Some years ago I was interning at a large parish in Western North Carolina. Today’s gospel reading came up in the lectionary and a priest who was loosely associated with the parish took the reading head-on. She told us that Jesus, like most, if not all, good Jewish boys at his time were raised with a bit of prejudice towards non-Jews and that this episode in Jesus’ life was an ‘aha moment’ for Jesus a time when he was challenged by a Canaanite woman and realized that the woman he had just called a dog, was in fact right. The preacher that day didn’t know that there was a very conservative blogger vacationing in the area who was also in the congregation. And that conservative blogger, actually calling this guy a conservative gives conservatives a bad name, he is a man who uses his online presence to spew vitriol and hate, but he created a firestorm of criticism for the preacher that day and by extension the parish. Well, over the next week huddles were formed, meetings were called opinions were tossed around…no one really disagreed with the preacher but the backlash was uncomfortable for the leadership of the parish and to my knowledge she was never again on the preaching schedule, at least during my short tenure there. The controversy was too upsetting for a peaceful Episcopal parish in the cool mountains of Western NC. Well, I have news for that parish and any parish afraid of controversy, Jesus is a controversial figure…you cannot be faithful to biblical texts, you cannot be faithful to the person of Jesus Christ or the movement of the Holy Spirit without encountering controversy. I think most of us try to avoid controversy when reading this passage by doing mental gymnastics to keep Jesus in control, unchallenged, peaceful. It’s hard for some to imagine him being taken to task by someone and losing the argument…but here it is. For some reason many of us have this idea that Jesus was laid in the manger with a fully developed brain and personality and complete union with God. But Paul quotes an early hymn of the church that says nothing can be further from the truth, the hymn in Philippians says that Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
He laid aside his claim to divinity…so of course he is going to grow and change and be challenged and respond to the challenge, that doesn’t make him sinful, it makes him human. We sin when we don’t pay attention to the challenges and stay stuck in unhealthy ways of thinking and doing.
Jesus at this point in Matthew’s Gospel is tired, probably in deep grief for his cousin John the Baptist who has just been killed, Jesus has fed 5000 men plus women and children, he has walked on water and healed at Genneseret and I am sure he is utterly exhausted. So he goes to Tyre and Sidon, Gentile areas where he thinks there will be no need, no one expecting something of him, no one asking him for food or healing or salvation, no one inquiring when the Kingdom was to come and why was it taking so long. He along with his disciples are there to rest…to recuperate, to deal with the death of their friend…and need still finds them. Need that falls outside their purview, need that’s not a member of their parish…need that Jesus is probably not sure he can meet because God has a special relationship with the people of Israel, not the Canaanites. The book of Joshua lists the Canaanites as a group of people that were to be destroyed when the Hebrews settled the land…and here is a Canaanite with a need, wanting God to act, looking just for crumbs, and Jesus isn’t sure she will know what to do with Grace even if it is extended to her. So he says he’s not here to feed dogs…. Now you can look this up in the Greek and wish all day long that Jesus hasn’t just called this woman a dog but he did…and she surprised him with a witty comeback. Not only was Jesus surprised by this woman’s response I think he was surprised by the success of his own ministry, by the abundance of God spilling out, erupting, running wild, even in places where no one thought God would or could show up. And Jesus, who was so drained emotionally and physically, who was looking for rest is fed and ministered to by the Canaanite woman’s faith and by the overwhelming abundance of God. We know this because as soon as this story of the Canaanite woman finishes, Jesus immediately starts curing people again and he finds more hungry people…and feeds four thousands of them; energized and ready he knows now that the Kingdom cannot be depleted, in fact the abundance of the kingdom only increases in the presence of need.
So how does this relate to today?
I don’t think there is a preacher climbing into a pulpit this morning that doesn’t feel the burden to address things that are going on in our nation now. I don’t like the controversy, nor do I like making any sort of political statement, if I had wanted to do that I would have run for office instead of going to seminary. I find myself exhausted by the arguments, troubled by the hate, and wanting to escape it all if not draw clear boundaries around what I can do to help and what I can’t. What I can do, as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is to look for grace and hopefully extend it to others.
As you all can tell from my accent I was raised in the Deep South. Deeper South than Virginia anyway. And like most southerners I was raised with no small amount of pride in being southern. I remember watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with my dad, I hadn’t yet started school, and hearing Marlin Perkins talk about some animal in North America with which I was fascinated. I told my dad we should travel and see this animal in North America and he said, “We live there” I said, “No we don’t! We’re southerners we don’t live in the north of anything…” My first lesson in continental geography proved to be disappointing for me as I learned we in fact do live in North America. We are raised with pride in being southern, and we’re also raised on a fairytale of a paradise lost, it’s what makes us good writers and storytellers. What’s almost always left out of the story is the systemic racism and horrible human rights violations that that paradise lost is based on. Racism is not just a southern disease by any stretch of the imagination…but when a young boy takes a confederate battle flag as his symbol and walks into a historically African American church and kills nine people studying the Bible, we must ask ourselves what do these symbols really mean? What about them inspires such horrible acts of violence and hatred? People are constantly debating what the original symbols meant, what the original intentions were of erecting monuments and flying flags…some may have been simply about remembering war dead, others were flagrantly erected to denounce integration or to assert white supremacy during Jim Crow. Regardless of their original symbolic meaning, in the present they have come to be the symbols of neo-Nazis, of white supremacists, and of other hate filled groups and it’s time to put them away.
Our brothers and sisters living alongside us today are infinitely more important than any history we wish to preserve. You can’t love neighbor as self, clinging to a nostalgic past that never really existed anyway. You want to be a proud Southerner, a proud Northerner, a proud American, a proud Christian? Take pride in reconciliation in the present, take pride in loving your neighbor as yourself, take pride in putting away symbols of hatred and oppression, and behold how good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.