Alongside the Community Church of Durham
Sunday, July 26, 2020
Like you and I, Jesus discovered his life’s purpose through a whole series of stumbles, losses, disappointments and delights. More to the point, like you and I, Jesus worked out the meaning of his life (or the meanings of his life) not in isolation, not in a monastic cell, but in the push and pull of human relationships, in the give and take of conversation, negotiation and discernment. And I don’t think you can differentiate, I don’t think you can pull apart the human dimension from the divine in Jesus. It’s all one in Jesus, just as it’s all one in us. Jesus came into himself, into his vocation, even into intimacy with God—through his mother’s courage, and in his mother’s eyes, as a child. Jesus came into himself, into his vocation, even into intimacy with God—through the Baptist’s friendship, and the tenacity of the poor who needed him and reached for him.
Over many centuries, of course, some have made Jesus out to be a solitary figure, a heroic figure who suffers alone and heals by virtue of his own unique inheritance. They’ve made Jesus out to be sinless and perfect, without blemish or vulnerability. Jesus saves, Jesus reconciles, Jesus overcomes—because Jesus is a man who needs nothing and no one to survive and thrive. He taps into some kind of energy, some kind of grace that only he can tap. That’s godly. The Son of God.
But this morning’s text flips that old orthodoxy on its proverbial ear. The Canaanite woman—as desperate as she is, as defiant as she is: the Canaanite woman in this morning’s text challenges Jesus, and then she moves him with her own faith, and then she changes the direction of Jesus’ life. Did you catch that too? In a very few verses, just eight of them, this Canaanite sister transforms Jesus’ own sense of who God is in the world, and how he might embody God’s compassion and courage among his neighbors, friends and antagonists. The gospel pivots on this conversation. On this relationship. Eight verses.
I imagine that you could come up with a couple of names, a couple of stories, a couple of relationships that have changed the course of your life. More to the point, I imagine you could come up with a couple of people who have challenged you, who have shaken the foundations of your faith, who have bravely asked you to rethink settled assumptions and reimagine God’s mercy and grace. We work out the meaning of our lives in the push and pull of relationships, in the give and take of conversation and negotiation. This is God’s way. This is God’s intention. And this is what happens to Jesus when he goes to Tyre and Sidon on retreat.
Jesus goes to the coastal region, to the beach as it were, to get away, to find some space for renewal and reflection. But the Canaanite woman finds him anyway. Her daughter’s tormented, anxious, her spirit suffocated by some kind of abuse, by some kind of despair. However it is that demons torment our daughters and sons. So she rushes to the retreat, she bangs on the door, she shouts and pleads and begs Jesus for his help. She’s heard enough to know he’s special.
And Jesus is silent. Jesus says nothing. Jesus turns his back on a woman in distress, and on her daughter tormented by demons and despair. And here’s the first clue, here’s our first clue, that something different is happening in this text. Something troubling. Something important. Jesus is not moved. Jesus is not receptive. Jesus is dismissive of the Canaanite woman. And this has to bother us. It has to unsettle us.
And of course, the disciples take their cues from Jesus here; and they urge him to just “send her away.” Her energy is upsetting. Her pain is a distraction. And, after all, she’s just a Canaanite. She just another crazy Canaanite woman. “Send her away,” they say.
But she persists. The Canaanite woman persists. And I want to suggest this morning that our tradition is what it is, our Christian faith is what it is, because she persists. Because this mother doesn’t take no for an answer. Not from the disciples. Not from Jesus. Not from anybody. Her persistence may even have been physical. We have to allow for that possibility, at least as the story unfolds in Matthew. The disciples are standing between her and Jesus: and they want Jesus to get her the heck out of there. But she persists, and maybe even pushes through their blockade, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet. Again, imagine the passion of a mother anxious for her troubled child; imagine the commitment, the love of a woman whose daughter is tormented, maybe self-destructive, maybe suicidal. She pushes through and throws herself at Jesus’ feet.
It’s a story, right. It’s a biblical story. We don’t know exactly how it happened. We don’t have to. What we’re given in the gospel is a story of a woman whose love, whose courage, whose faith defies traditional authorities, defies traditional orthodoxies, defies everything and anything in its way. Like I say, Christianity itself would not be what it is today, if she had not persisted. Our commitments to justice and compassion, our commitments to diversity and openness and affirmation—these would not be what they are today, if the Canaanite woman had not persisted. Think about it. It’s her gospel. Thank God for stories like this.
But still, Jesus doesn’t get it.
You caught that, right, as Maggie read the text? Still, he doesn’t get it. As she’s kneeling there before him, shaking perhaps, shouting perhaps, aching for her child—Jesus says to her: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not fair—this is Jesus speaking: it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Now a little first century history, or first century linguistics, is helpful here. That word ‘dogs’ (or its Aramaic, first-century equivalent) was a particularly nasty slur in Jesus’ time, among Jesus’ people. When Jewish believers called Canaanites or Philistines or Gentiles ‘dogs,’ they were using the cruelest, vilest language imaginable—to convey disgust, hatred and disinterest. To call a Canaanite woman a ‘dog’ in this way, is very much like a white man calling a black woman the n-word in our own time, or a homophobic woman calling a queer colleague a fag, you get the point. Language like this intends to hurt, it means to dismiss. And when Jesus insists that his ministry is for the children of God, but not the ‘dogs,’ he’s putting her and her people, and her terrified daughter at home, in their place. George Floyd’s place. Michael Brown’s place. Breonna Taylor’s place.
So here we are, friends, in the summer of 2020. And from Portland, Oregon to Atlanta, Georgia, from Minneapolis to LA, people of color are rising up and demanding that you and I reckon with our history. Black leaders—black mothers in Minneapolis, black pastors in Chicago, black teens all over the country—are insisting there is unfinished business, lots of it. We have built institutions, economies, American traditions on the backs of black Americans, and people of color across the country. And our friends are demanding that we reckon with white supremacy: not just as an idea, but as an American legacy, a pattern of collective sin, a series of choices, made by generations past and present.
And just like those mothers in the streets, just like those teens organizing webinars online and insisting on bold legislative change. Just like Alexandria Ocasio Cortes turning to face a colleague’s bigotry and misogyny, and saying NO: this will no longer be tolerated. Just like Bryan Stevenson in Alabama calling on every city and town to come to grips with the racial violence in its history, the bigotry that became social policy in its streets. Just like these 21st century Canaanites, the woman in our text this morning will not be dismissed. She will not be silenced. She will not be diminished—not by the disciples, not by Jesus, not by us either.
And she says to Jesus, in effect, “I’m not going anywhere. You can serve your people. You can love your people. You can feed your people. But you’ve got to feed my people too.” You can hear her, right. I can hear her. “You’ve got to extend all that compassion,” she says to him, “all that love, all that grace to my daughter and to Canaanite children too—or else it’s not compassion at all, it’s not love at all.” She challenges Jesus on this fundamental point: around his core faith, his deepest godly intentions. And she says: “You’ve got to feed my people too.”
And Jesus is not just challenged, in that moment: he’s not just challenged, he’s changed. His sense of his own humanity is transformed. His belief in God, in the God who has named him and called him to holiness and mission: his faith is blown up and reconstituted bigger and wiser and wilder. We come to ourselves in relationships, after all. And Jesus comes to some key piece of himself, to some essential dimension of what it means to be Christ—in this strange, unsettling and (in the end) redeeming encounter with a woman whose name we never know. Maybe because she’s everywhere.
So I want to go out there on a limb and say this is one of the two or three most important texts in all of the New Testament, right up there (as far as I’m concerned) with the Easter story, the story of Jesus’ resurrection itself.
Because this is resurrection anticipated, resurrection prefigured, right? This is a woman confronting Jesus with his own racism, and then believing in his capacity for repentance, transformation and gospel courage. This is Jesus finding, through her persistence, through her faith, the grace he needs to become the Christ, to live beyond bigotry, to make amends for the narrowness he’s inherited in his culture. And this is a story of what happens when a person of faith is challenged by another person of faith—and when he risks listening, at last, and taking her pain and her hope and her agony into his own human heart.
“Woman,” Jesus says, right here in the text. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” This is what it means to be the Christ—to be open to the truth, to be affected by a sister in need, to be willing to turn the corner, to be transformed. This is what it means for us to follow the Christ, to take Jesus into our own hearts: we too can be radically open to the truths of others; we too can be deeply and forever affected by sisters and brothers who ask for our partnership; we too can turn the corner toward repentance, reconciliation and transformation. If that’s not an Easter faith, I don’t know what is.
I want you to recognize, too, that this encounter changes not just Jesus’ thinking, not just his self-understanding, but the entire course of his life, the entire trajectory of his messianic ministry. From this point on, he is deliberate about reaching out into the Canaanite community: being the Jewish messiah means loving and feeding and healing the Canaanite poor. Being the Jewish messiah means gathering and blessing and cherishing the Canaanite children. This transformation plays out over the rest of his life, and shapes the entirety of his ministry, and his deepening experience of God’s ever-widening mercy and grace.
I want you to know that I love this Jesus. This Jesus is everything to me. Because he’s connecting. Because he’s (finally) paying attention. Because he’s human. Because this Jesus, my Jesus, finds God and even his own holy vocation in the mix of his own mistakes, in the mix of his own hopes and aspirations, and in the wild and wonderful world of sisters and brothers that makes life sweet and hard, that makes the world complex and broken, that makes us human and hopeful. For this Jesus, who is the Christ, who is your teacher and mine, who is our hope and our path, we give thanks and praise God. Amen.
Want to explore more:
1. Read Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, by James Carroll. The author explores the assumptions we so often make about Jesus and what his life and witness means to the world. He articulates a vision of Jesus that integrates relationality with mysticism, political courage with moral humility, divine intention with radical vulnerability. He is "the Son of God for the Secular Age."
2. Listen in on the Ezra Klein Show, and Ezra's interview with lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson. Bryan Stevenson articulates a powerful vision of reckoning: an American journey into truth-telling, confession, repentance and reparation. He comes from a decidedly Christian perspective, but applies this universally, powerfully and with profound hopefulness.