Cannanite Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!

rally black lives matter

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 20, at First Church Simsbury, a day after joining 40,000 other marchers in the “Fight Supremacy” march in Boston.

Matthew 15:21-28

This is one of the most fascinating, and most disturbing stories about Jesus in the gospels. Bottom line, he comes off as a complete jerk, or worse, a bigot. Really!

Let’s review. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus asking him to cast out a demon from her daughter. Some suspect that symptoms of mental illness or epilepsy were attributed to demons in ancient Palestine. Though we can’t know the exact nature of this demon, we are clear that this mother is distraught and desperate to get help for her daughter, help she believes Jesus can provide.

Sadly, Jesus completely ignores her. Jesus’ disciples urge him to send her away, and indeed, he tries to dismiss her, saying, “My job is to minister to Jews, not a Gentile Canaanite woman like you.” Think about the Woolworth lunch counter refusing to serve blacks in 1960. Jesus is posting a sign, “No Gentiles.” To add insult to injury he then calls her a dog. “It is not fair,” he says, “to take the food meant for children (Jews) and give it to dogs (Gentiles).” Even then, she persists. But even dogs, she says, get the crumbs from their master’s table.

Finally, Jesus responds to her plea saying, “you have great faith, your daughter is healed.”

If his seemingly abusive behavior isn’t troubling enough, we are also left to wonder, does Jesus change his mind? We tend to think of Jesus as perfect and unchanging. What are the implications of this apparently judgmental, flip-flopping, Jesus?

One interpretation of this story is that Jesus is testing the woman’s faith, treating her like dirt to see if she will remain faithful. And when she does, he rewards her, as if to say, “Congratulations, you passed the test!” I suppose the message here would be to stay faithful when we are experiencing hardships. But is this how we understand God? One who dishes out all manner of humiliation and pain just to test us? I sure hope not.

No, I think something else is going on here.

As painful as this is to read, Jesus gives expression to widespread prejudices held by Jews toward the Gentile Canaanites at the time. Notice how this story moves from exclusion to inclusion. Jesus moves from ministering to only Jews to ministering to Gentiles as well. This shift to include Gentiles would become very important in the early church. So maybe Matthew’s purpose in telling the story this way is to lead those in his community to change their mind about Gentiles?

Following the hate-filled marches by Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists last weekend in Charlottesville we are left to wonder if our country isn’t moving in the opposite direction, from inclusion back to the racist exclusion of the past. What might Matthew’s story of Jesus have to teach us about opening hearts and minds to become more inclusive?

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I went to a march against racism in Boston yesterday. I was deeply moved by this experience. The day began with a worship service at Old South Church where our UCC President, Rev. John Dorhauer offered an inspiring word. Dozens of clergy then walked together to the place where the march began. Some ministers went to the front to lead the march while others of us dispersed through the large crowd, the police commissioner estimated 40,000 marchers. There was an extremely positive energy throughout. Though I read afterward that a small number of protesters acted poorly and were arrested, I didn’t witness any violent or hateful behavior, quite the opposite, all I saw was love.

One of the most moving things I witnessed along the route of the march was a young black woman standing on a milk crate. Maybe 17, she was flanked by two girls, her sisters maybe, and she was shouting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter.” I don’t know if I can adequately communicate the raw emotion in her voice. It wasn’t angry in the least. Nor did I hear accusation or blame. Rather, hers was a desperate cry, a plaintive plea in response to all the racist hatred she has witnessed this past week, and over her lifetime. It was if she was crying out, “Listen to me, see me, hear me! Black Lives Matter! My Life Matters!” And the crowd answered her call. Hundreds of voices responded to her plea, “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter” as if to say, “We see you, we hear you! Yes! Your Life Matters!” And like the Canaanite woman, she wouldn’t give up, continuing her appeal long after I passed by. I can still feel the sound of her voice in my gut.

That young woman touched my heart, and this is the first lesson we learn from Jesus’s encounter. After he had a meaningful exchange with her, looked into her eyes, had the sound of her voice work its way down into his heart, Jesus no longer saw the Canaanite woman as a position on an issue or a set of beliefs. Instead he saw her as a hurting human being. The first thing that Matthew teaches us about opening our minds to be more inclusive is that it requires face to face encounters in which we hear another’s pain. I would like to think that even someone who had a tightly constructed critique of the Black Lives Matter movement might have understood these words in a new way upon hearing this young woman’s cry yesterday.

The second thing we learn from Matthew is the need for someone to meet us where we are without judgment and lead us beyond exclusion. This is the power of this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. We might think the things Jesus says are awful, but those in Matthew’s community who heard this story would immediately identify with Jesus. Then when Jesus opens his eyes to see the woman’s full humanity and faith, so his followers would be invited to see the woman anew through Jesus’ eyes.

I know that talking about race makes many people uncomfortable. When I bring up the topic, some people become hurt and defensive.

I have been recommending a book to white colleagues and church members, Waking up White, by Debby Irving. This is a memoir in which Irving is uncompromisingly confessional about all the mistakes she made in her ongoing journey from exclusion to inclusion. To be clear, Irving was never someone who we would think of as a racist. Irving grew up in a town very much like Simsbury, Winchester, Massachusetts. The size of the population, median income, cost of housing are all similar, and like Simsbury, Winchester was over 90 percent white. Irving had always been taught to be kind to all people regardless of race. But through a series of encounters and experiences over several years she begins to question many of her assumptions and little by little she changes her mind about what she had held to be true. She writes:

“My hope is that by sharing my sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, I offer a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners, and tolerance. As I unpack my own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, I reveal how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated my ill-conceived ideas about race. I also explain why and how I’ve changed the way I talk about racism, work in racially mixed groups, and understand the racial justice movement as a whole.”

I find that Irving functions in a role similar to Jesus’ in this morning’s story. Jesus’ initial response to the Canaanite woman allowed Matthew’s readers to acknowledge their own beliefs about Canaanites. As I read Waking up White I would find myself nodding and think, “Yeah, I’ve thought that too.” Then Irving’s story would take a turn, and I would come to see things in a new way through her eyes. The fact that she doesn’t judge, but is instead so guilelessly confessional made it feel safe to explore my own beliefs and feelings. By the conclusion of the story I felt like I had had a conversion experience! And this, I believe, is Matthew’s intention in telling the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in this way, to convert his followers to a more inclusive perspective.

There is much more to this story, but this is enough for this morning.

Jesus invites us to journey from exclusion to inclusion. He invites us into face to face encounters with those our society judges, invites us to let their cry work a change in our hearts. And Jesus invites us to accompany one another on this journey without judgment. Following the confessional example of leaders like Irving we too might change our minds.

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Faith Enough to Let Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 18, 2017.

Romans 5:1-5

There is an old story of a man who fell off a cliff, but before falling to his certain death, he was able to grab hold of a limb protruding from the side of the cliff. As he grips the limb with all his might, he cries out, “Help! Is anyone up there?” He is heartened when a voice responds, “Yes, I am here. I can help you.” Frantic, the man screams, “Please help me. I am loosing my grip. Please help me now!” A calm voice comes from the top of the cliff, “Do not worry my child. It is God. All you have to do is let go.” There is a long pause. The man looks down at the 200 feet drop and the raging river below…takes a deep breath…and yells back, “Is there anyone else up there?”

I begin with this old joke, first, because much of the rest of this sermon is unapologetically theological so I thought you could use a good laugh, and second, because I am inviting you to think about faith as an act of letting go.

The word theology comes from two Greek words – theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word, discourse, or reasoning. Theology, then is thinking about God, or making sense of God. I hope to craft a theological framework to help us think about faith, and God’s invitation to let go.

These verses from Romans, in fact, the first five chapters of Paul’s letter, figured prominently in the theology of Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The Catholic Church at the time was promoting a belief that the faithful needed to earn their way into heaven by freeing themselves from sin and doing good. This theology had been corrupted to include practices like selling indulgences, paying the church money for the forgiveness of sins

In 1517 Luther, a monk, famously nailed 95 theses, questions and propositions for debate, to the church door in Wittenberg Germany. He didn’t intend to leave the Catholic Church, but wanted to reform it. But the Catholic Church excommunicated him, and so, Protestantism was born.

Luther took his faith and his salvation very seriously, he tried and tried and tried to perfect himself, filled volumes of journals documenting the minutest of sins in the hopes of ridding himself of them. He came to recognize that if human salvation depended on perfection, no one would ever meet this standard. This is when he turned to Romans to articulate what would become the foundation for Protestantism, that we are justified by grace through faith.

I expect that many have heard this, but although this theology is central to our Protestant faith, I also expect that some would find it difficult to explain.

Let’s look at some of these words: justified, sin, grace, and faith.

Justified means to be made righteous, to be seen by God as righteous, to be accepted by God, to be in right relationship with God, or to be reconciled with God. So, a contemporary paraphrase of Luther’s theology could be that we are reconciled with God by grace through faith.

Now, let’s turn to sin and grace. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich talks about the relationship between sin and grace.

For Tillich the core human predicament is the problem of separation, or of estrangement. We are separated from each other, we are separated from God (who Tillich calls the “Ground of Being”), and we are separated from ourselves. This separation, Tillich says, is what Paul calls sin.

Tillich does not speak of sin as particular acts of moral failing about which we should feel guilty. Tillich argues, instead, that sin is a state of being; a state of separation or estrangement – of alienation.

The only thing that can really overcome this state of sin, of estrangement, is grace. Grace is the work of God, the divine gift which unifies that which has been split apart, alienated, separated. This unification is not something we can achieve or even work toward. That’s what makes it grace.

As Tillich puts it, in a sermon,

“In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin, grace abounds more.”

Writing in the 50’s, Tillich notes that the divisions between nations, peoples, competing interests, and the tragic suffering of so many across the world, call for the divine grace of forgiveness to heal the estrangement and alienation. And that healing begins with an acceptance of ourselves.

There are those moments, says Tillich, when grace comes over us and creates in us the capacity to accept ourselves, to truly love ourselves, to accept God’s acceptance of us.

 

So, bringing Paul and Tillich together, we are justified, accepted and reconciled with God and each other, by grace… through faith.

Christians sometimes assume that faith is primarily a matter of believing things on the basis of little or no evidence. But faith does not need to be understood as believing a particular something – for example, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, or even that Jesus died for our sins – rather faith can be understood as the act of letting go, letting go of our own way, letting go of our belief that we are right or in control.

Theologian Garrett Green writes, “The person insistent on achieving righteousness through his or her own efforts is in effect refusing God’s grace, like an obstreperous toddler, the self-righteous moralist is saying, “I can do it myself.””

Faith is something more than and quite different from mere belief.

The Twelve Steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous articulate the need to let go beautifully. Step 1 acknowledges that we are ultimately powerless; Step 2, recognizes that our lives are unmanageable on our own; and Step 3, turns our lives over to a higher power, let’s go into the reconciling grace of something greater than ourselves, our Ground of Being.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, do we have faith enough to let go?

By its nature, theology is pretty abstract. Thinking about God is a step removed from practicing our faith or experiencing grace.

So here’s a story, one that on its surface has nothing to do with God or grace or faith, but demonstrates what happens when we let go of our own way.

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving writes of her experience as a second grade teacher with a Haitian student, Rosie, who would repeatedly jump up during math class to talk to a classmate across the room. Like many of us, Irving had been raised in a culture that taught the value of thinking and working independently, of being self-sufficient. This cultural norm of self-control had been made explicit in Irving’s education as a teacher, and she in turn communicated this expectation to her class. But despite Irving’s constant intervention, Rosie continued to get up and interact with other students.

One day, in a workshop that she attended on multi-culturalism, Irving learned that both Hispanic and African-America cultures revolve around a collective orientation rather than an individual one. The idea of working independently goes against everything that many Hispanic and black children are taught at home.

The next day, with this understanding fresh in her mind, Irving resisted her inclination to chase Rosie down, and instead watched as she again made her way across the room to a classmate’s desk. Arriving at her destination, Rosie put her hand on her classmate’s back and leaned in to help her with a math problem.

At lunch that day Irving approached Rosie and asked her about the morning’s exchange with her classmate. Assuming she was again in trouble, Rosie shot Irving an, “I know, I’m sorry” look. But Irving continued, and asked, “Do you think some of those times that you get up it’s because you wanted to help a classmate.” Irving writes, “Rosie beamed at me, put down her fork, and hugged me.” Irving and Rosie were then able to negotiate a compromise that identified work-alone times and work-with-friend times.

Like most of us, Irving had assumed that her interpretation of a situation was correct and judged others by how they conformed or didn’t conform to her understanding. She saw Rosie’s “inability” to work independently as a flaw, a deficit, not her exquisite ability to tune into the needs of others as a strength and an asset.

Tillich writes:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is great then you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”

It was only when Irving was able to let go, that she and Rosie were able to overcome their separation and alienation and experience reconciliation and acceptance.

God accepts us. Will you accept that God accepts you? Do you have faith enough to let go?

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