The following was preached in 2015.
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 5, 2015
First Christian Church
When I was in high school I was cross country for two years. I enjoyed running, but I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world. I was less a gazelle than I was a gazelle that was limping. Anyway, this mean that I was usually more often than not, I was in the back of the pack, a long way of saying I was dead last.
So one day after school, we went meet in Swartz Creek, a small town about 10 miles from my home town of Flint. My school was going up against Swartz Creek high. The race starts and as usual, I was last. We were running at a local park and some of the route circled back on itself. I’m running probably thinking when is this hell going to end, when I started hearing voices. Off toward the side a number of white teens, not much older than me had gathered. I realized that the voices were directed at me and they weren’t nice. I heard the word “nigger” more than once, as well as references to me liking watermelon. I was shocked by the language, but I kept on running. When I made a second pass, the voices started up again with the young men hurling racial slurs again. It was at this time, that I saw a lanky African American running towards the boys. It was Troy,a senior and the only other African American on the team. He had finished his race and must have seen me being harassed. I learned that Troy stopped at a distance and just stared at them. It did the trick, because the boys left.
As I crossed the finish line, last, of course. It was there that a number of the parents of my teammates asked if I was okay. I said yes, and I was okay. I’ve known since I was a kid that people would look at me differently because of the color of my skin. That said, I had never been called “nigger’ before. Having that hurled at you is something you don’t easily forget and I haven’t. It’s been a little over 32 years since that happened and it still feels like yesterday.
When something like that happens, it sends a message: that you aren’t welcomed in these parts. I don’t think the entire town of Swartz Creek is out to get black people. I think there were good people in that town in 1983 and even more so in 2015. But those boys had learned from someone that people who look like me were not welcomed in this town.
In this past year, we have heard a lot about an issue that we had hoped was becoming less of a concern and that the issue of race. Several high profile events have taken place between African Americans and white policemen. In June we were shaken by the deaths of nine people inside of a historic African American church, by a white man that they had welcomed to join them in a Bible Study. It seems that even though we have an African American is president, we have more African Americans in positions of power, even though all the whites only or coloreds only signs have been taken down, racism is still an issue; African Americans are still being held back.
When we started hearing about the situation in Ferguson, MO a phrase started to catch on. It started as a Twitter hashtag and then it became a phrase all on its own. That phrase is “Black Lives Matter.” Some people don’t like that phrase, thinking it excludes others. But the phrase isn’t around to say that white lives or Asian lives or Native lives are not as important. Instead it is the lifting up of an uncomfortable truth: that even with all the advances that we as a nation have made in the last 50 years when it comes to race, still doesn’t value black people as much as others. If you don’t believe me, let me share this story from earlier this summer. A pool party was taken place in McAllen, Texas a suburb of Dallas. Someone called the police and they came. Now the pool party was a mixed affair with black and white teens partying together. BUt when the cops came, they only went for the black children. There is an image that went viral where a white police officer grabbed a young African American girl in a bikini, threw her to the ground and placed a gun to her head. The officer in question was fired from the police force, but there it was in black and white, blacks lives didn’t mean much. The cop probably wasn’t consciously racist, but something in his unconscious saw this young girl in a bikini as a potential threat.
I think some of the reason for the pushback against “Black Lives Matter” is that no one wants to see themselves as a racist. We all have the image of the guy in the bedsheet or the racist southern cop. People know they aren’t like that. But they don’t want to face that they have something that all of us have regardless of race: an unconscious bias towards people like us and a distrust of people who are “other.” And right now that unconscious bias is leading towards the harassment of African Americans by people who have sworn to protect all people.
Just like it’s hard for people to confront their own biases, today’s text is a challenging one for us because it causes us to see Jesus in a different way. We have learned that Jesus never sinned. We see Jesus as someone who welcomed the outcasts. Jesus is the guy that broke barriers. Jesus is the model of what it means to be tolerant and loving towards all. The Jesus we see here, smashes every preconception about Jesus we’ve had.
Jesus was in the region of Tyre and he was trying to keep a low profile. You would think he would know that being the Son of God meant that he wasn’t able to ever be incognito. A woman from the area had heard about this Jesus and she believed he could heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon. She comes and asks Jesus to heal her daughter.
This is where the story gets interesting. Jesus refers to her as a dog. Some have said that his calling her a dog was really calling her a cute puppy, or that Jesus was testing the woman. But both of these have problems. Dogs were not the pets we see in 21st century America. In many of the cultures of the day, dogs were basically vermin. Others have said the Jesus was testing the woman, to see if she really believed. But Jesus doesn’t do that anywhere else in the Bible and that would just seem mean. “Hi, you’re daughter’s ill? Sure, I can heal her, but first let me ask you this question!” I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t do that.
Which leaves us with the last explanation standing: that Jesus really did mean to call her a dog and didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. Now that’s hard to hear. We are told Jesus never sinned and well, here it is. Why was Jesus being so prejudiced?
The thing is, we won’t ever totally know why. Some think Jesus didn’t yet understand that this message of salvation is for all. But what was interesting here is not just what Jesus said, but what the woman said in response. She believed that Jesus could heal her daughter. She had heard the stories and believed that Jesus could expel the demon and she wasn’t going to let Jesus stand in her way. She believed in Christ even when it seemed Christ didn’t believe in her.
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she said. “ Even if you don’t think much of us, Lord, we still want some healing from you and we believe you will do it. I matter. My daughter matters.”
It was this woman’s faith that healed her daughter. Jesus was astounded by the woman’s faith and tells her that her daughter is healed and when the woman got home, she saw that the demon had left her daughter.
Most of us don’t like to think that we have a bias. White people don’t want to think they have biases against black people; straight people don’t want to think they have a bias against gay people; Americans don’t want to think they have biases against foreigners. We don’t want to think we only like certain people and are suspicious against others, even though that has been an issue since time began. We want to believe that all of our problems with race or diversity or gender were settled a long time ago. We want to believe we would welcome anyone into our homes or churches, when in reality we can be hestitant to welcome others not like us.
Which is why it’s a challenge for Christians to read this passage. We want to see Jesus in a perfect light and if Jesus isn’t perfect, then it stands that we have some problems as well.
But Jesus who is both fully human and fully divine reminds us that we are not that innocent. If Jesus, the Son of God has a bias, then so do we. We are not more perfect than Jesus.
I was reading a story last night about how some of the most politically progressive cities, places like Madison, Austin, Portland, San Francisco and our own Minneapolis are places where people of color live segregated lives apart from their white neighbors. Many of these places have folks who are on the “right” side of issues and think that race is a problem for conservatives or those folk in the South. There is no problem here. I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years and I can tell you: y’all have a problem. Lots of African Americans are locked out of the thriving economy here and they face harsh treatment from the cops. Their children face more suspension and expulsion than their white counterparts for similar offenses. But in the same way we don’t want to talk about a faulty and prejudiced Jesus, we don’t want to talk about the ways we can unconsciously make life for persons of color harsh in so-called progressive cities.
The amazing thing about the Syrophoenician woman was her faith. She believed that her daughter was going to be healed in spite of Jesus words. Maybe she heard the stories of how God defeated Pharaoh or something. She just knew God would heal her daughter.
And so it is with us. We believe in a God that can heal us of our biases. We believe in a God that does smash barriers and we believe in a God that will smash the barriers in our hearts so that we can work for God’s reconciliation in the world.
I don’t know why Jesus tried to ignore this woman anymore than I understand why those kids taunted me all those years ago. What I do know is that God shows up to bring healing, sometimes in a woman who believes Jesus can heal her daughter, or in a lanky runner coming to the aid of a fellow runner. God is a God that works towards healing. Are we ready to join God? Thanks be to God. Amen.
I really enjoyed reading this. This is one of the most uncomfortable (to me) stories in the Bible about Jesus, and I puzzle over his actions. Thanks for walking us through your thoughts on this.