- Parish House
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 15:10-28
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
The kids are back in school around here, settling into their classrooms and routines. There are assessments to be made, homework to be assigned, and tests to be taken. The formal instruction of the school year has begun. And so has the informal instruction, the kind that happens on the schoolyard. Recess is the time when kids experiment with how to be in relationship with each other. Emotions can run high. Remember that feeling of elation when you’re included in a group of kids? Or that feeling of despair when you find yourself on the outs with kids you thought were your friends? The schoolyard can be a fickle, even precarious place, as lines that define who’s in and who’s out can shift in a heartbeat. And so it’s naturally a place where kids try to make sense of the world and everyone’s place in it, especially their own.
I remember one particular recess discussion with some other kids in my class. We were probably all of 6 or 7 at the time. We were a diverse bunch in a diverse town. This was a parochial school, and our teachers had carefully taught us about the dignity of every human being and how everyone is a child of God. My parents, like most of the parents in the school I assume, were also trying to instill that message in us. And yet somehow, our young minds settled on the topic of interracial marriage that day. This is a painful memory, because I remember that we tried to sort out a kind of hierarchy of moral acceptance depending on who married whom. We first established a preference for non-interracial marriage. And then we asked, from there, was it more acceptable for a white person to marry an African American or a Latino or an Asian American? I have a sense of shame about that day. I now know that it was an exercise in objectifying other people, categorizing them, and ranking them. I would wager that many of us had similar moments as children, and it’s important to look at those moments honestly. Because even if children are taught overtly to be respectful of difference, kids pick up on what’s in the water around them. And now as adults, we have to look honestly at what’s in the water.
I have prayed this week about what to say from the pulpit after the events in Charlottesville. I am heartbroken by the violence, the hatred, and the division. I am heartbroken by the fear of the other – be it immigrants, Muslims, Jews, people of color, anyone perceived as different or some kind of threat. Maybe hatred and division are on the rise, or maybe just more fully exposed. Either way, they are in the water, and we live in a world that objectifies people as other. This is a painful, and sometimes dangerous, truth.
We know that we have work to do to build what Jesus called the kingdom of God, or what the prophet Isaiah called the peaceable kingdom. It’s sometimes called the Beloved Community, an idea born after the devastation of the first world war. It’s a vision of what this world ought to be. The Beloved Community is one in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. How to achieve this is, in part, a political question with a variety of possible political solutions. But on a deeper level, it is also a spiritual question.
We could not have a more timely Gospel story than the one of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It’s a painful story about who’s in and who’s out. Jews and Canaanites didn’t mix back then. She was an absolute outsider, a foreigner to the House of Israel and probably even a worshiper of Herod. When she begs Jesus for mercy for the sake of her tormented daughter, he ignores her, remaining silent in the face of her cry for help. When she refuses to be ignored and pleads her case once more, he insults her by calling her a dog. That was in the water, a common slur that seemed to roll off his tongue pretty readily.
The standard interpretation of this story is that Jesus was only testing her faith in him, and when she passed the test, he rewarded her by healing her daughter. But I’m not convinced by that sanitized interpretation. It seems more apparent that Jesus’s first response was a knee-jerk one he was conditioned to make, what his culture taught him was appropriate. We are not comfortable with the idea of Jesus needing to learn something. But if that’s the case about what happened that day, there is enormous hope and grace for us in this story. That we, too, can learn a different and better way of being with each other in this world.
The Canaanite woman taught Jesus that God’s mission and vision and mercy are bigger than what he may have initially imagined. And she can be our teacher as well, today. We are in a time when synagogues are threatened, mosques are being fire-bombed, and white supremacists are marching in the streets. All kinds of people of being objectified as other, as less than, as a threat. Lines are being drawn about who’s in and who’s out, the very same kind of line that Jesus was finally compelled to cross over in response to the Canaanite woman. She calls to us, too, to expand own vision and mercy, and to follow Jesus’ lead in this difficult work.
Our spiritual vision must be clear about this. In 1923 a Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber published an important book by the title I and Thou. Our life, he argued, finds it meaning in relationships. The main proposition is that we experience relationships in one of two ways. The first is an attitude of the self, or “I” toward an object that is separate, which we either use or experience. In this model, we think of another person as an object. The second option is the attitude of the “I” or self towards another as “Thou”, as a subject, in a relationship in which the other is not objectified. True relationship is the I-Thou model, subject to subject. And Buber concluded that all of our I-Thou relationships guide us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.
Admittedly, German philosophy can be heady, but here’s how it works on the ground. We can treat people as objects, or we can be in a relationship with others as subjects, subject to subject, I and Thou. This is practice for how to be in relationship with God. Jesus’s conversion that day was to move from seeing the Canaanite woman as an object to seeing her as a subject, in her full and equal humanity, and then to extend his mercy to her. Our hearts can be moved like that, too. And in fact, we have a moral and spiritual imperative to see this world as a world of subjects. And like Jesus, to widen the circles of our own mercy and compassion. This is the deeper spiritual work the world needs from us followers of Jesus, beyond whatever divides us politically or socially. This is the spiritual work at the heart of the Beloved Community.
And let’s also be clear that Christianity is fundamentally a religion of hope. We put our trust in the knowledge that this is the world that God loves, and that we are the humanity that God redeemed through the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have hope, therefore, that the sinful forces that divide us do not have the final word. This is true from the small experiments of children on a schoolyard to the current clashes on our city streets. Today’s story of Jesus crossing a divide to heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter is a model for crossing over and healing those forces. This is our calling, this is our work, and this is our hope.