i supplied, today, way out south at a suburban Kansas City parish.
I decided to preach on Ferguson anyway, because to my mind, to proclaim belief in the Incarnation, yet not address suffering or injustice, when it is in front of us, just does not make sense.
For the most part, it went over well. A few parishioners at the early service commented that “It was a very relevant sermon.”
But in the later service, I was surprised to hear a few spontaneous ‘Amen!’s from the congregation. Episcopalians (especially in the Midwest) don’t do that.
And afterwards, a woman approached me. She commented that she’d been bothered all week by events in Ferguson, and that she’d written off Michael Brown as ‘a thug’, especially after the robbery video.***
She added, “But your sermon has made me think. And no one deserves to die like that. No matter what. No one deserves that.”
High five, Holy Spirit. You win again.
***I made a lot of “Mmmm!” sounds. Jesus intervened and kept my face unemotional, and prevented the “OhmyGod,Iamgoingtopunchsomethingrightthisveryminute” expression that I felt was about to appear.
Here’s what I said.
August 17, 2014
Ordinary Time, Proper 15
Matthew 15: 21-28
I’m going to say what is probably obvious right now—it has not been a good week for Missouri.
It has not been a real good month for people of faith overall who believe in justice, and peace, and loving one another, as we’ve watching war again spread its fingers across the Middle East, and disease spread across Africa, and fighting march into Russia and the Ukraine.
And now, this week. We have all watched in horror as the violence we’re now used to seeing on our TV screens, came near to us, just across the state. Michael Brown, under circumstances that are still not very clear, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson a week ago. What we do know from witnesses is that his hands were up, in a sign of surrender. We know he was far away, he was running. And we know it was tragic.
And what we have seen since is protests, every night, on the street, and tear gas, and tanks filled with decked-out cops on city streets that look a lot like ours. We have seen curfews and states of emergency. The sort of thing you’d never think to see in America, in a quiet little midwestern town, yet here we are.
It’s the world gone mad. It’s scary and it’s shocking, and it’s heartbreaking and it’s overwhelming. It’s enough to make you swear off the news, grab your kids, and hide under your bed, and vow to not come out until humanity learns to do better.
But that’s not an option. It’s not an option for adults, and it’s certainly not an option for Christians.
So what do we do, as people of faith? What are we called to do as Jesus’ people when the world seems so off-kilter and the light is so hard to find?
We do what we always have done when times like this occur. We gather, and we pray, just like we’re doing today. At the behest of our Presiding Bishop, today especially, Episcopalians around the world are praying for our sisters and brothers in Iraq who are facing an uncertain future.
And we turn to the Scripture to listen for how the people of God have faced these struggles before. What did they do? How did God lead them through? In the Bible, where does God show up when everything is going sideways?
Like in the gospel, in this strange little interlude Jesus has with the woman.
Jesus has been preaching and teaching for a while now, he’s just admonished the religious leaders.
And then he meets the Syro-Phonecian woman. She’s not given a name, for starters, in the gospel, which means either one of two things: either she’s so well known to Matthew’s community that he’s writing to or the writer of Matthew doesn’t think she rates a name.
Anyway, she shows up, and she sort of accosts Jesus, to the great annoyance of the disciples, who were not great fans of hers. (Leading me to suspect that the reason she doesn’t get a name is that the author of Matthew doesn’t like her either.)
They don’t like her because she keeps yelling at them to heal her daughter already! Give her justice! Help her!
And also, this pesky problem that she’s Syro-Phonecian. Which means she’s the wrong ethnicity to be pestering the nice, upstanding Jewish disciples. She comes from across the tracks. [She comes from across the hafrada wall. She comes from across the county/city line.]
And Jesus? Jesus does this strange thing.. He tells her that he’s only here for the lost sheep of Israel, but she still doesn’t give up, so he tells her that it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Now, that’s not ok. Scholars do all sorts of things to explain why this isn’t really as bad as it sounds. Jesus was really talking to the disciples! Jesus was acting out of character in hopes of being stopped and condemned by the disciples! He was using her as an example!
Any of these could be true, although I think they’re a bit of a stretch. And what we’re left with is a situation in which Jesus is calling a poor, hurting, marginalized woman a dog to explain why he won’t help her.
But then something happens. Rather than take the good rabbi at his word, she gets snarky, and snaps back that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.
She gets mad. She gets angry.
And instead of being offended, or getting defensive, or striking her down where she stands, Jesus applauds her. Woman, great is your faith. Your daughter is healed.
She gets mad. She gets angry.
We should note here that calling someone a dog is a pretty universal slur. And at the time, it was also specific. It was what you called foreigners, and specifically foreign women. This woman had been called a dog all her life. She knew what that was, only this time, she wasn’t going to accept that.
Because somewhere in her, she had faith.
Somewhere in her, she had a deep, unshakeable faith that she was not, in fact, a dog, that she was not all those bad things people called her, that she was not the sum of their unjust treatment of her, that she was worthy, and she was loved, somehow, in spite of all that.
Somewhere in her, she held on, with both hands, to that faith that God loved her, that she was valuable, and that the world could and should be different.
And her relentless, unshakable faith made her angry. And her angry faith caught Jesus’ attention, her furious insistence that THIS HAD TO CHANGE got healing for her daughter.
Beloved in Christ, there are times we need to be angry. There are things in this world that should make us mad, should make us furious, should absolutely put fire in our blood. Now, I know, this is the Midwest, we don’t do angry real well, but sometimes, anger is what’s called for.
We should be angry when peaceful protesters are teargassed. We should be angry when they’re shot at. We should be angry when there’s so little accountability for those who wield so much power.
And most of all, we should be angry when children are being killed. Black children, white children, Arab children, Iraqi children, the refugee children at our borders, anyone’s children at risk should fill us with that faithful anger.
Because we know, as people of faith, that all people everywhere are children of God. And to harm anyone, anywhere, whether its on a mountaintop in Iraq, a beach in Gaza, or the streets of Ferguson is to harm the very image of God.
And we insist, we know that is wrong. and that God wants the world to be different. God created this world in goodness, and God created us to be different. God created us to be better, more loving, more caring, and until we live into that—we aren’t done yet.
So, let us take all this heartbreak, this faithful fury of the past week, and may it propel us to build a more just where we are. One that better reflects the truth that we know. One that reflects the image of God everywhere we look, and protects every. Single. child of God.