A Line in the Sand Matthew 15:21-28
Reverend Mike Johnston
August 20, 2017 – 10:15 A.M.
NORTH ANDERSON COMMUNITY CHURCH PRESBYTERIAN
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.
Prayer – Lord Jesus, recent weeks have seen violence and hatred in our land – all because of the color of one’s skin, the ethnicity of their family, the heritage they claim as both a right and privilege. Even in your time there was prejudice and bias based on the color of one’s skin as well as the land from which they come. Remind us once again, O Lord, that we are one human race. Remind us again, O Lord, that even in the midst of acts of violence and demonstrations for inclusivity and hatred – you are there too; angry with the hatred and oppressive acts, praying that love and peace may one day reign. Amen.
This time last week I started writing this sermon in my head. I hadn’t even revisited the passage; I only remembered that it was about Jesus drawing a line in the sand when it came to the Canaanite woman. I knew that lines had been distinctly drawn between white supremacists, neo-Nazis, KKK and counter-protesters speaking out against such blatant hatred and racism. Lines were drawn in the sand for a variety of reasons. Recent months have found that the racism we thought was behind us in our national narrative was just hiding under a cloak of respectability. With the ascension of Trump into the political landscape and now the Presidency, those hidden racists, nationalists, alt-right proselytizers have come literally out of the woodwork – and a Charlottesville, VA happens. And I was ready to preach hellfire and brimstone against racism and white privilege, against barbaric violence and hatred. I was ready to take my stand and draw my line in the sand.
Many in the Christian church have taken a public stand in recent days, drawing lines in the sand to say this is not reflective of the gospel while others in the Christian church have been eerily silent – their silence essentially condoning the sinful behavior of far too many folks who profess Christian beliefs. It seems that many people and leaders of the Christian faith either realize that this difference is about the soul of our country, or they seemingly don’t want to join that fight. The turmoil in Charlottesville captures the essence of a deeper set of questions that we must deal with as members of the human race. Are we a people of fear or a people of hope? A people of war or a people of peace? A people of hate or a people of love? We know that the US is built on a story that is a lie. The lie being that whites are superior to all other races, most especially to the Black people who descend from the Africans that were enslaved here in this country. We know that racism is a sin – it must be acknowledged, it must be dismantled once and for all and it is time for the church to draw a line and take a stand.
If I were Jesus’ public relations expert, I would not have included today’s NT text in the scriptures. Jesus doesn’t look very good in this passage. Jesus has just told the Pharisees and Scribes that what defiles a person is what comes out of his mouth. And what does he do? He says some pretty ethnocentric things to a woman looking for help? Because Jesus, full of Jewish male privilege dismissed this Canaanite woman simply because of her race, does that make it okay for us to practice the same kind of racism today? In fact, our initial image of the Christ in our gospel passage this morning is a little too close to the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the alt-right. With Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman ranging from ignoring her cries for help to calling her less than a dog, is that the kind of Jesus I want to follow? Is that the kind of Jesus you profess as love and grace? Is there a more unpleasant picture of the Christ in all of the NT?
I mean no disrespect to Jesus, he’s my guy. But it is pretty uncomfortable as a minister to stand up here and say to you, Jesus was just kidding, he was just pulling her leg. Imagining Jesus’ tone as playful, makes his words this morning a little easier to stomach. Those playful dismissive interpretations come from white privilege. They are the interpretations of we who are somewhat discomforted by Jesus, because we have learned a little about racism, and we can’t possibly have Jesus being a racist; so therefore we excuse him, perhaps because we wished to be excused as well. But I wonder, I wonder if this is one of those reminders to us that Jesus was just as human as those white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and KKK members. Did I really just say that?
You see Jesus grew up in a time that was just as ethnocentric and biased as it seems we are today. Anyone who wasn’t a child of Israel was seen as “defiled, unclean, less than.” Could this have been a teachable moment for the fully human Jesus? Could the fully human Jesus be the one who needed to be taught? Could it be that Jesus needed to learn that Canaanite lives matter? And could it be that we, the church, need to be reminded that until the lives of the least of the people matter, no life actually does?
It would be real easy for me to preach only about the sin of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, the KKK. It would be easy to just point our outraged fingers at the overtly racists groups like the ones who marched in Charlottesville last weekend. We could leave here this morning feeling good about ourselves because we see the evil that is inherent in such blatant racism. But if I don’t speak to the “thing under the thing”, well then I’m guilty of not believing in the radical call of the gospel. This gospel story opens an absolute can of worms as it questions our privilege, our assumptions, and our categorizing and judging of people, who are different than us.
Perhaps the lesson of our passage this morning in the context of the last week or so in our country is the fact that Jesus, the fully human Jesus, unconsciously, but completely, lived in a culture of racial privilege, not unlike any of us in the US today. He could see privilege and exclusion expressed toward his people by the empire of Rome. He could see privilege and exclusion expressed within his own cultural bounds, and for whatever reasons, Jesus couldn’t see that the whole of his culture, like ours, was based on exclusion.
Despite this, the human Jesus, was human enough and divine enough to have his Jewish male privilege will all its racism, pierced by the plight of a poor and desperate woman who came from an enemy people. Perhaps the hope in our passage today is that Jesus, despite his privilege, was still able to be merciful; able to choose the way of God – and that he did. Perhaps the hope in our passage this morning is that even the son of God can see things beyond preference and human judgment, and include the broken and scared, the other and the needy, the hopeless and the too-often-forgotten.
The truth of the matter is that there is no privilege in the kingdom of heaven. The privilege which exists in the world is privilege invented by us. The order of the world is of our making, not God’s. Our defining ourselves is, in reality, our defiling of ourselves. It is our making of rules – rules about who is in and who is out, about who is right and who is wrong, and who is loved by God, and who isn’t – it is the making of rules to protect the privileged rather than the vulnerable, which separates us from God.
The radical aspect of the gospel leaves me feeling even more turned upside down than imagining the human Jesus acted out of his own sense of privilege. If you are like me, then I suspect you wanted God to smite the protesters wrapped in Confederate flags, swastikas and raising an arm as if it was Germany in 1939. I suspect, like me, you wanted those who were speaking unspeakable racial slurs to be condemned to the burning pits of hell by God so they could pay for the evil of their ways. And the hardest thing for me to remember is that God loves those protesters and vile-speaking protesters just as much as God loves Heather Heyer, who had drawn a line in the sand when it comes to justice, and was killed in a barbaric act by a 20 year old white supremacist.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for me, and maybe even you, is to remember that God’s grace is so radical, so unbelievable, so unconditional that even those who espouse and live out of white privilege and white supremacy, those who utter slurs of hatred and violence, those who believe that somehow they deserve more or better simply because of their nationality or color of skin – even those are recipients of the same amount of grace as the clergy and laity who stood arm in arm to protest the hate being hurled into the air. The radical and troubling good news of the gospel is that God no longer draws lines in the sand to differentiate who gets grace and who doesn’t. The radical and troubling good news of the gospel is that God gives grace to the entire human race, even the bucketheads and skinheads, and that is our lesson for the day – thanks be to God – amen.