It is tempting when you are on vacation to ignore the news, but it can be equally hard to stay out of touch when watching people near and far struggle with issues that are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Such was the balancing act of my vacation last week, which happened to take place during a period of significant national upheaval as well as the final illness of a beloved parishioner.
My ambivalence about “relaxing” when so much was going on clearly bled into my “recreational” entertainment when I found myself watching the recent television production of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a “dystopian” story about an alternative or future reality in which things have gone horribly wrong. When I was in school in the 80s and 90s, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was the least well-known of only a trio of books that represented the dystopian genre – and school was one of the only places you would find these books. No one read them for “pleasure” – they were too depressing and frightening – and they had nothing to say to people whose lives were filled with the pleasures that come with a booming economy, boundless faith in a sunny future and, above all, a belief that our country represented the moral high ground. Americans in the decades after World War II saw ourselves as a nation of scrappy go-getters who, like a collective beacon, shone light into the darkness of the world. We could not imagine ourselves ending up in a dystopian future that was so wrong when we were clearly so right.
One need only look at the best seller list to see how much things have changed. Not only has there been a recent proliferation of new dystopian books and films, but “classics” like “The Handmaid’s Tale” have been experiencing a major resurgence in popularity. Scenarios that once seemed ridiculously pessimistic and unnecessarily depressing now seem disturbingly possible – even familiar. And, perhaps more upsetting, it has become harder and harder to place ourselves in the role of the come-from-behind heroes of these novels –little people fighting against the seemingly unbeatable, monolithic powers-that-be with nothing but a suitcase full of optimism and a willingness to do what is right no matter what the cost.
Not that people aren’t trying. 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 opinion that specific races and cultures represent the will and nature of God – 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.”
It’s a lie. 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. In fact, scripture shows us that God has long told his people exactly the opposite.
Today’s Hebrew Scripture was written during the time when the Israelites had returned from exile, filled with notions of getting revenge on the people who stayed behind. But God tells them that instead they must focus on their own salvation – not by separating themselves from the community they find themselves in, but by inviting the strangers among them to share in God’s deliverance. They are not to identify themselves based on their status as Israelites, as God’s chosen. Instead, they are to prove themselves to be God’s people through their actions.
This is not something people who think they are already in the “in group” want to hear. We want God to belong to us – and to us alone. We don’t want to have to work to demonstrate the favor 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 it 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.” 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 – 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 perhaps in this moment even getting the Israelites in line seems like too much. 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 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. Paul reminds us that it was the outsiders and heretics who gave Christianity its initial life. Giving in to the evils of racism, privilege, and hatred of those who are different in our own time can only cause its death.
I believe the reason that dystopian books and films are so popular right now is because the darkness they represent – the fear they portray – is familiar to us. These stories suggest what might happen if human beings act on their worst impulses – and they resonate with us because we see that happening in our lives right now. “Sadly, evil and wrong have… [often]…wrapped themselves in the clothing of faith. The perversity of white supremacists 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.” We, as Christians, have the responsibility to correct that distortion by acting on the true principles demonstrated by Jesus the Christ – by welcoming the foreigner, by sharing God’s infinite glory, and by celebrating the wideness of God’s mercy and the immensity of his grace. Christianity is not a shield. It is not a bunker to hide behind. It is not a fortress of right. It is an opportunity – an opportunity to experience and share the vastness of God’s love and mercy – an opportunity to heal the world with our faith. 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.
Leanne Van Dyk, (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], 348.