“Bigotry and Racism is Overcome”
August 20, 2017 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
“I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much
To go back and pretend
‘Cause I’ve been down there
On the floor
And no-one’s ever gonna
Keep me down again.” Sings Helen Reddy in 1972
That anthem for the women’s movement holds a power and truth for women throughout the ages. All we have to do is really hear the scripture text of today to hear a woman roar some 2000 years ago.
The Canaanite woman certainly knew how to stand up for herself. Some might even say she was persistent and tenacious. With all that said, we can’t help but be astounded at her faith. She is incredibly clear that Jesus is the One who can cure her demented daughter, a child likely living with epilepsy. And wow, is Jesus ever impressed by her faith when he says to her “Women, great is your faith!”
In todays world, the Canaanite woman might well be one of our displaced Aboriginal women who dearly loves their child but have found it difficult to find a job, adequate housing, sufficient food, and proper schooling for her precious child. The woman was called all sorts of names, including ones I can’t use in church, or anywhere else, for that matter. Yet, in spite of all the deprecating understanding of this uppity Canaanite woman, there is no doubt that she is gutsy. She is told that she is not worthy of food – food that children throw to the dogs. And even more outrageous, dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their owners table. But there is no food for this hungry Mother. This marginalized woman only wanted scraps. And she wanted her daughter to be released from her horrible agony.
Todays Gospel story describes the only recorded occasion on which Jesus was outside of Jewish territory. Some commentators suggest that Jesus was taking a break – a holiday, so to speak. Perhaps that explains his reluctance to respond to the needs of the Canaanite woman when she initially requests help. Jesus just wants to chill out. If that is the case, what makes this account so startling is that Jesus was initially hesitant to respond to this Gentile woman’s need. A Gentile is an outcast – a foreigner – a person not to be associated with. Yet, when Jesus does respond to the woman and her child, he breaks down the barriers of bigotry, sexism and racism.
I decided on the sermon title “Bigotry and Racism is Overcome” back in June. Little could I have imagined the horror that has occurred in Charlottesville Virginia. The extreme racial tension and violence that has been sparked by allegedly 1000 neo-Nazis, skin heads and Ku Klux Klan members, which has widened the racial and ideological divide. This college town finds itself in the midst of “take America back” chants, “anti-immigration” placards, and white Nationalists parading down their streets. All this is happening while Gerry Neilsen and I were at a birthday party for one of our Syrian refugee families. Shaad had turned 5 and Gerry and I and approximately 12 other members of the refugee committee were helping her celebrate her big day. We were living out that racism has no place in Penticton.
2000 years ago a brave yet desperate woman, persistently nagged Jesus, until he came to the aid of her daughter. 45 years ago Helen Reddy sang about the strength of women, born out of pain. 35 years ago The Right Rev. Dr. Lois Wilson has this to say about the Canaanite woman and all of us:
“This is a story about a woman who refused to “know her place.”
She was poor, a foreigner, and a Gentile. In the eyes of many she had no legitimate claim on God’s grace. Yet she demonstrated self confidence, dignity, and self-assurance in her encounter with Jesus. She is insistent, demanding, and unafraid.
The nub of the controversy was whether an inclusive table sharing of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians was justified in the new Jesus movement. How ‘open’ should the Christian community be? How open should it be to women like this Canaanite?
This remains an issue for the contemporary church. What restrictions, laws, customs do we ‘lay on’ those who come seeking God’s grace? Is ‘a mighty fortress is our church’ ever justified? The major theologian and spokesperson for inclusive table sharing was a woman, and a foreigner at that!” says The Rev. Dr. Lois Wilson, in a speech during the time she was Moderator of The United Church of Canada.
What does this story say to us in 2017? Does it have relevance today? I believe that the learning for us is that of standing up for what is just and necessary. I am not proposing the Charlottesville kind of speaking out, but instead working toward what is fair and life giving. I am referring to wisdom and conviction that comes from deep prayer and profound faith in Christ’s life-giving way. We need people who will write to companies that destroy our environment and urge them to reform. We are called to be persistent truth-tellers who confront the people who degrade, abuse, and hurt. This is done when, with love and kindness, we call inappropriate behaviours. We need people who are tenacious and purpose driven. But that tenacity must be tempered with mercy and compassion. That is what Jesus learned from the uppity woman from Tyre and Sidon.
Let’s hear the words that Helen Reddy made famous in 1972 and see if they have something to say to us today.
I Am Woman
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman
You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul