“…a message situated between the Charlottesville protests and [today’s] solar eclipse” is how this week’s author, the Rev. Dr. Harvard Stephens, described the sermon he preached yesterday – and that we are featuring on the blog this week. It is one thing to be seen as a human being, still another to be seen as a child of God, still another to be told – as was the Canaanite woman by Jesus himself – that she was a dog (Matthew 15:21-28). It’s a good reading as we sit with the situation of the country and ask ourselves how does God want us to act/do in our troubled times. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28, preached on August 20, 2017 at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Racine, Wisconsin
I am looking forward to [today’s] total solar eclipse. When the moon comes between the earth and the sun and is positioned to block out most of the sun’s light for just a few minutes, a great shadow appears. We’ll then be able to see the corona, a circle of light around the sun that seems a lot like a halo – but be warned: it’s dangerous to look at all of this without some serious protection for your eyes.
I believe that a solar eclipse can teach us something valuable about our life together as a human family in the light of God’s own amazing grace. Today’s story from Matthew 15 is also hard to look at and even hard to believe. Jesus has traveled far from Jerusalem, to the north, near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He is face to face with a woman that his ethnic and religious tradition has taught him to reject because she’s spiritually unclean and culturally offensive. That’s a lot of judgment to make about someone he has just met. This is a snapshot of bias, prejudice, and religious intolerance even impacting the Son of God. Whoever this woman is, whatever her character, her contributions to society, her place in her community – all of this is hidden from us.
Now, instead of labeling her a Canaanite woman, let’s call her a child of God. Let’s offer her the same kind of consideration we would like for ourselves. Let’s go even farther and say this: this woman is the light of the world – and maybe she has heard, in her own way, about the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus tells those gathered: you are the light of the world; let your light so shine so that others may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Well, guess what I see happening? I see an eclipse. I see something blocking her light. I see something in the way that keeps us from seeing her as she really is.
The same kind of problem impacts our world today. So much has happened since the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia – which are about a lot more than the place of Confederate monuments on public land. Yes, that is the topic at one level of debate, but what we are actually encountering is deep division, hatred, and violence. Many World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors are shocked by what they’ve seen, saying: this is the same hatred we saw during WWII; don’t they know what these things mean? These political discussions have caused another kind of eclipse, a failure of people to recognize one another as siblings in the same human family because something is in the way. This is what happens when someone’s truth, someone’s humanity, and someone’s value as a child of God is denied. Today, the Canaanite woman’s light is shining, but there are religious and cultural traditions that refuse to respect her and listen to her plea for help.
I especially am moved because this brave woman is a mother – a strong mother who embodies the strengths we would like to see for ourselves – for our families – for our communities – and especially for our churches. Mother church: here’s a role model for you! Refuse to be eclipsed by the traditions that will keep you down and hold you back. I am also reminded of the mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who lost her life in the protests in Charlottesville, who says that her daughter’s legacy of courage is meant to shine brightly against the forces of hatred and intimidation – calling us to overcome the fears that threaten to smother and eclipse the light of freedom’s story unfolding in our own day.
In our Bible story, the disciples say: send her away, because she won’t stop shouting at us. And Jesus seems to take their side as he explains that his mission is only for the lost sheep of Israel. Another eclipse! But as the persistent woman continues to plead, help me, she sets into motion a timeless exchange about what is actually fair. What is the children’s food, and why does Jesus seem so stingy? This story is purposely placed in between two stories about feeding thousands of people, because the issue is not that there’s not enough food on the table. The issue is this: the benefits of having a place at this table are not being offered to this woman – but she refuses to be denied. Even something falling from the table will be enough for me, if you insist on treating me like a dog.
This is some of the strongest language you’ll ever hear Jesus use. It is basically a racial slur, a way of speaking that equates this woman’s heritage with the dogs that live with households across the land. Scraps are enough for them. But this brave woman’s words actually cause Jesus to pivot. That’s a word we use in our political discourse today. Who will pivot? Who will find an alternative path? Who will compromise? Who will respect the views of someone not in their group or party or economic class? Who will pivot because they believe in fairness and justice and compassion? Jesus certainly did.
Woman, great is your faith! I can see your light shining brightly. It is showing me a way forward that I needed to recognize. Yes, I will heal your daughter. And the daughter lived!
Next week’s reading will ask the question: who do you say Jesus is? If today’s story had not taken this turn, I’m not sure what kind of Jesus we would have been left with. Is Jesus a bigot? Is he imprisoned by the social and cultural customs that perpetuate prejudice and hatred generation after generation? Can he see the humanity of a woman from another land whose daughter is being tormented by a demon? Can he respond and show mercy for the sake of her suffering child?
Matthew writes this story, we are told, because these are exactly the questions that the church was facing. I want you to remember this: the four gospels are not books written by the disciples – but they are written in their names. It’s as if you had the incredible experience of walking with Jesus with nothing separating you from him. There is no eclipse blocking the light of his presence, and you didn’t spend your time writing. Disciples told stories – and their children listened and repeated the stories. Eventually their grandchildren began to write them down – so they wouldn’t forget. And sometime in this process of experience and memory and story-telling, the practice of writing became more and more important. And stories that the children and grandchildren told were mixed with stories of their own experiences as the early church struggled to come to terms with prejudice – and doubt and fear and persecution – and also tremendous opportunities to form communities that demonstrated generosity and compassion and especially love.
Generosity, compassion, courage, and love are signs of God’s light in us. So is wisdom – and the ability to make difficult choices that may not be popular. The Jesus-path leads us through seasons ripe with questions. How do we let our light shine? How do we overcome the barriers that keep us in fear and turmoil? What does it mean to make room at the table – and refuse to settle for a standard that says: the crumbs that fall are all we have to offer people like you.
You are the light of the world, and that light is the gift of faith that is resilient and compassionate. That light is our stories coming together in the great mystery of the body of Christ. It’s about congregations full of veterans and children, people like me, born in a segregated Alabama, and people from all over the world, including those born and raised right here. We are all people with experiences that show God’s light in hundreds of different ways. The light is our journey past the silence of disciples to the emergence of a church that stands with those caught in a cultural eclipse.
There is a way to shine this light in today’s world – with integrity, wisdom, and confidence that God is with us and calls us to celebrate the promises such a light reveals. When the light of God’s love is hidden by shadows of prejudice, fear, and violence, we have the gift of faith that leads us with courage to let our own light shine as we work for justice and peace – in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Harvard Stephens, Jr., is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Racine, Wisconsin. He is the former dean of the chapel at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and at Carthage College. He previously served as the Senior Pastor of Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States Virgin Islands and also as the Lutheran Campus Pastor at Howard University. A published devotional writer, he also teaches Tai Chi Ch’uan and performs improvisational sacred music on his soprano saxophone. In a time of unprecedented cultural and social changes, he urges everyone to believe: this is no time to live an uninspired life!