August 20, 2017
St. John’s Lutheran Church
Melrose Park, PA
Big Questions: How do we hold onto our beliefs as the world changes around us? How do we overcome our own unfaithfulness?
This is the last sermon in this summer’s Big Questions series. It combines two related questions: How do we hold onto our beliefs as the world changes around us? and How do we overcome our own unfaithfulness?
There is plenty in the world to challenge our religious faith today.
Let’s start with the big picture. As we all know, our culture is growing increasingly secular, and going to church is no longer a cultural norm. Lest we think this is a new development, church or synagogue attendance and Sunday School participation have steadily declined since the 1950s; the church has just been slow to realize it. From mainline Protestantism to Catholicism to evangelical megachurches to our neighborhood synagogues, everyone is feeling the pinch.
In our predominantly secular context, we are asked to grapple with challenges large and small in a world full of change and crisis. Our moral frameworks have shifted significantly in the past several decades, and for the better: the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements have all showed us how much our prejudices injure the people around us, especially when we mistakenly believe that those prejudices are grounded in our religion. When religion hurts entire communities of people by ignoring their pain or by condemning them, from people of color to the LGBTQ community to women to the poor, it’s easy to lose faith in religion and even in God.
In the past nine days, the Christian faith we confess has been tested by the violent scenes of racism on the march in Charlottesville, VA. Members of the Klan marched openly. Neo-Nazis shouted the slogans of Nazi Germany right into the face of American diversity. Violence erupted around the protests.
The scenes in Charlottesville were shocking. To see neo-Nazis walking American streets barely seventy years after the Second World War was horrifying, and it made us ask if everything we know is falling apart. At the same time, people of color have reminded us that Charlottesville is only the open sore that indicates the deeper infection of racism and intolerance in our nation.
It’s not hard to say that hate is wrong. It is easy to be outraged by Nazis. Though important, it is no great effort to stand at a community candlelight vigil and sing This Land is Your Land. It is simple to look virtually anywhere in our scripture to see a God who is on the side of the poor and oppressed. It is even easy to declare that there is no moral equivalence between the violent words and actions of white supremacists and the counter-protesters standing against them.
What is difficult is looking beyond outrage to see the pervasiveness of the diseases of racism and intolerance. What is difficult is acknowledging that we might contribute to the problem, even when we try to be “nice” and “tolerant.” What is difficult is discerning what God is calling us to do at this moment, now that we’ve agreed that white supremacy is bad (a low moral bar to set).
Today’s gospel reading brings us a model of faith — an encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Canaanites and Jews shared some common religious ancestors, but by Jesus’ time, they were quite different from one another. Their religions were different, their cultures were different, and Canaanites occupied a lower social class. For a Canaanite woman to break the rules of gender and class and perhaps even race to call out to Jesus is shocking.
At first, Jesus says nothing to her. But the Canaanite woman persists. She knows that women’s voices, Canaanite voices, are likely to be ignored.
The disciples are annoyed and embarrassed. They want to send her away, but Jesus does not permit them to do so, and she will not stop. Bit by bit, she begins to wear Jesus down. Still, he resists.
“I wasn’t sent for your people,” he says.
“Help me, Lord,” she says, desperate and savvy, using Jesus’ title of honor even as he refuses her.
Next comes the most challenging part of the story. Jesus uses a brief metaphor to call the Canaanite woman a dog, and he doesn’t mean a pet golden retriever. It’s thinly disguised profanity.
And the woman, desperate for her daughter’s healing and resourceful enough to work with what she’s got, takes Jesus’ words and turns them right back around: even dogs get to eat right alongside the family as they sit under the table. They don’t have to wait for leftovers.
“Great is your faith!” exclaims Jesus, and the healing is already complete.
It’s hard for us to say for sure what’s happening in this story, but some of the possibilities are uncomfortable. Perhaps the whole scene was an object lesson for the disciples, but it may be that Jesus actually intended to ignore the Canaanite woman. (Imagine how many times a day someone asks him for healing.) Does Jesus discriminate against the woman because she is a Canaanite? Does he call her a dog because she is a Canaanite? Maybe. And that’s a difficult side of Jesus.
Nevertheless, the Canaanite woman persists — and she becomes an unexpected model of faithfulness. She is annoying. She is breaking gender and culture rules left and right. She won’t be quiet. She is resourceful, and she wears Jesus down.
It’s interesting that the Canaanite woman models a faith that Jesus’ disciples do not. Lutheran pastor and author Heidi Neumark points out that in this story, we are Jesus’ disciples, and the Cananaanite woman is anyone who is poor, marginalized, and in need of help. The disciples are as close as the story gets to institutional religion. They hear the woman asking for mercy, and their response is irritation: Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us. Neumark expands on their words. She writes:
Send her away. We’ve got other things to work on now.
Send her away. How dare she raise her voice at us?
After all we do to help others!
We’ve built houses with Habitat.
We’ve given food to the food pantry….
so don’t try to make us feel guilty. We’re his disciples!
Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.
Does this sound familiar, like nice church people just trying to tick all the right boxes? It’s certainly tempting to act like the disciples instead of like Jesus. I wonder: what is the church saying to the Canaanite woman today, eight days after Charlottesville, one day after white supremacists walked in Boston?
Here’s what “nice” [white] Christians have been saying about her:
Send her away; we’re tired of talking about racism.
Send her away; we already rejected Nazis.
Send her away; race doesn’t matter.
Send her away; we’re north of the Mason-Dixon line,
and racism isn’t our fault.
Church, we can try to ignore her all we want, but the Canaanite woman is calling out from the streets of Charlottesville, of Boston, of Philadelphia. She is wearing Jesus down, and he is listening to her. She will not let him off the hook, and Jesus won’t let us off the hook, either. We want Jesus to tell us what nice allies we are; we want to hear that we are doing the right thing. We already addressed the problem and said discrimination is bad and then we sent the Canaanite woman away, because isn’t one sermon about racism enough, and haven’t we finished talking about this yet?
But Jesus is talking to her — not to us, to her! — and he is saying, “great is your faithfulness!” Not ours — hers.
It turns out that following Jesus is a lot more work than we expected. It pulls us farther outside our comfort zones than we want to venture. At this moment in history, following Jesus requires some serious reflection on what sustains racial bias in America besides Nazis and the Klan. We need to ask, how are we complicit? And then we need to get down to the work of reconciliation, peacemaking, and listening, because the Canaanite woman is crying for Jesus’ mercy all around us.
Let’s go back to our big questions about keeping our faith alive as our world changes around us. There are lessons about faith and faithfulness in this story. The Canaanite woman gives us a model of faith as an action, not a passive state of being. When we wonder how to keep our faith, we’re often tempted to stop going to church, to stop reading the Bible, or to stop engaging with religion. The Canaanite woman does the opposite. Maybe she doesn’t think Jesus will actually help her, but she also knows that her daughter is in need, so she petitions Jesus over and over. First, he is silent; then, he is insulting; but ultimately, he rewards her persistence as faith. If you are struggling with your faith, I encourage you to stay engaged. Ask hard questions; voice your doubts; worship with your siblings in Christ; talk about your struggles, because we’re all learning how to be church together.
Second, the Canaanite woman shows us an unexpected way that God is persistent with us. God helps us overcome what we call “unfaithfulness” by refusing to let us go. God uses the voices of people around us, even people we wouldn’t expect. “Have mercy!” says God. And if we keep ignoring God, God is willing to get downright annoying in order to get our attention. Even if we try to ignore God’s voice or hide from God’s call, God never gives up on us.
This week, if you get lost in the whirlwind of the 24-hour news cycle and it feels hard to find solid ground, try this exercise. Listen for the voice of the Canaanite woman. What does she look like? Is she African American? Latina? Gay? Gender-nonconforming? What is she saying? Is she hungry? Is she injured? Do her children need healing? Does her voice need amplifying? And finally, ask yourself: How can I join God’s work of healing and respond to her voice?