St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Fifeenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Pastor Colleen Montgomery


Commit to End Racism

A common exercise that preachers use when crafting sermons is to reflect on where we see God and where we see ourselves in the story. I do this regularly and very rarely do I see God and myself in the same person. I might aspire to be like God in a story or character, but very rarely do I find us in the same place. This week I did. In order to see why, we'll begin by unpacking this first interaction in this text. This week Jesus is confronted by a Syrophoenician woman who comes to him pleading on behalf of her sick daughter. He responds to her request with a quip about children, food, and dogs. Many scholars agree that in this analogy the children represent the people of Israel, the food is God's message, purpose, mercy, and the dogs are the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter.

Some argue that the Greek word for dog here is in the diminutive, so Jesus is calling her a cute little puppy. However, others argue, and I think this is where I stand in this little debate, that no matter how you approach it, Jesus is calling this woman and her daughter dogs. This name is a clear insult, and likely an ancient ethnic slur. He dehumanizes her, dismisses her, and tells her that God's love, mercy, and promises aren't for her, aren't for her daughter. Jesus has come for the people of Israel, for God's chosen people, not for the Gentiles, not for this Syrophoenician woman and her daughter.

But this woman knows something different. She has heard about Jesus and the God he claims to represent and she believes in this God. Despite Jesus' immediate and offensive response to her, she is unwavering in her request because she knows that God's love is for her. She tells Jesus that there are crumbs for her, for her daughter. And it is precisely this moment, the moment of Jesus' eyes being opened, the moment of receiving deeper understanding and wisdom through being called out for unjust and unloving behavior is where I find myself with Jesus in this story.

Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last August, I have had many moments where I have felt called out. There have been many times where my eyes have been opened to the realities of racism, institutionalized racism, nonconscious bias, white privilege, the brokenness of our criminal justice system, and many other inequalities in our country and communities. Inequalities which I benefit from and participate in, knowingly and unknowingly. I have encountered voices like the Syrophoenician woman, voices calling out God's true justice to prevail, in the voices of colleagues, friends, articles, podcasts, and social media posts. Have you heard this voice too? This voice can be painful and embarrassing to hear, but it is critically important for those of us who are white to hear, to listen to, and to learn from.

As soon as this moment passes, and Jesus begins to speak again, I stop seeing myself in Jesus. As soon as Jesus tells this woman that her daughter has been healed, the analogy stops. To say it very simply, most of the time it takes me more than one time hearing something to learn it, understand it, and take meaningful, appropriate action on it. Also, I can't miraculously heal people. But let's spend another moment with the healing of the daughter and what it means. Yes, Jesus performs a miracle in healing her daughter from a distance, but something else incredible happens in this moment—the proclamation of the kingdom of God to the Jewish people is expanded to include the Gentiles.

In the gospel of Mark, up until this very moment, Jesus is only concerned about the Jewish people. But with this woman's demands, with her pleading, with her faith that Jesus was more than just the Savior of this single ancient family, God's love, mercy, and promises expand exponentially to include all people. Perhaps this was the plan all along. Abraham and Sarah are told that all nations will be blessed through them, and there are stories in the Old Testament about God clearly loving, forgiving, gifting, and intentionally using people outside the Jewish community. However, this conversation is pivotal. This is the only instance in any of the recorded gospels where Jesus changes his mind. In just a few seconds Jesus goes from denying healing to providing it. This then is the moment where God's love for all people is concretely revealed in the gospel of Mark. It's clouds drenching a dry and desolate desert during a time of drought. And it's the rainbow breaking through the clouds after a storm, promising hope. It's like water rushing through a broken a dam, flowing through the pathways it was always meant to flow.

As I stand in awe of this incredible moment of justice, I also stand in lament for the ways that our world today still does not fully reflect God's love for all people. David Henson, an Episcopal priest in North Carolina, wrote a powerful piece called Crumbs: Jesus and the Ethinc Slur. He actually wrote the first draft three years ago when this lectionary text came around, but revised his comments in light of additional insights and experiences. His words had another layer of understanding to this moment, and open our eyes to our own brokenness. Henson writes:

Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith.

Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into prejudice and power.

He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.

In this moment of listening, followed by holy healing, Jesus demonstrates that a change has happened within him. I believe we too are called to be fundamentally changed as well. Like Jesus, we are being called to be changed by the stories of our sisters and brothers who experience oppression every day. Like Jesus, we are being taught that the justice, love, and promise of God are incredibly more inclusive than we first thought.

Henson continues:

When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same, will never be able to listen to the lies of the dominant oppressors the same way again.

You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality. Both must happen in order to confront ethnic prejudice in any time — and, yes, racism in our time. We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true. This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a privileged race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us.

But we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories. We must hear our own incompleteness.

In this story, Jesus is providing us both an incredible example and an incredible challenge. He shows us how to listen and how to be changed, and thereby challenges us to listen and be changed. Now in this situation, Jesus' next step was very clear. The woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter, so that is what he did. However, when we are confronted with instances of inequality, prejudice, and discrimination in our own lives our next step may not be as clear. The basic conviction of wanting to be a part of a positive and impactful solution is good, but we must continue to listen, confess our short comings, and deepen our relationships with our fellow humans in order to see what that solution should be. We should not be too hasty in proclaiming solutions to oppressions that we do not face. Trustworthy next actions when we understand in a new way, are to continue to listen, take to heart suggestions for solutions from the particular group we are engaging with and act on their invitations, and to keep praying for God to work justice, mercy, and love into our hearts and into our world.

As a faith community, I pray we will continue to engage the important work of listening to the voices in our world calling out for God's justice and telling their stories of oppression. We will engage in the difficult work of confronting our own biases and privileges. We will join together with our sisters and brothers to work for God's kingdom on earth, where all know the deep love God has for them and whose daily lives reflect the dignity, respect, and care God intends for all.

 

 

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