Hope that We Can Change, Too

“But [the Canaanite woman] came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’

Matthew 15:25-27

+ In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come.  Amen.

One of my favorite quotes by the writer Anne Lamott is this one: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” I like the quote because I am terrible at unplugging – at taking time off. I blame it on my family of origin. My father was a small-town doctor of the Marcus Welby variety who was terrible at taking time off, and I regret to say that I have followed in his footsteps.

So, when I was getting ready to go on vacation in late July, I made a promise to myself that I’ve made many times before – and that was to unplug this time. I mostly kept my promise. Mostly. . . One can only make so much progress in just two weeks. Many of you know how hard it is to stay away from email and social media for very long.  Having picnics with my grandchildren helped, as did having a good novel to read, but old habits die hard.

And then there was all the news from Chicago – of looting and vandalism in the Magnificent Mile Sunday night into Monday followed by Monday’s derecho which spawned an EF1 tornado in Rogers Park. No wonder my Facebook feed exploded with questions asking whether we were reliving the plagues of Exodus or at the start of the end times described in the Revelation to John. Neither is the case, of course, but none of us can be blamed for feeling besieged – especially those who suffered property damage or are still without power almost a week as the storm.

As tempting as it is to talk about these Chicago stories, I want to talk about a different story that I read earlier on during my vacation.

I was scrolling through the headlines when I came across the story of the Michigan man who had been elected to serve on the Leelanau County road commission two years ago, and who had used a racial slur at the start of one of their meetings. Road commission meetings don’t usually make the national news, but this one did.

The man, whose name is Tom Eckerle, had been asked by a fellow member of the road commission why he wasn’t wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. He responded to the question with a racial slur – he used the “n word” – and then he went off on an angry rant against the Black Lives Matter movement. He said, “Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us!” It’s not very hard to figure out who Tom Eckerle was talking about when he used the word, “us.” He meant 75-year-old white men like him.

Earlier that same week, Michigan’s Governor, Gretchen Whitmore, had declared racism to be a public health crisis. The irony was not lost on me. Governor Whitmore had declared racism to be a public health crisis because Black, Brown, Native American, and Latino communities have been much more severely impacted than the white community by the pandemic. That’s been true in Michigan. It’s been true here in Chicago.  And it’s been true across the country.

The day after the meeting of the road commission, Eckerle doubled down on his comments in an interview with the local public radio station in Northern Michigan, using the same racial slur repeatedly. “That’s not a person whatsoever,” he declared.

To everyone’s credit, both Republican and Democratic party officials called for Eckerle to resign immediately. When I last checked, he resigned this past Tuesday at 8:00 pm. The Traverse City Record-Eagle, The Detroit Press and the New York Daily News had all earlier reported that he would resign – not because he was sorry for what he said – according to him, he is not a racist – but because he didn’t want to “burden” the newly hired road commission manager who is scheduled to begin work this month. How very thoughtful of him! Evidently the new road commission manager is a person and, therefore, should not be burdened. All those others who are non-persons – not so much!

What Tom Eckerle said is atrocious, of course. The chairman of the Leelanau Road Commission called his remarks “appalling.” Others have described Eckerle’s use of the slur and his subsequent remarks as unacceptable and ignorant, horrific and horrible. And so they are. We members of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement have all promised to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being, so racism, expressed in such an overt way, goes completely against our core values.  Can you think of a more racist statement than to say, “that’s not a person whatsoever” about another human being who has been made in the image and likeness of God?

It’s not hard to see where such thinking leads. It led to the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust, to genocide in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, Myanmar, and China. . . . and it has led to this country’s history of abuse and injustice, of genocide and annihilation – a tragic history for which many are starting to repent and trying to amend our lives.

Tom Eckerle’s kind of racism is easy for us to see and to reject – he’s an easy mark. The work is much more challenging when our own racism and bias is hidden from us and when it collectively manifests itself in systems that are so resistant to change. It’s easy to lose hope, and to wonder if change is even possible.

I believe it is, but I also believe that it requires us to hear ourselves, to re-examine our deeply-engrained thoughts and patterns, and to listen to others who can reflect our words and attitudes back to us. For what that might look like, let me turn to this morning’s Gospel.

The Reverend Andrew Prior, a Uniting Church minister in Australia, calls today’s story “one of the most brutal moments in the New Testament,” and I think he’s right. Let’s see why he says so.

Matthew tells us that Jesus left Israel and traveled to the district of Tyre and Sidon. He crossed the border and entered territory that wasn’t just Gentile territory, it was the land of one of Israel’s oldest enemies, the Canaanites. Matthew deliberately use the word “Canaanite” in his Gospel in order to underline the outsider status of the woman who comes to Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter.  Not only is she a woman, not only is she a foreigner, not only is she unclean, but she is an ancient enemy besides! The Canaanites were part of the people the Israelites were commanded by God to annihilate as the people of Israel took over their land and cities.

What was Jesus doing in the district of Tyre and Sidon? It seems he was trying to get away – to unplug himself after a busy time in his ministry: feeding the 5,000, walking on water, crowds everywhere seeking to be fed and healed. Jesus and his disciples had hardly arrived when the Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.”

Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.” I have no idea how many times people had come to Jesus seeking his help only to receive it. Every time, up until this point, those who had come for help were his fellow Jews. But not this time. The person asking for help was a Canaanite.

Listen to what Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” How do you hear it?  If it were anyone other than Jesus, we probably would say that the person saying these words was speaking them out of what could only be described as Jewish male privilege. Undeterred the woman came back to Jesus, fell to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me,” she said.

At this point, Jesus seems to descend from Jewish male superiority into heartless racism. He says to the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  He calls the woman and her desperately ill daughter, “dogs.” You heard that right.

I remember getting into an argument once with a parishioner when I was leading a Bible study on this passage. I had said the same thing to the group that I’ve just said to you – that Jesus essentially used a racial slur when he spoke to the woman. The children equal the people of Israel. The dogs equal the Canaanites. It was too much for the parishioner. She said I was accusing Jesus of being a racist, and she couldn’t tolerate it. Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus was without sin. He would never say anything like that.

Some commentators say that Jesus was playfully testing the woman. Others have written that the word used in the original Greek for dogs is, “puppies” as opposed to some mangy cur you might find loose in the street. But these are interpretations that only work from the perspective of privilege. They are the interpretations of those of us who have learned a little bit about racism, and we can’t possibly have Jesus being a racist. So, we look for ways to excuse him… because we want to be excused of our racism as well.

I do not know what was going on deep in Jesus’ heart and mind. I only know what the words of the Gospel story say, and they are brutal.  If Jesus is not being overtly racist, he, at the very least, shows his blindness to compassion – a blindness that’s caused by sticking to what he understands as his considerable racial and religious privilege. This is, of course, what the culture that forms us does to every single one of us. We hear and see, but we do not hear and we do not see, because how we’ve been shaped by our culture affects us profoundly.

And this would be bad news if the story ended there – with Jesus not only refusing to heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter, but refusing to acknowledge the mother and daughter as human beings deserving of compassion. Blessedly, it does not.

Here’s the way Andrew Prior puts it: “Jesus the Human One, was human enough to have his Jewish male privilege with all its racism, pierced by plight of a poor and desperate woman who came from an enemy people. The glory is that Jesus, despite his privilege, was still able to be merciful; able to choose the way of God— and that he did. The glory is that when he understood what he had done, and how he had behaved, he changed instantly, and healed the daughter of the woman. . .”

Jesus changed, and that gives us hope that we can change, too.  In the end, Jesus is not racist.  He learns from one of his people’s ancient enemies that there is no privilege in the Kingdom of Heaven.  He ceases to exclude. He follows the way of compassion and inclusion. He loves as God loves. 

That’s the call and the promise of the Gospel.  With God’s help, we can change, too.  With God’s help, maybe even the Tom Eckerle’s of the world can change.  May it be so.

Amen.