This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin on August 20, 2017, is built around the readings for Proper 15 in the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
It has been a terribly difficult week. Things that I never thought to see in my lifetime, things that I imagine many of you had never thought to see again, have filled our newscasts and our television screens. Swastikas have been marched through our cities. People have been beaten, and killed, and ugly, ugly chants have filled the air. And in the midst of all of that, as if it could get any worse, our leader has uttered unthinkable things. How could he say that? It leads me to wonder about who we are and where we are going.
“It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?” How can Jesus have said those words? This woman came to him in agony, pleading for her daughter who was being tormented by a demon. And at first he refuses to acknowledge her presence at all. And then he says I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And he utters those words that call her a dog.
It’s not what we would expect from the person who died on the cross for all of us. But I think we need to notice or at least acknowledge for a moment, that it’s exactly what his disciples would have expected in that moment. It would have been outrageous, first of all, for a woman to have approached Jesus on the streets like this. And that outrage would have been compounded by the fact that she was a Canaanite, a foreigner, someone despised just because of her origin. And so Jesus was responding very much as a first century Palestinian man, a Jewish man, here in this moment.
So how do we reconcile those words? How do we understand what he said? It may be that our first tendency is to think he probably didn’t really say these things. But think about that for a minute if you are the person proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, writing a gospel narrative, an account to explain to people who Jesus was… why would you make up something like this? You wouldn’t make up something that seems so mean-spirited and nasty and put it in your account. So I just can’t believe that these words would have been included if Jesus hadn’t actually set them.
So the next step, the next question for me is… why these words? Of all of the hundreds of thousands of things that Jesus must have said during his lifetime why would you choose to include this story? Both Matthew and Mark include this in their narrative. So somehow, for some reason they thought these words were important. Let’s look a little bit further.
The last words of Matthew’s gospel “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and commanding them to obey everything that I have taught you.”
Here in chapter 15, where we read today, Jesus Says, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” By the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’s vision and understanding of his mission, and who he’s called to greet and serve has expanded to include all nations.
As we examine the gospel narratives, as we think about Jesus’s life, and we struggle to reconcile the words that he’s spoken today, biblical scholars and commentators have come to the conclusion that this is the beginning of a change in Jesus’s understanding of who he is and what his mission is about. It might be difficult think about this but Jesus is learning. Jesus is learning, his self-understanding, his self-awareness, his understanding of his mission and what he’s called to do, is evolving and growing as he experiences the people in the world around him. What do you think the juxtaposition of the human and the divine would look like? I could make up lots of templates and models but the one that we choose, the one that we recognize, is in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What the Scriptures tell us is that that juxtaposition of two natures doesn’t erase the human need to learn and grow through experience and exposure to other people and other ideas, and so this story marks the beginning of a change in Jesus’s thinking and understanding.
So let’s take a step back, or maybe forward, to our context today and think about learning and exposure to other thoughts and other ideas.
If you’re if you’re on Facebook, if you’re on the Internet at all you probably have seen it memes this week that show young children of all races and colors playing happily together and a caption that says something like “hatred is learned or taught.” I believe that with all my heart, that hatred and bigotry are not a part of who we are naturally. they an accretion, a distortion, they are like a tumor that needs to be excised.
So the implication of this meme is that we need to unlearn. We need to unlearn the hatred, and the bigotry, and the racism that’s instilled in us by the world around us. None of us can escape it. It happens through the media. It happens through people that we know. Our own fears and concerns plant that fear of others within us. And we need we need to unlearn those things.
But in the collect today we pray that we be given the grace to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’s most holy life. So as we work through this moment, in this conversation unlearning isn’t enough. We also need to do some learning.
Jesus a first century, Palestinian, Jewish, man arrived in the region of Tyre and Sidon and he encounters someone outside of his common daily routine and life. He discovers something in that encounter.
Now this might be pushing it too far so I’m not going to say that Jesus learned something about himself and his own prejudices, but I am going to assert very firmly that Jesus learned something about her. In this encounter, he discovered her faith, her humanity, her commonality with him. He saw her as a person, and heard her pain, and understood her perspective and experience. that I think is the learning to which we need to be open today; to listen to the story of the other, to hear about their experience of the world, to try and step in just for a moment to their perspective, and see the world in the way that they see and experience it every day.
There’s a word that’s recently come into use to describe this kind of learning: woke. Getting woke means suddenly coming to the realization that other people’s experiences, their valid experience and perspective of the world, is not the same as our own, to understand it and empathize with it, and to see the world from their perspective.
So when I put this sermon online later today the title is going to be, “Yeah, that time Jesus got woke!”
That’s what we are all called to do, to get woke! I think that’s the only way that we can find our way forward out of the mess in which we find ourselves today. We need to get woke; to believe the stories that we are hearing from people who are different from us are in fact true. They are their stories and their experiences. They represent their perspective. And those experiences and perspective are every bit as valid and as important as our own.
Jesus left the Galilee and traveled north and west towards Syria to reach the region of Tyre and Sidon. It was that movement, that journey that put him at risk of encountering the other, and to be woke, to come to understand the world in a larger way. It is that moment that leads from him saying “I came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to saying “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” We too are being called to take the risk traveling beyond our comfort zones to move into places where we risk encountering the other, and where we risk being changed by those encounters. Jesus calls us out, calls us out of our comfort zones, calls us to engage with the other, to experience their humanity, to acknowledge recognize and affirm their stories. It’s not until we can see the world through other people’s eyes that we can truly stand with them and they with us, and the horror that we have experienced in our streets in these last weeks will begin to dissipate like shadows that are penetrated by the light.