“What Jesus Learned”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.


Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 17, 2014 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Scriptures:  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Matthew 15:21-28


The great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth is reputed to have said that preachers ought to approach their work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And so I’d like to begin today with a selection of clippings from the week’s events. If you have been following the news at all, then you know that this has been a heartbreaking week in the world.

As people of the Incarnation, we believe that every human body is holy, that every human being is a child of God, that the messiness and struggle of human life are not foreign to God. And so, as the gathered Body of Christ, let us lift up to God these hard stories of the past week.

Susan Schneider, Robin Williams’ wife, released the following statement Thursday announcing her husband had early stages of Parkinson’s disease: “Robin spent so much of his life helping others. Whether he was entertaining millions on stage, film or television, our troops on the front lines, or comforting a sick child — Robin wanted us to laugh and to feel less afraid. Since his passing, all of us who loved Robin have found some solace in the tremendous outpouring of affection and admiration for him from the millions of people whose lives he touched. His greatest legacy, besides his three children, is the joy and happiness he offered to others, particularly to those fighting personal battles. Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly. It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”  [Associated Press]

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa will take at least six months to bring under control, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders] says. Speaking in Geneva, MSF President Joanne Liu said the situation was “deteriorating faster, and moving faster, than we can respond to.” Earlier, the World Health Organization said the scale of the outbreak appeared to be “vastly underestimated.” It said that “extraordinary measures” were needed. The epidemic began in Guinea in February and has since spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. On Friday, the death toll rose to 1,145 after WHO said 76 new deaths had been reported in the two days to 13 August. There have been 2,127 cases reported.  [BBC]

The UN has declared its highest level of emergency in Iraq as a humanitarian crisis follows the advance by Islamic State militants in the north. Kurdish officials said the situation in Dohuk city, with 150,000 refugees, was now critical. … The UN estimates that 1.2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced. … The situation of displaced people on Mount Sinjar remained critical, [UN special representative Nickolay Mladenov] said. The UN had estimated that tens of thousands of people, most from the Christian and Yazidi religious minorities, were besieged on the mountain after being forced to flee their homes. … Thousands had left the mountain each night over the past days. … Hamad, a Yazidi who managed to escape with his family, told the BBC that his mother had died during their long journey to Dohuk.  [BBC]

Michael Brown didn’t die in the dark. He was eighteen years old, walking down a street in Ferguson, Missouri, from his apartment to his grandmother’s, at 2:15 on a bright Saturday afternoon. He was, for a young man, exactly where he should be—among other things, days away from his first college classes. A policeman stopped him; it’s not clear why. People in the neighborhood have told reporters that they remember what happened next as a series of movements: the officer, it seemed to them, trying to put Brown into a car; Brown running with his hands in the air; the policeman shooting; Brown falling. Asked why Officer Wilson stopped Brown, the police chief said because Brown and his friend “were walking down the middle of the street blocking traffic.”  [The New Yorker and NPR]

If you’ve been following the news at all, then you know that it has been a heartbreaking week. And those aren’t the only stories. New rounds of violence in Palestine and Israel… Continued conflict in Ukraine… Thousands more unaccompanied Central American children fleeing northward in search of a safer, healthier life…

It has been a tough week in the world. And as if they somehow knew ahead of time what would be happening around us, the creators of the lectionary chose a tough scripture lesson for us today, too.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a woman who was having not just a tough week, but a tough life. According to the prevailing logic of the time, she had several strikes against her.

The woman was a Canaanite, which means she came from a different ethnic and religious background, one seen as completely “other.” The Canaanites were the ones the Israelites had fought centuries earlier when they entered the Promised Land. They worshiped different gods; they ate different foods; they wore different clothes; they followed different customs. They were stereotyped and denigrated in much the same way that some white folks talk about black folks, some Israelis talk about Palestinians, some Christians talk about Jews, some Americans talk about Muslims. Canaanites were seen as unclean, uncouth, undesirable. Strike one.

The woman was, well, a woman, which, at that time, meant she was seen essentially as property, not as an independent human being with rights, and dignity, and agency of her own. Strike two.

The woman had a daughter who was seriously ill. The story says the girl was “tormented by a demon,” but we would use different words for it now—epilepsy, or bipolar disorder, or autism, or PTSD, or some other condition that causes a person to behave in ways that don’t fit the standard societal norms. To be the mother of such a child evoked another layer of judgment and shame, for such conditions were thought to stem from the parents’ sins. Strike three.

In today’s story, Jesus traveled out of Israelite territory to Gentile lands, to the district of Tyre and Sidon, where Canaanites were the majority. And as he approached, the woman came out to the edge of town and started shouting at him. She made a scene, right there in the middle of the street. She got right up his face and she shouted for help for her daughter.

Jesus did not respond the way we might expect him to, by breaking down barriers and overcoming prejudice and proclaiming love for all. This is not a story about Jesus at his best, most inclusive self. In this story, Jesus first ignored the woman, and then, when she persisted, told her in no uncertain terms that she was an outsider, a Canaanite, a Gentile, and he could not help her because he was sent only to the Jews. When she was still undeterred, he called her a dog—as much of an insult then as it would be now. Yet somehow, by faith or by perseverance or by desperation, somehow she hung in there and came back at him again: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And in that moment, when she threw his own condescending words right back in his face, Jesus’ eyes were opened, and his heart broke, and he realized that she was right—that if he really believed the message he had been preaching of God’s all-encompassing, fully-empowering, unbounded and unstoppable love, then this Canaanite woman and her sick daughter were children of God, too. And if they were children of God, then Jesus had the same responsibility to them that he had to those with whom he felt a more obvious sense of kinship—those who looked like him, or talked like him, or ate like he did, or prayed like he did—those who were the kind of people he would prefer to call family.

Some scholars would say that Jesus already knew this but was making an example for his thicker-headed disciples. Some would say that the story was included in the gospels to make them more attractive to Gentile readers. Some would say that the story is really about the woman experiencing a conversion. But I think it’s about Jesus experiencing a conversion. I think it’s about Jesus confronting his own internalized prejudices, and realizing that no prejudice is compatible with God’s love, and finding a way to live differently.

This is a story about Jesus having the courage to change his ways. And it is also a story about the Canaanite woman having the courage to speak truth to power, to call for the help she needed, to point out injustice and refuse to be silenced by it.

This is a story we need in the face of a tough week like this one. The Canaanite woman is an example we need in the face of a tough world like this one. Because she knew, and Jesus learned, that God’s heart will continue to break until all of God’s children have food, and water, and safety, and heath care, and human rights, and respect, and dignity.

She knew, and Jesus learned, that God’s heart will continue to break until depression is no longer stigmatized and mental health resources are available to everyone.

God’s heart will continue to break until we have mustered our resources and our ingenuity to develop and share treatments and cures for all the diseases that stalk the earth.

God’s heart will continue to break until every sword is beaten into a ploughshare, until the weapons of war have been transformed into tools for feeding people.

God’s heart will continue to break until parents of black children no longer have to fear that their son will be next… until we who are in positions of privilege learn how to share, to listen to and stand with those who bear the brutal legacy of all our sinful “-isms”… until we learn how to see where those prejudices have taken root within us and within our society and pull them out.

The Canaanite woman knew, and Jesus learned, that the way to move this tough old world toward the glorious new realm of God is to see every sister and brother—not just the ones who look like us, or talk like us, or eat like we do, or pray like we do—to see every sister and brother as our kin and our responsibility. To feel their sufferings as keenly as we feel the sufferings of our children, our parents, our siblings and friends. And to raise our voices, to mobilize our resources, to vote and to speak and to pray and to struggle and to care for them as we would our own flesh and blood—for they are, indeed, our family.

Then we will inherit the promise of Isaiah—the promise of salvation and deliverance, the promise that we will dwell in God’s house, a house of prayer for all peoples, where songs of joy are all that we will hear and grace is all in all.

Let’s get to work.