Friday, August 18, 2017

The Struggle Continues: Reflections on Matthew 15.21-28 (RCL Proper 20A, 20 August 2017)

The Struggle Continues
Reflection on Matthew 15.21-28

RCL Proper 20A
20 August 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Parish
Vancouver BC

Matthew 15.21-28

                  21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  22 Just 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.”  23 But he did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.

            More than fifty years ago the Roman Catholic initiated a process of liturgical change that would reach out beyond the communion of the Roman church and touch the lives of millions of other Christians.  Among the reforms was the introduction of a three-year lectionary that would enable worshippers to encounter far more of the Holy Scriptures than the previous lectionary shared, in one form or another, by Anglicans, Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

            I have lived as a lay person and as an ordained person through at least thirteen three-year cycles.  You might think that after thirteen ‘kicks at the can’ I’ve heard all that is to be heard and learned all that is to be learned.  But this perception is very far from the mark.  Each year, each cycle, I am amazed at what I might call ‘divine serendipity’ when the readings for a given Sunday or holy day, chosen decades ago, speak clearly and directly to the current lived experience of the congregations among whom I have lived, worshipped and served.

            Today is one of those occasions.  Jesus has begun to travel in areas of the Roman province of Palestine that are populated mostly by non-Jewish people, some indigenous such as the Canaanite woman, some relatively recent immigrants such as Romans, Greeks and other peoples from the Mediterranean and Near East.  As Matthew describes this period of Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus is reaching out to Jewish communities living outside the boundaries of the predominately Jewish areas of the region.  His focus is on bringing these ‘separated’ and ‘minority’ communities within the embrace of the prophetic message of good news that he has shared with their sisters and brothers closer to the heartland.

            But Jesus is halted in his steps by a Canaanite woman, a non-Jewish indigenous person, who addresses him by a Jewish messianic title, ‘Son of David’, who addresses him as ‘Lord’, the first person in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life and mission to do so.  At first Jesus refuses to be distracted, but when she persists, he cracks a anti-Gentile joke, a racial slur, if you like.  The woman is undeterred, firm in her commitment to free her daughter from the demon that has possessed her.  Her ‘faith’, her persistence, her unwillingness to be dismissed by this celebrity rabbi from Galilee, results in Jesus’ assurance that her daughter will be healed.

            Jump ahead a millennia or two.  In 1965, when I was twelve years old, Lyndon Johnson signed into law the first of a series of legislative acts intended to redress the centuries of injustice endured by Afro-Americans.  This legislative tide would eventually result in a commitment of the federal and state governments to address the injustices and inequalities endured by other ethnic minorities and women.

            As a teenager I lived in a segregated city, segregated not by law but by custom, prejudice and income.  My neighbourhood was a white, working-class neighbourhood where there were few people of colour.  In grade seven I was sent to a school where academically-talented students from throughout the city were clustered together, but even then there were few teenagers of colour in my ‘cluster’.  In grade twelve my secondary school was the object of court-ordered desegregation and I experienced my first racially-inspired violence within the halls of my school.

            As a university student I joined a circle of friends who encouraged me to become a member of a fraternity.  I was proud of its history as a society, founded shortly after the American Civil War, by three southerners who wanted to heal the divisions caused by what some still call ‘the recent unpleasantness between the states’ and others ‘the war of northern aggression’.  It was only years later that I learned that our founders were quite clear who they wanted to bring together:  young white Christian men.  No Jew or Afro-American or anyone else of colour need apply.

            And here we are in Vancouver seventy years after the Second World War worshipping in communities where plaques and flags hang on our walls to remind us of the sacrifices made by young men and women, including members of my own extended family, to rid the world of fascism and racist ideologies.  Yet we know that the struggle continues, not only in the United States and elsewhere in the world, but here in Canada itself, to combat ‘the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God’.  Each time we celebrate a baptism in this parish we promise to ‘. . . strive for justice and peace among all people (and to) respect the dignity of every human being’.

            We who live as disciples of Christ are being called to join the Canaanite woman in her passionate and tenacious struggle to ensure that the dignity of every human being is not only respected but is nurtured and treasured.  We who live as disciples of Christ are being called to transform the table of privilege into the banquet table of the kingdom of God, so that every human being shares in the bounty rather than scrabbles for crumbs.  We who live as disciples of Jesus are being called to resist any and every ideology that discriminates against any human being on the basis of race or religion or country of origin or sexual identity or whatever other category.

            The truth is this:  Anyone who denies the full humanity of another person is denying her or his own humanity.  He or she is committing an act of spiritual and moral suicide.  Our resistance is to be guided by the principle of speaking this truth in love not in violence or exclusion directed to those whose views threaten the fabric of creation. 

            I have no illusions about the challenges that accompany this struggle.  I know in my own heart the times when I fail to respect the dignity of others.  I know my own failures to confront in love a person or persons whose words are meant to hurt and to exclude others for criteria based on race or class or some other prejudice.  But the struggle continues and there is no middle ground when we confront the demons of prejudice.

            We often speak of Jesus as gentle.  In today’s gospel we see Jesus as a person of power and privilege in contrast to a non-Jewish woman of indigenous background who is desperate to free her child.  Today this unnamed woman is an icon of discipleship who challenges us over the span of the millennia to speak truth to power and to resist evil.  We are surrounded by people who, in one way or another, scrabble to find the scraps from the table of abundance.  We are surrounded by people who, in one way or another, experience exclusion and discrimination.  We dare not be idle --- for the bell is tolling --- for us and for all of God’s beloved children.

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