My Canaanite Woman

August 20, 2017
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

New Testament Reading: Matthew 15:21-28

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Pastor Steve Loy’s Sermon

(Listen to the sermon here…)

I know some of you have attended twelve step program meetings over the years – meetings like AA or Al-Anon. When a member of those groups speaks they always begin by introducing themselves “Hello, my name is Steve and I’m an alcoholic.” I find the twelve step groups to be a place where people are vulnerable and honest and to the point. It might be a good way for us to begin our worship services instead of using confession and forgiveness with the pious, churchy language. Each of us could say what we have been dealing with over the last week.

Hi my name is Steve and I’m coveting my neighbor’s new pick-up truck.

I don’t know about you, but in the wake of the events in Charlottesville I have been facing my own racism and intolerance again. If I were going to a twelve step meeting this week I would begin “Hello, my name is Steve and I’m a racist.”

It isn’t something that just goes away. I was raised as a racist. It was nurtured by the culture of the south and its tentacles reach into the fabric of my being. I work to overcome it, but it’s never gone, it lingers in my thinking and the only way I can work against it is to be vigilant in my awareness.

A year ago in a sermon I told the story about getting into a fight with a black kid in high school. Actually, it wasn’t a fight. In the cafeteria during lunch, I made a racist comment and he punched me in the face knocking me about fifteen feet across the room. The whole thing lasted about 30 seconds. What I didn’t tell you was that my first awareness of my own racism started in the first grade when I came home from the first day of class and told my mom I needed a shower because a black boy had touched me. Where did I learn that at six years old?

After the incident in the cafeteria I began to intentionally face my racism and worked to address it. When I returned to my American Literature class after being suspended from school my teacher gave me a book Black Like Me to read. It’s the story of John Griffin, a white man, who medically changed the pigment in his skin to look darker and traveled through the south in the 1950’s to understand what African Americans face just because of the pigment of their skin.

That book challenged the way I thought about people whose skin was different from mine and I found myself dealing with racism on a regular basis. I had assumptions about people of different races based, but I hadn’t gotten to know any of these people. I didn’t know their day to day struggles or how other people treated them. I just had my assumptions – that’s what I began to challenge – my assumptions. In college I sought out a black roommate so that I could get to know him as a person. In seminary I took classes in Washington D.C. to spend more time in a racially diverse city. The church I served in Denver was in a neighborhood that was primarily Latino and Asian. The town we lived in in New Mexico Latinos were a majority of the population. I’ve worked to face my racism for decades. It doesn’t go away. I’ve done anti-racism training and still it lingers. And when I look at the history of Christianity our theology has often been the single biggest propagator of bigotry in society. We teach people to hate all kinds of things in the name of the God of love.

The events in Charlottesville last weekend have brought racism to the foreground again. As a teenager I saw regular gatherings of the Klu Klux Klan two miles from our house. All week we have heard responses to the events last week until we don’t want to hear any more about it, but what I’m interested in is our response as individuals, as followers of Jesus, as a congregation. The words we have heard regularly this week are “racism” and “bigotry.” I want to spend a minute with each word.

Racism – prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

Thinking a person who is different from you is less than you – that’s racism. Telling jokes about a person of a different race is racism. Making stereotypes about other cultures calling them lazy or stupid or untrustworthy is racism. Making judgement about another person because of their skin color or hair or eyes – that’s racism.

I suspect most of us carry some racist tendencies. And the less experience we have had dealing with people who are different from us the less aware we are likely to be of our snap judgments and assumptions. The thoughts and perceptions are automatic and often we are unaware of them if they go unchallenged.

The other word we have heard a lot is…

Bigotry – intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself

And the word I haven’t heard, but that is related is

Xenophobia – intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries

Then we have this story from Matthew about Jesus and the Canaanite woman. She comes to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter and what does Jesus say?

He says no – because his ministry is for Jewish people and not for Gentile dogs like you. At the very least it is a shocking story. We are surprised that Jesus refuses to help someone. Then we are even more surprised that the reason he doesn’t help her is because she isn’t Jewish.

Let’s explore this a little deeper. There are two things going on in the way Matthew tells this story. The first has to do with Jesus self- understanding. He thinks his ministry is only to the Jews. And maybe he hadn’t traveled much. We know that he is from Nazareth a small village with about 400 people. He probably didn’t travel much until he began his public ministry and maybe he had little experience with Gentiles – or if he did he knew he didn’t like them. What he didn’t count on is a persistent woman who is concerned for her child. She won’t take no for an answer even if she is a Gentile dog. He responds saying “Woman, great is your faith.” Which challenges us to think about faith a little differently – faith is not just believing something, faith is persistence and perseverance.

But I think there is s second reason Matthew tells this story and it has nothing to do with Jesus. Matthew’s congregation is different from the congregations Paul founded in Corinth and Galatia. Paul worked with Jews and Gentiles. The congregations he started were a mix of Jews and Gentiles. That wasn’t an easy thing to accomplish because Jews had a long-standing aversion to Gentiles, but Paul made it work. Matthew’s congregation is different. It is primarily Jewish.

They expect to keep their Jewish customs – kosher foods and other Jewish traditions.
But – they have become Christians. That does not mean they have left Judaism behind. For them Christianity is not something that supersedes Judaism, it is a natural extension of Judaism. They are Jews who believe Jesus is the messiah. They like being Jewish and want to continue to be Jewish and that means they don’t want Gentiles included. Matthew writes this story to tell them why they need to allow others to become a part of their church. If Jesus gave in to this woman then we will have to allow Gentiles into our congregation. And like Jesus we will probably discover that Gentiles can have great faith.

By telling this story Matthew encourages us to ask ourselves the question – who will we need to include in order for us to become more fully and more faithfully the church? In what ways is God changing us, transforming our self-understanding, opening our hearts and minds to others that we dislike or fear? That young man in the cafeteria who knocked me to the floor was my Canaanite woman. He changed me and I’m grateful that he did or I would be even more xenophobic and bigoted and racist than I am right now. The gospel continues to chip away at our fears, replacing them with love and compassion.

It would probably be a good thing for us to begin much like 12 step meetings – “Hello, my name is Steve and I’m a racist,” because it is only with that kind of blunt reality that we face our shortcomings. But you know God has been working on me and I’m learning to accept and even to love people who are different from me. God is not finished with any of us. We are all on the way and that’s how the gospel changes us – a little at a time – constantly.