I’m going to be honest here. This is a hard week to preach. First of all, I don’t much like this story. It’s a weird interlude in the middle of Matthew’s narrative, and it frankly makes Jesus look like kind of a jerk. Why would he ignore this poor woman? Why would he call her and her daughter dogs? What is going on here? Is he having a bad day? Maybe his blood sugar is low? Does he need a snickers?
I actually dislike this passage so much that I wrote a 15-page term paper on it in seminary. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this passage, and I could have a lot of very scholarly things to say about it. In fact, I wrote a whole outline that used my term paper’s conclusions as the basis for this sermon But when I sat down and started writing with my pages of scribbled notes about Greek words and scriptural references and the timeline of Matthew’s writing and the Temple’s destruction, it all really didn’t want to come together. So if you’re interested, I’d be happy to email you the term paper. I think it was pretty good, and I probably drew some helpful conclusions about Matthew and his audience.
The thing is, his audience is not my audience. Matthew was writing to some very marginalized people. Back in the late first century, Matthew wrote for a community of people a lot like the Canaanite woman – outsiders. They were either Jewish Christians who had been dispersed across the empire afterJerusalem was destroyed, and who might have been kicked out of their synagogues for being Christian; OR they were gentile Christians, who at this time were mostly slaves and poor people, not the Roman elites that came into the church later. The people in Matthew’s community would have lived largely in slums, “exposed to filth, poor sanitation, contaminated water, overcrowding, contagious diseases, inadequate food supply, poor nutrition, conflicts, crime, and catastrophe.” (Carter, Warren, “Matthew and the Gentiles: Individual Conversion and/or Systematic Transformation?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 26 (Mr 2004):268.)
Whereas my audience is, well, you guys. And while I know none of you has had a perfect life, I hope we can all acknowledged that we are far from oppressed. And we need to name and own our position in society as privileged. More than any time in recent history, this week, we need to admit that we are, most of us, privileged, by virtue of being largely white, Christian, more or less middle class Americans. You can argue about the difficulties you’ve faced in your life, and I won’t deny that. I’ve faced difficulties, too.
But as Christians in a Christian nations, as mostly white folks in a European-American culture, we daily see people who look and sound like us making the political decisions and controlling the majority of wealth. We see people who look more or less like us held up as ideals of beauty and achievement, as role models to be emulated and aspired to. Most of us in this room have never lived in abject poverty, and even if we have been poor, our society has told us that, because we are European-Americans, poverty is not what we should expect.
Meanwhile, plenty of our neighbors, especially people of color, African-American, Latino, Native Americans in particular, are regularly bombarded with the opposite message. A message that says, “if you’re in poverty, well, that’s normal for your people.” The privilege of race is nothing more than an accident of birth, but it is very real, and it is central to the American economic, education, and political structure.
When the ELCA was founded in 1988, part of our founding documents included a commitment to increasing our diversity. 5 years later, in 1993, the Churchwide Assembly adopted a statement that said, in part, “Racism – a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice – is a sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefor, persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.” Throughout our history, our denomination has made clear and unequivocal statements about racism and privilege. This week and in recent months, in the face of rising Neo-Nazi and white supremacist rhetoric and growing Islamophobia, Christian leaders and Lutheran clergy have spoken out against racism and made efforts to build bridges. And yet the ELCA continues to be literally the whitest denomination in America. Statistically, we are the least diverse bunch of Christians in the nation. In many ways, we as a denomination represent the most insider bunch of insiders in 21st century America.
So how are we to understand a Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking help for her daughter? Matthew’s audience might have related to her, might have seen in her a fellow outsider. After all, she is a gentile, and a woman. She has a sick daughter, she lives in Roman-occupied territory. She is so unimportant that she is never even given a name. In fact, by calling her a Canaanite woman, Matthew is telling us that she was completely other, because by the first century, there were no Canaanites left. A Canaanite was a figure from the Hebrew Bible, an enemy of the Jews from long ago, wiped out as a separate race by generations of war and intermarriage. I don’t think we can really get our minds around what it was to be an outsider in the way that this woman was an outsider. Not like Matthew’s community could.
But we do know what it’s like to feel stuck. We do know what it’s like to be captive, and unable to free ourselves. At the vigil that we held for the community last Sunday evening, in conversations throughout the week, in Facebook posts and news articles, in my own thoughts and prayers, I have heard over and over again how stuck we are. How captive we are to the system of privilege and racism in which we find ourselves. People of good intention, kind, thoughtful, big-hearted people, have expressed frustration, disbelief, and utter horror at the events on the streets of Charlottesville last weekend. At the growing boldness of those who would sow hatred and discord in our communities. And these good, kind, thoughtful, big-hearted, frustrated people have also shared that they don’t know what to do. They feel powerless. They want to stand against it. But they are not in Charlottesville, they are here, in Washington, MO, and there are dishes to do, and kids to feed, and jobs to go to, and daily life to live. And they say, we say, I say, I am just one person. One small person, captive to a huge, long-standing system of sin. I cannot free myself.
And so we cry out to God, “Have mercy on me, Lord! Have mercy on me, help me get unstuck! Help us get unstuck!” But it mostly feels like God is staying pretty silent. And we feel lost, like sheep without a shepherd, and we call out again, “Lord, help me! Help us!” Because we’re floundering here. Families are falling apart, friendships are fracturing, we can’t even talk to each other about important things anymore because we are so broken, and we can’t seem to find God in all of this.
The Canaanite woman was stuck. She was a complete outsider in every way, and she needed God’s help. But when she called out for mercy, Jesus ignored her. Nevertheless, she persisted. She believed against all the evidence of her experience, that God would be active in her life. That God would show up there at the margins of the empire, at the margins of Israel, to help her, a gentile, not even a member of God’s chosen people. She persisted even when it seemed like she was being ignored, when Jesus gave her reasons to give up. She persisted, because she knew that God’s ultimate purpose is mercy and justice, that God shows up, has shown up, will show up, despite all evidence to the contrary. Because this is who God has proven to be. The One who shows up.
See, the other thing that Matthew tells us about Canaanite women is that God works through them. In the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew, Canaanite women play a key role, even though they are outsiders. So it turns out that, as different as they are, Jesus and this Canaanite woman are kin. Jesus is descended from Canaanite women. And Jesus is also descended from Abraham, who was the father, not just of Israel, but of nations. Father Abraham, who was blessed to be a blessing. Abraham was chosen, set aside, named and claimed as God’s own, so that through him all nations would be blessed, and now here stands a Canaanite woman, both kin and outsider, desperate for help, and the Blessed One of Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promises, is being asked to extend the blessing to her.
This is the same one who has named and claimed you in the waters of baptism. This is the one who has blessed you to be a blessing. This is the one who has entered into the messiness and stuck places of human relationship, into the brokenness of this world, where insiders and outsiders are determined by random categories that suit human ends, where we draw arbitrary lines of kinship and connection, ignoring our common humanity and common descent. This is the one who come into the world, not in spite of our mess, but because of it. To bless this mess.
We in this room are among the most privileged people in this world. We are privileged because of an fluke of birth that placed us in a society that values the color of our skin and the place of our birth and the accident of our DNA above that of another person. We have seen where human prejudices and reliance on our own privilege lead – it is not very far from white supremacist rallies to gas chambers. We have seen where our priorities of power take us – it was this kind of fear and hatred that led to the cross, to crucifying God’s own Son, for being other, for being different from us. For that reason, among so many, we cannot stand both with Jesus Christ and with white supremacy. We must speak against the privilege that strips our neighbors of their humanity and their dignity. And silence is complicity.
But we carry another kind of privilege that is far more important. It is the privilege of having been named and claimed by a God who has blessed us to be a blessing. It is the privilege of having a God who has come into this world to be one of us and to bless this mess, and then to free us from it. However captive to sin we may be, however stuck we may feel, we have a God whose ultimate purpose is mercy and justice, a God who shows up, has shown up, will show up, to draw us into a new way of being. This is the privilege we are called to use, to act out of first and foremost. This privilege makes it possible for us name our white privilege, our American privilege, our class privilege, all the arbitrary privileges that have been given us by the accident of our birth. The privilege of our baptism wipes out whatever shame or embarrassment we may feel, and frees us to use our privilege to benefit those who do not have it. It gives us the freedom to speak where we can; to stand between the hand of hate and the victim when necessary; and to be an active, vocal, and stalwart champion for peace, reconciliation and love in this world. It is not an easy privilege. Abraham’s blessing did not give him a life of comfort and repose. But it is the only privilege that matters.