Sermon: Facing our racism (Aug. 20, 2017)

Pentecost 11A
August 20, 2017
Matthew 15:10-28

Tomorrow, as you likely know, we will have the chance to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event: a total eclipse of the sun. Well, not quite here in New York, where it will only be partial, but in parts of our country, the moon will entirely cover the sun in the middle of the day, bringing darkness over the land for as long as two and a half minutes. It’s an extraordinary event, and a reminder of just how magnificent are the cosmos that our God has created.

But I also can’t help but notice the irony – that this moon-shadow that will be cast upon our country corresponds with the shadow already cast by a resurgence of some of the most hateful history of our nation. After what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, it already seems like there is a shadow cast upon this land. Like many of you, I looked at images of the event – hundreds of white men (and some women) carrying torches, weapons and shields, and chanting about their superiority over anyone who doesn’t look or believe like them – and I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t know, or at least wasn’t willing to believe, that such people still existed in this country in such large numbers, and that they were willing to make themselves known. Even in the Klan meetings of yesteryear, members wore hoods over their faces – but these men in Charlottesville were emboldened to spew hate right out in the open! When faced with counter-protesters, things turned violent, even resulting in injury and death. It was a stark realization that the sin of racism did not die in America with the Civil War, or the end of Jim Crow laws, or the election of a black president. It is still very much a reality that can no longer be ignored.

I couldn’t help but think of those white nationalists, spewing hateful words, as I read today’s Gospel lesson. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus says, “but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles it.” Well yeah, here was a pretty stark example of defiling things coming out of mouths! I think Jesus’ observation makes a lot sense, to be honest! But then the disciples tell Jesus, “Hey, Jesus, just so you know, what you said back there offended the Pharisees.” Ah, the Pharisees. The Pharisees, you may remember, are teachers of Jewish law. They are respected, and they are educated, and they really know their stuff. But they are often called out by Jesus, because in their hard-nosed following of the law, they often lost sight of the big picture, and especially the imperative to love their neighbor. Today is one example of that: the Pharisees are on people’s case about properly washing hands before eating. A good practice, to be sure, but their insistence on it has blinded them to the larger concern of how people are speaking to and about one another. So Jesus calls them out on it. And, the Pharisees are offended.

Why so offended, you ask? Well, because they had some deeply held and well-informed convictions about how things should be (and they were good, faithful people, so their opinion about how things should be was really, pretty valid). But then Jesus comes along and says, in essence, “You’re wrong. This thing that you hold so dear – it’s totally off mark. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all.” Now, I don’t care much about hand-washing, aside from its obvious health benefits, but I do know how it feels to believe passionately about something, or even just to hold it as a truth, and be told – even by Jesus – that I am off the mark, that my viewpoint needs to change. There are times when I read something Jesus says that challenges my belief or my way or life, and I think, “But… but… but… I don’t want to change my views about that! My view makes me feel safer, or it is fun, or it is more convenient for me.” In fact, sometimes when this happens to me, I’m inclined to feel offended by what Jesus says – just like the Pharisees.

It’s good to notice that. It’s good to recognize when God’s Word, when the words of Jesus, rub up against our beliefs or our ways of life, and show us that we still have some growing and reflecting to do. When we are willing to read God’s Word and examine our hearts, and then maybe even change our ways in response – that is what it called a life of faith and a relationship with the living God. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t come to church each week to hear, “You’re doing it right! Keep it up!” I come to learn and grow and be changed!

This need to re-examine and grow becomes even clearer in the next part of the story. Jesus leaves that place and heads on to the next place, and a Canaanite woman approaches him, begging for help for her daughter. Canaanites are not Jewish, not a part of the house of Israel. They are “the other” – a different race. When she first starts asking for help, Jesus ignores her. The disciples ask him to send her away – she is annoying them. “She keeps shouting at us,” they say. “But she’s not even one of us. She’s different, and we don’t really care about her issues right now. She is claiming that Canaanite lives matter as much as ours, but we’d rather just focus on our needs right now. Israel’s lives matter more.” To the shock of the reader, Jesus seems to agree with them! He finally responds, saying he didn’t come to help her kind. He came to help the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she persists. She begs him to help. “The life of my daughter matters,” she says. “Canaanite lives matter, at least enough to catch some crumbs from the table.” And finally Jesus says, “Yes, you’re right. Great is your faith!” and he heals her daughter.

Now, I don’t know if Jesus was just being a little more human here than we might prefer, and this woman helped him see he needed to broaden his mission, or if maybe he was just testing her and those watching to show the importance of persisting in faith, but either way – Jesus’ response here bothers me. Maybe it even offends me, just like he offended the Pharisees a few verses back. And here’s why: What I want from Jesus is immediate response to a person in need, no matter that she is a woman, a Canaanite, or even, as Jesus himself says, a “dog.” Jesus should care about all the people!

And that moment when Jesus doesn’t seem to care is offensive to me – because that moment leaves space for me to have to notice the times when I don’t or won’t take notice of those people who may be different from me, who are begging for help. In that moment when Jesus leaves this woman begging, I realize how often I see someone who is in need and I think, “Not my problem.” Or how I can just turn off the news when it becomes too much, because I have the privilege of not having to care, because it doesn’t affect me or my loved ones. Or how sometimes, in my most sinful moments, I convince myself, even unconsciously for a brief moment, that this person is in need by their own fault, and oh, what a shame it is.

Now, Jesus may not have been thinking any those things when he ignores and dismisses the woman, but the hard truth is: I know that I am. I know that I often ignore the needs of my neighbors who are people of color, or Jewish or Muslim, or don’t even make the effort to discover what those needs are in the first place. I know that I am able to ignore or dismiss others because their reality is not mine, and I can go about my life relatively unaffected by systemic racism or anti-Semitism. I know that as a white woman, I am afforded a lot of privileges that I did nothing to earn – things as simple as being able to find a flesh-colored band-aid that is the color of my flesh, and things more significant like being able to shop in a store without being followed or questioned, or get out of a speeding ticket when I was clearly at fault. I know that I can enjoy those privileges while others cannot, but I am willing to accept things as they are, because I benefit from it.

Brothers and sisters, sometimes a story in the Bible is offensive to us, because it shows us a great big mirror that forces us to look at our own hearts and find the sin therein. This is one of them, especially in light of the persisting reality of racism of which our country has become unequivocally aware. Even if we weren’t the ones carrying torches across the University of Virginia campus, that does not mean we don’t have a role in the system that has brought that to the fore. And it certainly doesn’t mean we can shirk our responsibility to respond to it. As God-fearing Christians who proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ, we must respond to it, somehow.

My suggestion, as I wrote in a letter to you this week, is that we begin with prayerful repentance, by looking in the mirror. We begin by examining where we have benefitted from or participated in systemic racism, by checking ourselves and our reactions in our interactions with people of color, by taking note of when we are offended by something and asking, “Why does that offend me?” and being open to the possibility that God is trying to tell you something in your reaction. We begin by listening to and taking seriously the nagging voice of the Canaanite woman, telling us that her life and her story matter. We begin by praying that God would not only reveal our sin, but also turn out hearts back toward the loving grace of Jesus Christ.

I’m hoping to catch at least a part of the eclipse tomorrow. As the sky starts to darken, around 1:30, I invite you to join me in praying for victims of racism, and for those who espouse hate. It’s appropriate that 1:30 is also the time when Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester to hate, was struck and killed by a car driven by someone associated with the white supremacists, so I will be praying for her and her family. At the peak of the eclipse, the darkest moment, 2:34, let us pray that God would reveal to us our own prejudices, and ask forgiveness. And as the sky brightens again throughout the rest of the afternoon, let us give thanks, that God never leaves us in our sin, that God sent his only Son to die for us and rise again, and invited us to join him in the new life he gives. Let us pray that by God’s forgiveness, by the gift of new life that we receive in our baptism, and by the nourishment we receive in the holy sacrament, we would be equipped and empowered to work for peace and justice, to stand by our brothers and sisters of different race and creed, and to bring God’s love to all whom we meet.

Let us pray… God of all creation, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the needs of those among us begging for help. Help us to see and to confess our prejudice, and turn our hearts toward you. Encourage us to participate in the pursuit of peace and justice for all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.