The language of the unheard

There are Sundays when I don’t know where to begin the sermon and when to stop. Today is one of these Sundays.

We wonder what’s really going on on the border between Ukraine and Russia. We wonder when the history of injustice and violence between Israel and Palestinians will become a story of friendly neighbors who share the land and the water. We wonder how the violence in Syria and Iraq can be contained and ended. We are mourning the death of Robin Williams, one of the great artists of our time and we wonder how much longer we will have to struggle against the hushed silence surrounding mental illness. And we are mourning the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man who was shot by police in Ferguson, MO. We don’t know the whole story yet, but the killing and the events that followed it revealed again the deep wound of racism in our communities, a wound time won’t heal.

I’m a parent of a teenage boy, and we talk about school, drugs, drinking, politics, driving, sex, telling the truth, respecting others, working hard, getting enough sleep etc., all the usual stuff of parenting. I never had to tell him not to run through our neighborhood because police might think he had done something wrong. But that’s just one part of the talk parents of black teenage boys can’t miss, because missing one part might have deadly consequences in a country with a history of regarding young black men as a threat. Historians say “the talk’’ dates back to 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves living in still-rebellious states. Encounters between freed slaves and whites were fraught, and black parents made it a point to caution their sons who had been slaves that if they celebrated their freedom too publicly, they could trigger an angry and potentially lethal reaction. Keep it down, boys. Don’t wake the dragon. From emancipation, to the “separate but equal’’ segregation doctrine, to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the war on drugs of the 1980s that included police profiling that snagged noncriminals who happened to share skin color with criminal suspects, the essence of the talk has remained.[1] Keep it down, boys. Don’t wake the dragon.

Attica Scott is a mother and a Metro Council representative in Louisville; she wrote a piece for the Courier-Journal, and I will quote her at length so we can hear her.

“Son, when you go to work tonight, if you get stopped by the police for any reason, you reply with all of the respect that you can muster even if you are being pulled over for no reason. A 17-year-old, unarmed black teen named Michael Brown was shot Saturday in Missouri by police, and I am afraid for you.” What was left unsaid to my son is that I am a nervous wreck when he works the night shift and that I barely sleep when he is gone to work because I fear for his safety. (…) I am a single mom of two teenagers, both black, one female and one male, and we have to have “the talk” more regularly than I would have ever imagined. (…) What cuts like a knife when I think about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Michael Newby, Amadou Diallo and so many other black men and teens is that their lives were taken by police officers (or law enforcement authorities and wannabe law enforcement in the case of Trayvon Martin). We should not have to live in fear of the people who are paid to protect and to serve our communities; yet, I have to teach my son to live with that fear every single day — it is a matter of survival. (…) We are weak in this community and in this country when it comes to having honest conversations about race. We are not post-racial. Police officers have always had a license to kill unarmed black teens. What is a mother supposed to do with that knowledge besides teach her son to live in fear — and fear does not equate respect. (…) When we see uprisings in cities like Ferguson, Mo., it is one way in which people who are frustrated tell authorities that we must condemn police brutality, racial profiling, use of excessive force, the militarization of peaceful protests and shoot-to-kill policies.

Scott ends her piece quoting Martin Luther King:

In his speech, “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “... a riot is the language of the unheard.” [2] 

The gospel reading for this Sunday is about Jesus crossing borders and about a mother making a riot on behalf of her child. We know what having a sick child can do to a parent: it makes you desperate.[3] It makes you say horrible things to the receptionist who won’t give you an appointment until a week after Labor Day. It makes you very rude to doctors who run test after test for hours and then won’t give you more than two minutes to tell you about the results. It makes you scream at the insurance company representative who tells you that your plan does not cover the treatments your child needs. It makes you stay up all night doing research on the web, finding out where the best clinics are, the best doctors, the most promising programs. You will do anything it takes to make your child well.

When Jesus crossed into the region of Tyre and Sidon, he entered territory that was foreign in every respect: foreign accents, foreign customs, foreign food, foreign religon – and yet Jesus went there. “Why did he?” we wonder.

A woman from that region approached Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” It wasn’t proper for a woman to approach a man who didn’t belong to her family for help. It was unthinkable for a Jewish man to be approached by a Gentile woman, let alone when demons were involved. And she wouldn’t stop shouting, kept at it, relentlessly crying for mercy. We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she did; we know what having a sick child can do to a parent. The barriers of custom, language, ethnicity and religion were high between her and the man from Nazareth, but no match for her love for her child. Shouting without any restraint she begged the Lord Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.

To the disciples the whole scene was just too embarrassing, and they urged him to put an end to it. “Send her away,” said one.

“Lord, have mercy,” she kept shouting.

“Send her away,” said another.

“Lord, have mercy,” she kept pleading.

What are the limits of Jesus’ ministry? Where does he draw the line? How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Jesus as its defining center? Wide enough to include one like her?

We may not like it, because this doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, but he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Let her shout – she doesn’t belong to the flock I was sent to tend.

But the woman was determined. She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” We notice that she wasn’t arguing but praying. The Jesus we know would reach out and, taking her hand, would tell her to get up and go home and that her daughter was well. But this stranger in a strange land said, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Christ as its defining center? Which voices will prevail, the woman pleading, “Lord, help me?” or the voices of those already in the house, already at the table, already full and satisfied who are telling Jesus, “Send her away”?

This is a hard story because the debate over who is in and who is not is difficult, and in the language we use, our attitudes and commitments spill from our hearts and over our lips. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Don’t you wish this had been said by one of the disciples rather than Jesus? It does sound like something we might say when we try to keep outsiders in their place: we insult them.

Many have wrestled with this story, trying to reconcile the Jesus they thought they knew with the Jesus who not only didn’t show any compassion but was incredibly rude. Some have suggested that he didn’t really mean it, that he was merely testing the woman’s resolve. Others have suggested that Jesus wasn’t testing the woman’s faith but the disciples’, that he was waiting for one of them, just one to stand with her and say, “Lord, have mercy.” That’s a kind thought, but there’s nothing in the story to suggest that this was a test.

I am intrigued by the fact that Jesus talked about bread. Throwing the bread to the dogs would be wrong, he told the woman, since it was the children’s bread. But the woman was not only courageous and persistent. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” What she asked of him didn’t take away anything from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Crumbs of mercy would be plenty to save her child. He had just fed 5,000 people with a lunch that looked like nothing to his disciples, and when all had finished eating and all were full and satisfied, there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. She had been paying attention; she knew that what she needed was his to give, and that there was enough for all. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus finally said. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

There is so much that divides us along lines that have been drawn and continue to be redrawn by privilege and power. Division, prejudice, and fear have been our lot for as long as any of us can remember. But this little story, beautiful and perplexing, reminds us that courage and mercy cross those lines from either side for healing. And who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to cross those lines for the sake of peace and wholeness? Who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to pray, “Lord, have mercy on us, we are being tormented by a demon and time won’t cast it out.”? Who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to cross those lines and to pray for the healing of the wound of racism, because the lives of our children depend on it?

I want to close with a quote from Mark Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men [and women] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Travel in that sense is not just about going to far away places and peoples. It’s about taking the first step to meet the neighbor who is a stranger. It’s about crossing with a little more courage than we think we have the lines that power and privilege have drawn between us. It’s about getting out of our little corner.




[3] With thanks to Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. 19, No. 5, August-September 2008, p. 30