The following is from my sermon today. It felt that it had to be said, for if the Canaanite woman could persist so shall we all.
Jesus is in the middle of a profound conversation with people who are trying to get their heads around what can defile us, what causes us to sin? Is it an outward thing or an inward thing? He is no doubt having a back and forth with the Pharisee’s who have followed him out of Jewish territory into Gentile territory to have this conversation. What matters for Jesus is what is in the heart, which makes all the difference in the world.
Then there comes a voice, a shouting voice from beyond the crowds, it is a desperate voice, a woman’s voice that is echoing around them all now. She is insistent on being heard and she has no other alternative, no other choice but to raise her voice up in despair and some slim reason to hope for a chance for life, not her life though. No, she comes on behalf of another, she comes because her daughter is sick beyond describing and this unnamed and unknown Canaanite woman needs help from this Jewish healer who has come into her territory and she like all mothers will try anything on behalf of their children. People are becoming aware of the voice. It is getting closer and closer and louder and louder, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Then it gets even louder, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” Now the disciples are upset, they have been through enough already, can’t he just get rid of this woman who has no claim on Jesus, no right to ask for help, for she is not only not Jewish and a gentile, she is descended from the people who have lived in that land for longer than the Israelites! Please, the disciples say, just send her away, get rid of her!
And here is where it all goes off the rails, we expect Jesus to react the way he always has, he will heal her daughter right away. He will do it and say some pithy thing that they and we don’t get and have to ask about later when they won’t look so stupid. Yet, Jesus doesn’t do that at all. In fact his behavior is difficult and hard for us to understand, we will contort ourselves into some weird ideas about he is just pretending, he already knew he was going to heal her. But the text doesn’t say that. He basically parrots back good orthodox 1st century Jewish thought about Gentiles. They were dogs. Not cute dogs that you hold in your lap, but dogs that are wild and dangerous. Jesus isn’t going to do anything to help.
But, this woman will not stop. She will continue to push and shove and ask for justice, ask for healing of not herself, but her little girl. She like so many other women who are desperate just kept coming and coming and she just persisted, yes she persisted and would not stop. It is then that his world changed. He has his universe expand as you will. He sees at this point that his message isn’t just for the lost sheep of Israel. It is for the whole world. Jesus comes to a new understanding of his own words, words like love your enemy, pray for them and those who persecute you. He remembers that all are created in the image of God.
This is true of us and Jesus as we live in our world today. According to a guy by the name of Einstein the universe is expanding, this has been confirmed by the telescopes and other devices we have placed into space. What we are finding out is that it is ever expanding and that means that it is getting bigger and bigger.
I think that is what happened to Jesus at this point. His universe expanded, he learned something new from this desperate woman. And so he acts, so he heals because she persisted! Jesus changes his mind. Just like God does throughout the Hebrew Bible, in Exodus and in Isiah we hear the stories of God changing. This is what is happening to Jesus. God is in partnership with God’s creation. Otherwise why would we pray? He wants to hear from us and he is affected by us and us by him. He is trying to lead us to a new understanding here.
Jesus changes his mind, for to not do so would have meant he was just like those Pharisee’s who had followed him, unwilling or unable at this time to change. The rules were set, you had to follow them outwardly for sure, but what about the outsider, what about the foreigners, and didn’t God care for them? Jesus really wouldn’t be worth following if he didn’t come to understand this persistent woman.
This story reminds us of two very important things that are woven together in the scriptures, love and justice. Our first lesson is absolutely clear on it. Jesus is also very clear on it too in his parables and his encounters with people. Love and Justice are for all people. And it is time to say to this country that this is where it is at! No more excuses, no more saying, “why can’t they get over it?” No more division of the races from Jewish to Canaanite to Gentile to White Americans against Black Americans. The racist crap has to die. We have to come to grips with it. The events in Charlottesville demand a response from the church. Our elected leaders need to hear that there is no false equivalency between one side and the other.
My father enlisted in the army in 1942, he was of German descent, but he went off to fight his cousins who were being led by the Nazis. Luckily he never had to fire his gun at another human being, but many of his friends did, many of the men I knew growing up went out knowing that what they were fighting against was evil pure and simple. If you think there are sides in this discussion then you have already decided that you are on the wrong side.
Amos says; let justice roll like the mighty waters of a rushing steam. Yes, justice for those who have suffered under a system that was built upon the backs of slaves, free labor, upon the share croppers who never could get out of the debt to their plantation owners, Jim Crow laws that kept them from voting, schools that were segregated and still are in terms of resources. Yes it is time to get a voice. It is time to hear the cries for love and justice. It is time for people like you and me to get our voices up along with our arms and our legs too. It is time to repent!
It is time for us to expand our universe. It is time for us to hear the pleas of our fellow human beings. They came here not with hope, but in chains. Their chains, their demons, have been with them now for 400 years. We enslaved, tortured, Jim Crowed, terrorized, ghettoized and dismissed them for too long. For too long we have had to add names to the list of those killed for the rights of others. I don’t want to add any more. I want Heather Heyer the 32 year old woman who was killed by those Nazis and White Supremacists to be the last one who has to die. I want us to hear the cries of that persistent woman, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!”
Our understanding of God’s love has expanded so much in the years of my ministry. We are now a church that believes in inclusion for all. We are a church who has said yes to the refugees, we have said yes to those people of color, we have ordained women and now LGBTQ can also serve God in this church. We are a church that can grow in our own understanding of what has been done to people of color in this country. We understand that slavery and the continued human bondage after the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement was deeply sinful. We understand that it continues to be our sin, our Original Sin. We as the ELCA have stepped up, there were Lutherans standing in Charlottesville and they were standing across from men dressed in combat gear along with loaded guns that spat at them and derided them, just as Jesus was spat upon on the way to the cross. What happened to Heather Heyer could have happened to them. They sang “This Little Light of Mine,” along with Christians of many denominations, Hindus and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. They stood singing as hate was rained down upon them. They were lifting up a prayer, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” They persisted! Now it is our turn, so I ask you, will you stand for love and justice? Will you stand up for what is right? Will you persist?