Resist and Persist
Scripture: Matthew 15:21-28
Title: Resist and Persist
How are you feeling this morning? How many of you sitting here are disturbed? angry? anxious? confused? broken hearted? feeling helpless? out-raged? How about: open hearted? I understand that many of you are in need of making sense of what took place in Charlottesville. I heard someone recent-ly say, “Hearts are opened by being outraged.” Perhaps, your heart is being open by the outrage we have seen in Charlottesville, by the devastating news of mudslides in Sierra Leone and the news of terrorism in Barcelona, which all took place within a week’s time. Today, my prayer is that the timeless truth and love of God will pour into your heart – broken, outraged or otherwise – to encourage you to claim your identity and call as ambassadors of Christ, to declare to stand against any misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us to love, not hate. With the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel story, I invite you to resist and persist in standing up for what is good and just.
And hatred is what we witnessed in Charlottesville. Some attempted to disguise it as freedom of speech or as nationalist pride – but at the end of the day, hatred was the main thing on display. When the multiple white supremacist groups gathered in Charlottesville, carrying their torches, confederate flags, neo-nazi symbols, along with high-power weapons, chanting their racist and anti-semitic slogans, there was blatant display of hatred. Three innocent lives were lost and multiple people were injured. These images will be branded in our memories and in the pages of our history, to haunt us and challenge us for many years to come.
Yet, even as events in Charlottesville begin to unfold, I admit that I was not surprised or shocked. We have been headed this way for a long time. Racism never died or ended with the North winning the Civil War. Racism did not die with heroes of the Civil Right’s movement. We’ve come a long way, not be-cause we did away with racism. We’ve come a long way, in spite of racism. Racism along with other “isms” are persistent and they will not disappear that easily; they will not go out of our system without a fight. Racism did not disappear with the rise of the Civil Right’s movement; just as sexism did not disappear with the rise of Women’s Right’s movement. They went undercover, continuing to exist quietly and subversively. We can remove all the Confederate statues and names from our streets, but that is not going to remove the racism that resides in our structure and system on which our nation is built upon. They will continue to quietly poison our society, hurting all of us, unless we resist and persist in standing up against this.
Where do we begin?
We begin by naming it.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series introduced in 1997, there is an evil character named Voldemort. He is Harry Potter’s archenemy – a powerful evil character who is obsessed with keeping the wizarding world pure by getting rid of any “half-bloods” and taking power over the wizarding and non-wizarding worlds. At the beginning of the series, nearly every wizard dares not utter the name Voldemort. They refer to him as “You-Know-Who” and “He-Who Must-Not-Be Named” or “the Dark Lord.” However, Harry’s mentor Professor Dumbledore tells Harry to “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
We need not fear naming what happened in Charlottesville as the acts of the White Supremacists. We need not fear calling out the sin of racism – belief that white/European descendants’ race is superior above all other races. According to Christian activist and author, Jim Wallis, American’s original sin is racism: “America’s problem with race has deep roots, with the country’s foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another.” We should not be afraid to name White Supremacy as what it is – sin. Until we are able to name this, we don’t have a starting point of any meaningful discourse.
Then we need to learn and own our stories – even the ugly part of our stories. Brene Brown is a professor at the University of Houston and author who re-searched the topic of shame and she stated that there is “power in naming our own stories – if we own our stories, we get to write the ending but if we don’t own the story, the story owns us.” This can be applied to our collective story. It is not easy to own the story of our failures and pains. However, if we do not own it, the story will own us and we will let the story define us, rather than redefining the story by writing our own ending. In the Unites States, we have been running away from naming White Supremacy and learning our stories associated with it. It means having to deal with our ugly past of stealing this land from the Indigenous Native Americans who lived here; our inhumane treatment of slaves; our unjust treatment of immigrants on whose backs our nation has been built. It means having to see our complacency in perpetuating this system of injustice – unintentionally, unknowingly by refusing to learn our stories and take others’ stories seriously.
No more. We, Christians, have an opportunity – actually an obligation – to have honest and difficult conversations about race issues in America. As followers of Christ, we have an obligation/responsibility to model for others how to respond to such heinous displays of hatred and intolerance. Actually, responding to such blatant racism that we witnessed in Charlottesville is not difficult – it’s easy. What is difficult is responding to subtle forms of racism, micro-aggressions that we see in everyday situation, all around us. To respond to those everyday under the radar racists statements and behaviors – that is re-ally hard.
We have to learn from each others’ stories.
Discrimination and prejudice based on one’s ethnic background rear its ugly head everyday in all kinds of situations, yes, even with those of us who are well-meaning, aware folks. As a matter of fact, discrimination and prejudice appear in today’s lectionary passage with Jesus at the center. It is one of those passages that you have to read several times, scratching your head…wait what did Jesus just say to this woman? If the lectionary did not nudge us, preachers, to deal with it, we would rather skip over it.
We see an unfamiliar image of Jesus. Actually, his encounter with the Canaanite woman in the passage is shocking. We remember Jesus being brutally critical with the Pharisees and other religious leaders who seem to have lost their way, calling them “snakes and brood of vipers” (Matt 12:34). We remember Jesus being angry, overturning the merchants’ tables, throwing them out of the Temple, accusing them of turning the Temple into “a den of robbers” (Matt 21:12-17). Yet, this was righteous indignation. Jesus had reasons to be rude in calling them out. So, we cheer on Jesus for his righteous anger.
However, when we encounter Jesus who refuses to acknowledge this Canaanite woman and insults her, we are confused. It would have been almost better, if he simply ignored her or rejected her request. But did he have to insult her by likening her to a dog? As a preacher, I threw my hands up in the air and said, “What the heck, Jesus! It has been another difficult week and you are not making my job easier when you are acting like a jerk!” It’s okay. A lighting bolt did not come striking down…yet.
Jesus was a Palestinian Jew (not a white European descent), living under the Roman Empire colonization. He had a clear mission to his people, the Jews, who were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire. He had just come from his hometown of Nazareth, where his own people were offended by his teachings. He had just lost his cousin John the Baptist who was beheaded. He wanted to withdraw from the ever growing crowds to grieve, to process, and to re-center, but the crowds followed him and he ended up feeding them – all five or so thousand, but who is counting. When he finally had a moment to himself, he had to deal with the stormy sea and helping Peter to walk on water. Immediately before this encounter with the Canaanite woman, he engaged in a controversial teaching over “what defiles a person” (Matt 15:11) which offended the religious leaders.
Jesus left all that behind him into a territory of Tyre and Sidon. He was looking for some time of solitude…but there is no solitude. He is met by this Canaanite woman, another person who needs him to heal her demon possessed daughter. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus was “at the end of his frayed end of his rope and all but used up” – compassion fatigue had set in. He was not expecting to do any ministry here.
With his silence, Jesus draws a line that is meant to keep the woman on her side of the line. But the Canaanite woman would not take the hint; she would not take no for an answer; she would not stay on her side of the line. Her shouts suspended his silence. The disciples are annoyed with her persistence, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus finally answers her with “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If his silence was not clear enough, this should be clear. Yet, she did not give up begging for her daughter’s healing, “Lord, help me!” He answers her once more with “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw to the dogs.” He down-right insults her with this offensive response. This should be the end of it. She will get it now. Right? But, no, she responses with “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Differences of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and social status separated this woman from Jesus. Jesus recognized this difference and decided to discriminate against her by ignoring, rejecting, and insulting her. Nevertheless she resisted and persisted. She did not let go of this opportunity to receive healing for her daughter and finally Jesus recognizes her faith, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
What can we learn from this unflattering story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman? What would it mean for the church to follow Jesus to Tyre and Si-don, where we will encounter people of different ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and social status, and people who have different perspectives on the importance of certain traditions and its meaning and value? What would it mean for us to encounter our own prejudices and be challenged on them? What would it mean for us, the people of the dominant culture, to go and listen to the oppressed people’s stories? Do we have the ears/the courage to listen?
The Canaanite woman refused to allow Jesus to use “tradition” as an excuse for limiting the healing that is found in God. The Canaanite woman brought the legitimacy of discrimination into the light and questioned it. Some scholars wonder if Jesus’s last commandment to his followers to: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” was a result of his encounter with the Canaanite woman, changing his mission from only the “lost sheep of Israel” to include “all nations.”
Then, what effect would our calling out and bringing to the light, the sin of racism and all the other ways we discriminate each other – what effect would this truth telling have on our society? How would this effect our future?
I believe what we do now will have a great influence on how the next generation of people will retell the events of Charlottesville. I believe if we are able to resist and persist in fighting for what is right – naming the sin of racism – learning to claim all of our stories – challenging what is wrong and continuing to fight for what is just and right and good – I believe we can prevail and receive the healing we desire.
Just as the Canaanite woman’s resistance and persistence changed the ending of her story and the ending of Matthew – our resistance and persistence will change the race story in America.
Ultimately, what does the Lord require of you: “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Amos 6:8).