Gather us In


August 20, 2017

Matthew 15:10-28

This past week has not been easy. It has been full of anxiety. Anxiety about the current dialog in our country and an uneasiness of what will happen in the months, if not days to come. Today’s gospel lesson makes us pause.

First, the disciples come to Jesus to discuss how he offended the Pharisees with his talk of what defiles a person. We could look at this discussion and say that it revolves around the food laws of ancient Israel and what you can and cannot eat. What is clean and unclean. We can also look towards what it means for us today. The fact that what we surround ourselves with often affects our own behaviors and actions. It shapes our thoughts and the words that come out of our mouths. It is then those words that can defile.

Much of the speech that we heard last weekend and this past week defiled. There was hatred, bigotry, and an exclusivism that radiated from it. The actions of one individual driving into a crowd of people and killing one woman and injuring others stemmed from the hate. Unfortunately, we saw a similar act play out in Barcelona on Thursday where fourteen were killed and many more injured. The beginning of this weekend there were stories of police officers being targeted and one officer losing his life. All of this is unacceptable.

Returning to our gospel, Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman. This is where I was taken aback. Jesus’ reaction at first seems to be one that we have seen in those spreading hate. He ignored her. He then said he was not there for her, only the lost sheep of Israel. Who is this Jesus? He does not sound like the one in whom we find love and grace. Depending upon the commentary you read, there are many different theologians trying to explain Jesus’ response.

I believe that in this moment, we witness the Jesus of humanity. The Jesus that walked in this world was just as human as he was divine, and in this moment, we see a bit of this humanity. Perhaps he was distracted. Perhaps he had his mind set upon his next destination. In this, we can relate because whether we want to admit it or not, we have all been in this same place. It takes the words of the Canaanite woman to stir him and he sees the faith that she has in him. “Lord, have mercy on me.” It is a cry for help. It is a cry we can relate to in our own brokenness. It is her persistence and courage to step up that we all need to have at this time.

I will be honest with you, there are some days that I really must conjure up the courage to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? Because it seems that the gospel speaks so counter to what we practice within our own country and culture. Yet, today the Canaanite woman leads the way. In my ordination vows, I was asked, “Will you give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known in all you do?” To this, I answered and continue to answer, “I will, and I ask God to help me.” I cannot be a faithful witness if I do not talk about where our faith is leading us today.

I believe we have reached a time where we must move beyond the politics. What happened in Charlottesville last weekend and what we will continue to see and hear in our country points to a belief that is weaved into the fabric of our nation. Unfortunately, some of those strands have been weaved by evil.

It started with the genocide of the Native American people when Europeans first set foot on this land. It was weaved into the fabric through the slave trade and the exploitation of black people and others in the minority. The Civil War may have brought an end to slavery, but those strands had already been weaved in. Those strands were quite visible during the Jim Crow Law era and in the segregation of our public-school system. Those strands separated humanity in the red-lining of our major cities where leaders used their authority to say who could live where. We have even seen it continue to this day in the prison system and the unfair treatment of black people.

The first time I witnessed a similar display of hate was in my own hometown of Charlotte nearly thirty years ago. An inter-racial couple lived a few blocks down the street from my parents and had a cross burned on their yard. I also recall in high school the opposition to having the KKK come rally in front of the historic courthouse. All part of the fabric.

This fabric affects all our lives. Living in a rural white community keeps us insulated from the happenings of our larger diverse cities. Yet, we are only forty-five minutes away from downtown Detroit where the worst effects of these evil strands have been wove.

To borrow the words from Brother Chris Markert, Minister General of the Order of Lutheran Franciscans, “this isn’t a right vs left, liberal vs conservative, Republican vs. Democrat situation. It’s confronting evil that has decided it’s safe to come out in very public and blatant ways.”

I also believe that for us to address the racism and evils that occur in our country, it must be made visible for us. We can then enter into conversation. It has always been present, but now it is fully out in the open, and hopefully we will not sweep it back under the rug. There was a sign of hope yesterday as more people stepped up to call out the hatred in a mostly peaceful counter-protest in Boston.

The Canaanite woman was used to being pushed to the side. She would not have been given the time of day in the past by an Israelite. They would have looked down upon her as if she were a dog. Someone not deserving of their attention. This was not acceptable in Jesus’ time and it is not acceptable today. It may have even took Jesus a minute to see this. Yet, once he did, he showed compassion for the Canaanite woman and carried it to the cross for all of humanity.

While we are in the majority as white Americans, it is our responsibility as followers of Jesus to proclaim his message of love and inclusion of all. We are called to speak to the hatred and evil. We are called to step up boldly and name the evil as we see it. We are to be bold like the Canaanite woman and persist in spreading the love of the gospel.

We must also listen. We must listen to our brothers and sisters that have experienced the hatred and evil. We must not be quick to interrupt as we give them space to share their stories. We must enter relationships as God calls all of humanity together in the hopes of the Kingdom to come. In this all embracing love of God, grace is showered upon each of us.  In this we shall rejoice and be gathered in.

By Alex Steward

I am a husband, father, and pastor within the ELCA. I did not grow up in the church and thus come at this pastoring thing with an unique perspective.

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