Monday, May 4, 2015

The Canaanite Woman and Baltimore

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 15:21-28:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)

The theologian Karl Barth once said that preachers should work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  Now whether than still holds or not is up for debate, the biggest problem being that the number of people who actually read a newspaper is greatly reduced, and I am not one of them.  But as we were watched the events unfold in Baltimore this week, I couldn’t help but think of everything that I was seeing and hearing through the lens of the story of the Canaanite woman.

One of the commentators who lives in Baltimore said that what made him most sad was that the scars and destruction of the race riots from 1968 had not yet been overcome, and his fear was that in nearly 50 years this destruction would also still be present.  And my initial response was that the reasons for those riots in 1968 had not yet been overcome either, the wounds were still there, but I pray that will not be the case 50 years from now.  That we will begin to do something as a nation to change how we live together, but that requires us to look at ourselves, our culture and our country in profoundly different ways.  The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson says “social conventions develop over centuries and, by definition, are never explicitly discussed or agreed upon.  A crucial aspect of ‘convention’ is that it is unspoken and taken for granted.  Indeed, so taken for granted that we are by and large completely unaware of how much these codes are embedded in our most deeply held sense of what is true, right and just.”  It is that level of social convention that not only drives what we witnessed in Baltimore, but also drives the interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

We are told that Jesus has entered into gentile territory.  He has crossed a boundary line that is more than just political, and seemingly the first person he encounters is this Canaanite woman, and that is all that most people of the time would need to know about her to make any decisions.  The Canaanites are longtime enemies of the Israelites, going all the way back to a curse given by Noah to his grandson Canaan. When the Israelites are entering into the Promised Land, who is it that occupies that land already?  The Canaanites.  In Deuteronomy (20:17), the Israelites are told by God, about those who occupy the land, “You shall annihilate them.”  This is not just sort of permission to treat them roughly, but instead they are told to wipe them out, to literally “not let anything that breathes remain alive.”  These are not people the Jews are concerned about, in fact they probably ignore everything about them and their lives, until they are forced to deal with them because they have no other option, and then the things that are said about them are not really flattering, and so it is with this woman.

This woman comes up to the disciples and she is making a major ruckus.  She is not just asking for her daughter to be healed, she is shouting for help, and at first, they, including Jesus, do nothing, but then she continues and so the disciples plead with Jesus to make her go away so they don’t have to deal with her any more.  We have already been told several stories like this in the Gospels in which the disciples have told Jesus to send someone, or a group of people away, and in the past Jesus has always rebuked the disciples and done whatever it was that the petitioners wanted.

In another parallel story in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is at Jericho, and Jericho was once a Canaanite city, and as he is leaving Bartimeaus, a blind man, cries out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.”  Sound familiar?  The crowd tries to silence the man, but instead of being quiet or going away, the man imply cries even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Jesus then calls the man to him, asks him what he wants, and then tells the man that his faith has made him well, and instantly the man was able to see (Mark 10:46-52).  This set-up is exactly the same as that for the woman, but with one distinct difference, and it is this feature which seems to make all the difference in the world, and that is that we are told she is a Canaanite woman.  The only distinguishing characteristic is that this woman is of a heritage that is despised by the Jews, and so rather than rebuking the disciples and then blessing the woman, or at least asking her want she wants, which is what we would expect, Jesus response is so totally out of character that we almost want to do a double take as he says to her “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But then the woman persists, and Jesus says “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What we sort of miss through time and the vagaries of translation is what Jesus is actually saying to the woman.  This is not just a sort of rebuke; this is actually a racial slur that Jesus is throwing out.  There is a term we use which references female dogs, which begins with a b, which sort of begins to get at the connotation, but it’s really a little deeper than that.  It’s more as if Jesus had called her a coon, or a chink, or a wop, or a spic, or a mic, or a dike, or a kike, or a towelhead, or one of the other extremely derogatory words that one group of people throws at another, usually the group with power using it against those without power, and they do so without thinking about them except that their cultural assumptions tell that it is “true and right and just.”

Many of us are familiar with this woman.  This is Tonya Graham who stopped her son from participating in the riots this week, and was hailed by sections of the news media, and let’s be honest and call it the white news media, who said “if only we had more mother’s like this, then the rioting wouldn’t take place,” as if that was really the root cause of the rioting.  Somehow we were disgusted by the rioting and what was happening, but were not as equally disgusted or at least we didn’t say anything about what led up to the rioting.  But why did she say she did what she did?  She said she did it so that her son wouldn’t be, in her words, “a Freddie Gray,” the young man who died of wounds sustained while in police custody, having his larynx crushed and his spine nearly severed.  She said to herself, I can beat him and try and save him, or I can see him beaten to death by the police.  Is that really the choice that we want to hail and applaud?  Either have your mother beat you of the police will do it and perhaps even kill you?

What I hear Tanya Graham crying out is Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me, save my son.  Of saying to us, cross over the boundary and come see things as we see them, not as you want to see them, cross the boundaries and see what goes on in my world.  A world in which only 36% of black males in Baltimore will graduate from high school, a world in which the unemployment rate in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray lives is nearly 50% because the jobs that used to be there were all shipped overseas.  In which 92% of all arrests in the city for marijuana possession are of African American men, even though blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate. A world in African American children are 9 times more likely to die before the age of 1 then white children, and in which there is a 20 year life expectancy difference between the most affluent area of Baltimore, a white area, and the poorest area, just six miles away.  In which an expose by the Baltimore Sun, looking at the nearly 300 cases filed against the police department for abuse over the past four years along, in which the city has paid out nearly 6 million dollars found “Those cases detail a frightening human toll.  Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones… head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests…  And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims — if charges were filed at all.”  And this was not just of young men, but of a 67 year old church deacon and an 80 year old woman who was thrown down and called the b word repeatedly.  And so while we can decry the rioting, at the same time we should also say the community has something to be angry about.  We can say that claiming that all police officers are racist or bad or evil is really no different than saying that all African-American men are criminals.  But what we cannot do is continue to just ignore the problem and their story, pretend that it doesn’t exist, or refuse to even listen to them and hope they would just go away, as the disciples hoped to do?

Because what I see is Tanya Graham as our modern day Canaanite woman crying out “hear me,” heal not just my son, but my community. I hear her crying out  “Have mercy, Lord, and heal my children, heal my community, heal my country.  We as mothers have seen too many of our children and our friends’ children die, we shouldn’t have to burry any more.

In Matthew, I think we can date Jesus’ ministry to BCW, before the Canaanite woman, and ACW, after the Canaanite woman.  Earlier when Jesus sends out the disciples, he tells them not to go to any gentile areas, but at the end of Matthew we are given the great commission which commands us to spread the message to every nation.  I think that what we have captured for us here in this story is a moment in which Jesus is tired and frustrated, he’s beginning to get at his wits end, he can’t get away to recharge his batteries, and just then this woman comes shouting at him to help her, and it’s not just any woman, but it’s a Canaanite woman, and he’s just had enough.  It’s that this woman has caught Jesus, as some commentators have said, “with his compassion down.”  Most of us have been in similar situations in our lives, when we have said something which we immediately regretted the moment we said it, and if we had thought for even a second we never would have said it in the first place.

But it’s the woman’s response that truly stops everyone, because she changes the entire nature of the conversation by telling Jesus “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  She is the only one who has a sort of battle of the wits with Jesus and wins, and causes him to see things in a different way, to confront the prejudices of his own culture and to see that his message is not just for the lost sheep of Israel, but is instead for everyone, even the Canaanites.  There are plenty of people who want to try and soften this story, who want to make it something different than what it is, who want to try and add things, or subtract them, in order to make Jesus fit some image that we have of who he is, what he does, and what he has to be.  But to do that is to make a mistake.

Rev. Steve Charleston says “we need to let the integrity of this strange, bizarre story stand on its own.  We need to allow this moment to confront us, to say that Jesus, in fact… lived as a member of his culture, was acting in a very human way of dismissing someone else – for all of the stereotypes and all of the reasons that [we might] mention.  Because she was a foreigner, because she was different, because she was female, and because she was pushy.”

Jesus treats the woman as his society treats her, which is basically to ignore her, until something happens that they can’t, and then they have to listen just to try and get her to go away, but Jesus does more than that.  He actually listens to her and shows mercy, and so that not only is she changed, but he is changed as well.  The question is how are we going to respond to people who cry out for mercy?  Are we going to ignore them?  Are we going to tell them to go away? Are we going to listen, but not do anything about it?  Or are we going to hear the cry for mercy and change not only someone else’s future, but our future as well?

Might we be able to say in looking back at this moment that there was an America BB and an America AB, that is before Baltimore and after Baltimore?  How many more mothers do we need to hear crying out for mercy for their children before we decide we are going to do something?  When we gather at this table this morning, at Christ’s table, we are reminded again and again that all are welcome at this table, that all are welcome to Christ’s mercy, that all are welcome and loved by our God, not just the ones we like, or that look like us, but all of God’s children because it is not by our mercy that people come, but because of God’s mercy and God’s love that considers each and every one of us and everyone in the world beloved children, and causes us to see everyone as sisters and brothers and to act accordingly.  I pray that it will be so.  Amen.

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