Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
As a kid, one of my favorite movies was The Little Rascals, a movie that was based on the series of short films called Our Gang.
The movie follows the exploits of a group of little boys who belong to what they call the “He-Man Woman Haters Club”. They have their own clubhouse, and the whole point of the club is to talk about how much they hate girls, how girls aren’t allowed to be in their club, and how none of them will ever, ever fall in love. They’re He-Man Woman Haters—they don’t need stuff like that.
So naturally, one of the boys in the club, Alfalfa, falls in love with a girl, Darla. Near the beginning the movie, this relationship indirectly causes the He-Man Woman Haters’ clubhouse to burn down, and the rest of the movie follows the boys as they try to scheme their way into enough money for a new clubhouse, all while sabotaging Alfalfa’s attempts to impress Darla and show her how much he loves her.
It’s no easy feat. The gang, headed by Spanky, does everything it can to break up Alfalfa and Darla. They assign Alfalfa to guard the club’s prized go-kart so he can’t get into trouble. They ruin Darla’s ballet recital. They mess up Alfalfa’s love letter. Darla’s new boyfriend gets involved, putting soap in Alfalfa’s water so he burps bubbles when he tries to sing to Darla in a talent festival. Time and time again, the other members of the He-Man Woman Haters club do everything they can to show their disdain for women and their member who dares to associate with them.
I’m happy to say that the movie does have a happy ending. Eventually, the gang comes to their senses and realizes that their hate of girls really is unjustified, and that they’ve been really mean to their friend, Alfalfa. In the end, the gang decides that girls really aren’t that bad after all—in fact, they’re pretty cool! And the He-Man Woman Haters, in their new clubhouse, proudly proclaim that women are now welcome.
It takes a lot for any person, let alone a group of people, to go from hating and despising a group of people, to tolerating them, to accepting them, to welcoming them, to loving them. I imagine that the words of the prophet Isaiah were just as annoying in his time as they are in ours: that foreigners would be welcome in the house of the Lord, in the temple itself? The Judean people had a very clear, black-and-white concept of who was in and who was out. The law laid out in strict detail who was allowed in what parts of the temple, who was clean and unclean, who was welcome and unwelcome. And foreigners were not at the top of any of those lists.
So embedded in his culture was this concrete idea of who was in and who was out that even Jesus abides by it. In one of the more uncomfortable stories in the Gospels, Jesus toes the party line.
Jesus makes a habit of challenging boundaries on most occasions, but at first, this isn’t one of them. Except for the fact that he’s near the cities of Tyre and Sidon at all. That’s well outside the territory of the Judeans. It’s outside the territory of Galilee, where Jesus is from. It’s part of the province of Syria, the home of foreigners and people who absolutely do NOT belong to God’s chosen people.
So on the one hand, good for Jesus for literally walking outside the comfort zone of his people. But then he meets a woman, a Canaanite, a foreigner, and a despised person. And his interaction with her is… troubling.
I’ll be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of Jesus’s treatment of this poor woman who comes to him, begging for help. I reject the tired explanation that Jesus is really just “testing” this woman’s faith by insulting her, because even if true, Jesus still comes out looking like a jerk who resorts to mean tricks to determine if someone is worthy or not.
And then there were some colleagues debating this story who came to different conclusions. One argued that in this story, we see the full humanity of Jesus, who was a man that was intimately a part of his culture and society and abided by the rules and customs of that culture. Another argued that in this story, we see the full divinity of Jesus, who transcends human boundaries later in the story. I’m not sure where I stand. All I know is that the way Jesus talks to this woman, who is only asking for help, rubs me the wrong way.
Jesus ignores this woman who needs help for her daughter. He ignores her because of her ethnicity. Maybe he ignores her because she’s a woman. His disciples try to send her away because the sound of her shouting after them annoys them. Nevermind that she’s shouting because she’s in desperate need of healing—their annoyance with her method trumps her genuine, far greater need. Essentially, her need isn’t credible to them because she’s “being rude”, which is somehow worse.
It’s a pattern that Christians picked up as well. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, the non-Judean people of the Roman Empire, was so scandalous that a council needed to be held in Jerusalem and the head of the church, James, needed to personally say it was okay to allow non-Judeans to be a part of the new Christian movement.
Peter had to have a vision from God where he was explicitly told, “What God has created clean, you must not call unclean”. And still, he and Paul get into a heated argument about whether Gentile Christians were really equal to their Judean counterparts (Paul argued that they were, and apparently, wasn’t able to fully convince Peter).
The early church was very much a group that had strict guidelines about who could and couldn’t be a part of it. There’s the standard second-class status of women that develops after the first generation or so of Christians, refusing to let women be fully part of the Christian way. There’s the refusal to allow Christians to be a part of the military (you had to be one or the other, because killing is killing), and an aversion to anyone who was in some way a sexual minority.
Later, as the church grew, so did its many rules governing who was in and who was out, who was allowed in which part of the church building and who wasn’t, who qualified for which sacraments when.
Even in our own church, it wasn’t until 1970 that we began ordaining women as pastors, and we weren’t the first denomination in the United States to do so. And while Lutheran churches in the United States were surprisingly active in the Civil Rights era, we know from our own experience that just because the national church bodies say something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily reflected in the pews of our congregations. As I pointed out last week, even though we as a church are committed to racial diversity on paper, we still remain a 96% white church, because we actively, intentionally and unintentionally, build white churches that only welcome white people.
We too, like in our gospel reading, separate human beings into groups, like the children who deserve to sit at the table and eat the best food, and the dogs who are forced to lie beneath it, hoping some paltry crumbs fall their way to sustain them.
But then the remarkable thing happens in this story, the part of the story I always look forward to, the part that restores my faith in both humanity and divinity.
After enduring the humiliation of being ignored, of being berated by Jesus’s disciples and told to go away, after being called a dog by Jesus himself, someone not worthy of his attention, this woman fights back. She was warned. She was given an explanation. But nevertheless, she persisted. She will not let Jesus forget her.
There are a few times in the Bible when human beings take it upon themselves to remind God just who God is. Moses reminds God that God is actually a God of mercy when he argues that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, wicked as they are for their mistreatment of guests and the poor, shouldn’t be destroyed if there are still innocent people living there.
Jonah reminds God of the same thing; it’s why he’s so upset. He KNOWS God is a merciful God, so by going to Nineveh and telling them to repent, he knows God will forgive them, which is not what Jonah wants. God seems surprised by this.
The psalmists are constantly reminding God that while they are suffering, they know that God is good, and that God will surely protect them, and that God will make things right again. They just need to keep reminding God that this is who God is.
I just finished reading a book by Dr. James Cone titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It’s a book that connects the theology of the cross with the experience of African Americans in this country during the lynching era, when they were rounded up by white mobs and tortured, beaten, hung, burned to death, and subjected to many other atrocities that we as a country have all but forgotten about.
What struck me most about the people Dr. Cone talks about is the way in which black churches trusted that God would eventually make things right—that the same God who died on a cross, who was lynched by a mob—would feel empathy with the plight of African Americans and rescue them. That even in the midst of unspeakable horror, black Christians in this country called on God to remember what it was like to be just like them and save them.
And while there’s still a long way to go, that perseverance paid off. It paid off for African Americans, who are much closer to being recognized as full human beings in this country.
It paid off in the case of Jonah, for instead of facing destruction, the Ninevites faced mercy and forgiveness. It paid off for the psalmists, whose unshakable faith in the goodness and righteousness of God still inspires us today.
It paid off for Moses, because even though Sodom and Gomorrah were still destroyed, God remembered Moses’s family and got them out of the city first, just as was promised.
And it paid off for the Canaanite woman, whose perseverance reminds Jesus of who he is: a God whose arms are continually widening, continually embracing more and more people who were once considered outside the bounds of Gods love. According to Jesus’s own culture, she was an outsider. And yet, Jesus remembers who he is, opens his arms, and welcomes her.
And it’s a reminder that we need, too. Because at one time, many of us would not have been welcome in the church and would never have experienced the love and grace of God.
Because at one time, “sinners” were not welcome in the church, even though we are all sinners. Now, we gather to openly recognize our sin and receive forgiveness.
Because at one time a single, unwed mother would have found nothing but scorn and ridicule in the church. Now, she can find a community to support her as she navigates a difficult life.
Because at one time, the reality of divorce was so unthinkable that being divorced meant the church stopped caring about you. Now, the church is better able to care for and support those in the middle of these broken relationships because it acknowledges the continued dignity and worth of people going through them.
Because at one time, if you were poor, you had no place in the church because you couldn’t give enough money to be worth the trouble. Now, the church is more connected to and aware of the suffering that the poor endure and recognizes that God is far more in the midst of people in poverty than among wealth.
Because at one time it was perfectly acceptable, even deemed appropriate, that Christians supported white supremacy and racism as the way God always intended the world to be. Now, Christians are on the front lines, literally, of the resistance to the evil of racism, getting beaten, maced, and run over for their peaceful protest against white nationalism.
Because at one time, women, immigrants, children, sexual minorities were all considered to be outside the church. Now, in various stages, we recognize what God always knew—that those we try to keep out are the first to be embraced by God.
Because at some time, we all feel like dogs, begging for whatever scraps life cares to throw at us. And in those times, God reminds us that we are more than animals, more than the lowest of the low. We are children of God, worthy of attention and grace.
Because at the same time that Christ’s acceptance of the Canaanite woman is a challenge to us to continually re-evaluate who we exclude and who we include, it’s also a strong reminder to us that we worship a God whose arms are wide enough to embrace us too; that God’s grace and forgiveness really is for us, too; that when we were on the outside looking in, Christ saw us, noticed us, and told us, “Great is your faith!”
I may struggle with Jesus’s initial reaction to the Canaanite woman’s plea. But of this, I am certain: when Christ’s eyes were opened, they didn’t stop with just one woman. They were opened to the plight of all who suffer. I know I suffer. I know you do too. And I know that God sees.