Updated: Aug 5
Recently, I have been thinking about and praying for my sister-in-law. Some of you met her when she visited here with one of her three sons. Lisa is generous, smart, and fun to be around. She is the youngest of six children and the only girl – a birth position that meant that from the moment she was born, all eyes were on her. She lived with five brothers growing up and now lies with a husband and three sons, so is firm and resilient; she has to be.
Many of you know that my husband Gary was raised Roman Catholic, although his father’s family identified as Greek Catholic – which is a little different. As they grew and scattered, as many people do his siblings shifted in their beliefs and religious practices. The first two children to marry requested that their spouses attend Roman Catholic Church. Others, like Gary, were influenced by the religious practices of their spouses. Lisa is a seeker. She is connected to God and nature in a deep and meaningful way, but struggles with religious dogma and worries about simple and inflexible solutions to complex problems. Faced with a difficult situation, Lisa is always willing to seek alternative solutions and try new things. Most importantly, she is open to personal change. She is unafraid to address relationship problems that need work and ask questions that other people avoid. She recognizes the importance of the journey.
Recently, Lisa put out a post on social media asking for advice on finding unbiased news sources. She recognizes that we are living in a time in which it is difficult to know what to believe – when even basic history is constantly being rewritten to fit a narrative that justifies the opinions of those who seek to concentrate power in the hands of a few. Where once we believed we could depend on teachers, reporters and – yes- clergy to enlighten us as to what was fact and what was fiction, we now recognize, like Lisa, that what is identified as “truth” is often not.
This is not a new problem. In today’s letter to the Romans, Paul is responding to reports that the Gentile Christians, who have been growing in number, have been saying they have replaced the “disobedient” Jews in God’s heart – and they have been badmouthing their Jewish brethren. If that sounds familiar, it’s because, two thousand years later, some people still believe this, thinking that specific races and cultures represent the will and nature of God and that being born into a certain group allows people to abscond from the responsibility to behave with civility, honesty, and justice – that “membership has its privileges.”
This is not new, but it does seem to be more socially acceptable to express such ideas. More and more people seem to find it acceptable to make pronouncements rather than have conversations. If you disagree with someone, you can just send them an email or unfriend them on Facebook – no need to look them in the eye. Technology allows us to limit our relationships to those with whom we already agree, leaving no room for expanding our horizons or challenging our own sense of “rightness.” We are able to spew astounding levels of hate speech without having to deal with repercussions. What comes out of our mouths is nothing less than toxic. What we wear, what we eat, where we live, and who we are sexually attracted to may seem important to us, but thinking we have the right to judge others for those things is a much bigger problem. It is what comes out of our mouths – gossip, anger, prejudice, hatred, lies – that defile us.
The good news is that things do not have to be this way. Pride, anger and fear are human nature – and it is normal to want to be in privileged – and safe – places in a turbulent and scary world. We want God to belong to us – and to us alone. We don’t want to have to work for the kingdom of God – especially if it means laboring with people who are different than we are. And we especially don’t want to humble ourselves in the sight of God and other human beings. Even thinking about looking our own sinfulness terrifies us. So we do what all animals do when they’re afraid: we hide. We hunker down in psychological caves of our own making – in dark, limited places where everyone thinks like we do and nothing different or challenging can get in. We seek the comfort of the familiar and put our trust only in what we know and can control. And in doing so, we make the world infinitely smaller. We make God smaller. And that is nothing less than heresy.
But it is a common heresy – one that Jesus himself briefly succumbs to in today’s gospel. “[This story] raises deep questions about prejudice, divine election, and the limits of God’s mercy.” In today’s story Jesus, like us, is in a bad place – emotionally and physically. He is in what the Jews consider to be enemy territory – “racial stereotypes and bigotry inform[ed] all encounters between Israelites and Canaanites. The disciples walk with full attention, informed by the stories [they have heard about these violent and angry people].” Exhausted by sparring with the Jewish leadership, disheartened by repeated rejections from his own people, Jesus is suddenly confronted by someone who is so completely foreign, so utterly incomprehensible, and so absolutely wrong, that he doesn’t even acknowledge her. She is not only a member of a national/cultural group that is despised by the Jews; she is also a member of a different, blasphemous religion. And she’s a woman – a woman who violates cultural norms by even speaking to Jesus- and whose daughter is possessed by demons. Why should Jesus even bother with her? He owes her nothing and she can be nothing but trouble to him. His own calling is hard enough. And he basically tells her so – in language so harsh that it’s hard to believe that it comes out of Jesus’s mouth. But she is undeterred. She refuses to allow him to ignore her. She demands to be let in – not because she wants to hurt him – not because she is to be feared – but because she wants to belong, she knows she deserves this – and in doing so she reminds Jesus himself that when it comes to God, there is no such thing as “limited resources.” She reminds him that God is more than big enough for everyone.
Of course Jesus knows this, but the stress of his situation, the deeply internalized prejudices he was raised, have, perhaps, made him forget. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about dealing with people that are different. Perhaps he really needs a reminder. Or maybe he’s just exaggerating to make a point. We don’t know. What we do know is that the Canaanite woman is not alone in her sin. We know, as Paul and Joseph did, that all human beings are disobedient, all human beings are in need of salvation, and all human beings require God’s mercy. And God willingly and generously gives it – but only if we ask – only if we recognize with humility that every one of us is in desperate need of God’s mercy – and one another.
This gospel reminds us that our survival depends not on our ability to keep out the “wrong people,” but rather that “No one [can be] left out… [that] everyone [must be] included” –that it is through inclusion that the nations will be saved – that the nations are already saved. Three years ago, after a protestor was killed in a rally in Charlottesville Virginia, Bishop Marc reminded us that, “Sadly, evil and wrong have… [often]…wrapped themselves in the clothing of faith… Appropriating the cross, a symbol of a very real instrument of torture and death used against a member of a subjugated people, a person of color, is beyond ironic — it is deeply distorted.” Commenting on this text at that time, I reminded us that, “Christianity is not a shield. It is not a bunker to hide behind. It is not a fortress of right. There is nothing in our scriptures that justifies depriving others of the love of God. And there is nothing in our scriptures that tells us that any particular nation or culture has an exclusive right to the love of God.
As people of conscience we must do our part to demonstrate the mercy, forgiveness and acceptance that we have received from God. It will not be easy. It will not happen quickly – but we, like my sister Lisa, must continue to open ourselves to the journey, seeking and working for the truth. Oh, how good and pleasant it is when all God’s children live together in unity…for there God ordains a blessing: life for evermore. Amen.
Iwan Russell-Jones, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 360.
Dock Hollingsworth, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Lou