Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15.21-28)
Imagine for a moment what would have happened if the Canaanite woman had allowed herself to be silenced, and if these words had been allowed to stand:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
Think of the implications. None of us would be here today. Not one of us. Thank God for prophets like this woman who refuse to be silenced and who insist on speaking God’s truth.
I’m going to give Jesus a pass in today’s gospel. I’m going to assume he was totally exhausted, completely fried. That’s the only way I can understand the behaviour, the failure to respond, the insulting words, the narrow articulation of the mission God has given him. He’s exhausted. He’s just learned of the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Inquisitors from the religious authorities in Jerusalem have traveled all the way to Galilee to interrogate and denounce him. The crowds, the feeding, the healings have all taken their toll. And so he takes off, he escapes to foreign lands, travels north to the region of Tyre and Sidon, it takes a week to walk there.
And yet, even in a foreign land he can’t escape attention, and this desperate woman, a mother with a sick daughter, shows up outside the place where he’s staying and starts shouting for him. “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David.” Somehow, she knows who he is.
But he did not answer her at all. Sometimes, we’re so exhausted that we don’t even have the energy to speak. We don’t want to engage, we don’t want to get involved.
The disciples, protective, acting like good bouncers at the door, they try to silence her, try to send her away. But she just keeps shouting after them.
Does that remind you of anyone? An Old Testament prophet perhaps? Isaiah, Jeremiah, maybe Amos? Perhaps a modern day prophet? Someone who is so annoying, so persistent, so loud, so insistent on speaking a difficult truth that eventually we pay attention?
Jesus finally answers her, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But she will not let these words stand. She will not be silenced. At that moment she is the prophet who sees more in Jesus than he sees in himself. No, you were not sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. You were sent to be the light of all nations.
She sees the truth about Jesus. And then she shows him the truth about herself. She comes and kneels before him, and says, “Lord, help me.” Look at me. Hear me. See me for who I am. I may be a foreigner, I may be a woman, but I am a child of God, created in God’s image, loved by God. You are the one sent by God to be the light of all people, the healer of the nations, my saviour, and I need you. “Lord, help me. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.”
And he gets it.
Have you ever needed someone else to widen your horizons? To deepen your insight? To lead you to a greater vision? That’s what this prophet woman did for Jesus, and she did it with persistence and wisdom and humility. And he gets it.
“Woman, great is your faith.”
The Canaanite woman refused to be silent.
There are times when we must refuse to be silent. When we must speak prophetically in response to words that cannot be allowed to stand. Last weekend in Charlottesville was one of those occasions. When white supremacists and neo-Nazis march through streets and public places with rifles and torches, proclaiming their message of hate, these words cannot be allowed to stand. They must be denounced and debunked. As followers of Jesus, we must proclaim what the Canaanite woman proclaimed: that God loves all of us, that all of us are God’s children, made in the image of God, and that Jesus came to be the light of all people.
Now, I know that you know this. But knowing that God loves all people is not enough. Sometimes, more often than we do, we have to speak up. Sometimes, more often than we do, we have to act. Because there are words and there are actions that can’t be allowed to stand. Sometimes they’re the words and actions we see on our screens and in our newspapers. Sometimes they’re the off-colour jokes told in the locker room. Sometimes they’re the comments made around the dining room table. This week it was Charlottesville that called us to speak and act. The blatancy of the white supremacy movement that we saw there made it easy to be outraged.
But when we do speak, and when we do act, we should do so not from a posture of superiority, but of humility. Maybe you’re like me. Because even though I oppose racism, even though the white supremacy movement is abhorrent to me, I’ve got to be humble enough to admit that I have benefited from white supremacy, and that through my culture and my society and my church and my own unexamined biases, words and actions, I am complicit. Lord, have mercy.
The privilege I have, the affluence I have, the education I have, the advantage I have as a white person of European descent resident in this continent has been built on the back of white supremacy, built on the back of a slave-economy which enriched us, and the disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples that gave us land to live on and exploit. I live in a society which has repeatedly given me positive feedback because of the colour of my skin. I am only here because my grandparents benefited from immigration policies that favoured white Europeans.
As the church, we have an obligation to oppose racism and hatred and violence and all the evils that were on display in Charlottesville, and to do so in the name of Jesus. But the church also has an obligation to admit and acknowledge that much of this present day evil was built on a foundation of church doctrine and teaching. Doctrines such as the Doctrine of Discovery in which the church proclaimed in 1493 that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed and exploited by Christian rulers. Teachings such as interpretations of the Bible that have been used to justify and enforce slavery and anti-Semitism. These doctrines and teachings must be repudiated with the same force with which we speak out against the evil that we just witnessed in Charlottesville.
It takes courage to speak and to act. Over the past week we have seen acts of courage: the anti-racism protestors who demonstrated in Charlottesville; the clergy who came to Charlottesville to demonstrate and pray and provide pastoral care; the CEOs who resigned from advisory councils. We have also witnessed a failure of courage, the inability on the part of the US President to demonstrate moral leadership and to condemn racists and white supremacists.
There are times when the silence must be broken. As followers of Jesus we must speak the truth of God’s love for all people even when that means confessing our own complicity, privilege and failings. Like the Canaanite woman, we must speak the truth, the truth about God, and the truth about ourselves and every other human being, not from a position of superiority but from a posture of humility, a humility that confesses our own sinfulness, and allows the power of God to work through us and for us.
Like the Canaanite woman, we must not be silent. We must speak. But like the woman, perhaps the first words we should utter are, “Lord, help us.”
Because this demon is powerful, and we need God’s help.
Homily: Yr A Proper 20, August 20 2017, St. Albans Church
Readings: Gen 45.1-15; Ps 133; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Mt 15.21-28
Image by Rev. Steve Martin