September 6, 2015 – See Our Desolations
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I have been preaching long enough now, since our Sunday Lectionary goes in 3-year cycles, that I find myself preaching on passages that I have already preached about, and so it happens that I have preached once before on this story we just read, of the Syrophoenician woman who came to Jesus to ask help for her little daughter. But even though I know the story well, and even though I already wrote a sermon about it in 2012, I still find this story very uncomfortable. On first reading, it’s always strikes me as if I am seeing Jesus as a white man in 1950’s Alabama sitting at an all-white lunch counter, a man in a position of privilege. And actually, that’s not an entirely bad analogy, because the background of the story is the superiority the Jews claimed over the non-Jewish nations – people they dismissed with the derogatory name of “dogs”.
Jesus came in the person of a Jewish man, after all. He was of the privileged race, one of God’s “chosen people.” He had the perfect Jewish lineage, right back to King David and further back to the Big Three: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And, though many did not recognize it, he was the fulfillment of the ultimate Jewish hope, the Messiah, the One the Jews had been waiting for century upon century.
But the real power of the story is in what this very Jewish Jesus did. First of all, he entered into a conversation with someone none of his Jewish companions would have given the time of day to – first of all because she was a Gentile, just a “dog”, as it were, and second of all, because she was a she – a random woman on the street, and few self-respecting Jewish men would have bothered to answer her at all. But Jesus listens to her, and answers her. In my three-years-ago sermon I pointed out something very important about his answer. “It’s not a good thing,” Jesus told the woman, “to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” So far so bad, right? – he sounds like he’s just insulting her like everybody else would – except that he uses a different word for “dog”, the word that is used for a little dog somebody would keep as a pet. In effect, his answer brings the woman from outside the closed door of the household of God to a place much nearer, inside the house, right under the table where the children ate their bread. And the woman clearly understood what he meant, and that he was reaching out to her in kindness, because she responded with the same sort of playful hopefulness. “You’re so right, Lord,” she said, “but even the little dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table.” But the best part of the story is that the warmth of Jesus’ reply is so obvious: “For what you have said, go home and see, your little girl is already well and tucked up snug in bed.”
But there’s no denying that it’s a painful story, terribly painful, because the divisions between one race and another, the racism that breeds between nations and the fear and hatred that grow out of it, those are horribly painful things. The awkwardness and discomfort of that interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician mother is a perfect example of the brokenness and dysfunction that has infected the world since the fall of mankind. And the repairing of that brokenness and the healing of that dysfunction is exactly what Jesus came among us to do.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy for three of the four black girls who were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, AL. He said: “I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.”
Fifty years after Dr. King delivered that eulogy, this past May, Senator Clementa Pinckney gave a speech before the South Carolina senate about the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer, offering his prayers for the families of both men, the man Walter Scott, who was killed, as well as the family of the officer who was arrested for shooting him, Michael Schlager. Rev. Pinckney, who was an ordained minister as well as a state Senator, gave a speech calling for the use of body cameras by South Carolina police officers, and he concluded his speech with these words:
“…We have a great opportunity to allow sunshine into this process. It is my hope that as South Carolina senators, that we will stand up for what is best and good about our state and really adopt this legislation and find a way to have body cameras in South Carolina. Our hearts go out to the Scott family, and our hearts go out to the Slager family, because the Lord teaches us to love all, and we pray that over time, that justice be done.”
Both of these men, Dr. King and Rev. Pinckney, were faithful ministers of the Church. Both of these men called for peace, and offered grace and hope in the face of hatred and violence. Both of these men were our brothers in Christ. And both of these men were murdered for the color of their skin – Rev. Pinckney along with 8 other black men and women as they sat in a Bible study at their church.
This morning, we are responding to an invitation from the African Methodist Episcopal church, of which Rev. Pinckney was a minister. This is their message to us:
“Sunday, September 6th, we will join with many of our faith partners and declare Sunday, September 6th as a “Day of Confession, Repentance, Prayer, and Commitment to end Racism”. We will ask every church, temple, synagogue, mosque and place of worship to focus on race and ask every pastor, Rabbi, Imam, and others to preach on race and be reminded that out of one blood, God created all of us to dwell together in unity.”
There are certainly many other evils in the world besides racism; there are people suffering terribly in many ways for all kinds of different reasons, war and poverty and terrorism and disease and abuse. Those are matters for which we can and should pray every day. But today, we have been invited to focus our thoughts and prayers, along with people of God all across our country, on this particularly insidious American disease of racism. Because the evil of racism has been a cancer at the heart of our country from the moment of its founding by men who accepted slavery as an everyday necessity. And it is a cancer at the heart of the American church that has all too often perpetuated racist teachings, a church that remains to a great extent segregated even today.
And so today, we who are white Christian Americans have both a responsibility and an opportunity. We have a responsibility to acknowledge our participation in the privilege to which we have been born – privilege that makes it hard for us to fully comprehend what it is to be black and live in the shadow of hatred and bigotry. And we have a responsibility to accept our participation, as members of the body of Christ and citizens of the Unites States of America, in the evil so many of our brothers and sisters have inflicted on one another in the almost two and a half centuries of our nation’s life. But we also have the privilege today of joining our brothers and sisters in Christ of every race and nationality, in a day of repentance, prayer and commitment to the breaking down of barriers and the restoration of fellowship among us all. Because healing and restoration is the will of our God.
One day someone asked Jesus this question: who is my neighbor? And Jesus answered by telling the well-known story we call the “Good Samaritan”. The point of the story is that your neighbor is the person you live next door to, and the noisy child you pass on the street, and the annoying woman in the checkout aisle, and the man in the news footage grieving the loss of his family. Your neighbor, or your brother, or your sister, isn’t identified by the color of their skin or where they were born or how much education they’ve had or where they work – or even whether they work. The identifying mark of your brother and sister and neighbor is this alone: the image of Christ that marked them from the moment they were created.
Paul wrote: “In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free – and we might add there is not black and white – but Christ is all, and in all.” As we Christians have separated ourselves from one another because of the color of our skin, we have cut ourselves off from Christ himself, because he has told us, “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done to me.” Racism tears apart the very fabric of our humanity and makes a mockery of the promise of the gospel of grace and love.
Today, we commit ourselves to opposing every form of racism – racism in our own hearts, racism in the Church, and racism in our community. Pray that God will open your eyes to its presence and give you grace to overcome it. Much healing has already happened, but there is so much more healing needed. There is still so much injustice ingrained in our society, and so much blindness and hardness of heart deep-rooted in the very body of Christ. It is past time for change.
The apostle John wrote: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
As I close, please pray with me the second prayer on the insert, the Prayer for the Human Family from the Book of Common Prayer – and this would be a good prayer to come back to often as you continue to pray for healing in this area (you may have noticed it’s one of my favorites):
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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