Sermon for 15th Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
I want to introduce you to Candace, the spouse of one of my co-workers from the time when Kris and I lived in Chicago. Now, Candace is not her real name, but I assure you she is a real person and, actually, probably would not care if I used her real name. But, for today, we will call her Candace.
Candace is a wife of more than 50 years, a mother and a grandmother. I have not seen her recently, so she might even be a great-grandmother by now. Candace worked hard and well for many years and now enjoys a quiet retirement, mostly filled with family. She has never been in trouble with the law, not even a parking or speeding ticket, to my knowledge.
And, Candace is a lady. By that I mean that she comes from a generation where women dress well when they leave the house. Candace would not think of leaving her home without her hair just right, make up, a dress, stockings and heals. She always looks very well put together. She’s an attractive woman.
You get the picture.
And, whenever Candace goes to downtown Chicago to shop at Macy’s, which, of course, she still insists on calling Marshall Field’s, whenever Candace shops at Macy’s, she is always followed around the store by Macy’s security staff.
There is only one reason that Candace is followed around the store – she is African American.
As I tell you this true story, those of you who are white may find it hard to believe. Let me assure you that it is true. And, just as true, is that white people generally have no idea what it is like to be black in America in 2015.
I thought of Candace this week after reading today’s Gospel lesson, a wonderful story of two miracles of Jesus: Jesus healing the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the recovery of hearing and speech for a deaf and mute man.
I like both miracle stories, but, for today’s sermon, let’s focus on the first, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.
The Syrophoenician woman was from the land we call Syria today. She was NOT of Jesus’ ethnic or social group. And Jesus, as the text tells us, did not want anything to do with her at first. With all the conversation today about white privilege and “Black Lives Matter,” we could call Jesus’ reaction, feeling that he was here on earth to work with the Jews only – Hebrew privilege. And the Syrophoenician woman just would not let go – Syrian lives matter, Jesus, she could have said.
At first, Jesus is rude to this woman. He tries to brush her off. Jesus even calls her a dog.
Why would Jesus, why did Jesus do this?
The traditional answer is that Jesus is testing this woman, testing her faith, not rejecting her. And that she passes Jesus’ test and he heals her daughter.
The problem with this interpretation, as scholar David Lose suggests, is that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the Gospel of Mark, there is no mention of testing in the story (as there is in Job, for instance), and it creates a rather cold-hearted picture of a God who taunts and tests us in our deepest moments of need.
If not this interpretation, then what? Why would Jesus react to someone in need in such a callous manner?
And here is another answer to this question: Perhaps Jesus had not yet realized the full extent of God’s mission or the radical nature of the kingdom he proclaimed. Perhaps Jesus can learn something from this woman about his life and ministry.
I know for some people that this can be an uncomfortable interpretation. We want to think of Jesus as perfect from birth. But if we are to take Mark’s narrative seriously, that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, then perhaps we should not be surprised to see a development in Jesus’ own recognition of God’s vision for the world.
And think of it, the notion of a kingdom that included everyone with no exceptions was completely and totally novel in Jesus’ day, as it still is today!
If so – if we can imagine that this woman didn’t simply pass a clever test but instead, and as Jesus himself says, demonstrated profound faith – then we might acknowledge that this brave mother actually taught Jesus something and, therefore, might have some things to teach us as well.
Lose notes that two things stand out about the Syrophoenician woman. First, she teaches us about the power of the stranger. Newcomers, strangers, people who are different from us – they stretch our perspective and teach us things about themselves, about the world, and about us. But only if we will listen. And while from time to time you will meet persons as bold – or desperate – as is the woman in this story who will offer their insight to us unprompted, more often these folks sit at the margins of our faith communities if they enter the door at all. So we will need to reach out to them and convince them that we care about their opinion.
Second, this woman teaches us about the nature of faith. While we do not know whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus’ time, we do know that she believed her daughter was. That is, she was convinced that her precious, beloved daughter who was being oppressed by this unclean spirit was absolutely deserving of Jesus’ attention and so she was willing to go to great lengths to help her, even to the point of arguing with this famous teacher and healer.
And I think that’s often the case with faith. It shows itself most fully when exercised on behalf of others. We are not created to be isolated beings but rather find our true selves most deeply in community, in relationship, and when we are advocating for another.
Today is also the Sunday that our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, has asked ELCA congregations to join with congregations of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Church, to mark the day as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” This request came to our Bishop from the leaders of the AME church and the other historic black USA churches, especially in response to the recent shooting in an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Racism, white privilege, “Black Lives Matter” - My experience is that, in general, white people react in one of two ways when the topic of racism and white privilege is mentioned – they insist they are not racist and do not recognize white privilege, or they just turn off the conversation. And when the slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is raised, many white people respond with well, all lives matter, not hearing the cry for help rising from many African Americans in this country that the “Black Lives Matter” movement represents.
I can only speak for myself, a white male of a certain age. Here is what I know about myself: I am in the privileged majority of nearly every social category of which we operate in the USA. I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian male whose mental and physical functioning meets society’s standards. And, of course, I do not think of myself as privileged at all, I have worked hard for what I have achieved after all and that is true, but, the truth is also that many opportunities have come my way by virtue of my white male heterosexual nature.
I do not know how it is for you, but, for me, all this talk about racism, which I have never had to experience myself, and white privilege, which I am still unsure I understand, is very difficult for me. And, I am left feeling rather helpless and clueless. But, I do not want to stay there. And I know that we are very far from Jesus’ ideal of a kingdom that includes everyone equally.
Thus, I do find hope in today’s Gospel lesson – if Jesus can learn and change, maybe there is hope for me! This Syrophoenician woman, a person of a different race than Jesus, teaches him something. She reminds Jesus that his kingdom should include everyone, not just those of Jesus’ own community. She helps stretch Jesus’ view of his life and ministry.
Maybe I can learn something from her. Maybe I can learn something from others.
And that, my friends, is my simple request to you this day. That you and I examine our own attitudes and actions about race, that we pray about it, and that we talk with people different from ourselves and really listen to what they tell us.
That is a start, a place to begin. At least for today.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Candace, the Syrophoenician Woman, Racism, You and Me.
Sermon for 15th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
September 5/6, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California