Sermon Matthew 15:20-28
August 20, 2017
Before I moved to San Francisco, I was quite nervous. And not only because it was such a big move, the move from one quite predictable life in Germany to the unknown, but also because I feared that I would stand out as an immigrant, speaking limited English, which I learned in school, and with a German accent. I was afraid that I would be perceived as a stranger, as someone who doesn’t belong here.
But then soon after moving here I realized that all me apprehensions were unfounded. The bank I walked in to set up an account was mainly staffed by what looked like Americans of Indian descent. The corner grocery was run by a Chinese family. There were people of all shapes and sizes and colors and cultures. And I heard many different languages spoken in the stores, doctor’s offices, at the DMV, on BART, in the streets. I didn’t stand out at all, but became but one of the countless people from all over the world who make up the diverse population of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Here, nobody stands out. There are many who came from somewhere else. We all are who and what we are in this woven tapestry of different people. All of us belong, somehow.
Like in many cities all around the world, we find a representation of the entire human race. In fact, that’s what the word ‘cosmopolitan’ means, a word that comes from the Greek: that the entire ‘cosmos’, the entire world, somehow comes together in one ‘polis’, one city. In a sense, what I experience in places like the San Francisco Bay Area is a foretaste of the vision of the kingdom of God, as we find it in many of today’s lessons from the Bible: that all the nations come together and live together and somehow make it work. In the end, we all are human. One human race.
But why was I so nervous when I first came to California? Because I had experienced, back in Germany, that people who somehow looked different or spoke with an accent were seen as strangers, and often treated as people who don’t belong. After all, I came from a fairly homogeneous background. Very German, very white, not cosmopolitan at all. And in Germany, people still talk about ‘Germans with a migratory background’, meaning that people with, for example, Turkish ancestors are still seen as not purely German, even though their families have lived as German citizens in Germany for a few generations.
It’s a little silly to think of any person as a ‘pure’ German, or a ‘pure’ British, or a ‘pure’ American. Have you ever done one of those genetic tests that traces your ancestry? I did one a few weeks back and am still waiting for my results. But I gave one of those tests to my husband for Christmas. Both my husband’s mother and father are descendants of German immigrants, so one would expect 100% German genes, right? Well, there was some Mediterranean, and some Eastern European, some Irish and British, a little bit Jewish, and 2.8% Neanderthal, which is slightly higher than the average population. And I assume my results will be very similar to that, as would the results of anyone in this room be.
Human beings have migrated at all times and mingled with the people they found. We all have a migratory background. And especially as folks who live in the U.S. Either we ourselves or our ancestors came here from somewhere else.
I have to tell you that recent events in this country have really disturbed me. White supremacy, the idea, that white people, preferably of European descent and of a Christian religion, are somehow superior to people of any other skin color or other religions, has seen a strong comeback in this country; and, as we all know, it’s not only about expressing an opinion, but it’s about spouting hate and also acting on it. This kind of attitude may be motivated by fear – fear to lose a privilege – but it’s not Christian, it is not biblical at all.
One just has to look into today’s lessons from the Bible to grasp that God’s kingdom is beyond skin color or language or ethnicity or culture or gender. The prophet Isaiah has this great vision of a multi-ethnic gathering of people worshiping the one God (Is 56): Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
For my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
Today’s psalm (67) echoes this: Let the peoples praise | you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations on earth.
All nations. All peoples. All people. After all, God created them all, us all. And we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, as it says in another psalm. And the Apostle Paul is all about the mission to the gentiles, to those, who are not part of the chosen people of Israel, ministering to the variety of people in the Roman Empire. He says again and again that God’s grace is not tied to any ethnic background, social status or gender, but that all receive God’s grace in the same measure. And, just as an aside, Paul is from what today is Turkey. He truly had a migratory background, but found a home in God, a home he hoped to open to all.
But then, of course, we know that God’s vision of all people reconciled often clashes with human realities, even in the Bible. Today’s gospel story is a prime example of someone who is considered to be a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong: the Canaanite woman. In the circle around Jesus, she doesn’t belong for several reasons: First of all, she’s a woman, and women were expected to be quiet and demure in Jesus’ days, and not go after rabbis, shrieking and disturbing the order and making demands. Secondly, she’s a Canaanite, a pagan, an outsider, and not one of the children of Israel. She is considered unclean, untouchable, a nuisance, usually invisible to the people of the real faith and religion.
The disciples treat her accordingly. Send her away, Jesus, they say. She isn’t one of us, we don’t want to deal with her. And Jesus seems to look at her in a similar way, because he says, ‘I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’, basically dismissing any notion that this woman could expect anything from him. And don’t we understand this attitude only too well? Take care of our own first, we can’t take care of everybody, we can’t take care of the world.
And dare I say it, Jesus is quite rude in his response to the woman’s expression of submission and desperation as she throws herself in front of him and begs for her daughter’s healing. He says the famous words, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ Of course he is saying what Jewish society was thinking in those days: that those of other faiths are like dogs, unclean, a nuisance, merely tolerated. In those days, dogs were not pampered pets as they are today, but, in a best case scenario, used as work animals. So basically, Jesus is insulting the woman by calling her a dog, an undeserving person, far below the beloved children of God, merely tolerated, but not cherished. And we may think, see, even Jesus can’t take care of everyone. Why should we?
However, this story, which is full of surprises – a pagan woman approaching Jesus, Jesus’ annoyance and rejection – holds yet the greatest surprise. The woman persists. She haggles. She won’t let Jesus off the hook. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answers her, ‘Woman, great is your faith!’ And he consequently heals her daughter. Jesus in the end looks beyond her gender, her ethnic background, her religious background, her other-ness – and acknowledges her as a child of God.
But the woman is also doing her part in overcoming the other-ness. She boldly tears down the barriers of gender and society, and the barrier of religion. She has to overcome her own prejudices against ‘those Jews’, because the animosities between the Jews and the Canaanites are mutual. She has to swallow her pride in the face of blunt insult and rejection. All in all, she has to shed all those things that give her a sense of identity in this world, and, metaphorically speaking, has to strip herself to her core – and to present herself to God as an undeserving, desperate, humble human being, hungry for grace.
And that may be the hardest part of faith, of our faith: to become vulnerable, to come to God not as who we seem to be, and not as who we think we are, but as we really are, and to entrust our fragile selves to God’s mercy and grace, trusting that God will give us enough. To acknowledge that, as members of the human race, created by God, beloved yet flawed, we all are the same. In that we are not better or worse than anyone else. And definitely not superior to anyone else.
And this teaches us to look at others as beloved children of the one who created everyone and everything. And to understand that there is plenty of grace of God to go around – that the crumbs of that grace that fall to the ground can feed the multitudes – and still fill twelve baskets or more.
In the kingdom of God, there is no stranger, no one who doesn’t belong. May our prayer be that we live into this vision already here and today and show love in word and deed for all God’s children – and stand up to all those who deny others their humanity.
This post is also available in: German