Unity and Restoration

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Unity and Restoration

“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” -Bryan Stevenson

  Psalm 133 How very good and pleasant it is     when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head,     running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron,     running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon,     which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing,     life forevermore.   Matthew 15:21-28 21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.   What. A. Passage. I am uncomfortable. No matter how many times I read this story my emotional response to it remains the same. Unease. Anxiety. Grossed out. A little bit confused.  And extreme discomfort.  Here we see this woman doing what I think all of us would consider a beautiful and right thing to do when one’s daughter is demon possessed- she goes to the person she believes will heal her. And after reading the first lines, we should be able to assume how this story is going to go. Stories about Jesus healing people from all over fill the pages of our gospels. So, why should this story be any different? In a way, it’s not. This still ends with Jesus healing a person in need. But the journey Christ takes us on to get there is not a pretty one. Instead of Jesus immediately responding to this woman’s request, he ignores her. And then, worse, when he does speak to her he informs her he’s not here to save her daughter, only the lost sheep of Israel, the Jews. The part that makes me feel the worst is when he compares her to a dog. There are a few things that have led me to closing my bible and needing to take a long, disgusted step away. This is one of them.  This story does not seem to fit the picture we all have in mind when we think of Jesus’ ministry! The Jesus we love to talk about came to save every single person. He loved the children, and the poor, the widows, and the lonely. Jesus healed sinners, he calls murderers, he forgives tax collectors!  But here, Jesus and his Jewish followers are illustrated more like a modern day exclusive country club, than an inclusive church. “I am only here to save the lost sheep of Israel.” To be a part of this group, the lost sheep- to be Jewish, you had to bear the markings of an Israelite, the original chosen people. These markings included physical evidence of following Jewish law and tradition such as being circumcised, performing cleansing rituals, eating a Kosher (or “clean”) diet, and participating in the Sabbath.  With all those rules to follow- They really were kind of an exclusive group!  Knowing this, the story should really come as no surprise. What would have been surprising to the disciples witnessing the event, however, was how the story ended; a non-Jewish woman exhibited the faith of an Israelite and her faith was rewarded with a sign from Christ. Here, Jesus gives us, and his rather opinionated disciples, a taste of what will be a new and restored Israel. An Israel in which all people- Gentiles and Jews alike- are grafted in and matter. But, for now, Jesus is also reminding us that there is an entire group of people that need him more than this Canaanite woman does.  When we, as modern day Christians, read stories like this it can be easy to envy the Jewish people. They are the main characters in God’s story! Jesus is explicitly stating that he came for them. Who wouldn’t want to bear the markings of being one of the chosen people of Israel? It can also be easy to lash out at them. What’s their problem anyway? What kind of decent people, who see a woman who is clearly in serious need of help, would request that Jesus get her to stop bothering them? Are their problems somehow more important than her’s? I’m not sure if more important is the right way to categorize the issues Jewish people of Jesus’ time faced. But, more prevalent and in immediate need of intervention might be.  Being Jewish was not all that it was cracked up to be. Those markings that they bore made them outsiders. At this point in God’s story, in the book of Matthew, Jewish people have suffered a long history of persecution and marginalization. They have been slaves in Egypt. They have wandered through the desert where they had to fight for land that God intended for them. They’ve been exiled from their land, and forced to live as prisoners in communities that did not care to understand who they were or where they came from. They were forbidden from worshipping God, they were thrown into prison, they were excommunicated and displaced, they were even killed.  All this,  just for being the people they were created to be.  Things, at the point of our story today, are…better. But they’re not restored yet. Jewish people are still considered “less than” by the world at large. And this trauma that they have a shared history of facing, has bonded them together. They have become closed to outsiders. They’re desperate for God to hear their pleas for deliverance and answer them. Understandably, the disciples don’t want Jesus distracted from his mission to save them from years of torment and suffering. And Jesus has effectively reminded them that this goal is still at the forefront of his heart. But, by healing this woman because of her faith, he’s also readying them for what is to come. Eventually, there won’t be “some” chosen people of God. One day, all will know and praise God’s name. In Psalm 133 which we read together today, the psalmist praises the vision of unity:  One that is good and pleasant. One where all live together in unity.  This is the restored kingdom that God so longs for this world.  It’s a beautiful picture. But we aren’t there yet.  Today, entire groups of people remain seen and treated as “less than.” And until all the lives of the marginalized, like those of the Israelites, are treated as if they matter equally in our world, we’re all going to continue feeling uneasy. Anxious. And uncomfortable.  We don’t have time to go over all of the marginalized groups of people right now- there are many. And, I encourage us to continue making time to name them as often as possible. But here I’ll name a few of the ones we’re working on together and getting closer to that vision of restoration.  We have come a long way since those exhibiting symptoms of mental illness were thrown into psychiatric facilities and kept away from society. Those who suffer from emotional or psychological disorders have access to more resources today. They are able to attend school with their peers. They have anti-discrimination rights in the workplace. Advocates are more outspoken about normalizing life with a mental illness. We’re getting closer to honestly being able to say that those with mental illness matter.  We have come a long way since women belonged only within the walls of a kitchen or a child’s nursery. Women can now vote. They go to school. It’s become increasingly more common for them to work while their husband stays home with the kids. Women are more readily welcomed into leadership positions in the church and the world of business. They can even wear pants. We’re getting closer to being able to honestly say that women matter.  I often hear people I love passionately say that we have come a long way since the days in which people of color were sold as slaves. That, because we technically don’t legally segregate schools anymore, because Black people can legally use the same bathrooms, eat in the same restaurants, and drink from the same drinking fountains as white people and a black person was elected president, racism doesn’t exist anymore. They believe that today we can with full integrity and honesty say black lives matter.  The hard truth is- right now, Not all of these lives are treated like they matter.  It is still hard to be mentally ill. I saw a statistic going around that 22 veterans complete suicide every day. 22 veterans daily who do not have access to the mental health resources they need.  It is still hard to be a woman. Today, women who perform the same job as their male counterpart still earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man. And there are many churches that remain openly against the concept of female leadership. It is even harder to be black. According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s website, black men are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men; The website goes on to point out that this racial disparity is rooted in a narrative that black people were inferior—a narrative that was created to justify their enslavement. This claim survived the formal abolition of slavery and evolved to include the belief that black people are dangerous criminals.  Arrests that are often made in response to this belief- often because of a subconscious bias people may not even be aware they have-lead to increased unemployment rates and poverty among people of color. Families are broken, quality of life is lost, and the label that was placed upon them long before the arrest was made becomes even more ingrained into who the world claims they are. It’s a painful reality that began long before we became a part of it. And it will continue to be so without a lot of brave, uncomfortable and humbling work. And even though it’s important we continue doing the hard work of demarginalizing the lives of the mentally ill and fighting for the rights of women, we cannot let those fights over shadow this cause. We have much farther to go until we can with full honesty and integrity say that black lives are treated as if they matter. The idea that this is true does not make me feel good. Just like the idea that Jesus was possibly going to walk away from the Canaanite woman makes me want to close my Bible and read something else for a little while- I am tempted to do the same here. In fact, when I was writing this sermon, I thought, “really God? I have to think about this? I have to talk about this? I have to use these words?”  But it is in my privilege that I can turn away from the truth. To decide to fixate on an easier and more widely accepted cause. Or to use words that don’t carry as much heaviness.  What is really needed from me, from us, right now is to have faith in this cause. The very cause that Jesus Christ died and rose again for. To have faith that even though we are being urged in our society today to focus all of our energy on proclaiming that the lives of one group of people matter, by doing so we are also fighting for the rights of all.  And in order to be a part of the solution- in order to walk in Christ and usher in the new age of restoration and unity- we also have to be willing to admit the ways that we are part of the problem. Most of you know that I have a horrible fear of flying. I’ve spoken about it before. It’s crippling and completely irrational. Though, I would argue that it might be a little irrational to not fear hurtling through the sky at high altitudes at least a little bit. Because of this fear, I have always avoided flying. Something that became a really complicating factor in maintaining a relationship with my dad when he moved to Maine. I would put off visiting him, my step mom, and siblings for years at a time because I knew I would have to get on a plane in order to see them. My sophomore year of college, I’d put it off for much too long and I really wanted to see my family. So, I had to get on a plane. The morning my mom drove me to the airport I was in bad shape. I immediately burst into tears when the building came into view. I was 19 years old, but my mom had to get special permission from airport staff to escort me to my gate as if I were a minor.  I am sure many of us are aware of xenophobia which became particularly rampant after 9/11. Xenophobia is the prejudice we carry about people from other countries- it’s a fear of “the other.” It’s a fear that has left many, like me, extra nervous when flying. I did not think that this was the case for my own fears. Until I was sitting in the airport that day, and I noticed a family sitting in the same gate as me. Speaking another language. With dark skin. And wearing hijabs.  I am ashamed to admit this. But, I immediately became convinced that this family was conspiring to bring down the plane I was about to get on. I started uncontrollably sobbing. Loudly. I was gripped with a strong desire to run screaming from the airport.  This caught the attention of pretty much everyone sitting at our gate, and even people a few gates over. But, the only person who decided to act on my cries was the older woman in the family I was sitting there having a melt down about. She walked over to me, sat on the seat to my left, grabbed my hand and said, “daughter, why are you crying? Everything will be alright.” She then touched my face, and started praying to God for protection over me and peace.  I started crying even harder. But, not because I was afraid. Because I was so ashamed of where I had allowed my thoughts to go about this kind, wonderful family. Of the hate that I had cast on them just because of the color of their skin, the unknown to me language they spoke and what they wore upon their heads. Not only did this family gift me with their kindness, they also empowered me to acknowledge my own internal racism and xenophobic tendencies.  And that awareness is painful, it’s uncomfortable and I want so badly to turn away from it. But, I also know that faith in Christ is the only thing that can heal all of that brokenness and hate inside of me. And in order for Christ to heal me, I have to be willing to bring him into that space with me and recommit myself to ushering in God’s vision of restoration. The Canaanite woman’s faith in Jesus is what healed her daughter of demon possession. She understood what needed to be done. She didn’t stand there and say, But, Lord! My life matters too! Leave them, and come with me instead. No. She knew that Jesus had a job to do. She didn’t even argue when he called her dog. She leaned into that uncomfortable reality and she used the metaphor to point out that though she is merely a small dog on the margins of a greater mission for sheep, Jesus still has the power and authority to help her. She knew that even though Jesus says I am here for one group, he means he is here for all people in the end. And because of her faith, she will go back to her community and share the good news of Jesus with them. Much like the disciples were given a glimpse of the restoration that is to come, we are given glimpses today. And, it is tempting, easy even, to cling to those glimpses and assume the hard work is done. Because looking at all the pieces that still need to be brought back together is overwhelming and a little scary.  The Israelites experienced these emotions too. When they first began returning to Jerusalem from exile, they started rebuilding the torn down temple piece by piece for worship to start their own process of restoration. The process would be long. And it would be painful. And we learn from reading Ezra’s account of that rebuilding process, that it was a time of praising God for his steadfast love enduring. But it was also a time of weeping for what once was and how far there still was to go.  Today, as we joyfully usher in the glimpses of  restoration of the world, may our joy of that be indistinguishable from our weeping for all the brokenness that remains. And may that weeping move us to faithful action in Christ so we continue the careful process of bringing this world back together again. This process starts with us. It won’t happen overnight and the first steps will look different for each of us. Maybe it’s taking the time to turn towards the uncomfortable ways that we are part of the problem. Maybe it’s engaging in hard conversations with loved ones. Or maybe it’s reaching out to those we’ve marginalized and asking how we can be better.  No matter what that next step is- know that Christ meets us in it. That grace abounds. That you are enough. That you are a vital part of this process.  And that you matter.  Amen.