11 Pentecost, Proper 15 – August 20, 2017
Evil. We don’t often speak about evil, but this has been a sad and painful week. The horrifying events in Charlottesville have played out in the news, and on social media, and the only reason I can understand how we are so caught up in division and the seeming need to divide ourselves is to call out and name the evil for what it is. Racism, bigotry, the ideology that supports white supremacy is evil.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is asking us a question: Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community. He says, “In this moment – when the stain of bigotry has once again covered our land, and when hope, frankly, sometimes seems far away, when we must now remember new martyrs of the way of love like young Heather Heyer – it may help to remember the deep wisdom of the martyrs who have gone before.
The year was 1967. It was a time not unlike this one in America. Then there were riots in our streets, poverty and unbridled racism in our midst, and a war far away tearing us apart at home. In that moment, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a book, his last one, with a message that rings poignant today. It was titled, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
One of his insights then was that a moment of crisis is always a moment of decision. It was true then and is true now. Where do we go from here? Chaos? Indifference? Avoidance? Business as usual? Or Beloved Community?”
It’s interesting that our readings for today are about community. The story of the Canaanite woman is the one I entered seminary under. I will always remember our Liturgy professor saying, remember this gospel story, remember that this is the one under which you entered seminary. This woman persisted. The Canaanite woman persisted. She didn’t go away. She won’t be dismissed. She draws closer and kneels, and in the vernacular of a determined woman she cries, “Master, help me,”. Her plea for help is met with the language of cultural difference and distance: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”.
Jesus has a pretty specific focus for his mission and that focus gets enlarged, broadened, and pretty much broken wide open by the faith and audacity and persistence of this woman.
“Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” With this painful, yet faithfully persistent plea, the Canaanite woman asks to be seen and heard, recognized as another child of God. And through her person and her plea, Jesus’ mission and ministry is enlarged and broken open. Matthew’s gospel ends with the commission to take the good news to the very ends of the earth.
Why this matters and is so timely is because it’s way too easy for us to assume that God is on our side, looks like us, favors our positions, and endorses our views. Call it sinful, call it human, but let’s be honest: it’s really easy for us to imagine God is just like us. On one level, that ability to imagine God is like us is absolutely crucial. It is, in a sense, the whole point of the Incarnation – that God became one of us – and therefore allows us to imagine being in relationship with God. The problem is when we imagine God is only like us – as in, not like others.
And just as the Canaanite woman demonstrates that God’s mission and vision and compassion and mercy are bigger than what Jesus may have initially imagined, so also might the Canaanite woman teach us the same; at a time when synagogues are threatened, mosques are being fire-bombed, and neo-Nazis and white supremacists march the streets: every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you will find the God, made manifest in Jesus, on the other side.
So, what is our response to our Presiding Bishop? Chaos, indifference, life as usual, or beloved community? Well, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we look to Jesus and we pattern our response on him: we see the One who consistently crossed social barriers demonstrating that, in God, there is no “in” group or “out” group, the One who exposed evil and hypocrisy wherever he saw it (and nothing made him madder than self-satisfied religious folk who abused others in the name of God), the One who consistently lifted up the oppressed and demonstrated special care for the vulnerable, the One who died to dismantle the power of evil, hatred, division, and violence. We must name what we are seeing as evil and make no peace with it. We must speak out—to be silent is to be complicit. We must find ways to support, to be allies of, those targeted by this evil: black people, Jews, Muslims, immigrants—actually, pretty much anyone who isn’t white.
Those of us who are white need to get out of our comfort zones and do some soul searching about the subtle and myriad ways we are part of, we perpetuate, a system that privileges us over others and we need to begin the hard work of dismantling that system. We must all, as our Baptismal vows proclaim, “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” and “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” These vows are not just nice additions to our Sunday morning services, they are not something meant to be picked up and put down when it is convenient, they are the core of the Gospel and the call that we all share as Christians.
I rarely do this, but in our quest for understanding the insidious nature of racism and what I mean by systemic racism, I would suggest reading this book – small great things by Jodi Picoult. It is described as “a gripping moral dilemma that leads readers to question everything they know about privilege, power, and race. It’s a great read, and is about a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?” I am happy to loan someone my book.
Chaos or community? The Canaanite woman was persistent. Persistent prayer is a thread throughout the scriptures. It’s a mysterious thread, where God, it seems, loves us to be persistent, to desire something with all our heart and soul and to not give up asking. Another favorite story of mine is that marvelous story in Genesis chapter 32 of Jacob wrestling with the angel – really with God. He wrestled with him all night, but even though his hip was put out of joint as he wrestled, he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And the angel blessed him because of his persistence.
Persistent prayer, and why it seems to be so honored throughout Scripture, is because it reflects a deep desire and passion – it so often comes from a place of great love.
St. Paul was passionately devoted to his beloved sisters and brothers in Christ and he would pray for them persistently. “I remember you constantly in my prayers day and night,” he writes in his second letter to his beloved Timothy. “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you all.” (To the Philippians.) “We have not ceased praying for you.” (To the Colossians.) The source of this persistent prayer is love – the love Paul felt for his fellow human beings. And it is that love which touches the loving heart of God.
May we all strive to be persistent in our prayers and in our overcoming evil, the darkness in our world. May we be beacons of light in the darkness. As Dr. King is quoted as saying, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” We have a choice. We can turn our backs, or we can do something. We can work to build God’s beloved community. Amen.