Do you know what a grappling hook is? Most of you probably have a vague enough notion that if we launched into a congregation-wide game of Pictionary, you could sketch one out well enough that someone in your pew would guess correctly. Or you would do what I did, when my five year old asked me, “Please please please can I have a grappling hook like Batman,” Google it, and then wisely answer “Maybe for Christmas,”…and hope he forgets.
A grappling hook is – no surprise – a hook with multiple prongs attached to a rope and it’s used to grab objects. Its original use – by the Romans, who invented it around 300 BC – was actually as a way to catch the rigging on an enemy ship so that it could be brought close and boarded. And hence we have verb, “to grapple,” to be engaged with the complications presented by something. While you will leave here today knowing exactly what a grappling hook is, I cannot promise you’ll leave knowing exactly what the notoriously tricky Parable of the Unjust Manager is all about. And this is, in fact, what Jesus intended for his listeners – and now for us – when he spoke in parables. Had he wanted to be crystal clear and singular, he would have chosen – and often did choose – a different means of teaching. In choosing to speak in parable form, Jesus was inviting his listeners to engage, to be surprised, to question each other and themselves.
So, picture your grappling hook, and imagine throwing it at today’s unwieldy parable, gripping it tightly and bringing it close so we can grapple with it.
The rich man finds out that his household manager has been either untrustworthy or incompetent. Whichever it is, he seems to have lost his master some money. The rich man makes it known to the manager that he’s on the chopping block. The manager, while he still has some power and in the hopes of securing some friends who he can turn to when he’s fired, does a favor to some of the families who owe money to his master and forgives part of their debt. We are not told, but we assume, that they are elated and relieved to be out from under the burden of some of their debt. What is surprising is how elated the rich man is. He commends the manager for being savvy and for making friends by dishonest means. Luke follows the telling of the parable with a number of sayings, ending with one very familiar to us – “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Grappling is, I think, the right approach with parables, because not doing so is fraught with pitfalls and temptations. And I want to talk about a few of those and how to avoid it.
First is the temptation to allegorize parables. This reminds me of an old church joke – A pastor was talking to a group of kids in her congregation and said, “I have a riddle for you. What’s brown and has a big bushy tail and eats nuts,” to which one little kid raised his hand and said, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.” When we allegorize a difficult parable to bring meaning to it, we assign a character as God, another as Jesus, maybe another as “us.” The problem, of course, is that many of Jesus’ parables’ characters are morally complicated, so we find ourselves manipulating and twisting a parable to fit the tidy allegory. Instead of this approach, what if we identify the place where the allegory starts to fall apart, recognize that as the “surprise” of Jesus’ teaching and start our search for meaning right there. In this parable, that spot for me is when the rich master praises his manager for going behind his back to protect his own interests over his masters’. We don’t know for sure, but the master could be responding to any number of things – the basic morality of the managers’ mercy toward the debtors, his pride at hiring a clever manager, his realization that the debtors are more likely to be able to actually pay him back, thereby bringing more wealth into his coffers. When we stop at this point in the parable, this point where it becomes trickier to identify the manager as Jesus or the master as God, it may be because we find ourselves asking if we’re called to act shrewdly and, if so, feeling uncomfortable with that. But this concept of acting shrewdly is not isolated to this parable or to the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples, he says, “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
So finding the surprise in the parable, and not shying away from it, leads us to this idea of shrewdness. We might be tempted to immediately ask what shrewdness looks like for us as Christians. But before we answer that question, we need to make sure to avoid a second temptation in interpreting parables – to start looking for the lesson for us today before understanding what was going on then, the context. Have you ever Googled a really remote place? For example, Christmas Island. On Google Maps you have to zoom out six times from Christmas Island before catching sight of any other land, in this case Java, before you’re able to place where exactly Christmas Island is located. Without that context, it would be foolish to set out in a boat looking for Christmas Island. When we look at Jesus’ parables, one of the most important and constant pieces of context for us to remember is Jesus’s Jewishness. Jesus was a Jew. He would have been familiar with the words of the prophet Amos we heard this morning. He would have known that during the time Amos was active many Israelites were living prosperous lives built on deceitful practices and enslavement, just like the rich master lived in Jesus’ time. Jesus would have also known that in this setting the manager was likely an enslaved person as well and therefore himself indebted and without options had he not acted shrewdly. He also would have known that there’s a strong possibility that the portion of debt the manager forgave was actually his “cut,” the amount he’d added to the debt to line his own pockets…hence Luke’s reference to “dishonest wealth.” Finally, for us as readers of Scripture, there’s also the context of Luke’s gospel, which includes a great deal of attention to wealth, poverty, and the reversal of fortunes. So now, we can see the commendation of shrewdness not in isolation or for its own good, but in the context of the inequality, enslavement and corruption of the day, set against Luke’s emphasis on the forgiveness and mercy of the Kingdom of God
So by zooming out to capture the context, the question becomes something different, not just should we be shrewd, but what would it look like to be shrewd with our wealth – even with our dishonest wealth – in the service of the Kingdom of God? By invoking “dishonest wealth,” I’m not suggesting we all have made our living at the expense of others or through corruption. But many, I’d reckon most, of us benefit from dishonest wealth – from the land we live on gained through the genocide and destruction of Native Americans to the privilege and power afforded to those of us with white skin, because of the unjust underpinnings of the concept of race. When faced with our own complicity in this dishonest wealth, we may be tempted to throw up our hands in helplessness, smash all our electronics, get off the grid and hide our money under our mattresses. But this parable calls us surely to something else – to grappling, to wrestling with the complicated and nuanced aspects of living in our world and asking how we can use those aspects to bring about the Kingdom of God – free of oppression and debt, full of mercy and forgiveness – here in our world.
Finally, especially for the preacher there is the temptation to come up with a single, pithy lesson that ties up all the loose ends neatly. Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar who describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist,” writes about the surplus of meanings that abound in parables. She says that not only can many meanings emerge from parables, but to reduce parables to just one meaning destroys their potential, that parables work because not in spite of the fact that multiple meanings emerge. She cautions that if we read a parable and think, “Oh yeah, that’s it, I got it!” and move on, we probably don’t, that we should go back again and again, even to the “easy ones,” and search for more meaning. Upon another reading of the Unjust Manager, for example, I noticed something about intention and impact. Jesus includes in the parable the fact that the manager was primarily motivated by self-interest, by making sure he had people to rely on in his upcoming period of unemployment. Does the manager’s selfish intention change the positive impact on those whose debts were partly forgiven? No. Does it change how we view the rightness or morality of that manager’s debt forgiveness? Maybe, maybe not. On Friday, people around the globe participated in the Global Climate Strike, demanding climate justice for all. Sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg is one of the young people behind the Strike, and when she was asked by Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, “Why do you think young people are so focused on climate change now?,” she said, “I think it is because we know that these consequences will face us during our lifetime.” Sixteen year-old Isra Hirsi, the co-founder of the US Youth Climate Strike and daughter of Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, talks about how the turning point for her own advocacy around climate change was when she – a young, Black, Muslim woman – became aware that climate change threatens to affect communities of color the most.
In these two cases, Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Hirsi are saying that it is because they have the interest of their selves – and others like them – in mind that they have become such passionate and committed activists for moving away from the age of fossil fuels. When they attest to this self-interest, this doesn’t make me see their actions as any less moral. In fact it fills out my understanding of why they protest, because the interests of their planet, the interests of their fellow humans, the interests of their particular communities, and the interests of themselves intersect.
And so we come to yet another, deeper – not final – layer of meaning in this parable: In grappling with how to use our wealth to bring about the great reversals of the Kingdom of God, we too will be set free…and the desire to see ourselves included in those who are set free is a powerful, valid and commendable desire.
Our lesson from Mark’s Gospel today is probably the most controversial of the teaching that Jesus gave to the people in the 1st century. Why? Because it touched the nerve of religious law…the nerve of religious practice.
Thirty years ago I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the Chief Archaeologist at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. We spent good time together on several subjects and one of the subjects we talked about was animal bones. The old city of Jerusalem had gone through some major archaeological digs and of course there is always an interest in what ancient people ate. He said that sites of where the citizens of Jerusalem who lived near the Temple Mount were often sites where pig bones were dug up and were from the first century. But in the Galilee region very few pig bones were discovered. What that suggested to him was that the food laws of not eating pork were not being adhered to in Jerusalem while they were being honored 100 miles away in the Galilee region. In other words, the people in Jerusalem, probably including religious authorities, were violating the food laws while telling others to follow them. And, so, Jesus recognizes the hypocrisy and challenges the authorities in the teaching today. And it got him into a lot of trouble.
He challenges traditions and it threatened to undermine the authority of the Pharisee and Sadducees.
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach.”
What each of us is experiencing all the time, every moment of time, is what it means to be a human being. It is not what we eat that makes us human, it is what we smell, taste, hear, see, and touch that allows us to process how we are to act as a human being.
How do we develop as human beings? As a child, there are moments that we will never remember…the care of a mother or father…being held, nurtured, from the earliest of moments to our point of death where a loved one may hold our hand or touch our face and offer words of love and care as the last words we hear on this earth.
We are less than human when we loose sight of the other and spend all of our time and energy on our own self-needs. We in effect can destroy the good around us as well as that good within us. The word narcissism comes to mind.
As an individual, as a community, we are challenged to be human. To Love. To love God, to love our neighbor, to love ourselves…the Trinity of Love.
Keith Moore, a developmental psychologist who has studied infants for decades and is a very special friend of mine from St. Marks Cathedral in Seattle, has spent his career in understanding the development of children from infancy to three years of age and into adulthood. I asked him to comment on this scripture and the following comes from that conversation: “As human beings we develop from early infancy of seeing the other as like oneself. Our moral development is built on a realization, which begins in infancy and we probably experience it as parents as we watch our infant babies imitate us…like sticking out your tongue and your child responds to you by imitating you. We laugh because it is cute. The child laughs back and communication has occurred. They cannot see their own tongue or face yet they realize that your face and tongue are like their own and they copy. This ability can be shown in many facial gestures and even newborns. The implication that this innate “God given” ability to see the other like me is the root of all later understanding of moral development.”
When I was in seminary I remember reading about experiments that went on in Nazi Germany regarding how to perpetuate the super race that Nazi Germany saw themselves to be…the ultimate in white nationalism. They found the perfect people who represented for them all they could define within the culture. Men and women were paired to have children. It was like a manufacturing process. Men would impregnate many women and many children were born. They were raised without parents to become the super race of the Third Reich. The children were seldom held, did not receive nurture and did not feel loved. They were born to perpetuate the super race. After the war studies were done to define these children and their lack of development. It showed the lack of development in infancy and early childhood that are natural to adults who raise children in love and nurtured their growth.
We define ourselves and others as we receive gifts into our inner life that makes us human.
How do we receive these gifts into our lives? Primarily, through our five senses.
We have ears to hear, to listen to the other is such an important part of knowing the other and learning about ourselves.
We touch…we touch the other in order to share intimate moments and to allow ourselves to be touched by the other. I can remember when the passing of the peace in the liturgy of the church began in the 1960s. It was difficult for people to touch another person at that time. An interview on NPR yesterday with a POW that had been in the camp with Senator John McCain was asked how they survived. His answer was, “We held hands. We held each other.”
We taste…we have taste buds that help us to enjoy the food we eat, the wine we drink, the bread we eat. We share meals together. Community is formed around how we taste life with each other.
We see…we are able to look into the eyes of the other. We see beauty, we see terrible events that we do not want to remember, we look in a mirror and are often surprised at what we see, we see the other in ourselves, we see ourselves in the other.
We smell…we smell the very fragrance of creation. We breathe in the fresh air at the beach and smell the ocean. We smell the flowers in our garden, the food that we eat and we also smell the pollution that we smell in today’s world.
We know creation through all five senses.
And, then we speak to others out of our experiences and by doing so we share our inner thoughts, our inner struggles and our inner fears, our goodness, our badness, our own development and on and on and on as we share our lives with others.
And so the person of Jesus speaks to us today in the Gospel of Mark. He teaches us what is means to be human. He is able to touch people and they find healing. He tasted the food and bread with the crowds that he traveled with. He celebrated life with them…he rejoiced, he wept, he laughed, he challenged them.
He saw them as individuals who were on a journey of life and wanted them to know that God was with them on their journey.
He listened to their fears, their hopes, their confusions, their lack of understanding. As a reflection of the God of Creation, he used all of his five senses to relate to each of those who came to him. He modeled for them the very human aspects of life that is in relationship…..in relationship to the God of Creation…in relationship to neighbor…in relationship to his own inner self…all of it reflecting Love because Love is and always will be the reflection of God.
So here we are today. Sitting in a pew at Grace Memorial….listening to the One who challenges us to reflect our human life and not give in to the evil impulses that surround us and betray us. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and they defile a person.”
We begin our lives in infancy in being able to know our own selves through how we are to know the other. We defile ourselves and the other by betraying ourselves as well as the other.
So it is true that by our fruits, we shall be known. What we do, what we say, how we live our lives so that others may know the meaning of life because we have learned it for ourselves and want other to join us in the journey. To be able to touch, to be able to taste, to be able to smell, to be able to listen, to be able to see, helps us to stay human. We can enjoy the journey as it opens up surprises and hope.
Three meditations on setting your heart free.
Meditation Number One. Jesus goes to a party.
It is the Sabbath and Jesus is at a fancy dinner party. The party is held in the home of a Pharisee, a wealthy and privileged and respectable person. There is Vivaldi playing through a high-end stereo system, there are caterers carrying plates loaded with esoteric hors d’oeuvres , there are enough gleaming watches and necklaces in the room to open a small jewelry shop, there is a marble floor polished to an almost blinding gleam.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus’ host – and his host’s friends – are watching Jesus closely.
Now, I don’t know about you, but hearing about this party and, in particular, about its watching guests, I feel a surge of sympathetic anxiety. I feel nervous on Jesus’ behalf. I’ve had enough teachers and bosses and colleagues and authority figures in my life over the years who didn’t entirely trust me (and, perhaps, who didn’t entirely wish the best for me) to understand what it is like to be in the presence of people whom you know aren’t 100% on your team. If you’ve had folks like that in your life (and I suspect that all of us have), then you’ll know how hard it is to relax in their presence, how hard it is to do your best work. I tend to I tense up when I am around my personal Pharisees, I get flustered, I inadvertently prove the people who don’t trust me right: I make way more mistakes than I would make if I were feeling relaxed and confident, if I were in the presence of people who I thought were rooting for me.
Jesus notices the dynamic in the room – both the conspicuous symbols of status and the suspicion of him – and, because he is fearless or reckless or both, he immediately responds out loud. Maybe this is why so many people are watching him closely, because they know that Jesus is infamous for doing this sort of thing. He starts projecting his booming voice throughout the house, a voice like a PA system that he has honed talking to the crowds in wilderness. He interrupts the many conversations taking place around him. And he tells a story about a wedding banquet.
The wedding banquet in Jesus’ tale is almost the perfect opposite of the dinner party. At the dinner party, everyone is looking for opportunities to network, to sit beside the person who will let them expand their influence or their career. At the banquet, by contrast, the good and the wise choose the place of least status. They leave open the possibility that the host will honour them by inviting them to sit nearer. Everyone who humbles themselves, Jesus says, will be exalted.
And then, in the embarrassed silence that follows his story, Jesus turns and speaks directly to his host. Next time, he instructs him, don’t invite this crowd, don’t waste your hospitality on these people, don’t send your embossed invitations to folks who can send an invitation right back to you. Invite the poor, the physically and mentally disabled, the developmentally atypical, the ones whose English is too broken or whose skin is too brown be allowed entrance into a home like this one. Invite the people who, either because of an absence of money or an absence of social capital, can’t pay you back.
Jesus finishes speaking. And the silence returns to the room.
Luke doesn’t say what happens next.
Meditation Number Two. A love letter.
Let mutual love continue, says the anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
This entreaty to hospitality, which is almost assuredly a reference to the passage in Genesis in which Sarah and Abraham entertain three mysterious strangers in the desert, may sound more or less harmless to those of us living in Portland in 2016, it may sound like the sort of facile nicety that we might put on a T-shirt or a greeting card. But, as Naim Ateek taught us when he preached at Grace a few weeks back, hospitality was and is a really big deal in the Near East, hospitality was and is something awesome in the old school sense of the word. The author of Hebrews tells us the same thing as Naim. To be hospitable, he explains, is to:
Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them
hospitality is to:
Remember those who are being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured.
O my God.
Hospitality, Hebrews tells us, is something radical, something transformative, something that involves us entirely. To choose the example of poverty, hospitality is not simply saying to the poor, “Yes, you can have some food” or “Yes, you can use the restroom” or “Yes, you can use the phone,” although all of that stuff matters. Hospitality means remembering the pain of living on the street or living with hunger or having to choose between health care and rent as though that pain were your own.
Or what about the example of race? The Pew Research Center just released a study in which it found that white people are vastly less likely to use social media to discuss race than people of colour. (It’s a pretty reasonable bet that white people are similarly silent about race in “real world” conversations.) People like me, in other words, are leaving the heavy lifting, the difficult work of talking about race, to people of colour. Talking about race just feels too hard, too dangerous, too fraught to me. So I’m just going to choose to say nothing.
But Hebrews says: No. Silence isn’t what Christian hospitality looks like. Ignoring race, pretending to be “colour blind,” claiming to be “neutral,” (all of which, by the way, are privileges that are only available to white people; not noticing race is essentially impossible if you are a person of colour in America), not one of these actions or inactions passes Hebrews’ test for hospitality.
Hebrews says that those of us who are white are called to remember the anxiety of seeing a police car in a rear view mirror as though it were our own anxiety; we are called to remember the wild overrepresentation of African American men in our countries prisons as though we were incarcerated; we are called to remember the inherited generational imbalances in wealth in this country as though it were we who were shut out of privilege; we are called to remember the exhausting reality of being under continual suspicion as though it were we who were suspect.
And having remembered, we are called to act. Do not neglect to do good and share what you have, says Hebrews, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Meditation Number Three. The beginning of human pride.
I know that a number of people in this room grew up in church contexts that were hard and draining, that left you feeling burned or alienated or ashamed or injured, that promoted a picture of God as someone judgmental and vengeful and punishing, as the Angry Old Man in the Sky. I’m mindful, therefore, that today’s reading from Sirach may be difficult to hear. So I really want to emphasise that what we encounter in Sirach this morning isn’t particularly helpful if we read it as a literal picture of what God is like. God is not waiting to punish us for behaving incorrectly.
I want to suggest that this passage is best understood in the same way that we understand Jesus’ story about the wedding banquet – that is to say, as a parable.
This parable tells us that God persistently chooses the side of the marginalised, the side of those shut out from power. God’s choice to stand on the margins – a choice that we see throughout the Old Testament, that we see made manifest throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry – is what Liberation Theologians call God’s Preferential Option for the Poor. God’s hospitality is directed towards the poor, the hungry, the forgotten, the hurting, the cheated, God will enthrone the lowly in place of the rulers. To be on God’s side, to join in with God’s work, is to be on the side of those who are in pain.
And the parable in Sirach testifies that there is a cost to us when we choose to ignore the work to which God has called us, when we choose to ignore the plight of those who suffer. There is a punishment, if you like. But here’s the critical thing, the punishment isn’t administered by God. It is administered by ourselves.
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
All of us have met people with withdrawn hearts. And at one time or another, all of us have been people with withdrawn hearts. I certainly have. And much as virtue is its own reward, having a withdrawn heart is its own punishment. The irony of a withdrawn heart, the irony of what Sirach calls human pride, the irony of choosing selfishness, is that the great cost of doing so is to ourselves. Having a withdrawn heart alienates us from God and from our neighbours and from creation.
I remember sitting at the feet of Kent Hoffman a couple of years ago, Hoffman who is man of deep prater, Hoffman who has spent his forty-plus year career helping parents and children to nurture loving and vital and freeing relationships; he and his colleagues call their work Circle of Security. Donald Trump had not yet announced his candidacy for the Presidency, but he was in the news. And I remember Hoffman speaking of Trump, not with contempt or anger or hostility but with pity. He said:
I guarantee you, that inside of Donald Trump is a little boy who is deeply afraid that he is incapable of being loved.
All of us have that little child within us. And when we withdraw our hearts, when we become closed and think that will make us safe, we starve that child of love.
Every reading that we have heard this morning is about opening our hearts up. All of them are about the scary and freeing and vital work of risking giving our hearts to God and, by necessary extension, risking giving our hearts to the world. In the Parable of the Banquet, Jesus calls this work humility. In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author calls it hospitality. When we see yes to this work, we give the greatest gift that we have to everyone and to everything around us. And God’s promise is that we will receive the greatest gift that there is in return.
The bicycle has been my primary means of transportation for pretty much all of my adult life. I love riding. It’s fabulous exercise, it’s a great way of saving on the costs of driving a car, and finding a parking spot is never a challenge. And for me, being on a bike is a kind of prayer, a way of finding communion with the earth and the sky and the creatures all around me. I am rarely anxious or otherwise stressed out on a bike, rarely frustrated or exasperated the way that I can be behind the wheel of a car in stop-and-start traffic.
The only thing that I don’t like about being a bicyclist actually has nothing to do with my bicycle at all. What I don’t like is how some folks treat me when they find out that I get around on two wheels. There are a couple of things in particular that keep on happening across the years, and they have never entirely stopped leaving me surprised and flummoxed.
The first thing that the leaves me disconcerted is when folks assume that being a bicyclist comes with a certain set of political opinions and a certain lifestyle. I’ve lost count of how often I have unintentionally shocked people when they have learned that I not only hold a driver’s license but I actually own a car. I don’t ride a bicycle because I think cars are immoral. I just like my bike.
The second thing that throws me off balance – and this happens still more often than the assumption that I have sworn a holy vow never to drive – is when people learn that I bicycle and take that as an invitation to start complaining to me about other people who bicycle. The complaint typically goes something like this: “Yesterday I was downtown and this guy on a BMX was riding the wrong way down a one-way street, weaving in and out of traffic. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, he didn’t have any lights, he was texting, and he was drinking a latté.” And then the complainant will conclude:
“You cyclists are crazy.”
I’m never sure how to respond. I don’t know the guy on the BMX. I’m actually pretty diligent about obeying the rules of the road. And I hardly ever drink lattés. The guy on the BMX and I: we’re not in a club. I’m not the representative of all cyclists everywhere.
Here’s the funny thing. In the twenty-five years that I have held a driver’s license, no one, no one, has ever taken my license as an invitation to complain to me about other motorists, about the guy who runs red lights or drives drunk or hits ninety miles and hour going through school zones. No one has ever said to me, “You drivers are crazy!”
Now, I occupy just about every category of privilege that there is, every category this world favors. I’m white. I’m male. I’m a grown-up. I live in America. I’m hopelessly straight. I am entirely comfortable being the gender that I appear to be. I was raised in a middle class family by parents who loved me and paid attention to me and gave me more opportunities to thrive than I can count. Riding a bike is as close as I get to living on the margins. And in the greater scheme of things, being a cyclist really isn’t marginal at all: the assumptions and the complaints that come my direction are mostly just a nuisance. And the instant that I take off my helmet, they stop. All of a sudden, nobody knows that I am a cyclist. I can pass.
I’m not saying, in other words (and I want to be really clear about this), that I know what it’s like to be transgendered or gay or poor or someone who speaks fractured English; I don’t. I’m not saying that I know what it is like to be a person of color; I don’t. What I am saying is that my experience as a cyclist, my fleeting glimpse of the margins, has got me thinking: if I feel frustrated and angry when folks direct their assumptions about and their hostilities toward bicyclists my way, what must it be like to endure assumptions and hostility like that all the time? What must it be like if those assumptions and that hostility extends to your intelligence, to your employability, to your character? And what must it be like if you can’t take off your helmet, if you can’t pass? What if the thing to which people are reacting is written right into your skin?
So. Jesus enters into a house. He doesn’t want anyone to know that he is there. He doesn’t want to be recognized. He is tired out, his work with the crowds wearing him down, he is ready to be left alone, he is suffering from compassion fatigue. But Jesus – well, he is not the sort of person who can escape attention, now or ever.
Immediately, inevitably, someone recognizes him. And if that is not enough, if Jesus does not sigh in exasperation and exhaustion when the eyes land upon him, it gets worse. The person who recognizes Jesus is from Syrophoenicia: she is one of those people. This woman does not worship in the synagogue as Jesus does, she does not dress as Jesus does. Her voice betrays an accent, and the handful of lines of the code written into her DNA means that the shape of her eyes and nose and forehead mark her as an outsider to Jesus’ tribe. The rules of the Ancient Near East – written and unwritten alike – demand that she keep her distance.
But the woman ignores the rules. Her daughter is gravely ill, sick nearly unto death. And something deep within her tells her that this man, maybe only this man, can make the child well. And so the woman draws near and falls on her face before Jesus.
Please. Heal my daughter.
It is as though this question pulls the stopper out of the vessel that has been holding in all of Jesus’ hurt and loneliness and anger. His response is soaked in contempt. It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs like you.
How does the woman lying on the floor at Jesus’ feet feel? Does the slur that Jesus throws at her hit her like a kick: is the air knocked out of her lungs, is she filled with a rush of hot shame? Does she long to respond with contempt of her own? Or is she so used to being called a dog, does she hear it as often as a slave in the Antebellum South heard the N-word, that her reaction is something closer to resigned numbness?
Every instinct tells her to crawl away, to disappear, before the slur turns into violence, as it has so often before. But drawing on a reservoir of courage that she didn’t even know that she had, the woman speaks again.
Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.
And now it is Jesus turn to gasp as though he has been struck. The woman’s response cuts through all of his armor, it lands right in his guts. He feels his anger rise even more, he thinks about following up his slur with the back of his hand. But then the woman raises her head and their eyes meet. And abruptly he sees her. He sees her. He hears her words. He knows her need for healing. It is the same need for healing that the crowd has, the same need for healing that Jesus has.
Jesus is startled to feel his anger fall away. Startled to feel understanding take its place. Startled to realize that he is beginning to confess to and repent of the assumptions and the hostilities that he has been taught since he was a child.
For saying that, he whispers, you may go. Your daughter is well.
And then the two of them part. And neither is sure which of them has received the greater gift.
Today is Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday. Earlier this week, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the President of our House of Deputies, the Reverend Gay Clark Jennings issued a joint letter urging Episcopal congregations to participate in this day. They were passing on a request from Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the same church in which a white racial supremacist murdered nine people during a Bible study earlier this year.
While the invitation came on short notice (the letter was written on September first), I’m glad that we at Grace are able to participate, glad that we are able to join with houses of worship across this land in responding to racism. Racism, which is one of the great and ongoing sins in our country.
I imagine that the leadership team at Mother Emanuel chose this day because of the story that we just heard about the Syrophoenician woman. This story is perfect for this subject. If we were to start shouting out ideas about its implications for responding to the sin of racism, I bet we could be here for the rest of the afternoon. I would like to highlight, therefore, just one element of the story, and that is Jesus’ reaction to the Syrophoenician woman. I’d like to highlight what he doesn’t do and then examine what he does do.
Notice that, when woman catches Jesus employing this slur (a slur which has left his lips so easily, a slur that he likely learned as a child – who knows how many times he has employed it before), Jesus spends no time whatsoever explaining to the woman that he isn’t a racist. He does not tell her that they live in a post-racial society, that racism used to be a problem but it isn’t any more, that he is colorblind, that he has a lot of black friends, that she needs to lighten up and get a sense of humor. He does none of that. Jesus just repents. He turns around from the way that he has been engaging with this woman and begins to engage with her in a new way, in a transformed way.
I want to emphasize Jesus’ action (or inaction) because, in America in 2015, we are preoccupied with racism as an individual sin. It is terribly important for me to let you know that I, personally, am not a racist. “I’ve never owned slaves,” the argument goes. “I’ve never treated anyone differently because of the color of their skin. I have nothing for which to repent.”
The problem with narrowing the spotlight down to individual behavior is it allows broken systems, broken structures, to remain hidden in the dark. This focus on individual sin causes you and me to largely ignore corporate sin. There may well be little in your personal behavior for which you have to repent. (Although, speaking for myself, I have much for which to repent: in the letter inviting us to participate in this day, I was deeply convicted by Bishop Reginald T. Jackson’s words when he spoke of the sin of ignoring or tolerating racism. I have often taken advantage of my privilege to ignore and to tolerate racism.) But all of us have much to repent for when we examine the corporate racial sins of our society.
To be a person of color in America is to face a greater likelihood of being stopped by the police, a greater likelihood of being sent to jail, a greater likelihood that your sentence will be harsher than a white person would receive for a similar crime or misdemeanor. It is to face a higher likelihood of living in poverty, a higher likelihood that, if you have a “black sounding name,” your resume will be passed over by prospective employers – Adam is called in for an interview way more often than Deshaun.
Unlike the nuisance of the assumptions and hostilities that I put up with as a cyclist, these corporate sins limit black lives and, in some cases, end black lives. You and I are called to repent for that.
By choosing not to argue with the woman about his character, by choosing not to insist that he isn’t a racist, Jesus allows the woman to become his teacher. There is an abrupt, radical shift in the middle of this story, so that one moment this woman is sub-human, she is a dog, unworthy of Jesus’ attention or his compassion. And in the next he sees her, he hears her. She is not only fully human but a carrier of wisdom. He becomes her student.
There is good news in this story. And there is good news in this day. The good news in this story is that we follow a savior who is willing to learn, who is willing for his heart to be opened, who is willing to be changed, who is willing to repent of the corporate sin with which he grew up.
As Christians, as people whose vocation is to imitate Jesus, we are called to do likewise.
And the good news in this day is that, across this land, houses of worship are standing in solidarity with Mother Emanuel, standing in solidarity against racism. The promise of this day is that racism is a sin for which you and I and everyone can and will be healed.