This is a sermon about wholeness, and it begins with last week’s sermon about focus.
Jim Shiflett commented about last week’s sermon. That sermon was about focus, in which I suggested that disciples of Jesus ought to try to stay focused on Jesus. (Like a lot of Christian ideas, this is easier said than done.) At the men’s lunch the next afternoon, Jim agreed with the premise of my sermon but took it another step, and added that when we focus on Jesus we see the people Jesus saw. We see the red and yellow, black and white. The haves and the have-nots. Locals and come heres. And we try to love them like Jesus loved them. Our culture these days is less generous when it comes to loving neighbor. But love doesn’t come from culture; it comes from God, and the church is called to share it.
When we focus on Jesus we see the people Jesus saw. Ultimately, we are left with the solitary face of Jesus looking at us. Because, ultimately, he looks into our hearts. Face to face, he asks, “How did you do following my great commandment to love?”
We all want to say, “I invested my life in things that I thought would bring you pleasure. I got to know my neighbor and tried to love and serve my neighbor in God’s name.”
* * *
The riot in Charlottesville serves as a painful reminder to us all that being a good neighbor can be difficult. The riot in Charlottesville—and the violence in so many places—reminds us that our communities face challenges. These challenges are tough. But let me say on the front end: These challenges are challenges thoughtful, brave people can overcome, by God’s mercy and with God’s help.
Every person in every community is tainted and corrupted to some degree by prejudice. One could argue that there’s nothing at all unusual about this, or even wrong about this. it is what it is. Different ones of us look at things and each other differently. This is one definition of prejudice. We make preconceived judgments or hold preconceived opinions about people we don’t know well: A black waiter in dreadlocks, a white biker with a body covered with tattoos, a little chinese (or blonde, or red head, or wheelchair-bound) girl eating an ice cream cone, a professional athlete, a police officer, somebody with a heavy New Jersey accent. Each of these differences have the potential to trigger an automatic response from us.
These differences between us can (and should be) be opportunities for coming together and for conversation. If we strike up a conversation with the black waiter, we can ask about dreadlocks. We can ask the biker if it hurt getting those tattoos. And what does each one mean? We can ask the woman from New Jersey about her accent. Where are you from? Do I sound as Southern to you as you sound New Jersey to me? I hate it when an actor or actress in a movie plays a southerner and gets the accent all wrong. Do you think a New Jersey accident is treated like a stereotype? Doesn’t that bother you?
We enter into these conversations gently and carefully, of course. The conversations that follow can be fun, edifying, and mind-opening.
Every human is different from every other human, and humans sometimes look at differences with a certain degree of curiosity (which is a good thing) or of suspicion (which is usually a bad thing). Differences may make us feel a certain degree of discomfort. Men don’t full understand women. Brown people have a different perspective than white people. Even though I (sadly) probably can’t tell the difference between a man from Vietnam and from Korea, there are differences between these men. The worker doesn’t fully appreciate the boss, and vice versa. Southerners have a slightly different take on things than Northerners, Midwesterners, and on, and on, and on.
Our differences can be places of coming together in conversation. Handshakes. Fist bumps. Awkward hugs. We are part of the human race. Isn’t it wonderful? God did a very, very good job making us. Amen?
* * *
We could split hairs about my definitions of prejudice and racism, but for the sake of conversation, hear me out: Racism is when I allow my prejudices to get the better of me. Prejudice is saying, wow, I’m different than you/you’re different than me. And these differences sometimes make me feel a little uncomfortable. Racism is when I say, I’m different than you, and I’m better than you. I deserve this; you don’t. This is my turf; not yours.
When we discover racism is present in our heart, in our dialogue, in our politics, in our religion, in our family that’s where the Christian needs to stop and say, “Something is wrong with this picture.” Step back. Count to ten.
Let’s be clear: there is no place for racism in the body of Christ. Jesus, who was a Middle Eastern brown man, a Jew, and an outsider taught us there’s no place for racism in this world.
In our lectionary reading today from Matthew, we have a powerful text that touches directly on the racism that existed in Jesus’ day.
An outsider approaches Jesus and asks for mercy for her sick daughter. It’s what any good parent might do. Please help my child.
The problem with this person is that she is a “triple outsider on account of her gender, her ethnicity, and her cultural-religious affiliations” ((p. 356 Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Vol 3).
This is how one commentator puts it: “Jesus’ attitude and language in his encounter with the Canaanite woman is shocking. She is simply seeking deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter, and yet he calls her a dog—a name that his fellow Jews routinely gave to Gentile pagans. First, he is silent in the face of her cries, refusing even to acknowledge her (v. 23); then, he says that his mission is ‘only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (v. 24); finally, he tells her that the ‘food’ for the children should not be thrown to the ‘dogs’ (v. 26)—non-Israelites like her. This incident raises deep questions about prejudice, divine election, and the limits of God’s mercy.” (p. 356, ibid).
Some say that in this scene “Jesus is ‘caught with his compassion down,” and forced to confront his own prejudice; in a reversal of the usual roles, the respected teacher [Jesus] learns from an outsider ‘the need to broaden his ministry of hospitality to those outside the house of Israel.’” (p. 358, ibid).
Other commentators say this is exactly how Jesus wanted the scene to unfold. Some say that Jesus is in complete command of the scene. He treats the woman roughly, just like most Jewish teachers would, doing so in dire hope she’ll confront him about his prejudice. He’s allowing her to take center stage. He’s allowing her to be the teacher of this scene. She does, in fact, call him on his rude language and prejudice, and he—as a result—changes course as a teaching moment for his disciples.
Regardless of what Jesus’ motives were in the exchange (scripture doesn’t tell us), we know the outcome of this tense scene: Jesus is impressed with the woman. He is impressed by her tenacity. He is impressed by her faith. He extends God’s mercy and healing to include even her—out outsider. Jesus grants the woman her wish.
Matthew’s gospel was written by a Jew for Jews. By the end of the Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples to baptize ALL the nations. It would appear there are no limits to God’s mercy, after all. By the end of Matthew’s gospel we see clearly that God intends wholeness for the whole world: red and yellow, black, and white. All people. All nations.
When disciples of Jesus stay focused on Jesus, they see what Jesus sees. They try to look at the world the way Jesus looks at the world: With love. With inclusion. With dignity. With compassion. With respect.
We won’t tolerate the hate of racism. We may love the racist, but we won’t love the racism.
Mayor Knox White spoke to my Kiwanis Club this week. He said he gets a fair amount of hate mail from white supremacy groups who threatened to come to Greenville. If ten Klansmen march on Greenville, I hope ten-thousand Christians will gather in opposition. My father fought a world war to give Nazi groups the right to have free speech in our country; he also fought to eradicate that kind of hatred. We won’t tolerate the hate of racism.
In the name of Christ, we’ll work for a world where everyone is loved, respected, and included. We’ll be the hands and feet of Jesus in reaching beyond human-made lines and barriers.
In the name of Christ, we’ll not be overcome by evil, but we’ll strive, by the grace of God, to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21). Wholeness won’t be only God’s plan; it’ll be our plan, too.
Thanks be to God.
* * *
Gospel, Matthew 15:10-21-28 10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...