A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to worship with my brother and sister-in-law at their church, Christ Missionary Baptist in Indianapolis. I had not seen Barry and Jacky since Easter and they're always posting about the work and worship of Christ Missionary, so I wanted to see for myself what it was all about.
We planned to meet at my brother's house at 9:45AM to go to the 10:00AM worship service. The church isn't too far from their house, but that still felt like we were cutting it close. Turns out that was a needless concern on my part. Apparently at Christ Missionary Baptist, the worship time is just a suggestion! For about the first 30 minutes of the service, people just sort of moseyed their way into the sanctuary and it was at least 10:30 before things really started to roll.
At some point, before 11AM (which is when the preaching started) Pastor Melody asked all the visitors to stand up so they could welcome us. Thank goodness they didn't make us wear special name badges...although I'm pretty sure I was the only visitor that day so I did not go unnoticed. Instead, I received a gift bag and a genuine and personal welcome from the pulpit.
Which reminds me - they also have a time similar to the passing of the peace. Except, rather than the polite handshake we are used to, everyone receives a hearty hug...from everyone else. Seriously! They stroll all over the sanctuary hugging on each other and I'm pretty certain there is an unspoken rule that all members must hug the visitor.
I have no doubt in my mind that this sounds uncomfortable to many of you. There is, after all, a reason we are called the frozen chosen. And I'm not suggesting we try this here at FPC. However, I will say that I cannot remember a time I have felt more genuinely welcomed into a faith community. It made my Sunday morning complete.
I also believe that worshipping with Christ Missionary last month was God's providential preparation of my heart to preach this particular gospel passage today. To preach it today...in light of the events last weekend in Charlottesville. To preach it today...in light of the harsh reality that while our nation has come a long way since the Civil War and made notable progress since the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. King, we still have a long way to go to achieve true racial peace. And not the artificial peace of avoidance or silence, but the true peace that comes when we are open, repentant, and justice prevails for all people.
So what does my visit to Christ Missionary Baptist have to do with the events of Charlottesville and today's message? Well if you have not guessed, Christ Missionary Baptist is a predominately black church. And when I say predominately, the day I was there with my brother and sister-in-law, you could count on one hand the number of white people in the room...and you would not need all your fingers: Barry...Jacky...Terri. But here's the amazing thing...honestly, it seemed as if I was the only person who realized that we were white! We were welcomed and included without hesitation or awkwardness. I'm telling you we were not the token white people worshiping in the black church, we were their brother and sisters in Christ...praising Jesus together.
It felt like what I imagine God wants for all his children. It looked the way one nation under God should look. And to me, it was a vision of the kingdom of God.
While I could have easily been treated like the Canaanite woman in today's story, I was not. I was welcomed from the moment I first stepped in the door. Not one person questioned me, dismissed me, or challenged why I was there.
I think that's why this particular Bible story is so disturbing to most Christians. Sure it gets to the happy ending, but not without facing a really difficult-to-accept picture of Jesus. As one person said, "I don't like the story because it makes Jesus look mean." It is troubling to hear Jesus dismiss the Canaanite woman so casually...as if he did not really even see her. Even more so, it's an offense to our sensibilities (or at least it should be) to read that Jesus basically compares her to a dog...even if metaphorically.
Why would Jesus, who for the previous 14 chapters of Matthew has been preaching a message of compassion and love, suddenly become so rude and insensitive?
Earlier this month when I was at the Biblical Storytellers Festival, I attended a workshop during which we discussed this particular passage. There were many interesting theories about what was really going on. But, the limitation of the written word - in a Bible or in a text message - is that it doesn't transmit tone, mood, or intent. The limitation of this particular written word is that we do not know for certain why Jesus interacted with the woman the way he did, and neither Jesus nor Matthew offers us an explanation. We have no choice but to live with the unpleasant ambiguity.
However, there is one possible theory that I want to explore with you today. What if this was a teaching moment for the disciples? Like I said, we can't be sure, but think about it. Jesus has just given them a bold, resistance message to the religious and cultural norms of their community. In the previous dialogue about what defiles, he is very clear that it's not clean hands or unclean hands that defile - by the way, the clean or not clean is basically the same as saying whether they were considered pure or not pure, acceptable or not acceptable. Jesus says that the outer things - which I believe he would say includes race, gender, nationality, as well as how we worship God...all things that would have separated a Jewish man and a Canaanite woman...these are not what makes a person unacceptable to God. They are not the source of our sinfulness either. No, Jesus pretty much says that the sewage of sin comes from our heart.
Whatever is in our hearts...will eventually come out our mouths (or onto our Facebook feed) and right now, there is way too much hate spewing from folks in our nation...including those who call themselves Christian.
Now I'm not going to go too political on you...but I am going to say this...the white supremacist hate speech that is on the rise in our nation is the epitome of sewer mouth. It is wrong. It is evil. It is sin. It does not matter who you voted for in the election. It does not matter what you think about the Confederate monuments and the flag. This problem we have of racism in our nation? It is not about either. Those are outward things. Racism...white supremacy...anti-Semitism...anti-anyone who doesn't think, look, act or believe like me...they are sin...inside sin of the heart. And, anyone who does not condemn the supremacist ideology that attempts to place the worth and value of some of God's children above others, anyone who does not call this evil out...and uncategorically deny it...well he or she is part of the problem. He or she cannot make room for this evil and claim to follow Jesus Christ. It really is as simple as that.
Now, folks, I'm not advocating for violence...but to sit by and say nothing? Well Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, who was at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, has made it very clear what that means. He said, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. He also said, that the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. Finally, the quote that hangs over my desk, "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest."
Friends, I do not have to tell you that at this moment in history, once again the church is facing a grave injustice. Slavery was evil. Racism is evil. Nazism and white nationalism is evil. And, if the church doesn't (as the younger generation says) get woke real soon, that evil is going to continue to win one violent protest at a time.
So what if this encounter with the Canaanite woman was a test to see if the disciples were woke to the gospel?? In other words, Jesus was waiting to see if they were taking in all that he had been preaching. Even more so, were they willing to put it into practice...were they willing to break rank with cultural, political, and even religious norms, to stand up to injustice? Were they willing to speak out for the woman who was not like them, whom they had been taught was lower than them? Or...would they do what they had every right to do...just pass her by and keep on going? Yeah, as uncomfortable as it makes us to consider, I wonder if Jesus was giving them a test -- one that they clearly failed.
What is even more unsettling is the possibility that the white church in America is still taking that test...and Jesus is watching to see if we pass or fail.
Folks, mothers are crying out on behalf of their children all across this nation. Crying out for their young black sons who are targeted with suspicion for the color of their skin. Crying out for their daughters who are sexualized at such a young age. Crying out for their gay and questioning children who are bullied and denied rights. Crying out for their children whom they leave behind when they, the parents, are deported. Crying out for the injustices all around the world...injustices that are made worse because of the color of their skin, the nation of their birth, the language they speak, or the religion they practice.
Here in America, blacks and Jews and immigrants are suffering despicable acts of hatred. They are crying out and there are...hundreds, yes hundreds, of white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups working overtime to try to silence them with intimidation.
Folks this is not a right/left, progressive/evangelical, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat thing...this is a God thing. A love thing. A heart thing.
We cannot fool ourselves into believing that racism in our country ended in the 60s or the 70s...or in any decade as of yet. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that somehow the first black president made us a racist nation again. For years the evil of racism slithered underground and lurked behind complicit structures...but it was always there. The events of this past weekend has just shined a glaring light on it and brought it out into the open. And now, like a Canaanite woman shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord," it is screaming for the church to respond.
And time will tell if we will we pass the test.
Will we be like the disciples and try to silence the voices of the proclaimers, the resistors, the solidarity marchers and the justice seekers? Will we deny the reality of racism and the evil of white-supremacy? Will we resort to the age-old excuse-making, "But that's not me. I'm not a racist." Or, the invalidating, "Why can't we all just get along?" Or my personal favorite, "The church should just pray and stay out of politics." Since when did Jesus "just pray"? Yes, he prayed but he also spoke out, vehemently, against a similar exclusionary ideology...so vocally that it got him killed.
Now, I am aware that about right now some of you are wishing that I had stayed on vacation...or that I would tell you that in the end everything is going to be alright. You want me to jump to the happy ending, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."
Well sorry, but I believe it would be irresponsible of me and contrary to the gospel if I did not say what God has placed firmly in my heart today. And I whole-hearted believe that if American Christianity does not want to fail the test at hand...we need to follow the lead of the woman in this story. We must be as respectful, passionate, and persistent as she was. We cannot remain silent. We must boldly live the gospel we proclaim. We must stand on the side of justice and equality for all of God's children. And to say that the church has the choice to do anything less is...well...that would be a lie.
We cannot be Christian and sympathetic to any form of supremacist thinking.
We cannot be the Body of Christ if we exclude any other part for any reason.
We cannot follow Jesus and ignore the reality of racial and ethnic suffering. To do so is the antithesis of the gospel and it cheapens the sacrifice Christ made on the cross.
So what can we do? How can we be faithful to God and our neighbor?
The long and short answer is...by loving both. Love God with all our heart and soul and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Our neighbor who is African American.
Our neighbor who is Jewish. Our Muslim neighbor. Our immigrant neighbor.
Our LGBTQ neighbor, our rich neighbor, our poor neighbor.
You get the picture. Jesus did not put any qualifier on the end of that commandment. Love is love is love and as difficult as it is to love others, for Christians, loving others is not meant to be optional or selective.
So where do we start? How does the church promote healing...and justice...and peace through love? Well, first and foremost, we begin on our knees in prayer. Praying continually. But, as the saying goes, "never pray a prayer unless you are willing to be part of the answer." We, the church, have an active role to play in helping heal our nation of this ugly sin of racism - starting with removing our blinders to it.
We cannot heal that which we cannot see. And only when we are able to see the injustices of the world can we help end them.
The second most powerful thing American Christians can do right now, today, to promote justice is to firmly and boldly say no. No to racism. No to sexism. No to Nazism. No to excuse-making. No to any and all hate. Christians must learn that No is a complete sentence. It is not followed by a comma, a "but" or a "whatabout". It is no - period.
A third action we can take is to be intentional about building diverse relationships...really seeing and hearing each other...appreciating the gift and blessing of God's presence in each other. After all, that is where the walls of division get torn down...in our common humanity and when we work side-by-side in service to Christ. Just ask the folks at Christ Missionary Baptist Church-- they do it so well!
My friends, inscribed on the wall at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington DC is this quote: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
I suggest that the same can be said of the church.
And, let's be real...we are smack dab in the middle of challenge and controversy. It's not going away. So just imagine if every member of every Christian congregation in America would pledge to do just these three things: acknowledge the racism, say no to it, unequivocally, and build relationships with others...covered in prayer of course. The ideology of white supremacy would have no chance of survival, and one thing would be certain. Jesus would assuredly look at the church and declare: In the face of evil...she, my church, persisted.
Friends, love is love is love and the risen Christ has proven that, in the end, it always wins. All glory be his. Amen.