Something to Talk About

Jessica Tate
Associate Pastor
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
Fairfax, Virginia

Deut. 6:20-25
20 When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?” 21 then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. 23 He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. 24 Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. 25 If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”

Matthew 15:21-28
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

I’d like to say that I’m Presbyterian for noble reasons: our connection to Reformed theology, for example, or our tradition’s history of involvement in the world, or our church governance grounded so thoroughly in our theology, or Presbyterians’ commitment to a thinking faith… But, the truth is, all of these reasons came later. I am a Presbyterian in the PC(USA) because I have grown up and been nurtured in the Presbyterian Church.

Some might say that’s not a good enough reason to be part of a church, to be part of the Body of Christ, let alone to commit one’s life to serve it. I counter that it is even more powerful that I have grown up in the church that was chosen for me by my parents, have seen it in good times and hard times and even ugly times, and yet have chosen to remain part of it.

I attribute this first and foremost to the dedicated and loving people who have surrounded me since I was an infant. These witnesses – who have taken their commitment to Jesus Christ seriously, who have thought critically about their faith in relationship to the world around them, who have continuously shown love for God and neighbor, and who have done all these things with integrity – they are the reasons I am glad God has chosen me to be part of this church.

Believe it or not, raising children in the church sometimes keeps us there. Sometimes it helps us grow into faith! What happened for me as I was raised in the church is that I watched. I watched adults doggedly show up for worship each week. That’s something worth noting. It’s not as though people who come to church can’t think of anything else they might do with their time. [I suspect there’s not one of us who hasn’t watched someone head into a coffee shop on Sunday morning with the New York Times and thought, “wow, that would be nice.” ] I watched the adults around me worship and sing hymns. I watched them put offering in the plate each week and I put my pennies in a fish to take up front for the time of sharing faith with children. I watched everyone greet each other with a hug and an exchange of peace. I watched adults I knew to be powerful and in-control bow their heads in prayer. I watched a small group of people gather for worship in a blizzard, with hot chocolate on the communion table and a homeless man serving as the usher. I watched adults stay up for a twenty-four hour Habitat blitz and cheer for the three new houses in the morning. I watched the adults around me express the power of faith in their own lives.

Now, it wouldn’t be completely honest if I acted like I grew up in Pollyanna-like churches. Like everyone we had our share of difficulties. As a pastor’s kid, I assure you, there were problems and times I didn’t want to go to church. But more often than not, I found something compelling in the people of faith that surrounded me, loved me, and showed me they were committed to something much bigger than themselves.

They were witnessing to me as the Body of Christ, as Jesus Christ incarnate in this world. They witnessed as they embodied the hands and feet of God in the world.

As the Body of Christ, we smile when we watch a warm handshake that we know comes out of a man’s sincere desire to welcome every single child of God who walks through the church door. That’s a witness.

We feel comforted when a child is baptized because we know that all of us have also been welcomed into the household of God, even before we knew who we were. That’s a witness.

We encourage one another at gatherings like this because we know God’s love to be expansive and inclusive. That’s a witness.

We nod in agreement at a minute for mission because we know that opening our building to the poor and homeless in our neighborhood helps us to live into God’s kingdom as we care for the least of these among us. That’s a witness.

We share tears with one another without speaking because we know that in our grief the community of faith hopes for us until we can hope again. That’s a witness.

These actions are all testimonies to our faith…testimonies that show our commitment and love for God…testimonies that show us to be the Body of Christ in the world. It has been my experience that we are good at these testimonies, these testimonies where our actions speak louder than our words.

Somewhere along the way, though, we’ve got to speak these testimonies too. We’ve got to put words to the actions of our faith. We’ve to find our voices to tell the truth about our experiences in the world and our trust in God. We’ve got to be more like the Canaanite woman who calls to Jesus, “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

The woman’s words and actions bear witness to so much:

This Canaanite woman, an outsider, pursues Jesus, calls to him and addresses him as Lord.

This Gentile woman honors Jesus’ connection to the people of Israel, recognizing him as the Son of David.

This mother shares her anguish; she is terrified for her daughter’s well-being.

This woman confesses that she believes Jesus can do something about her daughter’s condition.

Hers is a bold testimony!

Can you imagine crying out to Jesus as he’s walking away? Can you imagine being an outsider pursuing this sought-after one? Can you imagine demanding his attention?

Conventional wisdom might tell us, “Don’t mess with Momma,”[i] but still, what the Canaanite woman does in this story is remarkable, even for a momma.

When Jesus ignores her, she doesn’t go away. When the disciples tell Jesus to send her away, she stands her ground. When Jesus blows her off by saying that he has only come to the lost sheep of Israel, she stays put. In fact, this nameless woman becomes even bolder. She comes up to Jesus, kneels before him, and again confesses her faith, saying, “Lord, help me.” She testifies to her own inability to heal her daughter, her own inability to fix the situation, and her firm trust that God will be God.[ii]

Now what happens next in this encounter is awful and amazing all at once. It is awful that Jesus, after ignoring this woman, rebuffs her, and when that doesn’t work, he calls her a dog! (Some commentators try to smooth this over by saying that the Greek term really means small dog, like a cute puppy. But, one of my favorite seminary professors points out that big dog or little dog, either way she’s called a bitch![iii]) It gets even worse because the woman replies to Jesus’ insult saying, “yes Lord.” Rather than claiming her personhood and dignity she seems to accept his insult.

Clearly Jesus doesn’t live by Boy Scout law in this story and the woman’s response to his insult disqualifies this text as a gleaming example of women’s liberation. Nonetheless, what happens here is also amazing. Right after this troubling exchange, this woman beats Jesus at his own game. Usually HE is the one to turn a hostile remark with a reproving statement that the opponent can’t deny. But here the woman responds to Jesus’ hostility and speaks a truth that Jesus can’t deny.[iv] She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her reply is really a statement of faith, testimony again that Jesus is Lord and testimony to God’s abundance.

This woman is bold, honest, humble, persistent, hopeful, and certain, but not arrogant in her faith. Her testimony, in word and deed, is a model for us as people of faith, as we confront the realities of brokenness in our own lives.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that anyone should ever be subject to relationships that demean. I am not advocating that any person submit to being called a dog or be put in any other dehumanizing position. What I am suggesting is that the Canaanite woman’s testimony in her actions and her words is the kind of powerful and humble demonstration we need in our faith communities. It is the kind of bold and honest demonstration we need to be witnesses to the world of our faith in God.

The saving grace in this text is the woman’s simple and sure statement of faith. She is confronted with brokenness all around her. Her daughter is demon-possessed. She’s a woman acting in a man’s world. She’s a Gentile coming to the Lord of the Jews. When she gets up the courage to cry out to Jesus, he bullies her. Despite all these cultural and emotional factors working against her, the woman sticks to what she knows to be true. In that certainty of faith, she kneels down before Jesus and testifies to what she believes. In that act of humility, I don’t think she is giving up on herself. She is boldly and humbly saying that regardless of the brokenness in the world, the world that would seek to demean and destroy: This much she knows is true and is willing to act on: Jesus is Lord; God’s love is abundant.

****

A woman worked tirelessly on a campaign to keep the school system from reforming the school assignment plan in such a way that the schools would naturally resegregate. In speaking to a group to garner their support, she said, “the older I get, the less certain I am about most everything. But this much I know is true: the kingdom of God is diverse and all God’s people are welcome at the table.”[v] Not under the table, at the table.

At the Alex Haley Farm a couple of summers ago I heard one of the Great Preachers teach a class on preaching. In the course of the question and answer session someone asked whether or not people who are gay should be ordained. His answer stuck with me because he replied with respect, humility, and conviction. “What I know,” he said, “is that Jesus’ love is big and inclusive. That’s what I preach. The bigness of God’s love.”

In this story, when the Canaanite woman makes her final profession of faith, saying, “yes Lord, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the masters’ table,” the simple, profound truth she utters is so powerful that Jesus is changed. He responds emphatically, “Woman! Great is your faith!” And her daughter is healed instantly. The truth and beauty of the woman’s testimony, “Jesus is Lord; God’s love is abundant,” the truth of that testimony emanates from her and Jesus is changed. His ministry is suddenly boundless. Jesus changes. Why can’t the church, the Body of Christ?

I was a youth member of the nominating committee at my church once. In the wonderful innocence of youth I nominated a man in the congregation to serve as an elder. The committee agreed and he was asked to consider it. At our next meeting the committee members returned with grave concern because they had gone home and realized he was the gay man in our congregation. I had known he was gay when I nominated him. I thought he would make a great elder. He was a person of strong faith, he was smart, thoughtful, kind, a good leader. I didn’t know his being gay had anything to do with it. The committee began to wrestle with what to do. Some wanted to stand by the nomination. Some said if he ran, they would have to leave the church. Some wanted to take him off the slate because they were scared people would leave the church. Some wanted to take him off because they feared a judicial case against the church. We decided we weren’t ready to make a decision and went home to discern and pray and listen for the ways God might be speaking to us as a committee. We returned for our next meeting and after more deliberation it was finally decided that we would ask him not to run. Then we were given a letter he had written to the pastor, withdrawing his name from consideration for the well-being of the church. One committee member read that letter and said, “This man is exactly the kind of faithful leader we need as an elder of this church; and if he runs, my wife and I will have to leave the church.”

Jesus changed. Why can’t we?

The Canaanite woman’s testimony changed Jesus and her daughter was healed instantly. We know from our own experiences that things don’t turn out so well. Our daughters aren’t healed, justice is not immediate. But, might it not be true for us, that the most powerful testimony is like the action and speech of the Canaanite woman? Our testimony does not have to be an eloquent theological treatise on sin and redemption or the doctrine of the trinity. It does not need to be biblical exegesis on justification by grace or Christian hope. It does not need to be a loud and forceful proclamation of how right we are. It does not need to be developing workable solutions to society’s problems.

Our most powerful testimony comes in each one of us joining with the Canaanite woman and all those she represents. We join her in kneeling before the church, the Body of Christ in the world today, and saying, “This much I know is true: the world is broken and fearful. But Jesus is Lord; God’s love is abundant; All are welcome.”

That is something to talk about.

Can I get a witness?

i Sentiment, but not phrasing from: Gench, Frances Taylor, Back to the Well (Louisville: WJK, 2004), pp. 6, 26.
ii Gail O’Day, as quoted by Gench, p. 18.
iii Frances Taylor Gench in Bible from the Underside.
iv Sharon Ringe as quoted by Frances Taylor Gench, pp. 3-4.
v Thanks to Joanne Tate for telling me this story.

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