God's Heroes: The Canaanite Woman "Challenging the Status Quo" by Rev. Randy L. Johnson

Scripture Text: Matthew 15:21-28

This past week we have become aware of a war being waged in the streets of America. The news of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia awakened us to a dark reality which has emerged after many years of working its way into the mainstream. White nationalists, those who now call themselves the Alt-Right, remind us that extremist, hateful ideas and angry, violent actions are part of the on-going history of bigotry and terrorism within our own United States.

Against this backdrop of hatred and violent racism there are stories of faith and courage to be told. For example, in the summer of 2015, ten days after nine African Americans were brutally murdered while praying during bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a black woman by the name of Brittany Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse and grabbed the Confederate flag and took it down. The mass murderer in Charleston, Dylann Root, had been inspired by the Confederate flag, had posed with it and had it displayed on his license plate. Eleven days after Newsome removed the flag, South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill to remove all Confederate flags from statehouse grounds.

Newsome’s courageous act arose out of her faith; as she put it, “I mean, it took a great deal of faith. My faith is a large part of my activism. Faith is something we practice, so even in that moment just praying and staying focused and calling out to God was very important.” It was noted that Newsome was reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 27 as she was taking the Confederate flag down.

Along with the inspiration of her faith, Newsome’s courageous act also arose out of a sense of urgency. There was no more waiting. She had to do something. As described by Lottie Joiner, editor of The Crisis magazine, Newsome was “following in the footsteps of those brave souls who came before her, women like Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Rosa Parks who refused to accept the status quo.”

Such women who courageously cross boundaries and challenge the status quo remind us of the Canaanite woman in our story today. Even though she remains forever nameless, this woman has been known for over two thousand years as the only person Jesus ever called “a woman of great faith.” We might ask: what was it about this woman that brought her such praise from Jesus?

First, like many people of faith today, the Canaanite woman acted with a sense of urgency. She was not afraid to cross cultural boundaries, to challenge the status quo because she believed that her daughter’s life mattered.

As a white person in America, I do not feel the sense of urgency shared by my African American brothers and sisters who are worshipping together this morning in pre-dominantly black churches. While I read about young black men dying each day because of drug-related violence or police shootings or suicide, their names are usually not familiar to me; I have no personal relationship to them. Also, as a white person, I do not live with the daily fear that because of the color of their skin my children may be targeted for harassment or some other form of violence that would harm them or even end their life. Like the disciples of Jesus who found the Canaanite woman’s urgent and persistent pleas for attention rather annoying, it is tempting as a privileged and protected white person to feel a bit annoyed by the Black Lives Matter crowds who, in seeking attention, end up disrupting traffic and creating public disturbances.

But my sense of urgency is at times awakened. For example when I discover that a young black man who I knew years ago as a member of my former church’s youth group has died in Minneapolis or when I attend a visitation here in St. Cloud for a young black man whose father I know well from our shared work in the Great River Faith Partnership. The circumstances of these young men’s lives is not the point, any more than was the circumstances of the daughter loved by the Canaanite woman. As Jesus was moved by this mother’s sense of urgency, so we as followers of Jesus need to awaken to the urgency that is shared by mothers and fathers of vulnerable children and youth in our communities today. These children’s lives matter – not only to their families, but to the God who created them and the Christ who came to give them abundant life.

One way we as a church community can gain a greater sense of urgency is by taking the time to build relationships with people of diverse races and cultures. This afternoon is a great opportunity to do this as we gather at Lake George pavilion to share a meal with people from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. This kind of gathering not only enriches our lives, it also is a clear witness to the greater public that we do not endorse racism and white supremacy but rather share and promote a common vision of a community of peace and hope for all our neighbors. As St. Cloud Diocese Bishop Donald Kettler put it, “I have always believed that the key to greater understanding among different faiths or cultures is getting to know the people, their families, their histories, their traditions. Inevitably we all learn something valuable from this kind of interaction: we all want to be accepted and respected for who we are.” In addition to growing in understanding we also grow in empathy as we hear peoples’ stories and realize that we share the same hopes and dreams for our children and grandchildren. And as we meet some of their children and come to know them by name, their lives matter more to us and their parents’ sense of urgency for their futures stirs our hearts.

Along with a sense of urgency, like the Canaanite woman, we must also live out our faith with persistence in the face of all opposition. When the Canaanite woman approached Jesus and his disciples she came as one whose people had been long-time enemies of Israel. In fact, this woman may have been one of the few remaining descendants of the Canaanite people who had experienced destruction and domination at the hands of Israel. When she seeks help from Jesus, she faces the same kind of disdain that Canaanites had often experienced from the people of Israel. While the reasons that Jesus spoke the way he did to this woman have been debated, it is clear that she understood his words as reflective of his peoples’ prejudice and their exclusive nationalism. But this woman, like others who dare to challenge the status quo, was not so easily intimidated or dismissed. Rather, she persists and refuses to accept this narrow view of God’s love. She gently but boldly challenges Jesus’ ethnic and national boundaries which excluded outsiders from receiving God’s healing mercy. She espouses a belief that when it comes to God’s love and healing grace there is abundance, not scarcity, there is always enough for everyone. Jesus was so moved by her persistence that he affirms her as a great woman of faith and heals her daughter.

The writer of this gospel story includes it as one example of how Jesus and his disciples came to understand that Jesus had been sent by God not only to be the Savior of their nation but to bring all people together into a new community: Jews and Greeks, men and women, rich and poor-a community where God’s Spirit would break down all division by replacing hatred with love, violence with peace, oppression with justice, freedom and equality. This vision of the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the church challenged the status quo of the early Jewish followers of Jesus to whom Matthew’s gospel is directed. Claiming Jesus as their promised Messiah, these disciples had believed that through leading them in battle Jesus was going to make Israel great again by destroying her enemies and restoring the past glory of their nation. In challenging this narrow vision, the Canaanite woman spoke truth to power with a sense of urgency and with a persistence that helped push Jesus and his disciples out of their comfort zone to acknowledge a place at God’s table for all people.

Today in the United States we face a growing and emblazoned movement of nationalistic idolatry. This movement promotes a narrow, racist vision of America as a god to be worshipped above all gods at the expense of minorities who are the scapegoats of the religion of white supremacy. In response, God calls us to be like the Canaanite woman who in the face of opposition did not remain silent or shrink away in fear. Our faith requires us to speak out, to challenge the ideology that denies the worth and dignity of every person’s life and to stand up with persistence to those who oppose building communities in which all lives matter.

Having a sense of urgency and choosing to be persistent in the face of opposition is what led Heather Heyer to join what was to be a non-violent counter-protest against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last weekend. As her father described Heather, “She wanted respect for everyone. In her family all lives mattered. She loved people and pushed for equality.” Heather was killed when a 20 year old man slammed his car into the people who had gathered to speak up for respecting all lives. The young man charged with Heather’s murder was described by a former high school teacher as “an admirer of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.”

Yes, not all heroes go on to live long lives. Being a hero has its risks. While not all who choose to be nonviolent protesters in the war against violent racism will die an early death, God calls each of us to be willing to make significant personal sacrifices for the sake of building the beloved community, to do what we can to help bring into reality the prayer we pray each Sunday, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

What will it take for each of us to be willing to take such risks, to make such sacrifices? As writer Philip Gulley put it in an article entitled, What I Am For, “Many of us have not been targeted…though that should not diminish our determination to seek justice for others. Last week a man said to me, ‘why do you care? Why are you upset? You’re a white male, you’ll be fine.’ I care because I have a wife, and a daughter-in-law, and a granddaughter. I care because my brother is gay and my brother-in-law is black and my niece is Hispanic. I care because I love the Syrian family our Quaker meeting has sponsored, our little Syrian toddler, Sidra, with her impossibly large eyes that look to us with trust and hope. She is the same age as our Madeline, no less valued, no less loved. So even though I have not been targeted, and maybe neither have you, we are not released from our Christian responsibility to care. When the lash of tyranny strikes one, it strikes all.”

So we must challenge the status quo of racism in America. So we must allow our hearts to stir with a mother’s sense of urgency. So we must persist in faithful action for the sake of Sidra and Madeline and all the daughters and sons and grandchildren whose eyes look to us with trust and hope. May God, the Lord and Maker of heaven and earth, grant us mercy and grace to care, to sacrifice, to be willing to risk all to build a community, a world where each and every child’s life matters. Amen.