by Phillip Bass
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O’ Lord. Amen.
You may remember the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This saying has been taught to generation after generation of children in an effort to comfort them when they have been wounded by the words of others. Sadly, this adage simply isn’t true. Words do hurt!
Over years of sitting with individuals and families who are healing from trauma, I’ve come to realize that we, in fact, live out the story we tell ourselves, and far too often, how we treat ourselves is based on the story of who the world has told us we are. Words have power; words can heal or words can hurt! If we tell children that they are loved and repeat these words over and over, they are more likely to love themselves and to grow in self-confidence. But, if we tell them that they lack value or that they are not good enough, then they are more likely to view themselves as unlovable and to grow in self-doubt. Our words matter!
We hear this in today’s reading from Matthew. Here we find Jesus teaching that words can defile the body. He tells us that it is not what goes into the mouth that matters, but instead what comes out. I’ll add my own belief that this is also true of our non-verbal forms of communication. Our behavior often communicates more than our words.
Placed in its historical context, this passage clearly indicates Jesus’ acceptance of those outside of the Jewish community into the Kingdom of God. Food and dietary practices were clear markers of who was inside of the community…and who was not. In our reading Jesus, who came to fulfill the law, turns this practice of the law on it’s head and says, no, it is not about what, when, or how you eat that determines your place in God’s community, but rather it is the story you tell the world about who you are and about how you view others.
Strangely, further along in our reading we find Jesus’ own words inflicting pain. We are left to ask, what do we do with this? This isn’t the Jesus we expect to find. This isn’t the Jesus who reaches out to the outcast and tells them that they are beloved and valued. This doesn’t seem to be the Jesus who practices what he preaches. Instead, we find a Jesus who uses words of shame, of power, and of privilege. Jesus’ own words hurt.
In our story today, we hear from one outside of the community. We hear from one of those Jesus was just talking about. We could assume that Jesus would listen as the Canaanite woman, an outsider, pleaded for him to have mercy on her and to save her daughter. Kyrie elison! “Lord, have mercy.” She knows the language to use. She knows the healing words of faith. She understands the story. Given what Jesus had just taught, we expect him to stop, to show mercy, and to save this woman’s daughter. But instead, we find Jesus’ behavior and his words treating this woman as if she were a dog. I’ll be honest, I don’t really like this story of Jesus.
Not only does Jesus ignore her pleas for mercy, but we are also told that the disciples urged him to “send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” As we may hear this in today’s language, “does she not know her place? Does she not know who we are?” And in response Jesus makes it clear that he came to save those inside the community. And she persisted. On her knees, she pled, “Lord, help me.” Even then Jesus compares her to a dog saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This language of dogs, even from Jesus. I am left to wonder how far back into time and into systems of patriarchy have men used the analogy of dogs to remind women of their place in the broken systems of our worldly power. From Galilee, to Rome, and throughout the history of the Christian church, we can find evidence of this language being used. And, sadly, we can still find it in the recent language spewed forth in the halls of our own congress. Regardless of our political beliefs, I hope we can all agree that referring to a member of congress as a female dog in an effort to name her as an outsider hurts us all.
You see, early in our formation, each of us learns the language of power and words of privilege. We know that to refer to another as a female dog is to tell the story of power over her and to put her into her place under our table, begging for scraps. We learn early the language of race, and gender, and sexuality, and age, and ability. We learn early to excuse our grasp for power with, “bless your heart” and “I have friends that are …” fill in the blank. We learn early how to tell the story in order to belong or to keep out those we do not believe belong. “Uppity”, “Nasty”, “Effeminate”, “Weird”, “Bossy”, “Incapable”. Words are the tools of protecting privilege. And likewise, words can be the tools that can dismantle systems of oppression. “Mercy”, “Love”, “Inclusion”, “Welcome”, “Embrace”.
In our reading today, we find an outsider, using the words of faith, the words of the community to challenge the story in which Jesus had been raised. If we look at the humanity of Jesus in its fullness, we find a man, raised in the midst of a patriarchal system, raised to believe in his community as God’s beloved and chosen, raised to see women as subservient and reliant on men. He was raised in a community that protected, but also pitied the widowed and the orphaned. He was raised in a community that taught him that what you put into your mouth made you who you are. And while he preached the opposite, in his humanity he was influenced by the story of his time and place.
I believe in this reading we see the conflict of Jesus’ own full humanity and his own full divinity working out how to be the Messiah. Jesus’ own humanity had been influenced by the systems of power in which he was raised and formed. He was influenced by systems of exclusion and othering, while at the same time doing the work of bringing all of God’s people into the Kingdom. Jesus humanity was lived out just as we are all called to live ours out. Our Christian journey calls for us to break free of the stories we have been told about our place, our power, and our privilege. Our Christian journey is one of retelling the story and it is a journey of persistence.
And our example of this can be found in the woman, on her knees, pleading for the life of her daughter. She knew Jesus as Lord. She knew the true story. She understood the story of love and inclusion, even while being told a story of her exclusion. And she persisted. She persisted with her truth. “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She told the story of how the systems of her world had treated her. In her brief statement, she reminded Jesus of his ministry to all. She reminded him of how, as an insider, his formation was treating her as an outcast. She reminded him of the story he was telling her about who she is. She persisted. And, due to her persistence, Jesus changed course.
“Woman, great is your faith: Let it be done for you as you wish. And her daughter was healed instantly.” Words matter! Our stories matter! And, just as Jesus was reminded in our reading today, all of those on the outside, kneeling and pleading for mercy, matter! They have a story to tell us!
The story of 2020 seems unscripted. In so many ways, few if any of us could have imagined what we have experienced in that last 5 months. And, in spite of social distancing, extreme political divides, and so many other barriers to the building of our community, we have witnessed story telling. During this time, we are challenged to do two things. First, we are challenged to tell our own stories. We are challenged to tell of our inclusion in love and to call out with our own Kyrie Elison where we have not been welcomed into the community. We are called to persist. Second, we are challenged to listen. We are challenged to hear the stories of those who are calling out to us for mercy. We are challenged to hear their stories and where needed, like Jesus, change course. We are challenged to hear the stories of our own power and privilege. And like Jesus, we are challenged to acknowledge those stories and forms of storytelling that most annoy us … for they speak most directly to our need to change course. As Jesus modeled for us, we are called to set down the story of othering and to embrace the story of inclusion and love. I invite each of us this week to hear someone’s story, just as Jesus heard the pleas of the Canaanite woman. And, I invite each of us this week, to tell someone the story of our faith, just as the Canaanite woman shared her story of faith with Jesus. Then, I pray we change course where needed and use words that tell stories of inclusion, love, and mercy for all of God’s people.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to this sermon here, or watch below on Facebook.