was not exactly what we would expect from the Son of God.

First, he ignored her.  He simply did not respond.  Perhaps he turned his back, or perhaps he simply went on with whatever he had been doing when she appeared.

She continued her cries for mercy until the disciples, irritated by the noise, urged Jesus to send her away.  He still said nothing to her, but to the disciples, he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Seemingly, he agreed with them that she did not merit his time or attention.

She was undeterred.  She came right up to him, knelt down before him, and demanded his help.  This time, he could no longer ignore her, so instead, he spoke his derision to her face:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  And just to be clear, there is no cultural context in which calling a woman a dog is flattering.  He insulted the woman and her daughter, referring to them as animals, not even human.

She took that insult, turned it around, and threw it back at him.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

In the end, Jesus did grant healing to the woman’s daughter—but only after ignoring, excluding, and demeaning her on the basis of her ethnicity and religion.  Not exactly the Jesus we know and love, the one who inspires our Open and Affirming welcome, the one who calls us to serve the least of these, the one we usually remember as showing special care for the ones about whom no one else could be bothered.

It would be so much easier, so much nicer, so much more comfortable, if we could just sweep this story under the rug, just pretend it never happened.  But here it is, part of the story, raising its ugly head again today.

 

Especially in the wake of the horrific and sinful display of violence and bigotry in Charlottesville last weekend, it is unsettling at best to hear such words coming from the lips of Jesus and his disciples.  Especially as white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and many other forms of bigotry seem to be regaining acceptance, moving from back rooms and shadowy corners to public spaces in the bright light of day, it is disturbing to hear Jesus and his followers say the kind of things that seem more fitting for a rally of hood-wearing, torch-bearing, swastika-bedecked bigots than for the pages of our sacred scripture.

So why did the disciples go off and retell such a story?  Why did the gospel writers document this moment when Jesus was caught, as more than one commentator has said, with his compassion down?  Why did both Matthew and Mark include such an all-too-human portrayal in their accounts of our Lord and Savior?  Why did the compilers of the lectionary choose both versions of this story to include in the three-year cycle of assigned readings for our worship services?

Perhaps they knew this truth:  that the kind of racial and religious prejudice exhibited in this story is a persistent, insidious, tenacious demon that can only be cast out by calling it by name—by telling those stories we would rather not tell and allowing the truth to set us free.

 

When something like the events in Charlottesville occurs, it is all too easy for people of good faith to move from horror to heartbreak to anger to self-righteousness.  And, as retired United Methodist Bishop Jane Allen Middleton reminded us at the Greater Putnam Interfaith Council’s vigil for unity and solidarity on Wednesday evening, anger and self-righteousness are dangerous for our souls.  How could they be so horrible?! can slide seamlessly to Thank God I’m not like that!

To be clear, it is good and important to decry such behavior and distance ourselves from those who practice it.  But at the same time, a careful look at the stories of our lives, our families, our communities—and the story from scripture that the lectionary assigned to us for today—reminds us that the sinful ideology of the superiority of one racial, ethnic, or religious group over another has deep, deep roots, and we are not exempt from its reach.  If Jesus could fall prey, then so, most assuredly, can we.

At the Hill Church, back before there was a separate church here in East Woodstock, our archives include records of African American slaves being married in our sanctuary—which means that in addition to abolitionists like Henry Bowen, whose name we speak with pride, our forebears in faith also include those who saw no problem with owning another human being as if they were property.

Later, when Swedish immigrants arrived in town, they were allowed to come to church but were forced to sit in the balcony rather than mix with the other parishioners.

In my own family, I grew up hearing stories of how our ancestors were advocates for civil rights in the 1800s, defending the Amistad captives and helping to found the NAACP.  But I recently learned that one of my earlier ancestors, Peter Toppan of Newbury, MA, owned a slave who, according to the genealogy, was valued at 30 pounds at the time of Peter Toppan’s death in 1707.  Which means that I, and every one of Peter Toppan’s descendants, have benefitted from the unpaid, forced labor of a human being whose name was lost to history even as his sale price was recorded.

And it’s not just in our history.  Sunday morning during church remains, as Dr. King observed so many decades ago, the most segregated hour in America.  Even now, our church libraries and classrooms hold mostly images of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.  The bread we use to represent the Body of Christ at communion is typically white.  What does that communicate about who we are and which racial and ethnic traits we value most highly?

Here in Woodstock, as you have doubtless observed, there are several places where you can see Confederate flags proudly displayed in front yards or on pickup trucks.  What does that communicate to people passing by, whatever their heritage might be?

The legacy of white supremacy still shadows our country.  Disparities in health care, education, housing, employment, and just about every other facet of life still mean that people of color face disproportionate challenges at every turn.  A black boy born in the United States has a life expectancy five years shorter than that of a white boy born at the same time.  More than four out of ten black children attend high schools that do not offer a full range of science and math courses.  Black men convicted of crimes receive sentences that are 20% longer than those received by white men convicted of the same crimes.  A resume sent out with the name Greg Baker or Emily Walsh receives 50% more callbacks than the same resume with the name Jamal Jones or Lakisha Washington.  Car insurance costs more in minority neighborhoods than it does in white neighborhoods with comparable risk of accidents.  And so on.

It would be so much easier, so much nicer, so much more comfortable, if we could just sweep these stories under the rug, just pretend they never happened.  But here they are, part of our story, raising their ugly heads again today.

 

At such a time as this, when it seems that the forces of violence, division, prejudice, and bigotry are on the rise, we find ourselves wondering what we can do.  Do I march?  Do I protest?  Do I stand on the sidelines?  Do I donate?  Do I call my legislators?  Do I sign another petition?  There are many ways to be involved in the movement for a more just and loving world.

But at such a time as this, in addition to whatever action you may feel called to take, it is of the utmost importance for people of good faith, for followers of Jesus, to look carefully and prayerfully at our hearts and our lives, to unmask the ways in which an ideology of superiority might have taken root even there—for that persistent, insidious, tenacious demon can only be cast out by calling it by name, by telling those stories we would rather not tell and allowing the truth to set us free.  Sweeping them under the rug is like bandaging an infected wound—it will continue to fester and spread its poison, and only by opening it up and treating the infection directly can you move toward healing.

 

If you grew up in the United States in the past several centuries, you (and I) are infected with racism and white supremacy.  It is part of the air we breathe, part of the water we drink, part of the food we eat.  It is built into our culture, our institutions, our communities, our relationships.  Even those of us with the best intentions cannot avoid being influenced by it.  This is another one of those stories we would rather not tell.  It is not the way we like to think of ourselves.  But it is true, whether we like it or not.

But it is not the whole truth.  It is not even the primary truth.

This is also true:  you are a child of God, a seeker of truth, a maker of justice.  You are a bearer of mercy, a beacon of light, an ambassador of love.

This is also true:  you (and I) get to make choices about how you respond to the uncomfortable truth of racism.

We can choose to address the infection directly rather than sweeping it under the rug.

We can choose to educate ourselves about the experiences of people at the margins by reading books, following blogs, watching videos, listening to podcasts.

We can learn to recognize white supremacy in its quiet, insidious forms, and to name it for what it is, even when it isn’t as obviously atrocious as it was in Charlottesville.

We can learn to name racism when it surfaces in our workplaces, in our families, in our churches, in our hearts.  We can feel the impact it has—on you, on me, on our neighbors near and far.  We can respond with the courage and compassion that change requires.

We can follow Jesus, even to the uncomfortable places, even to the scary places, even to the places we’d rather not go, even to the stories we’d rather not tell—because the truth of our faith is that he has been to those places and told those stories, too.

 

In his encounter with the Canaanite woman, Jesus entered with animosity and exclusion.  But in the course of their interaction, his hard heart cracked open and mercy poured forth.  The woman received Jesus’ praise and blessing.  Her daughter was healed of her affliction.  And Jesus learned—as we, too, continue to learn—that God’s love is not limited by human prejudice, but is wider and deeper, more potent and more powerful, than even our wildest imaginings.

It is strong enough to overcome all that would divide us one from another.

It is strong enough to inspire people to put their bodies on the line for the cause of justice.

It is strong enough to empower us to look our own prejudice in the eye, and to respond not with shame or defensiveness or disengagement, but with transformation—to dismantle and eradicate racism from our hearts and from our world.

It is strong enough to carry us through these difficult days and to equip us to build a world where every child of God has access to the mercy and justice God desires for us all.

May it be so.

 


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