Sermon Text: Matthew 15: 21-28
August 17, 2014
First Congregational UCC – Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I’m pretty sure that in the seminary class where they tell you want you should and shouldn’t do after just two and a half months in a new call, they covered something about not preaching messy, cranky sermons about controversial topics. I feel fairly certain we preachers are supposed to save a sermon like the one I’m about to preach for later.....later.
Of course, I’m not sure when later would be. Because I’ve been going to church my whole life and I can count on one hand, actually HALF of one hand, the number of times I’ve heard white preachers preach about race. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen racism named in a worship service for what it is: a systemic evil that infiltrates and harms all of us – white, black, brown and every shade in between.
We have a name for this kind of evil in the Church. We call it sin.
It seems there’s almost never an appropriate time for nice, buttoned up, well-meaning, mostly-white folks to talk about race. Especially not in church.
It seems like later never comes. Dr. King told us 51 years ago that we couldn’t wait for justice any longer. But the photos out of Ferguson, Missouri this week surely would have made Dr. King rant and weep and wail. Children holding up signs that say, “Don’t shoot.” Police decked out in riot gear, looking like they’re in the middle of a war zone. Journalists being jailed – without being read their rights, without any charges given.
The news out of Ferguson has fairly consumed my soul this week. Just 350 miles from here last Saturday, an unarmed 18 year old man named Michael Brown was shot multiple times and then left, dead, in the street for several hours. For days and days afterwards we watched helplessly as heavily armed police confronted people attempting to exercise their right to assemble and grieve and protest. The desperation has been palpable and I have stayed up late keeping vigil – watching the live videos and tweets and cries for justice. This week has been about so much more than Brown’s death. It has been the cry of a people who have been silenced for too long. A group of people begging to be heard, respected, treated like human beings. Will we listen? Can we learn?
If now is not the time to talk about this desperation, when would the more appropriate time be?
There certainly isn’t enough time today for me to go into all of the background information out there about the problems with the criminal justice systems in our country. If you want a good overview you should read The New Jim Crow by Stanford law professor Michelle Alexander. That book should be required reading for everyone in this country.
It will take some time until we have better information about exactly what happened last Saturday afternoon when Michael Brown was killed. And so there are some that say, “It’s too early to come to conclusions. Why do you assume the police were in the wrong?” The problem, of course, is this is that this is not an isolated incident. If you take the time to follow alternate news sources, you can find reports of people of color in this country being beaten, cursed, hurt, killed by police almost daily. In the past two months alone, at least four unarmed black men have been killed by police in the United States. If anything good can come from Brown’s death, is that’s some of these stories are now making into the mainstream media. Some of these voices are finally being heard. Will we listen? Can we learn?
If those of us who are white can listen and learn one thing from our black brothers and sisters this week, I think it should be this: race still matters. Though I still often hear white people say we should all try to be colorblind, I know of not one single person of color who would tell you that colorblindness is a worthy goal.
Race, though a made up concept, is in the DNA of this country. This country was founded with racist values at its core. That’s not a pretty truth, but it is the truth. We have carried this sin with us since before the founding of this nation. If we do not actively work to understand and dismantle the sin of racism, we can be assured it will continue. It’s not enough to change our individual beliefs and actions. It’s not enough to teach our children better – though, of course, those things are important. We must work to actively dismantle the systems that oppress.
One way we begin is by listening.
We must listen to the voices that belong to people of color telling us how important it is to understand and talk about race. I once told a friend of mine who is black that white people often think it’s better not to talk to their kids about race, for fear of making them notice the existence of different races. She cracked up. She couldn’t believe it.
Because if you’re a black kid in this country, you’d better believe you know lots about race by the time you’re 2 or 3. Your parents and elders teach you the tips and tricks about how to survive and keep safe.
Black children are told, “Keep your voice down. You don’t want people to think you’re wild.” Black kids are taught, “Keep your hands out of your pockets in stores or people may think you’re stealing.” Black kids aren’t told, “If you ever need help, find a police officer and they will help you.” They aren’t. Instead, they are told, “If you ever get pulled over by the police (and you will), you make sure and roll down your window and put both of your hands on the side of the car like this to show that you are cooperating and you have no weapons.”
Every black male friend I have can tell you a story about being pulled over for driving while black. Every mother of a black child that I know has told me that she worries about what might happen if the wrong police officer runs into her child at the wrong time.
One of the not-often-recognized truths about racism is that it hurts all of us. The police, like the rest of us, are caught up in systems that are unjust and teach us to fear. White people are taught from an early age to fear people of color. It subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that is what we’re taught. It’s a lie that we need to stop teaching our children.
Friends, I can’t handle many more photos of black mothers and fathers at press conferences clutching photos of their children. Their dead children. “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
In the face of this great grief and despair, there is a part of me that wants to just allow all of us who mourn to weep and wail without comfort. But there is another part of me, too, the part of me that looks to our scripture – to our shared stories – for hope.
It seems providential that the lectionary text this week is the story of Jesus and the Caananite woman. In this story, Jesus comes into contact with a desperate, grieving mother. She is not of Jesus’s people. There is no reason to think that he will help her at all. But he seems to be her last chance, so she boldly approaches him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
She comes to him on behalf of her daughter. She fears for her child. One of the first images I saw out of Ferguson this week was Mike Brown’s father holding up a quickly-made cardboard sign: “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!”
Jesus ignores the woman. He refuses to even honor her humanity by listening. And his disciples encourage him to keep ignoring her, saying, “Send her away. She’s loud.” In other words, “She’s not one of us. Her problems are not our problems. And we don’t like the way she’s asking.”
Ferguson is a long way from here isn’t it? Those photos of that town…they don’t look much like Manhattan, do they? And maybe we think, “Well, if they would just calm down and use the proper channels they would be more successful. Why do they keep complaining so loudly?”
Jesus keeps ignoring her, but she won’t have it. She gets up in his face, falls in front of him on her knees and says, “Lord, HELP ME.” She is not going away.
Those who initially gathered around the body of Michael Brown last Saturday kept vigil. They stayed through the afternoon sun while his body lay in the street. They stayed all afternoon and all evening. They would not leave. They would not go away.
But Jesus is stubborn. For whatever reason – maybe he didn’t sleep well the night before, maybe he’s just overwhelmed with his own worries, maybe he had been taught from an early age to think of Cannanites as animals – whatever the reason, it’s a pretty horrible response. It pains me every time I read it.
He says, essentially, “I’m not here for people like you. You’re out of my jurisdiction.” He doesn’t even apologize. Just states it like that. And he calls her a dog. An animal. Less than human.
And this woman – God bless this woman and her nerves of steel – she tries ONE. MORE. TIME.
“Jesus,” she says, “Even people like me matter. Can I just have the leftovers from your table? Just a little help?”
And Jesus finally relents and helps her. Her daughter is healed.
How can a story of Jesus behaving badly possibly offer us hope?
Well, I think there is hope to be found in this: Jesus was willing – eventually – to listen. To learn. To change. When pushed and pushed, he decided to err on the side of kindness. He was willing to rethink who he was and what he was called to do in the world. He was wiling to go out on a limb and discover that maybe his work in this hurting world was much broader than he had initially imagined. He was willing to claim another person’s pain as his own. He had compassion….even for someone who was not from his group.
We can learn from this Jesus, can’t we? What would happen if those of us who were white stopped saying, “But….but….” every time a person of color told us what it’s like to live in their skin? What if we listened to the cries for justice, for help, for healing all around us? What if we sought ways to use our voices to amplify the voices of those who are so often silenced?
Jesus was initially unwilling to hear. But when he finally took time to listen – really listen – he realized he had to act. He remembered that he was called to care for all – not just those who looked like him. He realized it was his job to work tirelessly to heal those who were deeply wounded all the time – not just when it was convenient.
And this woman – this woman! She taught Jesus. She saved her child. And she reaches out to us today. She is still trying to teach us.
Will we listen? Can we learn?