The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 20, 2017
When I was young person growing up in a small town in Georgia, most of my peers, most of my male peers, loved American football. Not professional football, mind you, but college ball--UGA, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia Tech--the big land grant universities that had big athletic programs and football teams. My father had played baseball in college and, frankly, we just never were interested in football in my family. As a small, scrawny, bookish boy, I didn’t play football with my friends--I tended to play softball with my family in the back garden or tennis with friends at the town court--but I never learned to play football. I was so out of the loop with regard to understanding football that, one weekend, my parents (who also weren’t really interested in football) took my sister and me to a home game at UGA--the University of Georgia. We checked a book out of the library to read up on the rules so that we’d be a little clearer about what was going on. I remember loving the band, being excited about seeing Uga, the bulldog equivalent of Handsome Dan here in New Haven, and being vaguely interested in whether or not the Bulldogs were winning, but I just had no interest in actually playing football--in chasing a pigskin ball down the field and crashing into other players. It just wasn’t my thing. And so, in a town where football was practically a second religion, I was one of the odd kids out who didn’t play the sport.
It was fine, generally speaking, that I didn’t play football. I played tennis, which I was incredibly bad at because I couldn’t see the ball; I tried to play basketball, until a coach kindly suggested that perhaps basketball wasn’t my highest calling. And all of that was, generally speaking, okay. Except that, in my small school, the physical education program was a little secondary to the athletics program, and, for eight grade, one of our units was weight training in the varsity football weight room. At the same time that the varsity football team was using the weight room.
As a small, scrawny, not-football-playing kid, I can only tell you that I have never felt more out of place than in the varsity football weight room. Now, no one told me that I was in the wrong place, or that I didn’t belong. But I definitely got the sense that I was in the wrong place. I didn’t feel right there.
I know what it means to feel out of place, unwelcome, in a particular situation. Maybe you do, too. And that’s why, when I hear the gospel reading this morning, I really wish things had gone differently. I wish that, when Jesus met the Canaanite woman, that he’d been really welcoming to her. That he’d gone out of his way to greet her, to make her feel accepted. This is, after all, the Episcopal Church, and all are welcome!
But Jesus doesn’t immediately welcome the Canaanite woman, does he. In fact, the disciples are really annoyed with her. They’ve been surrounded by huge crowds--and the gospel writer tells us over and over again how Jesus is trying to retreat from those crowds, to find a moment’s peace--and now they’ve gone away from the Sea of Galilee to the coast, to Tyre and Sidon, a new place--and they’re confronted by a Canaanite woman. She’s not even Jewish. She’s not the audience Jesus is there for! And she follows them, shouting loudly, calling on Jesus to heal her daughter. Over and over and over again. Can’t she just go away, the disciples ask. And Jesus himself at first ignores her and then, when the disciples ask, he seems to try to send her away with the explanation, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) I can’t help you, lady! Leave us alone!
The woman knows that she is an outsider. She lives not in Jerusalem but out nearer the coast. She isn’t a part of the tribes of Israel. She’s a foreigner, an outsider. And she lives on the margin of society--her daughter is possessed by a demon, she says. She’s so much an outsider that she even breaches the norms of polite society. She trails behind the disciples, shouting constantly at Jesus. This woman is annoying!
And here, depending on how you understand Jesus, things get tricky, right? If you believe that Jesus is fully human, it’s easy to say, “Well, this is a place where Jesus gets it wrong. In his humanity he is challenged by this difficult woman, but eventually he does the right thing. Here Jesus learns that God’s mercy is for all people.” And that well may be. But if your Christology is a bit higher and you focus on that Jesus is fully divine, he must, like God, be fully perfect and surely couldn’t have made this sort of mistake. He must then be testing his disciples--setting up an incident to show them the truth, to teach them that the Canaanite woman is included in God’s love. And that’s an explanation I’ve heard before, as well.
I’d like to suggest that I think that the focus on Jesus’s motivations in this situation may be a bit of a red herring, even an unanswerable question. For me, what this encounter with the Canaanite woman shows us is not something about Jesus--but something about the way the world is.
Our world is deeply divided--in small, quiet ways and in big, systemic ways. There are clear, present ways that we make one another feel unwelcome, excluded, outsider; I think of the obvious issues like segregation, Jim Crow laws, the institution of slavery itself in our country--but also the quieter, more subtle ones--where and which statues we erect in our town centers, whose names are honored in our institutions, and who we see in leadership around us. There are subtle ways that we divide and exclude--sometimes consciously and sometimes even unconsciously. And it’s not just about race, is it. How are disabled folks afforded access to our public spaces? How are the mentally ill cared for and treated in our society? How would the Canaanite woman’s daughter have been received here in New Haven--or the Canaanite woman herself, crying out in the streets as she was?
The world is divided. And we see that reflected in the circumstances of the story we hear this morning.
But Jesus shows us something different. Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God has come near. That the love, the mercy, the grace of God is available to all people--not just the ones we want it to apply to, either! It’s available to those in great need. To those who are annoying. Even to those who are full of hatred.
I worked for a priest once whose voice still resonates in my head from time to time; anytime I’d get really annoyed with someone, he’d remind me, “Oh, she really is something, isn’t she. And just to think--Jesus died for her, too.”
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” God says in the words of the prophet Isaiah. This love, this mercy, this kingdom of justice and peace is for all people. Not just for the Jewish nation. Not just for Christians. For all people. Good and bad. Lovely and unlovely.
We look across our nation and can see easily and quickly that the reign of the kingdom of God is not yet. We are divided, we fight, we exclude one another. But the kingdom of God has come near. We know what things can look like. What things should look like. We have a glimpse of the reign of the kingdom of God.
And all people are included in that gift of love. The Canaanite woman, her daughter, you, and me.
Will we accept that great gift? Will we allow our hearts to follow Jesus--to live within the vision of that kingdom of love, of justice, of mercy? Will we welcome the Canaanite woman? Will we welcome one another?
This is not always easy work, living as though everyone is included in God’s love. It requires a cost. It means we have to work towards including those who don’t fit, who differ from our own understanding and preconceived notions of the world. It means we have to give of our selves, of what we have, even of our own privilege, to make sure that all are invited. It means we may suffer at the hands of evil while proclaiming the coming of the reign of the kingdom of God. There is a real cost to living within the knowledge of God’s love and mercy.
But it is only through the mercy of Jesus that we can begin to try. May God give us his grace to love. His grace to heal. And the courage of the resurrection to live into the reign of the kingdom of God.