A Lutheran Says What?

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

Listen to Me (or I’m Sorry) August 27, 2017

*This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO, on August 27. To watch it please go to http://www.bethanylive.org

Isaiah 51 

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
    you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
    and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
    and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
    but I blessed him and made him many.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
    he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
    her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
    thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Listen to me, my people,
    and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
    and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
    my salvation has gone out
    and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
    and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
    and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like a garment,
    and those who live on it will die like gnats;[a]
but my salvation will be forever,
    and my deliverance will never be ended.

Listen to me, you who know righteousness,
    you people who have my teaching in your hearts;
do not fear the reproach of others,
    and do not be dismayed when they revile you.
For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
    and the worm will eat them like wool;
but my deliverance will be forever,
    and my salvation to all generations.

 

Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[a] the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[b] and on this rock[c] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was[d] the Messiah.[e]

 

About a year ago I joined a group called Together Colorado. It’s an organization of interfaith, interrace clergy in CO. Each month we meet to discuss how we together as people of faith work to promote and further human dignity and human worth in our communities. It’s rich in diversity, not only religious and ethnic diversity but diverse thoughts on how to accompany one another. It’s completely non-partisan and so all voices are heard equally. Each time we gather we begin by reading together our credentials, that is our reason for being together despite our many differences. Together Colorado meets at a different location each time and looks at community needs to address: health care, education, housing, civil rights and anything else that calls to us needing attention. In this first year for me, I have mostly listened. As I arrive at someone else’s place of worship and community, I am aware that I am a guest on sacred ground. I am aware of my perspective that I bring, that I have much to learn and I bring my biases. So, I listen.

We met most recently this past Tuesday at a Seventh Day Adventist church in north Denver, a predominately black congregation in a predominately black neighborhood. Once again, I took a listening stance. I sat across the table at lunch from Rabbi Brian, from Temple Emmanuel, as he, with a shell shocked look on his face, talked about how he couldn’t even process what had been going on in our country the past couple of weeks, as he’s too busy facing the real fears of the people in his congregation. They are terrified of the rise of violence against Jewish people and some have been on the receiving end of hate mail. They wait in fear for what might happen next to them, a friend or a family member.

I listened as the pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church shared with us how he and his congregation discuss ways to meet racism with love and share the love of Jesus Christ even with those who look to hate them for no other reason than the color of their skin. I listened to the pain and fear of not knowing if their children are safe when they are away from home because of someone who believes that their lives don’t matter as much as their own.

I listened to a fellow ELCA clergy who is dying of a rare form of cancer and she can’t get the treatment that she needs with the gaps in healthcare. We laid hands on her and prayed for healing, but I received notification that she is now in intensive care.

Listen to me, God says three times in our Isaiah reading today. Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, listen to me my people, listen to me you who know righteousness. Listen to me. The word for “listen” in Hebrew is “Shema.” To hear, to take heed, to harken. The Jewish people refer to Deuteronomy 6:4-9 as the great Shema, the great “harken” from God. Hear O Israel the Lord your God is one. Tell one another and the children of God’s great love, justice and redemption of God’s people when you are at home, when you are away, when you rise, and when you sleep. Put these words on your hand, on your forehead, and in your heart. Love the Lord with all of you heart, soul, mind and strength. Listen to God, listen to one another to hear what God might be saying to you through someone different than you.

It’s hard to listen. It’s hard to listen in world that sends us so many messages all day long. What do we listen to? Who do we listen to? What has authority? Who has authority? When we listen, truly listen to one another, my brothers and sisters, we can’t help but to be moved, to be changed, to wonder, and to even fear a little. I listened to all these stories on Tuesday and I will confess, I didn’t know what to think or say. I listened to a reality very different from my own and yet, I know that these stories that they tell are also true. These stories from other people are as authoritative as my own, but I feel myself getting caught in the need to speak my authority over and above someone else’s. This is where our gospel story today struck me. Jesus asks the disciples: Who do the people who have been listening to me say I am? Are they really listening? The disciples answer with the good Jewish answers of Jeremiah, the prophets, Elijah whom they believed would return. Then Jesus asks them, but who do you say that I am? Peter immediately answers “the son of the Living God!” Peter had been listening! And then Jesus goes on to talk about how Peter will be the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church and then the authority of binding and loosing. We listen to this and we assume that this passage is about WHO has authority. Indeed, much ink has been spilled over this question of the who of authority in the past 2000 years of church history. But listen again, Jesus isn’t actually worried about the who of authority, Jesus is concerned with the what of authority. The “you’s” in this passage are plural, not singular. All are given authority, the keys of the kingdom. Authority to bind and loose. In our Lutheran tradition, we call this the “office of the keys” or confession and forgiveness.

In our Milestone ministry here at Bethany, I teach the office of the keys to our preschoolers. I teach them about two sorrys. We say sorry to God and we also say sorry to the person whom we need to seek forgiveness. I tell them that we will mess up with each other and need to say I’m sorry. That’s life with people, but God always forgives us and so we forgive each other out of this great love. I have them make a fist and tell them that this is their heart when they are tight with feeling sorry or guilt. But when they say “I’m sorry”, and they hear God and the other person say, “I forgive you,” it’s like a key that unlocks their heart to be opened up to receive more love and joy.
Jesus says, you, all of you (that means us!) indeed have authority to open our hearts and the hearts of others. You matter, but not for your own gain, comfort or status. You have authority to give your authority away. Jesus is the prime example of this giving away of power. Just as the Israelites bound the word of God on their hands and forehead, we bind ourselves to God and the people of God. Bind yourselves together and listen, listen to one another seeking righteousness, right relationship with one another. This kind of relationship can only come when we quit worrying about who has the authority or if we have enough authority or power and worry more if we can use our authority for justice for our neighbor. Is. 51:4 “my justice for a light to the peoples.” God sent Jesus, the Son, to be this light of justice, to show us how to do justice, how to live justly so that the lowly are lifted up, the sick receive care, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the Canaanite woman is seen, a Samaritan is called good, demon possessed people are brought back into community, lepers are healed and restored, the powerful of the Roman Empire and the Temple are challenged and all people are given dignity in the body of Christ.

The Son of the living God to all peoples, binds us together in God’s love as one body needing each other and looses us from whatever keeps us from God and one another, which is sin and death. Jesus looses us from the stories that the world tells us to listen to, so that we hear the story of who we truly are, all created in God’s loving and diverse image. Whenever we, or our neighbor, hear a story that tells us that we are anything less than this image of God’s love, we have the authority and the obligation to say no. Now, this kind of authority won’t make us popular, but Isaiah 51:7 tells us to not be dismayed when we are reviled for speaking this truth. This proclaiming the truth of God’s way of justice for all people, not the Roman Empire or the Temple’s way, is what got Jesus killed. The truth of this justice calls us to this same binding and loosing in Jesus’ name. We bind together in order to loose our brothers and sisters from the sin of racism, from the sin of intolerance of different faith traditions, from the sin of violence, from the sin of homophobia, from the sin of sexism, from the sin of economic disparity, from the sin of disease, from the sin of fear, and from the sin of hate.

Listen to me, God says. Listen to me my people. My beloved people. You, all of you, are too precious to listen and to be bound to any other story than the one of forgiveness, love, reconciliation, shalom, justice, freedom and joy. Listen to the story of the empty tomb and know that anything is and will be possible with me, says God. Listen to the stories of each other and hear my voice from the lips of your neighbor. Speak words of mercy to each other.
And so Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the ways that I don’t loose those around me from my own bias and judgements. I’m sorry for the ways I don’t use my authority for the sake of loosing my neighbor from the sin that keeps them from having justice and from being seen fully as a child of God. I’m sorry for being afraid and looking the other way instead of engaging in God’s righteousness. This is why I’m grateful that each time we gather here, at Bethany as God’s people, we confess our sins, our omissions, we say we’re sorry to God and to one another. And I’m desperate for the words from God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that tell me I am forgiven. I am loosed from sin, I am loosed from my story, I am loosed from death but I am bound to God and to you, the beloved community.
Brothers and sisters, let’s bind ourselves to God and one another and loose ourselves and our neighbor from sin and death, to listen for God’s words of tender forgiveness and to open our hands and hearts to more fully receive the joy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus.

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Intersectionality and the Reality of Hope April 16, 2016

Swirling around us on Facebook, television, and all other media seems to be the conversation on intersectionality. Yes, this word will be underlined in red by Microsoft Word, but trust me, it’s a real thing. It’s a word that delves us deep into complexity, brokenness and uncertainty and yet, I believe is also the source of our healing amidst great divisiveness. Intersectionality names all of the places where pain can be inflicted, where we must confront our own biases, privileges and where truth can be named. I’ve been personally drawn into this sacred space in the past couple of years as I wrestle with white privilege, gender bias, and all of the “isms” in which I live and I am deeply complicit. To name my own privilege: I am white, upper middle class, well-educated, heterosexual, married woman, who happens to also be ordained clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This gives me great privilege and a voice in our culture in ways that I know some of my brothers and sisters of color do not share. I am compelled as a follower of Jesus to name my brokenness, my division from others and yet risk my voice and privilege for the sake of those without.

While my “whiteness” affords me great privilege, my gender (especially in my vocation) often, in subtle and not so subtle ways, can be where I experience the brokenness of humanity. I have my fair share of stories of seemingly benign comments and “joking” remarks by male colleagues, people in the pews and in the community at large, that I won’t bore you with, but trust me when I say that misogyny is alive and well in as well as outside of the Church. It may not be overt as in catcalls or outright, blatant denial of my “right” to be seen as equal, or as “good as the men” but it’s much more subtle, nuanced and  so much more difficult to call out without be “a bitch” or “one of those feminists.” (By the by, a feminist is someone who believes that men and women are truly equal and deserve actual parity in every sphere of everyday life. Feminism is good for men as well!)

But I want to turn back to intersectionality for the rest of this post. I see white males writing posts about the “Black Lives Matter” movement and adding their voice to the conversation. This is a very important dialog in all of our communities and is, in my opinion, one of life and death for our brothers and sisters of color, as well as the whole of society. (We are inextricably bound to one another as the body of Christ and when one part of the body is not honored and treated with respect, we are all damaged.) White males lending their privilege and voice to the “Black Lives Matter” movement is crucial and one that I applaud. But here is what I wonder: why do these same men not affirm that their male (and often heterosexual) privilege is also an issue alongside their white privilege? I’ve had many a conversation with white males who say things such as “I can only deal with one thing at a time, and I’m going to deal with my whiteness first.” That statement alone is so steeped in entitlement and privilege that it makes my head spin. White men can and do wake up every morning and decide which aspect of their privilege that they will deal with today. Is it being white? Is it being male? Is it having every privilege known in the free world? Why not all three? Oh, because that’s hard, complex, overwhelming  and may require giving away too much of themselves. So, they can compartmentalize their privilege and go about their day. (I want to add that white women are also writing and contributing to the “Black Lives Matter” conversation but they often do not separate it from gender bias. But yes, some do.)

What about the black woman who also is gay? A Latina woman? Or an Indigenous woman? Or a transgender woman? She does not get to wake up and say, “Today, I will only worry about being oppressed as a black person.” Or, “Today I will only have to worry about being female in all my interactions.” Or, “Today I will only have to deal with being gay.” NO. She is all of those things each and every day and cannot choose how society will view her or how others will treat her. I can only imagine that it’s overwhelming and exasperating. Intersectionality requires these women to be conscious each and every second of their day all of the ways that they are seen when they walk in a room, speak up at a meeting, or even drive down the street. They do not get to compartmentalize themselves. They bring the whole of who they are into every situation. (Thanks be to God!)

At the church I currently serve, we are in the nascent stages of conversation around radical inclusion. A large part of our wrestling has been around where to begin and the reality of intersectionality.  Do we first enter into this call from Jesus with only one population, dealing with only one area at a time, such as people who are differently abled or white privilege? Is it too much to try and think about the physical and cognitive differently abled, racism, gender bias, LBGTQI biases, socio-economic differences, etc. right from the start of this ministry? Should it even be a separate ministry as it’s actually who we’re called to be as people who follow Jesus Christ who shows no partiality and includes all people, in all times and in all places in God’s love? What if  Jesus’ definition of intersectionality is different from ours?  If so,  what if this is where we find our hope and our voice going forward?

God intersects with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ; coming to humanity, being human, suffering human sorrows and experiencing human death. Jesus intersected with those whom the rest of society threw away, thought of as second or even third class. Jesus didn’t only focus on one marginalized population, but gathered women, gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, the unclean into his mission of redemption, love and complete wholeness. Jesus didn’t compartmentalize God’s redemption to one step at a time but intersected with all of creation with risky leaps and unfettered bounds. The cross is the place where this intersectionality of God takes on its deepest meaning and continues to draw us into intersections with one another. It is only when we are caught in the intersection of relationship in the Trinity and God’s work of redemption in the world that we can truly know radical inclusion, healing, peace and restoration of our divisions, our brokenness and our fear of the other. This relationship with God, requires us to die to our own privilege, our own false sense of security and safety and trust in the promises of God that ALL truly means ALL in God’s wholeness (salvation). It requires us to be in deep relationship with all whom God gathers. When we rest, trust, find our life, breath and purpose in that promise, we don’t worry that lifting up our brothers and sisters (all of who they are as created in the image of God) might diminish who WE are. We expand our idea of “we” and know that we are not “us” without whom we might now label “other.”

This is difficult work, this is risky, potentially life-ending work.It’s the end of our false identities given to us by a fearful world and the beginning of living into our true selves as people of God, wholly created in the image of pure love for sacred relationship with God and one another.  It’s where we are confronted with the reality of God’s vision for wholeness and our own fears and need for control. It’s where we find that there are more options than in/out, included/excluded, me/you, and us/them. It’s where we find the third way in the cross of Christ: hope in radical oneness, gifted with beautiful, messy and  God-created diversity.

 

 

“Let us go to the other side” Mark 4: 35-41 Year B, Pentecost, June 21, 2015 June 19, 2015

*I am posting my sermon early as this is also what is ricocheting around in my soul after hearing about the senseless act committed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Wednesday June 17th. May God have mercy on us all.  

“Let us go across to the other side.” These words of Jesus are ones that the disciples will never forget. With these words, their lives, perspectives, worldviews, and what they thought was foundational truth would be shattered. These disciples knew the Sea of Galilee, knew it quite well, I mean some of these disciples were fishermen. Boats, water and sailing, this they had down! Seemed simple enough in that moment; get it in the boat, like they had hundreds or maybe even thousands of times before. But this time was different, they were going all the way to the other side. The other side where the Gentiles lived, the people whom the disciples had heard their whole lives were unclean, not part of God’s chosen people, weird, different, excluded or maybe even scary. The disciples had no idea that on the other side would be a man possessed by a spirit named Legion because there many demons inside this man. The very kind of person their mothers had warned them about.

Jesus did not ask them to go to the other side, it wasn’t a question or an invitation; it was a command, a statement of what was happening. The disciples were going to the other side whether they liked it or not. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus, going where there is uncertainty, uncomfortableness, confrontation of their biases and the possibility of being changed forever.

“Let us go to the other side.” How many of us can resonate with that statement of fact in our lives? How many of us have gone to the other side in our lives whether we liked it or not; pushed through a door that we did not want to walk through because we knew that it would be hard? Maybe it was a cancer diagnosis, a job loss, a revelation of a secret from a family member or friend, an unexpected or untimely death of a loved one, or the sacred in your life being shattered. Or maybe “going to the other side” means that as a community you have not had a permanent pastor longer than you wanted, as much money as you wanted, as many members, or had to figure out how to live together in the midst of diversity of thought and opinion?  Going to the other side in our lives is inevitable. It usually encompasses being caught in a storm and wondering if Jesus cares at all that we feel scared, alone, hurting, grieving and struggling, perishing and trying to figure out what is going on.

“Let us go to the other side.” Going to the other side is often stormy. The waves crash and threaten to drown us in fear. This going to the other side hardly seems worth it or meaningful, why is Jesus sending us where we don’t want to go? This week in our nation we learned the consequences of not going to the other side when Jesus commands it. Out of fear of who could be on the other side of the sea, a young man (whom we also pray for as a beloved child of God) walked into a Bible study, sat with other brothers and sisters of Christ and heard about God’s love for all for an hour and then decided that fear overruled that love of God for everyone and nine children of our loving God were killed for no other reason than fear from the color of their skin. This young man was raised in the ELCA church. Two of the pastors studied at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. This young man’s sin is our sin.

We have to recognize as a predominately white denomination that we have to do better. We have to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of different races and genders, who are LBGTQI, who socio-economically do not have a voice, and all who are on the margins of our society and culture. We must truly welcome everyone into the body of Christ, for ALL of us have fallen short because Jesus’ grace, love and mercy are for ALL people, in all times and in all places, no matter what, no conditions or qualifications.  I don’t think that it’s just an aside that Mark adds the sentence, “Other boats were with him. (Jesus)” We are the body of Christ, we are all gathered on the sea to go to the other side with this Jesus who radically proclaims:  “Let us go to the other side where people who are different than us and people whom we don’t understand live. For I am coming to the other side for all people, for God comes to all of you no matter what.” Jesus brings all of us with him in his boat and on the same sea to be the voice for the voiceless, to bring healing to those who are possessed by fear, to say no more violence toward any of God’s children anywhere in the world, and to love no matter how afraid or uncomfortable we ourselves might be. I want to be clear, this isn’t about being a liberal or a conservative or whatever labels we like to give ourselves and define ourselves with. This is about all of us living in our primary “label” as a child of God. That is the only label that matters because Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter.

I stand before you a white person, a white preacher in a predominately white and upper class church and I admit my sin and guilt in all the ways that I have not acknowledged my privilege and leveraged it for the lifting up of my brothers and sisters. I confess that I don’t even fully understand all of the privilege I possess as a white, middle class, heterosexual, well-educated woman. I confess that I have looked at other people through eyes of fear and not through the eyes of God. I confess that I have shied away from proclaiming this before now out of fear of offending someone or losing status. The events of this week make it very clear to me that I, that we, must get in the boat and go to the other side with Jesus no matter how uncomfortable or scared we are. We lament, which is a call to action, with our brothers and sisters. We hold them in prayer, but we alsolook for ways to change the system of hate with the love of Jesus; we know it’s not just enough to go to church because we are called through our baptisms to BE the church-the people of God revealing and PARTICIPATING in the reconciling work of Jesus in the world. God, who is faithful and just, forgives us our sin and declares all is being made new! Live in that newness with one another!

“Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus didn’t say that it would be easy, without storms or without fear. But Jesus does promise to be with us, to speak the words “Peace! Be Still!” not just to the stormy sea around us, but will speak those words TO US and to all of humanity as well.  I believe that Jesus was with the people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Wednesday night. I don’t like it, but I believe that Jesus is with Dylann Roof.  We don’t always like getting in the boat with Jesus and everyone whom Jesus loves and go to the other side. But in the crossing is transformation. The transforming unconditional love, grace and mercy that Jesus has for all people brings us to the other side. When we reach that shore, we recognize that God is already there at work, loving, healing and drawing all people into God’s arms to be one people on the sea, even a stormy sea, with Jesus. We can’t grasp this amazing love but the good news is that it grasps us because Jesus cares very much that we are perishing in our own hate, fear and self-protection.

We, like the disciples, will always wrestle with the question, “Who then is this?” This Jesus defies our labels, our personal agendas and opinions, moves us from fear into love, stills our storms, is in our boat, is in the boat with those different from us, is with those who are being killed and killing, is weeping with those who grieve, is sending us to the other side with God’s love and mercy and promises to be with us always. So may these words, “Let us go to the other side with Jesus” be words that we, too like the disciples, never forget. Amen.

We pray for the families of Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Myra Thompson, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Susie Jackson.

We also pray for the family of Dylann Roof.

We pray for us all.

 

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.