This blog post was originally a sermon preached on August 17, 2014, at Covenant Community Church of Louisville, Ky. by Rev. Mamie Broadhurst.
Photo from the Louisville "Moment of Silence" (in which Rev. Mamie Broadhurst participated.) Photo Credit: Erin Woggon
This has been one hell of a week. Quite frankly it has been one hell of a summer, but this week some of the incredible pain and suffering that has been going on around the globe struck closer to home - about four hours from here closer to home. I am still trying to wrap my head and my heart and my words around what has been and is going on in Ferguson, Missouri, but know that it is with the backdrop of all that has been happening in this helluva week that I turned to this scripture reading: Matthew 15:21-28.
I hardly know where to begin. That’s how I’ve felt all week, as if I have been turning in frantic circles and wondering how to move forward. I listen to the news. I scroll through my Facebook feed, and I am left in a state of shock and awe. When I heard that Robin Williams passed away Monday, I immediately thought back to last week’s scripture reading, and I prayed that he, like Peter, felt the grasp of Jesus’ hand when he sank under the weight of the storm. I prayed that he was able to take heart, to feel the calming of the winds. I knew that he would make everyone in the boat laugh as they crossed over to the other side, but my heart was heavy.
Then I looked at this week’s passage, and my heart stayed heavy. The Jesus I find at the beginning of this story is very disappointing. Two weeks ago we read that Jesus went away on a boat to try and get some alone time, but when he arrived and saw the crowd on the shore who needed his help “he had compassion for them” and stayed with them to cure their sick. But this week? This week, after having rested, one woman comes to him crying for help for her tormented daughter and he...helps her immediately?
No, what does he do? He completely ignores her.
But she doesn’t give up. She keeps up her shouting until finally the disciples can’t take it anymore. So they turn to Jesus and say “Let’s just stop a moment and see how we can help this woman.”
No they don’t.
They say, “Dude, make her stop. Send her away. She is super loud and she is bothering us.” So Jesus stops, and he says, “Look, I’ve got a lot to do with the lost sheep of Israel. You’re from the land of Canaan. You’re really not my people. I’m not going to be able to help you.” A model of compassion if there ever was one.
But she doesn’t give up. She gets on her knees and says, “Lord, help me.” So then Jesus helps her.
No, this time Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food (the food of the people of Israel) and throw it to the dogs (you, and all your people).” There is no way to look at that kindly. I don’t buy that it is a test that Jesus is putting her through. I don’t buy it as some misunderstood sweet nothing that just isn’t clear across the years and cultures. It’s rude. It’s miserly. It is not what Jesus would do...except that he did.
But she still doesn’t give up. After all, her daughter’s life is at stake. So she takes the insult, but she twists it back and she says, “Okay fine, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table.”
And this is where I can finally stop cringing. For whatever reason, when the woman confronts Jesus this time - when she sends his own words back to him, not viciously but not timidly either - it shakes him out of his bubble. It pierces his armor. It creates a space for him to listen to himself and realize that he is way off base. It opens him up. She demands that he look out for people beyond his own community, and...Jesus changes. In this text we learn that Jesus can learn. We learn that Jesus can be transformed, and that gives me some hope that we can be too.
Last Sunday, August 10th, a young man named Michael Brown, an African-American man who himself was unarmed, was shot in the middle of the day by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
On Monday the 11th Ezell Ford, an unarmed African-American man was fatally shot by the police in Los Angeles.
The week before that, on August 5th, John Crawford, an African-American man holding a toy rifle he picked up in the toy aisle at WalMart in Ohio was killed in the store by police.
On July 17th Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man was placed in an illegal chokehold by a police officer in New York and died of asphyxiation.
If you’ve lost count, that is four unarmed black men killed in as many weeks, not isolated incidents but a heinous scar that runs from sea to shining sea; a desperate cry for help that is just starting to not be ignored or downplayed.
My question is, will this shake us out of our bubble? Will it pierce our armor?
Because the deaths of these four men is not just a police problem (though it is most certainly a problem for the police), it is a societal problem. It is our problem. The framework of faulty assumptions that officers use in the performance of their duties is the same racist infrastructure that you and I base our decisions on as well, just with less immediately obvious consequences. But there are consequences. They can be seen in statistics on the racial breakdown of the employment gap or the education gap, in the makeup of the prison population or the voter rolls, and all of those have slower but still deadly consequences.
I know that we are all good people and we think everyone should be treated equally and that all are made in the image of God, but I am afraid that none of us can fully escape the tentacles of racial bias or its twin, white privilege. Racism isn’t just the eye-roller of a comment by your great-uncle, it’s a pervasive, unjust, ongoing system that actively oppresses millions of people, and it can be found in some of the most benign moments of our lives.
Let’s look at me.
I grew up in a single-parent household and since my mother had to work all day an African-American woman came to our home and took care of me. She stayed from the time my mom had to be at work until after she had put dinner on our table. She drove me to ballet lessons and choir practice. I loved her, and she loved me.
Yet, in the 15 years that she worked for my family, I went to her house maybe 4 times. I called her by her given name, “Mae” instead of Ms. Neely, which never struck me as odd, though I was not allowed to do that to any white adult ever. And though I knew Mae had a family, it never occurred to me that she was forfeiting time with them to take care of me - a choice she made, certainly, (though we could talk about the biased educational and economic forces that required her to make that choice) but again, none of that even entered my mind. It did not occur to me that I might not be the center of her world.
Was I shaped and formed by her in ways that bless me? Absolutely. Am I grateful to her for choosing to love me rather than just keeping me safe? Absolutely. Did I still imbibe, unconsciously, some of the bitter lie that people who looked like me were more valuable than people who looked like her? Absolutely.
I don’t know your stories - the places you have encountered your own prejudices, or the places you have declined to look.
- I don’t know if you have any neighbors who don’t look like you.
- I don’t know if you have anyone on speed dial that doesn’t look like you.
- I don’t know if you have talked with your kids about how to behave in the presence of the police.
- I don’t know if you have talked with your kids about the fact that other parents have to talk to their kids about that.
- I don’t know if you posted something this week on Facebook or Twitter about the Ice Bucket Challenge or about Robin Williams but were a little too anxious to put anything up about Ferguson, Missouri (or Ohio, or New York, or California).
I don’t know, but you know.
I feel like a broken record saying this again, but I don’t say any of this to make any of us feel bad. Feeling bad rarely gets anyone to do anything. And there is work to be done. Our own shame needs to be rooted out, and we need to start talking. We also probably need to listen better, making sure that we seek out voices that don’t automatically appear in our news feeds or our blog roll.
And we have to get over our fear of talking about race. This sermon took me twice as long as any sermon usually takes me, and I vetted it past at least 3 different people, and I’m still afraid I haven’t said enough or that I’ve said something very poorly. But the conversation has to happen, and it needs to happen in church as well as everywhere else because black bodies matter and brown bodies matter. And white bodies matter too, especially in the fight to dismantle racism, because we have to help convince our own folk that there is much to be gained in destroying a faulty system, especially because we have the most to lose by doing it.
This my friends, is a crisis - is a demon - that cannot be ignored. It cannot be turned away. It cannot be put off or belittled. It has to be healed, and that is going to take some great faith. So don’t let go. Don’t give up. We owe it to these four men, and to many more, to wrestle a blessing out of all of this in order to heal all of us of our demons. Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Eric Garner - they can’t say anything anymore. They can’t plead their case 4 different times to see if we will move from ignoring them to being transformed by them, but there are other voices still shouting if we will stop and listen. The Canaanite woman did not allow the discomfort of others to silence her, and we can’t let our own discomfort silence us.
Additional Reading Suggestions:
Ten Things White People Can Do About Ferguson Besides Tweet by Kate Harding
10 Tips for Being a Good Ally by Bruce Reyes-Chow
About the Author
The Rev. Mamie Broadhurst is pastor of Covenant Community Church of Louisville. She has served as a mission co-worker of the PC(USA) in Colombia and as associate pastor at the First United Church of Oak Park.