It is very good to be here in church, in God’s house, with all of you, after such an intense and emotional week. It has been a week that challenged our very sense of self, when we haven’t known what would come next. We have been called to speak the truth and choose sides as long ago history and hatreds, the racisms of the Civil War, World War II, and Jim Crow, lurking like a specter in the shadows, have been horrifyingly brought back to life, carrying torches, waving swastikas, twisting and turning the world upside down. One life was mowed down in Charlottesville by a 20-year-old Nazi-sympathizer and many, many more in Barcelona by terrorists bent on evil and indiscriminate murder. Perhaps appropriately, given everything else, tomorrow the sun is even going to go dark. We are living, I think, in a kaleidoscope kind of world, our many colors, backgrounds, and beliefs all twisting, turning, and tumbling in confusion and disbelief.
Given all that intensity and uncertainty, where do we, who long for a different kind of world, maybe a rainbow instead of kaleidoscope, turn for inspiration, for guidance, and for hope? Well, for me, two figures stand out—one ancient, and the other more recent. I’ll start with the ancient. We just met her in this morning’s gospel. History doesn’t remember her name unfortunately. In Matthew’s gospel she is simply a “Canaanite woman.” In Mark, she is the Syrophoenician woman. In either case, she is one of my heroes—steely, resolved, and of great faith.
She’s also, unfortunately, not easy to preach about. Because her encounter with Jesus reveals what was, in the First Century, a wide cultural and religious divide between Jewish and Gentile communities and persons. Their encounter reveals the racism and prejudice of their time, just as the last week has revealed the racism and prejudice in our own. And unfortunately, in this case, Jesus and his disciples are on the wrong side—at least at first. That sounds shocking, when we are used to thinking of Jesus as sinless, the incarnation of God. So, context is probably helpful.
First, let’s look at the location of this encounter—the region of Tyre and Sidon. That was a Gentile area—modern day Lebanon. It seems Jesus and his disciples, seeking some space and rest, leave the area in which they would be known or recognized, and go to predominately Gentile area to get away from it all—a sort of vacation. Only even there they can’t escape recognition. Second, you’ll notice that the woman is called a Canaanite. Canaanites are, of course, the ancient enemies of the Jews. The Book of Joshua in the Old Testament is all about battles between the Israelites and the Canaanites, fighting over the rights to the promised land.
And, now in this encounter, Jesus—the Jewish Messiah (whose name in Hebrew is the same as Joshua, by the way)—meets a Canaanite woman, a modern-day incarnation of Israel’s long-time enemy. That old, ancient conflict is suddenly made manifest again. When you think about it, the story couldn’t possibly be any more racially or religiously charged. Only, the woman, despite her Gentile background, somehow recognizes Jesus for who he is, and for the power he has. Sure, she knows they are supposed to be enemies or at least antagonistic. But she doesn’t care. Because she also knows that he has the power to heal, and her daughter needs that healing desperately. So, she’ll take whatever she can get—even the crumbs that no one else wants.
Only, it seems, Jesus was not so sure. His ministry, at least as he and his disciples first envisioned it, was for Israel. He was their Messiah, not hers. And so, first his disciples and then Jesus himself try to dismiss her—even saying that it isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. In other words, it’s not right to offer his ministry and healing to this foreigner, a Canaanite. It’s helpful, though disturbing, to know that in the First Century Jews often called Gentiles dogs. It was a racial insult, like those we are all too familiar with today, reflecting the fact that Gentiles kept dogs as pets, while their Jewish neighbors did not, because dogs were scavengers and unclean. It’s hard to believe that the Jesus we follow would say such a thing. But, this encounter reflects the state of Jewish-Gentile relationships in the First Century.
After being so insulted, a less self-assured person probably would have left—hurt, demoralized, angry. I would have. But not our hero. She fights back, twisting and turning Jesus’ words like the kaleidoscope, offering a different view on reality and saying confidently: “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.” So impressed was Jesus—by her faith, her strength, and her determination, perhaps also her clever wit —that he healed her daughter.
When I was in seminary 20 years ago, I wrote an essay on this passage and I argued that this story must be authentic—reflecting an encounter that Jesus really had with a Gentile woman. Otherwise, why on earth would it have been included in the gospels? It makes Jesus look so bad, at least at first. But, you know upon deeper reflection, there’s something about Jesus that I love in this story, too: his ability to change his mind and have his vision enlarged. And I think that for the early church, struggling with its own identity, with questions of inclusion and diversity, this story may have provided a needed example for Jewish Christians. If Jesus could change his mind, if he could see beyond their society’s in-grained racial and religious boundaries, maybe they could as well. Maybe God’s grace and love are expansive enough to include their Gentile neighbors. And if that’s true, then it turns out that Jesus, as he is here, can be a powerful model for us as we confront our own prejudices and narrow worldviews. So, now today, I am wondering if this passage less reflects Jesus’ actual encounter with a Gentile woman 2000 years ago—though it still may be that—and is also and even more a message for the early church and for us now, twisting and turning the kaleidoscope, trying to see more clearly.
You remember I said that I have two heroes I want to recall today. The second was named Jonathan Daniels. He was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire, about 90 miles from here. By the 1960s, he was a student at the Episcopal Theological School (now the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge), exactly 30 years before me. Jon Daniels is the patron saint of the seminary, and really of the wider Episcopal Church. That’s because he was so moved during a service of evensong in the seminary chapel, hearing the Magnificat, Mary’s song of justice in which she sings of God casting the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, that he felt compelled to go to Selma, Alabama to work for civil rights. And rather than just go for a few days or weeks, as many did in response to Martin Luther King’s calls for witness by white clergy in the north, Daniels and another student named Judith Upham petitioned the seminary for permission to pursue their studies there from a distance while working full-time for integration.
In Selma, Jonathan Daniels lived with an African American family for several months. He participated in demonstrations and vigils, and worked especially to integrate St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which wouldn’t permit African Americans. Eventually, in August of 1965, while picketing a whites-only establishment, Daniels and his friends—about 20 of them—were arrested and locked up in a cell for 6 sweltering days, no air conditioning, no showers, there weren’t even toilets.
Upon their release, Daniels and a few friends (a white Roman Catholic priest and four young African American activists) walked about 500 yards to a convenience store to get a Coke. When they got there, a man stood in the doorway holding a shotgun. He shouted at them to get off his property and then he opened fire. He was a deputy sheriff, as it happens. Daniels pushed a 17-year-old African American activist named Ruby Sales to the ground and took the bullet himself. He was hit in the stomach and killed instantly—just 26 years old. The date was August 20, 1965—52 years ago today.
Afterward Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career for civil rights was performed by Jonathan Daniels…. Certainly there are no incidents more beautiful in the annals of church history, and though we are grieved at this time, our grief should give way to a sense of Christian honor and nobility, for this church and the movement gave to the world a true follower of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”
“One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career for civil rights was performed by Jonathan Daniels….” Isn’t that extraordinary, coming from Dr. King? And today, in our time, we—disciples of Jesus—stand on the shoulders of Jonathan Daniels and the Canaanite woman as we make our witness, and envision a kingdom and world built of love and justice, not hate and exclusion. They help us to see that God’s grace and God’s love are not limited by race or color, by nationality or ethnic background. Indeed, they tell us, that God’s grace and God’s love are open and free for all.
As it happens, that was the message heard around the state, nation, and world yesterday, radiating out from Boston. While a few—maybe 50 or 100— inspired by last week’s Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville gathered on the Boston Common to express a narrow vision of hate and exclusion, as many as 40,000 thousand more marched and witnessed and prayed for love and inclusion. 40,000 people! I was there, too. Though, I decided that the best place for me to make my witness was in our Cathedral facing the Common—offering prayer for justice and peace on the streets outside. It was a powerful experience. The congregation was small at first, but eventually, as events unfolded, people streamed in and there was standing room only. People of every color were there. There were Episcopalians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Unitarians, all united in prayer and song across our different traditions.
During his sermon Bishop Gates reminded us that the day before, in that very same space, as many as 300 or 400 Muslims gathered for prayer, as they do every Friday afternoon—witnessing to our shared humanity and life of faith, in its different expressions. And the café next door, which is owned by the organizers of the Friday Muslim prayers, even provided a free lunch to all who participated in the Eucharist on Saturday during the rally, crossing barriers and boundaries to raise up lives of faith and hope and love. The cathedral’s mission statement is that it strives to be “A House of Prayer for All People.” That is who we are. That is who we are called to be, in this church, too.
Before his murder, Jonathan Daniel wrote a seminary essay titled “The Burning Bush.” Here is an excerpt:
“Reality is a kaleidoscope …. Now you see it; now you don’t. Light, dark, white, black: a way of life blurs, and the focus shifts…. a rhythm ripples in the sun, pounds the steaming, stinking shacks, dances in the blood.… Somewhere, in the midst of the past, a tenor sang of valleys lifted up and hills made low. Death at the heart of life, and life in the midst of death. The tree of life is indeed a Cross….
“This is the stuff of which our life is made. There are moments of great joy and moments of sorrow. Almost imperceptibly, some men grow in grace. Some men don’t.… We have activists who risk their lives to confront a people with the challenge of freedom and a nation with its conscience. We have neutralists who cautiously seek to calm troubled waters. We have men who are willing to reflect on the cost and pay it. Perhaps at one time or another we are all of these. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we yawn through interminable meetings... Sometimes we confront a posse, sometimes we hold a child. Sometimes we stand with men who have learned to hate, sometimes we must stand a little apart from them. Our life in Selma is filled with ambiguity, and in that we share with men everywhere. We are beginning to see as we never saw before that we are truly in the world and yet ultimately not of it. For through the bramble bush of doubt and fear and supposed success we are groping our way to the realization that above all else, we are called to be saints. That is the mission of the Church everywhere. And in this, Selma, Alabama is like all the world: it needs the life and witness of militant saints.”
And you know what, so does Boston. And so does Wakefield. So does every place we go. Every place that is divided by race, color, religion, sexuality. Every place that is a bramble bush of division, doubt, and fear needs the life and witness of saints—saints like Jonathan Daniels, saints like the Canaanite woman. And, most especially, saints like us. As Jonathan Daniels says, reality is a kaleidoscope, twisting and turning, mixing and jumbling. And it is our job, our calling, with God’s help, inspired and empowered and fed by Christ, to take those individual pieces of the kaleidoscope glass—green and red, blue, purple, orange, and yellow—and from them craft mosaic, or even a rainbow that gives hope of new and abundant life to all.
To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD