“Jesus promised his disciples three things – that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” So says William Barclay in his commentary on the gospels. For the next three weeks, we’re going to follow our lectionary gospel texts for the ways we see these characteristics in the followers of Jesus, and how we might be disciples that live lives that are “fearless, happy, and in trouble.”
In our text today, our model is not so much Jesus or one of the twelve following him, but an unnamed Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus on behalf of her daughter. She comes into their inner circle, their private gathering, and shows us – and demonstrates even to Jesus himself – what it is to be fearless for the sake of love. “Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus says to her. What if the same could be said of us, especially in these times that try the persistence of our faith, and test the insistence of our love, and ask us if we will be bold and fearless with the way of Christ?
Courtney Stamey, did that last Sunday, and as I begin, I want to be sure to thank her not only for her wonderful sermon, but also for her boldness and that of other ministers in helping to declare who we are as a church amidst the crisis moment of last weekend in the wake of the largest white nationalist rally in the United States in over a decade, and the deaths of Heather Heyer and State Troopers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates.
I first heard about the planned Charlottesville rally amidst the lead-up from friends planning to be a clergy presence, including our own John Chandler, who lives in Charlottesville and is an elder at All Souls Church. I confess to you, part of me thought, “Can’t we just ignore them?” I was heading for vacation and wanting to just take a week off, which, of course, reflects the comfort and ease I enjoy in my life. I think that’s a definition of “privilege,” in fact – that I can opt in or opt out, switch on or switch off. I can ultimately choose how much to be affected. So I’m grateful for those followers of Jesus who were more committed and fearless than I am so often, and who recognized that when hate is chanting, love finds a way to speak more compellingly and when bigotry carries torches, disciples hold up a more powerful light.
This is who we are as a church, and it is vital we proclaim and reclaim it, especially amidst racism, white supremacy, or anti-semitism, because these are realities so often rooted in distortions of our faith, perversions of the Bible, and the silence of the Church for generations. So it’s our responsibility to be clear. We don’t start from scratch, but respond out of who we’ve been at our best, when Randall Lolley was known for his relationships and conciliation in this city that reached across racial lines, or when Claude Bowen and deacons in the early 1960s declared that this was a church open to all regardless of race or ethnicity, or when J. Clyde Turner and this congregation hosted the first known interracial service of worship in Greensboro in the mid-20th century. We do not always get it right, and we do have miles still to walk, but this is who we are. So when people are brash and particular in their racism, it is for our church to be just as bold and particular in our openness and commitment to the gospel. I hope this is reaffirmed each and every time we worship, but I am especially grateful for the ways it was last Sunday.
Of course, when the noise and the adrenaline die down, there can be a danger if we’re too self-assured. It’s what one theorist has called operating with a “KKK model of racism.” (1) That is, when we only imagine racism or white supremacy among those draped in white sheets or shouting with torches.
Will Campbell pointed this out. Campbell, a child of the deep south and leader in the civil rights movement, was a Baptist minister, known among other things for his irreverence, his status as a “bootleg preacher” who refused to take a salary from a church, and his commitment to say or do whatever he thought right. This included work that made him the first white man to serve on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or being a close confidant of Dr. King, so much so that he was present at the Lorraine Motel the day Dr. King was shot. Once asked to sum up the gospel in 10 words or less, Campbell said, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” Now, I’m quoting. Sorry for profanity from the preacher, but that is grammatically correct, and theologically correct, too. For Campbell, this became especially true as later in his life he befriended members of the KKK, believing that God loved them no less, hoping his witness might lead to change and repentance, and finding in some cases that it actually did.
“Now then,” he once said to fellow white Christians, “the Klan may be more bigoted than the ‘children of the light.’ But they’re not more racist. Racism is in the structures, the system in which we are all bound up. We’re all basically of a Klan mentality when it comes to our own structures and our own institutions.” (2)
This is what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva means when he says our greatest threat now might be “racism without racists.” If we’re not careful, or if we become self-congratulatory on the heels of Charlottesville, we might start to think it could never happen to us. So we must also be introspective, considering what other forms the sins of racism or prejudice can take. Where else they might be present. Like unseen barriers and boundaries, insiders and outsiders, and the question of who’s welcome at the table.
That’s the question before the disciples, and all of us in our passage this morning. We pay attention to the fearlessness and boldness of a Canaanite woman, because she knows the answer.
She enters the room and is at first met with barriers, then silence, confused glances and discomfort, and finally disciples saying, “Send her away… for she keeps shouting at us…” There was no room in their intimate gathering for the frustrating noise of this woman and the persistence of her need.
Jesus and his disciples are off by themselves. In Mark’s telling of this story, it specifies that “Jesus entered a house and did not want to be disturbed.” You can understand. He could just be exhausted. In the chapter that precedes our passage, Jesus has been feeding, helping, healing, and all without a break. In Matthew 14:13, he tries to withdraw to a deserted place, but then the crowds hear it and it’s not deserted any more. They come to him, and he has compassion as he always seems to, and feeds them, all 5,000 plus.
Then in verse 3 of chapter 14, he crosses back over the sea and comes to land. But the word spreads, as people bring all who are sick, wanting merely to touch him or the hem of his garment, and as they do they are healed.
So as our passage begins, Matthew is clear to say Jesus “went away…” Well you can understand.
The Sherouses have just returned from our beach week for the summer. We’ll call it “vacation,” or as much as one as you can have with 4 kids. We had lots of time in the sand, jumping the waves, riding bikes, searching for the best ice cream every night. I even read 3 pages of a book, which was quite an accomplishment.
On Day One, after an afternoon on the beach we were coming back to the house, which sits in a row with other homes just across from the water. As we approached, I noticed the smell of charcoal just wafting into the air, and the family in the neighboring home gathered outside and in the carport, with music playing, kids laughing, people gathered around the grill, and I raised my arm, “How you doing?!” To which Jenny said, “WHAT are you doing?” Confused extravert that I am, I looked at her and she said, “Put your hand down… they don’t want to talk to you and you don’t need to talk to them… no one is trying to make friends on vacation!”
When we’re away, we want to be away. We don’t really need talk to people. I especially don’t want them to know I’m a minister. No one is trying to make friends.
Maybe Jesus and the disciples are away. All the healing extended, power expended, compassion offered has the effect of exhausting a person, and none of us know that to the extent that he did.
But it’s more than that. This is a quintessential story about who is inside and who is outside, who is welcome, and where the boundaries are drawn.
Jesus is in the district of Tyre and Sidon, Matthew points out. It’s as far north of Galilee as he will go, well beyond the boundaries he has known. And that’s where she barges through the door. A Canaanite woman. “Canaanite,” in Matthew, just to underscore how radical her difference from the Jewish Jesus and his disciples. She’s first shunned by the insider disciples. Jesus seems to look off into the distance, and then perhaps with some loyalty to his mission and his understanding of his call at the moment, he says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” then later, “It is not fair to take the food from these children and throw it to the dogs.”
Well this is already the sermon where your preacher cussed, and now Jesus doesn’t seem to fare too much better. “Dog.” It’s not the easiest story. If you share my shock at that response, you should know we’re not the first. No, Christian interpreters for centuries have sought to smooth away the abrasive edges of this scene.
Some will tell you that the Greek word for dogs, used here, is actually the word for a particular kind of dog – a small house dog, or a puppy. So, Jesus is actually using a term of endearment for the woman and her daughter, some say. The attempts to sentimentalize extend even to Christian art, such as the Baroque era portrayal of Christ and the woman, by Sebastiano Ricci. A smiling, fair-haired Jesus gazes at the woman, who holds an adorable little spotted dog – something like the Pokey Little Puppy of Golden Book fame. And Jesus seems to change is mind because the puppy is so darn cute!
But, as easy as that would be, he’s not talking about the clumsy little Labradors. “I’m not taking what’s meant for the children – my people – and throwing it to the house dogs!”
I guess we could say he’s testing her. It’s certainly possible that in his divine nature he knows all along that his mission is for her and her daughter, too. Then again, maybe it’s his humanity on display. Maybe he’s coming to realize the scope of his mission anew in this moment. The way some of us talk, it’s as though we believe that Jesus had the whole thing figured out from the very beginning. It’s like we imagine he could have set up in the manger and fed 5,000 people, or walked out of his father’s carpentry shop and healed all of Nazareth’s deaf, blind, and lame.
But that’s not the story of Jesus in the gospels. The whole plot finds a human Jesus wrestling with his identity and the scope of his mission, wondering again and again, it seems, “Who am I meant for?” And “What am I supposed to do?” And “Woman, isn’t there somewhere else you can go?”
But through her he comes to see. To understand. There’s nowhere else she can go. If she can’t go to him, where else is she going to go?
She can’t just become other than she is. A Gentile. A Canaanite. A woman. The parent of a demon-possessed girl. That’s more than three strikes. She’s four-or five times the outsider. And you can’t just opt out of that.
Friends of mine, Rev. Ryan Eller and Rev. Lee Hill, once took a group of youth on a tour of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located just across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed in a bombing by white supremacists in 1963. After leading these young people through the museum, they had set up a Q&A with local clergy who had been in the pastorate during the Civil Rights era. Inevitably, the first question the kids asked was, “So, what was it like?”
The first three clergy to speak were white. These justice-minded men said essentially, “What you need to understand is that it wasn’t like this every day. Often we were learning about things that were happening on the national news like everyone else.”
The lone pastor on the panel that was black had a very different take, and when he spoke he said, “I love them. We’re friends. But I’m not sure what these guys are talking about. For us, it was an everyday occurrence of meetings in the church. My congregants were shot at, and we experienced suffocating oppression. Before it hit the news we knew about it because we were there.” (3)
People living amidst oppression don’t get to vacate, opt out, or flip it off. And neither could this woman amidst the fear that encircled her life. A Canaanite. A Woman. The mother of a demon-possessed girl. Her name not even known to us. She lived her life amidst great vulnerability and fear.
We have our own reasons for fear. This week at the beach, even with Facebook off my phone, and NPR off my dial, and no daily rundown of my news sources, I know these days have been fearsome. Beyond Charlottesville, we have seen terror in Barcelona, devastation in Sierra Lionne, violence close to home represented by a press conference Friday to highlight the rise in shooting deaths right here in Greensboro. Nuclear crisis threatens with new updates even this morning. Just yesterday, news of public servants ambushed in my home state of Florida. Amidst it all, we mourn those close to us, like beloved Janelle Snyder, for whom a candle is lit this morning.
Sometimes I’d like to vacate the whole thing. It would be easy to cower. Woman, isn’t there someplace else you can go? But there’s no place else for her to go. Where else is she going to go? As it turns out she doesn’t just need Jesus and his followers. They need her, too.
Fifty years ago this past week, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech titled, “Where Do We Go From Here?” at the 11th annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. He was worn down. Tired. He was doubting the scope of the movement and the strategy of nonviolence. But still it was in this speech that Dr. King famously said, “I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to [our] problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. … I’ve seen too much hate … and hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.” (4)
It’s a decision we see in this Canaanite woman. Faced with cruel words, rejection from disciples, questions about where she belonged and what her daughter was worth, still she persists in her love. And “Perfect love,” the Bible tells us, “drives out fear.” So in response to Jesus, she remains bold and brave, reminding all of us to live the same way, even as we approach our God. She decides to love – love her daughter, love her people, and proclaim that love even to this private room.
“You don’t have to hold it so tightly,” she seems to say. “You don’t need to encircle it so closely. The word has gotten out, the news has drifted well beyond the bounds you’ve known, and what you must admit is that there is enough for everyone. Even my daughter and I are entitled to some of that bread you mention, Jesus.”
Jesus seems almost startled, then suddenly awakened by this word. And as he looks at her, the weariness fades and the compassion we know returns, and he says, “Daughter, great is your faith.”
In the end, the woman returns home to find that the mission has expanded to her. Her daughter is no more writhing or disturbed. The demon has left.
And Jesus, I believe, kept the woman with him, too. Her words echoed in his ears. Her faith in his heart. His ministry was not the same. He must have known what it would mean. The news would spread, and the barriers would disappear. Vacation would be over. But even so in the very next scene he goes up to the mountain, exposed to all, and he heals people of all background, ultimately proclaiming a gospel to the ends of the earth. So the day the gospel was extended to the woman and her daughter, to the Gentiles, to the Canaanites, was the day it came to all of us. The house dogs and bastards, and every possessed person, and those who have felt on the fringes. The gospel makes room for all of us. Because such fearlessness can change the scope of a ministry, and it can certainly change the scope of a life.
Maybe we think it could never happen to us. We’d never get tired, or vacate the call of God. We’d never draw the lines too tightly, or encircle the message too exclusively.
Then again, we’re only human. And if Jesus listened to this woman, how much more must we? “It’s for me. It’s for my daughter…” she says to us.
Where is the Canaanite woman today? Who is she? Where have we drawn the boundaries that have kept her out? What are we holding too tightly? And how is she calling us to change?
If she can’t come here, where else is she going to go? There’s no place else for her to go.
That day the barriers dissolved, the vacation ended, and the gospel of love made room for her. And we can, too. But not if we’re cowering. And not if we’re avoiding. And not if we’re self-assured. Only, if we’re completely fearless.
- Michael Emerson. Thanks to good friend, Dr. Noel Schoonmaker, for this reference in his article, “The Harder Work Begins” (baptistnews.com/article/weve-condemned-white-nationalism-now-harder-work-begins/#.WZsfDyMrJsM)
- In profile of Will Campbell by Rolling Stone, “The First Church of Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer” (December 1990)
- As related in “6 Ways White Allies Can Stand Against Hate” (time.com/4905850/charlottesville-white-allies-stand-against-hate/)
- With thanks to dear friend, Rev. Courtney Allen, for this reference in her remarks “Love is Loudest” at the Richmond Vigil on August 16 (recorded here: baptistnews.com/article/love-loudest-even-hate-bullhorn/#.WZkqtyMrJsM)