I was faced with a choice this week when it came to the Gospel lesson. I could preach the Syrophoenician woman or the deaf man healed. One is easy and one is hard. I spent hours--HOURS--reading commentary, prayers, and having discussions with colleagues. In my heart, I wanted to present you with grand wisdom of how I had solved the problem of the story of the Syrophoenician woman, but I was also chicken to speak too boldly about the question of “is Jesus a racist”?
Then this happened. A press release from the Social Action Commission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was issued to all mainline Protestant churches, titled “Liberty and Justice for All.” Following that press release, on Tuesday a letter co-written by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings was sent out to all clergy of the Episcopal Church, designating that September 6--this Sunday--was to be “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday”. And so I present to you their letter and then a few reflections of my own regarding Jesus and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
On June 17, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered by a white racist during their weekly bible study. Just a few days later at General Convention in Salt Lake City, we committed ourselves to stand in solidarity with the AME Church as they respond with acts of forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice. (Resolution A302)
Now our sisters and brothers in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church have asked us to make that solidarity visible by participating in “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” on Sunday, September 6. We ask all Episcopal congregations to join this ecumenical effort with prayer and action.
“Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking,” writes AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson. “This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.”
The Episcopal Church, along with many ecumenical partners, will stand in solidarity with the AME Church this week in Washington D.C. at the “Liberty and Justice for All” event, which includes worship at Wesley AME Zion Church and various advocacy events.
Racial reconciliation through prayer, teaching, engagement and action is a top priority of the Episcopal Church in the upcoming triennium. Participating in “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” on September 6 is just one way that we Episcopalians can undertake this essential work. Our history as a church includes atrocities for which we must repent, saints who show us the way toward the realm of God, and structures that bear witness to unjust centuries of the evils of white privilege, systemic racism, and oppression that are not yet consigned to history. We are grateful for the companionship of the AME Church and other partners as we wrestle with our need to repent and be reconciled to one another and to the communities we serve.
“The Church understands and affirms that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant,” reads Resolution C019 of the 78th General Convention. May God bless us and forgive us as we pray and act with our partners this week and in the years to come. In the words of the prophet Isaiah appointed for Sunday, may we see the day when “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
President, House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church
After the publication of the letter, the world of clergy internet blew up. There was a lot of back and forth over the definition of white privilege, wrestling with the question of whether Black Lives Matter is a political or spiritual movement, the nature of sin, and of course, the gospel story from this Sunday was part of the discussion...Jesus calling the woman who asked for help a “dog”...an ethnic slur that was used during his time period.
So what do we do with all this?
Let’s begin with the gospel.
Jesus is out and about. If you look back to Mark, you will find that this story from chapter 7 comes after Jesus learns of the beheading of John the Baptist his cousin and spiritual mentor, after the feeding of the 5000, after walking on water, and after another argument with the Pharisees. If I had been Jesus, I would have needed a vacation as well. The gospel of Mark says that he went to the area of Tyre, which is in the country of Lebanon...I’m not a geography person so I looked up the distance between the two cities...depending on the route Jesus took, it’s anywhere from 85 miles to 120 miles primarily on foot. The gospel says that he was trying to keep his presence a secret.
So we get it, he’s tired. He’s trying to keep a low profile.
And yet, this woman comes to him to ask for her daughter to be healed, and Jesus snaps at her.
For years, scholars justified Jesus’ response as “he’s tired, cut him some slack...yes, he’s divine, but he’s also human”.
But that hasn’t always sat well with me. Aren’t we supposed to look to Jesus as a guide for how to treat one another? Even when we’re tired, aren’t we supposed to practice love and charity? I know I don’t walk around with my collar on when I’m on vacation, but if in conversation the topic of religion or spirituality comes up, I don’t dismiss the person because I’m tired or trying to keep a low profile. We have whatever conversation needs to happen because that’s where our journey has brought us in that particular time and place.
Let’s keep going though.
So Jesus responds to the woman’s request “First let the children eat all they want...for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”. Yikes! Really Jesus? That’s what you said?
The scholars report that Jesus’ mission and ministry is first for the children of the house of Israel...the chosen ones. So his response is basically a way of saying “my healings and teachings aren’t for you...you’re a Greek, a Phoenician even.” Scholars say that this conversation was the gospel writers way of showing how Jesus moves from a Jewish-only mission to an inclusive one. And all of that is fine and good...I’m glad that Jesus became more inclusive...but what about this dog comment?
How different is this dog comment from the “whites only” signs and policies of our own country not so long ago?
So scholars try to rescue Jesus again. As David Henson reflected, some scholars have emphasized “that the word for dog that Jesus uses isn’t the typical strong language usually associate with this racial slur. They explain that the word Jesus uses...implies perhaps a beloved pet or a lap dog, and therefore takes the sting out of the slur.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/)
Again, this doesn’t work for me. Not only has Jesus apparently uttered an ethnic slur, but scholars justify it by making it “soft”. Isn’t this the same as the racist but beloved “Mammy” or “Uncle Tom” archetypes of our own country’s history?
So this is why I’ve wrestled with this text. There’s no way for Jesus to be a “hero” or a model for good behavior. It’s just not there if we read the story as it is. And that frustrates me. I like cheering for Jesus. I like it when I imagine Jesus as a liberator, a healer and teacher. I don’t like to imagine a Jesus that would call another person a “dog”.
Where is the good news in this story?
In his reflections on this Sunday’s gospel and the calling from Presiding Bishop Katharine to make this a day of confession, repentance, and commitment to end racism, Taylor Burton-Edwards, reminds us of the struggle that we all face when dealing with any forms of oppression--be them racism, sexism, nationalism, ableism, homophobia, or any other ways that we socially and morally separate ourselves from each other. Burton-Edwards points out that yes, Jesus uttered an ethnic slur, and he did so probably because that was the “norm” for his place and time...being an Israelite (as opposed to a Phoenician) meant that you were not only “chosen” by God, but that you were from a tribe or nation that was “superior and worth of greater attention from God” than the other. (http://umcworship.blogspot.com/2015/09/day-of-confession-repentance-prayer-and.html)
But the good news in this story from Mark is the woman. She was persistent and a woman of faith. She stood firm in her conviction that even her daughter--who would have also been considered a “dog”--deserved healing. She believed in the kingdom of God that was accessible to all people, not just a chosen, privileged few. And Jesus changes. Her daughter is healed.
This is the only time in the gospels where Jesus seems to change his mind. He not only heals the woman’s daughter, but because of this encounter with the unnamed Syrophoenician woman, Jesus experiences healing too.
As David Henson so eloquently stated, “You see, when Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, he heard not only the truth of her reality. He also heard the brokenness of his own reality. Both must happen in order to confront ethnic prejudice in any time — and, yes, racism in our time. We must be able to hear the realities of the oppressed and disenfranchised as true. This, in and of itself, can be difficult for those of us who are members of a privileged race or gender, to accept a foreign reality without qualifications, to listen without interrupting, to hear without reworking their experiences into the dominant cultural narratives embedded within us. But we must also be able to hear the brokenness of our own realities and of our own stories. We must hear our own incompleteness.” And we must hear how we perpetuate oppression in the words we choose. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/)
This is not easy work to do. And we’re not going to fix or solve this problem today. But we can begin...which is what we are being called to do by Presiding Bishop Katharine. In his prayer litany titled “After the Vigils, Vigilance!” Bishop Adam J. Richardson reminds us:
Prayers can’t be answered unless they are prayed, and so we have honored the dead in vigils of remembrance, emotional prayers, heartfelt tributes, scripture-based homilies, fervent eulogies, thoughtful soliloquy, and appropriate words spoken….
Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on us...It is putting feet to our faith, power to our prayers, urgency to the present concern, momentum to the Movement. “I received no answer” said Frederick Douglass, “until I prayed with my legs”....
Vigil is the starting place, not only to feel God’s grace, but to do God’s will--taking action against injustice. The sequence begins in theological reflection, the upward glance, deference to the Creator; marching orders for a parade route out of bondage to a Promised Land….
After the Vigil, Vigilance, to be daily examples of love, peace, faith, hope, maturity, responsibility and excellence, so that succeeding generations will be motivated to become what they see in us….
After the Vigil, Vigilance, against racism. Race is unavoidable; racism is a decision and optional. Hate is a horrible heritage; injustice is a terrible legacy, intolerance is a hindrance to freedom….
Vigilance follows the Vigil!
Let us pray.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land], that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.