A sermon based on Matthew 15:21-28
Some of you may remember last spring when Wilcox County, Georgia, made the national news for hosting its first integrated high school prom. Folks around the country were flabbergasted that almost 60 years after “separate but equal” was deemed unconstitutional and schools were integrated, this kind of thing still happened. Thankfully, the story became news because four students decided it was time for a change. They led money-raising efforts, and the school sponsored a prom for all students for the first time in decades. It turned out to be a great success.
The headline about the Wilcox County prom caught my eye when it popped up on my computer screen. But unlike some of my friends who commented about it on Facebook, I wasn’t shocked at all. You see, Wilcox County borders my home county of Ben Hill, and it hadn’t been but 15 years since I attended a segregated prom myself. In my county, as in Wilcox County until last year, the high school did not hold a prom. Proms, homecomings and other dances and social events were sponsored and planned by private groups. The white prom was on Friday night, and the black prom was on Saturday night. Occasionally a black student would show with a date to the white prom, but generally, the crowd at each event looked pretty homogenous. And nobody, myself included, really questioned it.
Now, I am embarrassed to confess this: I attended a segregated prom, and it didn’t even bother me.
Sometimes when we grow up in a place, particularly when it’s a place or people we love, we become so entrenched in the way of life there that it’s hard to see its shortcomings.
In my town, racial divisions were the norm.
My neighborhood and my church were white middle-class, exclusively.
White people voted for white candidates; black people voted for black
White people did business with white people, and black with black.
We weren’t cruel about it; we just accepted it as the way things were. I didn’t condone the inherent prejudice, but I didn’t speak up against it, either. So in 1998, I went to my senior prom with all of my white friends and had a great time without ever noticing what was wrong with this picture.
Is there anything about your own past life that makes you a little bit ashamed? I imagine that there are others of you who wrestle with parts of your own heritage, or even struggle with how those flaws still pop up from time to time in your own way of thinking and living. In our Bible story today, it appears that even Jesus is not immune.
Fair warning: in the words of my theology professor Rick Wilson, put your seatbelts on. This is on one of those Biblical stories that we’d probably rather seen left out of the gospels. It is not the most flattering picture of Jesus.
In fact, this may be one of the places in the gospels where we find Jesus at his worst. He has left Jewish territory for the first time in his ministry, presumably to get away from it all. Word is out about who he is and what he can do, and everybody wants a piece of him. But lo and behold, he’s barely across the county line, and this woman is calling after him.
Now, there were at least four good reasons that Jesus, a well-respected Jewish man, should have ignored her – her race, her culture, her gender, and her social status. People like him didn’t deal with people like her. Maybe it was his burnout talking, but Jesus blew her off. In fact, if you ask me, he was downright rude about it. He told her that what he had to offer was not for her kind. He had all that he could say grace over already among his own people. He sent the message, loud and clear, that he did not have the time or energy for her.
Ouch. See why I told you to put on your seatbelts? This story raises some hard questions: What do we do with a Savior who calls a woman “a dog”? Yes, he said that out loud. There it is, right in the gospel of Matthew. We can’t be sure of his tone; the text is uncomfortably silent about whether he might be teasing her or testing her. But for her sake, we can’t soften this story to protect our images of Jesus. We have to take it as it stands in all its harshness and figure out what it has to say to us.
I can’t let Jesus off the hook for what he said, but I can remember where he is coming from. Because I attended a segregated prom.
What do we do with this Jesus?
First, we remember that Jesus was human. He was a man, a Jewish man from Galilee, a real time and place in history. He was taught a certain way of responding to women and non-Jews that was deemed appropriate for his place and time. To confess that Jesus is truly human is to admit that he has limitations. He has preconceptions and cultural blinders just like the rest of us. He has to learn. His horizons need to be expanded. He was boxed in by the teachings of his culture just as much as we have been.
But here is the gospel in this story: Jesus didn’t stay in the box. When he came across a bold and faithful woman who called him to reimagine the boundaries of God’s love, Jesus broke out of the mold that he had been cast in.
This woman amazes me. She is the only person in scripture that entered a theological debate with the Son of God and won! She didn’t just win the argument, though. It was something bigger than that. Let this be a lesson to you: don’t you cross a Mama whose child needs something. She will take you down. This mama was not fazed by Jesus’ reluctance to help. She risked it all to call out to him. She even accepted her status as a Gentile dog, but she would not let him go until she won a blessing from him on behalf of her sick daughter. Her child needed healing, and she knew that any little crumb that might fall from God’s table could make a difference for her child.
Speaking of bold women who challenge how we think about faith and race, I’ve recently enjoyed getting reacquainted with Flannery O’Conner. I first got to know the writings of this Milledgeville, Ga, native during college, but I recently picked up a collection of her short stories again. In her story “Revelation,” the main character Mrs. Turpin is a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. As she sits in a doctor’s waiting room observing all of the varied people that come and go, she counts her blessings that God made her who she is, and not someone like those others she sees. But thanks to a moody adolescent girl who calls her out for her prejudices and knocks some sense into her, Mrs. Turpin has a revelation. She sees a vision of a bridge with a “vast hoarde of souls rumbling towards heaven,” white-trash and blacks and lunatics, altogether. Bringing up the end of the procession is a group of respectable folks like her, marching with dignity. But she could see by their shocked and altered faces that “even their virtues were being burned away.”
It took an encounter with a young woman who challenged her assumptions to break Mrs. Turpin from her cultural mold so that she could see a bigger vision of what God had in mind. And that’s not far from what happened to Jesus when the Canaanite woman asked him to heal her child.
This woman’s dogged faith was enough to break Jesus out of the Jewish male mold and make him confront everything he had ever been taught about who he was. He saw that God’s kingdom was bigger than he had imagined. God’s love was even more encompassing than he had dreamed. He didn’t pick this up in the temple, reading the scriptures; he learned it from a real person, with all kinds of hurts and needs and concerns and feelings. His encounter with her changed him. And when he changed, a larger possibility unfolded. This story is not just about the healing of one child. What we see in this story is God’s grace finding its way beyond the boundaries of Israel. We have a glimpse of the future of the gospel, where the power of God is extended to all people of faith.
This may not be our favorite story of Jesus. But even in this story, Jesus can still be our example. Here he is not a model of perfection for us. He is a model of growth. When Jesus sees his own limits, he does not shore up his defenses. He lets the spirit of God move within him and fill him with compassion. He allows himself to be changed.
This is our model: a Savior who keeps growing. Believing in this kind of Jesus is not a threat to our faith. Just the opposite. If we’re honest, this is a Jesus that is much better for us follow anyway. None of us can follow Jesus in perfection. We all have too much baggage. But if following Jesus means letting ourselves be changed by the encounters and experiences with people in our lives, we can do that.
Accepting that the human Jesus needed to grow and change does not make him less divine. Perhaps it even makes him more so. We don’t believe in a God that created the world, set the world into motion, and stepped back. We serve a God that is a part of history, that is moved by what happens in the world and in our lives. God is constantly moving and changing and living among us. So the possibility of a growing, living, changing Savior gives us the hope that God is still at work. When we open ourselves to being changed by God’s spirit and God’s people, like Jesus did, then we become more and more like God with each experience of our lives.
Perhaps the hardest part of this story is not dealing with the theological questions that it raises. The hardest part of reading this story is that if we pay attention to it, it just may raise our awareness of our own stereotypes and limitations. If Jesus has them, then certainly we do, too.
In my junior year at Mercer, I signed up for a class in Christian Social Ethics taught by one of Mercer’s legends, Dr. Joe Hendricks. “Papa Joe,” as he was known on campus, had served as Dean of Students at Mercer during the years of the university’s integration and was a force to be reckoned with when it came to issues of race and equality. The course I took was required for Christianity majors such as myself, but students from across the university competed for seats in the class to listen to Papa Joe tell his stories.
I remember Papa Joe telling this parable one day in class: “Imagine the day when this happens: You attend the wedding of a friend and come back to tell another friend about it. You describe in detail the ceremony, the reception, and all the festivities. Your friend asks, “Well, what color was the groom?”.
At this point, I thought “Hmm? What would that be like?” I thought the story was finished. The idea that someone might have to ask the color of the groom was subversive to me. It meant that it was not already assumed that the groom was the same color as the bride. That was a pretty sure assumption where I came from.
But Papa Joe continued. “Well, what color was the groom?” the friend asked. “I don’t know. I didn’t even notice.” Wow. “I didn’t even notice.” I have remembered this story because it was powerful for me. It challenged my assumptions. Even more, it showed me that I still notice. As much as I believe in the equality of all people and am embarrassed by my cultural and racial heritage, I still notice color when I look at someone. I have grown, but I still have a ways to go.
What is it about you that needs to be changed? What part of your past lies deep within you and still shapes how you see the world?
Maybe it is something that haunts you everyday. Or maybe it is something that still lies unquestioned.
Maybe it is too uncomfortable for you to talk about.
Perhaps you are even scared of it, afraid that it might bubble to the surface if you don’t keep it suppressed.
Is it a prejudice that you were taught as a child? A stereotype about people of another race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or class?
Do you harbor resentment towards someone that hurt you?
Is it greed?
Are you quick to point out the faults of others without looking deep within to see your own?
How do we change those dark parts of ourselves?
Sometimes our lives are interrupted, even rudely interrupted, by people and events that awaken us to our own inadequacies. When that happens, don’t be stubborn about it. Pay attention. Sometimes those rude awakenings, while hard to endure, can become gifts to us. Change is not usually easy. But the growth that comes from it can be life-giving.
Or, you don’t have to wait to be rudely interrupted. You can take charge of your own growth. Take the time to read a book or watch a program about a culture you don’t understand. Reach out to make a friend who is different from you. Spend some time in prayer or meditation or therapy wrestling with some of the demons that lie deep within you, and ask God for healing.
Jesus shows us that we can’t change where we’ve come from or what we’ve done. Those things are a part of us. But we can grow beyond them. We can change how we will go forward.
This is the season after Pentecost. The green on our communion table and pulpit remind us that God’s spirit is still growing us. God is constantly entering new territory and breaking boundaries, enlarging our boxes and granting people not just a crumb but a place at the table. Following this kind of God takes work. It takes determination. It requires a dogged faith that calls us to look deep within, to repent, to take risk, and to live boldly. But when we do these things, the crumbs of grace that we gather become enough to give us life. Amen.
Julie Long is the Associate Pastor and Minister of Children and Families at the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.