A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Bad Boundaries: Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28 Year A, August 17, 2014 August 17, 2014

We love to give things labels to organize our world. Or at least I do. Organizing a closet, a drawer, my office, or anything gives me a sense of peace and control. Do you remember those old label makers that you could punch letters onto a plastic sticker and label your whole world? My mom had one and I loved that thing. I labeled almost everything in my room, including my baby sister. I don’t have one now but I wish I did! I love knowing exactly where something is, exactly what it should be used for, and having similar objects together for ease of finding them. This sort of organizing and labeling can be helpful and fairly benign. As humans, we like some sort of control over our surroundings, we like to put things in categories that we can understand and interact with in a logical way. Without labels and categories, our lives have the potential to be chaotic, messy and overwhelming. We like predictability.
This categorizing spills out into our interactions and relationships with people in our daily lives. It starts when we are very young and by the time we are in junior high or high school we know what all the cliques are and who is in them: jocks, nerds, band geeks, goths, hipsters, etc. And we know from an early age where we fit and where we don’t. Crossing those boundaries was unthinkable and with the rare exception, impossible. Even in adulthood that sadly doesn’t change and often intensifies. Such as, this group of people are my close friends, this group of people are acquaintances/coworkers, this group of people are strangers, this group of people are poor, rich, educated, uneducated, republican, democrat, male, female, white, black, hispanic, native, and the list goes on and on. We put people in categories and we like it when people stay in their proper containers, roles and relationships with us. It’s clean, neat and predictable. Many of us even label ourselves and even accept the labels assigned to us by others or society. Wife, husband, mother, father, fat, thin, pretty, handsome, introvert, extrovert, young, old, etc. These labels can and sometimes do place us in groups where we are accepted and comfortable but they also divide us by creating boundaries and an “us versus them” mentality with those people who are NOT in our label. We can reduce people to a charactiture. In the book The Big Sort, demographic research from the past 15 years has discovered that we are self sorting ourselves into more and more homogenous groups in this country by ethnicity, political affiliations, and socio-economics. Even as the US grows more diverse, we are clumping together with only those the most like us and who make us the most comfortable. We like to be comfortable. When the categories are violated, it’s confusing, messy, unpredictable and VERY uncomfortable.
This gospel story this morning troubles me because it points to the reality of seeing labels and not people. We have Jesus who frankly is operating out of his clique of being male with a lot of privilege in the first century Palestinian culture. He ignores the cries of the woman in our story at first. She’s not just any woman but a woman with the label of Canaanite. From our OT history, we know she’s the enemy. And women, especially unaccompanied women, didn’t speak out to a man in public. For Jesus to answer her, would be for Jesus to admit that she had some claim or right to him. That would be uncomfortable for Jesus and the male disciples at the bare minimum. Jesus is acting well within the cultural norm as an insider and it completely annoys me because this is not the label of Jesus that I like. I like to keep Jesus in his label of Son of God, the divine Jesus. The Jesus that is predictably kind, inclusive, forgiving, merciful, abundant, and counter cultural. But here we clearly have Jesus as fully human. Jesus, in the reality of his humanity, trying to keep some control and predictability in his life. Men don’t speak to strange women and Israelites DO NOT speak to Canaanites. Jesus is not acting the way I want him to at the beginning of this passage. I want him immediately to include her, love her and accept her. But instead Jesus ignores her, the disciples try to send her away and then Jesus calls her a dog when he does speak to her. Seriously Jesus? Is Jesus really removing any human dignity from her, and making it clear where she is on the social ladder? Frankly, I’m appalled and my instinct is to protect this woman from this apparently typical first century man named Jesus who appears to be trying to keep her in her proper place.
But this Canaanite woman does something remarkable in the face of all of the labels, boundaries and cultural injustices: she refuses to be bound by them. She acknowledges that yes, indeed, she is out of place, she is not in Jesus’ social group but she refuses to allow Jesus to just dismiss her. She asserts that despite her labels, she is more than those labels and is also deserving of the mercy that Jesus is offering the “lost sheep of Israel.”
Her faith is not just about belief in Jesus, we assume that she has heard of him and who he is somehow, but her faith is courage to claim her own and her daughter’s full humanity and place at God’s table. Her faith is persistent action when it seems hopeless and useless to keep pushing for justice. She forces Jesus to step out of the cultural categories that they were both caught in and affirm her true label: a child of God deserving of God’s abundance. In these few verses she starts out in her position of a lowly Canaanite but gets Jesus to see her as more than that, to see her as a woman, a full human, at the end of their exchange. Not to mention that Jesus grants her the healing of her daughter from a demon.
Jesus also ultimately refuses to be bound by the cultural labels. He does finally speak to her and he does admit that God’s mercy is wider than first offered. This mercy he offered the woman would have been seen as offensive and scandalous to the Israelites as his talking to her would have been. God incarnate is not neat, predictable and clear. The boundaries are not where we think they are. This passage highlights the messiness of relationships with each other and even with God, as well as the offensiveness of truly offering God’s love to all. We’re going to mess it up but are we going to move past our own uncomfortableness for the sake of offering God’s love and mercy to another? Just when we think that we have God all figured out, labeled and categorized, we discover that God can’t be contained by our human labels and need for control.
The reality and the danger of labels, categorizing and sorting ourselves gets expressed in many different ways in our world. From the violence in Ferguson, MO that points out our struggle with racism in this country is far from over and that labels of skin color are still dehumanizing, to mental illness as a label that people are too ashamed to speak of, to religious categories that spark war resulting in the death of school children, to gender violence, to the marginalization of those who self identify as LBGTQI. And it’s not just these larger social divisions that are a problem: in our own corner of the world, cliques, gossip, or anytime we assume an “us versus them” mentality about anything, it seems that our categorization of each other trumps our very humanity at times. Whenever we look for what is different about another person and assign a label, we fail to see each other as the very same child of God, loved by God.
There are tensions in our Matthew story that are difficult to reconcile, but what is true is that this Canaanite woman refused to let go of her own identity as a human created by God regardless of other social divisions. She forced Jesus to step out of his boundaries to recognize her inclusion in God’s plan for reconciliation of all people and creation. Jesus did exactly that-included her, not just for her sake, but for all of us. Jesus crosses boundaries and shows us that as the people of God, we are called to those places of uncomfortableness, unpredictability, and chaos for the sake of radical unity, the abolishment of “us versus them” thinking, in the face of social and cultural divisions. We are called to walk with each other despite differences. We do this when put aside our own wants and comfort for someone else’s needs, when we share from what we have, and when we offer each other benefit of the doubt and true grace. We are called to witness for the world, that through the fully human and fully divine, Jesus Christ and by his death and resurrection by God, the boundary of division from God and each other is eradicated. We are free to live as ONE people of God with no division, distinction, or category. The predictability of God’s promises of love and mercy for us all and God labels all of us as a beloved child, is all we need is to know. Thanks be to God.