A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 2017, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. The readings for the day include the story of the Canaanite (or Syro-Phoenician) woman.
Last week, I went to a meeting at Euclid City Hall. It was a listening meeting held by the Community Task Force in the wake of that video of a violent arrest last weekend. If you haven’t seen or heard of the video, just think of any of the videos of violent arrests of black men during traffic stops that have circulated over the past several years and you will get the picture. This one happened in Euclid.
At the meeting, we heard some positive appreciation for the city of Euclid, and its police force in general. We also heard loud and clear that despite all that is good, the experience of living in Euclid as a black person is too often too different from the experience of living in Euclid as a white person. After the week we’ve had in this country, I wonder how anyone can doubt it.
I heard a comment after the meeting praising how respectful it was; opining that the only person to get up in anyone’s face was that woman from Black Lives Matter. And I thought, fleetingly, of the Canaanite woman, getting up in the disciples’ face, in Jesus’ face; but I missed my cue. I was silent, because I didn’t know what to say, and because I didn’t want to offend a friend. This is my confession: I was wrong.
In the gospel, we hear that the Pharisees were offended. The disciples were worried that the Pharisees were offended. Jesus did not care who he offended. In fact, he displayed a stunning disregard for softening the truth, spinning his message, diluting his gospel to make it more palatable to the masses.
He also was unafraid to repent; to change direction, as we see when the Canaanite woman persists in pestering him for her human rights; her right to be seen as human.
It would be much easier to follow the sanitized, saintly, saccharine Jesus whose face shines out of Sunday School pictures, surrounded by a halo of light yellow hair and smiling children. “Just play nicely,” that Jesus says, “and all will be well.”
Real Jesus, on the other hand, lived in the real world, as a real man, facing real world problems with real struggle and strife. He was also the real embodiment of God’s love, which should tell us something about what it takes to really love our own neighbours.
A couple of years ago, I heard a speaker from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health reporting on the horrific rates of infant mortality in our cities and suburbs. These numbers are appalling. These numbers, each of which represents a family torn apart by grief, do not belong in a modern, affluent, compassionate society. When you break them down by black and white, they get even worse.
In January of 2015, the Board of Health woman told us the cold truth that the simple stress of living as a black woman in America, and in our county in particular, increased the infant mortality rate to three times that suffered by white women. Structural racism is a real and measurable public health crisis. It is deadly.
The Canaanite woman who came to Jesus for the sake of her child, for the sake of her baby, was dismissed by his disciples as a hysterical distraction. She was in danger even of being dismissed by Jesus: first, he ignored her; then, he called her a dog.
I would like to explain his words away. But perhaps it is more valuable to be offended by Jesus, to recognize in his response our own tendency to tribalism, to relativism, to ignorance, offence, and a certain lack of humanity to the strident women who demand justice of us. Or perhaps you find yourself striking back with the woman, getting in his face and demanding of the Son of God that he explain himself.
When she did; when this woman broke through the trenchant tribalism that is a hallmark of our humanity, she reminded Jesus of something else that is the first and enduring hallmark of our humanity: that each of us is made in the image of God. That each of us deserves dignity and respect. That no one who is made in the image of God deserves anything less than to be treated as such.
This woman’s daughter deserved the same kind of health outcomes as her counterparts within the network of Jesus’ family, tribe, race, and creed. Jesus recognized the justice in her demand, and he acted accordingly. If we are to follow him in this, we, his disciples need to first hear the woman, and not dismiss her cries of anguish and anger. We need to dismantle the barriers that we have set up around her, the remains of redlining, the structural impediments to health and wellbeing. We need to stop treating her like a dog under the table, who should be grateful for our crumbs. We need to stop treating her like a nuisance when she raises her voice and demands to be heard by the disciples of Jesus.
Jesus offence to the Pharisees was to place their priorities into question. He said that following the rules and respecting ritual norms is meaningless if the heart is rotten. Not that the rituals are wrong, nor that rules and respectability don’t matter; but that they cannot cover up for what is in the heart, whether it produces love, or its opposite. Where was my respectable heart, when I refused to offend a friend, refrained from standing up for the challenging woman?
I feel as though I am among the blind leading the blind, but, God help me, I am reaching for the light of Jesus. I am crawling up among his disciples. And when the Canaanite woman comes out yelling and carrying on – then I find out just how far I still have to go to reach the promised land.
Jesus fixed his offence against the Canaanite woman. He redeemed himself by healing her daughter, although there might be some residual embarrassment in his rapid retreat to the region of Galilee. Jesus redeemed himself, and fortunately he has redeemed us; but he has left us with some work to do, to love God, and love our neighbour as ourselves.
It’s easy enough, to condemn Nazi rhetoric and racist rallies, and single and aberrant acts of violence. That should be easy; although we are always to remember that the gospel meets enmity with love, violence with self-sacrifice, death with defiant life. What is harder than that is to work out how we will take down, piece by piece, the structure of racism that has allowed this kind of division and discrepancy to flourish in this country, this county, this city; to do the redemptive work of repentance, and healing.
At the very least, we can begin by listening to the Canaanite woman. We can start by hearing her out. We can follow Jesus’ example by allowing our hearts to be converted, washed clean of evil intentions and ignorance, so that what comes out of our mouths does not shame us nor our neighbour.
Jesus was not afraid to call out what was wrong, not afraid to cause offence in the name of love. He was not afraid to be converted when his love was called into corners he had not considered. His redemption was in his ability to bridge divisions by means of repentance, mercy, and love.
He has redeemed us by his love, and called us to repent and follow in his example, so that by his mercy, we may be healed, along with our babies, our children, our daughters and sons; all of them, each of them, the children of God.