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"Three Challenges We Face: The Other"

Howard Boswell

Matthew 15: 21-28

Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

Kenmore Presbyterian Church

Kenmore, New York

 

I understand if today’s Second Reading rubs you the wrong way.

Something doesn’t seem right about it.

A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus,  begging him to heal her daughter.

His disciples try to turn her away but she keeps after Jesus.

Jesus lets her know that he comes to save the lost in Israel, but she doesn’t give up.

He uses a crude comparison, making her and all like her no better than dogs.

Yet, to borrow Senator McConnell’s words to Senator Warren,

“she was warned… she was given an explanation… nevertheless she persisted…”

 

Yet, we feel uncomfortable, even ashamed at how Jesus responds to her.

I mean, Jesus seems, well, mean, or at least calloused.

Not to let the Lord off the hook completely,

we need to remember how Jesus was fully divine and fully human.

His “fully human” side was a Jewish male.

Jesus grew up, learning how Gentiles were not our kind of people and

how Canaanites were ancient enemies.

In synagogue and at home, Jesus was carefully taught that

there were boundaries between peoples, walls to keep out those people.

 

Yet, this Canaanite woman crossed at least two lines:    

First, she was a woman who had no right to address a man

who was not her husband, especially a rabbi.

Second, she was a Gentile who had no right to ask for anything.

Nevertheless she persisted in spite of the disciples’ warnings and after Jesus’ explanations.

She persisted, driven by the need to have her daughter released from a demon.

In the end, her persistence pays off and Jesus commends her faith and cures her daughter.

 

Yet, despite the happy ending, the story points to something as old as humanity itself:

 Fear of the other.

In today’s reading from Matthew, the other was a Canaanite woman.

Down through the centuries, people drew lines and built walls to keep the other in its place.

I use the word “it” intentionally

because, sometimes, people view the other as something less than human.

 

Much of our history as a nation involves our fear of the other.

The early settlers feared the other and stole land from Native Americans.

In the South, we brought the other over in chains as slaves,

but we oppressed them for fear that they might revolt.

Each wave of immigration brought fear of the other and

it continues down to today

when fear of the other threatens to keep them out

by building a real wall.

 

Last week’s events in Charlottesville weighed heavily on my heart as we gathered last Sunday.

I didn’t know what to say, so I used the prayer composed by Jill Duffield.

Yet, I believe the time for thoughts and prayers is over, at least, for me.

Thoughts and prayers do not stop hatred and violence.

Thoughts and prayers do not stop Nazis, Klansmen,

and other white supremacists from spewing their venom.

Thoughts and prayers will not bring Heather Heyer or

Lieutenant Cullen or Trooper Bates back from the dead.

 

Yet, this week, I did think long and hard about what to say to you today.

Those who gathered in Charlottesville did not come to honor the memory of Robert E. Lee.

Instead, they came out of fear of the other. 

You see, I believe racism’s root cause is fear.

Now, you may wonder what the racists fear.

Well, they fear the other—African-Americans, Jews,

immigrants, almost everybody who is not like them.

They believe they’ve lost their country.

They believe they’ve lost their culture.

They believe they’ve lost their place.

And they place the blame on the other and those who support them.

 

Friends, let me say something as clearly as I can:

Racism is a sin.

White privilege is a sin.

Now, you may want to think that I’m getting political.

I’m not, but I am going to get biblical.

 Remember what Jesus said about the Law?

How it’s all summed up by two things?

“The first is, 'Hear, O Israel:

the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 

you shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart, and with all your soul,

and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  

The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'

There is no other commandment greater than these."

Jesus doesn’t say our neighbors are only those who are like us.

 

Turning from Jesus, look at Paul.

Paul says it clearly in Galatians,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek,

there is no longer slave or free,

there is no longer male and female;

for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Turning from the New Testament, remember what we heard in Isaiah today,

“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath,

and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant—

these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;  

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;  

for my house shall be called

a house of prayer for all peoples.”

 

I could continue by looking at two confessions of our church, written during the last century.

The Confession of 1967 and the Confession of Belhar

speak with one voice about the need for reconciliation,

not only in the church, but in the world;

not only between us and God, but between all races.

Needless to say, I thought a lot.

 

Yet, when I said the time for thoughts and prayers is over,

I didn’t mean we should stop thinking and praying.

Instead, we need to start to confront our own fear of the other.

I say, “We,” because I include myself.

I grew up in the South and some old habits die hard.

For instance, my parents taught us that

there were bad parts of town, which we should avoid.

Of course, these areas were predominantly African-American.

To this day, I confess that whenever I see a black man in an unfamiliar setting,

I get anxious, even afraid.

Now, some may see my reaction as just being careful,

but I see it as subtle racism, the fear of the other.

 

So, we need to pray, but not just in generalities.

Instead, we need to pray for the other,

for a greater understanding of their plight,

for more appreciation of their needs.

And we need to pray for ourselves, a prayer of confession.

I remembered a good one from the Worship Sourcebook. 

Let us pray.

God of all nations, we praise you that in Christ

the barriers that have separated humanity are torn down.

Yet we confess our slowness to open our hearts and minds

to people of other lands, tongues, and races.

Deliver us from the sins of fear and prejudice,

that we may move toward the day

when all are truly one in Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church