Sermon by Mark Dewey, August 20, 2017
The question underlying much of my work as a seminary student is: “What are we
What am I doing here? Why start seminary at the age of 58?
What are you doing here? You could be canoeing on the river, or walking the Appalachian Trail, or eating brunch and listening to jazz at Beans in the Belfry. Or you could be scrubbing the mace off the streets in Charlottesville.
And finally, or primarily, what is the church doing here — still?
The question of what I’m doing here is especially pressing after reading this passage
from the Gospel of Matthew, which I don’t like. And the question of what the church is doing here is especially pressing after reading that 80 percent of the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend were carrying not just mace but also
Why? What were they doing there?
The passage I don’t like was appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a
schedule of readings from different places in the Bible that act as counterpoints to
whatever I’m thinking about the present moment: consider also this, they say. The
schedule was established by the keepers of religious orthodoxy, whose counterpart in
the story we just read would be the Pharisees, whose vision of the world has failed —
why would I let the Pharisees lead me through the story of the man they killed for
saying things they didn’t like?
Because the alternative is to think whatever I want about the present moment, and I’m
tired of doing that. Consider also this, the lectionary says. When the present moment
makes the worldview that the church espouses look like a pipe dream, consider also this. When you think you have a handle on the church — what it is, what it’s doing here —consider also this.
I have two complaints about the appointed passage; one of them is theological and one
is personal. I’m going to start with the theological complaint because it allows me to
build a framework from which to proceed, whereas the personal complaint just leaves
me feeling hurt.
So, theologically speaking, I dislike this passage because the Jesus in it is a jerk. I
don’t want Jesus to be a jerk, so I look for passages where he doesn’t act like one, or if I have to read a passage where he’s acting like a jerk, I pretend he isn’t acting that way, which is what turns the church’s world view into a pipe dream.
In the first half of this passage, Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that is what defiles a man.” Then in the second half a woman asks him to remove the demon from her daughter — begs him to remove the demon — and what comes out of his mouth is, “Get away from me, dog.” Does he think he’s exempt from defiling himself? Is that why the Pharisees dislike him? Or does he just not think?
Before reading the passage more closely, I should note from the outset that by making
me dislike this Jesus, the passage has lined me up with the Pharisees.
“Jesus left that place and went to the district of Tyre and Sidon,” Matthew says, that
is, he goes off to a place that isn’t part of what used to be the kingdom of Israel, which was probably more of an ideal that a place anyway. He leaves home apparently to
escape from the needy crowds who are like constantly picking at his robe. Half a chapter back from the passage we just read, Jesus slips out of town into the desert to mourn the death of his cousin John the Baptist, but the needy people follow him, like several thousand of them, and they don’t even have the common sense to pack a lunch, so he has to feed them, several thousand of them, with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish.
In today’s passage he has slipped away again, and a woman from that region sees him and starts shouting at him: “Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he does not answer her at all.
Why not? Because he’s punched out? Like, try me again when I’m on the clock, lady? She persists, apparently: Help me, Lord, my daughter is tormented! Help me, Lord, my daughter is tormented! Help me, Lord, my daughter is tormented! Over and over until the disciples finally say, “Hey, Jesus, tell that woman to shut up and go away.” So finally he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And we realize that he’s ignoring her because she’s one of ‘those people’ — Matthew calls her a Canaanite.
In her discussion of this passage, Marilyn Salmon, Professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary, points out that there were no Canaanites in that day; “The label evokes historical conflicts and thus defines the woman in terms of age-old prejudices a first-century Jewish audience would understand,” Salmon says. She’s simply “the other,” the person I dislike automatically, thoughtlessly, because the label on her tells me to. The equivalent label for a twenty-first century progressive Christian audience might be white supremacist. Maybe that’s why Jesus calls her a dog.
Isn’t that what religious orthodoxy has said to some of you? Get away from me, dog?
One of the ways to keep from looking at the Jesus I don’t like in this passage is to call it a text about other-ing, and it is that. Four of the five texts appointed for today involve the problem of other-ing — the fifth is the Psalm we read as the call to
worship, which might be said to celebrate the end of other-ing. “Let all the peoples
praise you. Let all the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with
equity and guide the nations upon the earth.”
That’s a vision of big-tent Christianity, the kind that welcomes everybody to the table,
and the appointed reading for today from the prophet Isaiah says that that big tent is
about to be pitched: soon, Isaiah says, everyone who loves the Lord and keeps the covenant will be brought to the holy mountain and made joyful there, for God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all people —gay, straight, white, black, liberal,
conservative, Hebrew, Canaanite.
Do you remember the Canaanites? They were the people who had to be killed so Abraham’s descendants could take possession of The Promised Land. That’s an aspect of the Judeo-Christian paradigm that I find hard to tolerate because it makes the ancestors of this church look like the people who invaded Charlottesville with automatic weapons. And when Jesus ignores that Canaanite woman because she’s one of ‘those people’, he’s acting like one of those ancestral leaders: a Pharisee. What makes you a Pharisee? Jesus says it’s rote behavior. At the beginning of Matthew 15, the Pharisees are trying to make Jesus admit that he doesn’t follow the rules, and he responds to their attempt by quoting Isaiah, who says: “Because that people has approached me with its mouth and honored me with its lips, but has kept its heart far from me, and its worship of me has been a commandment of men, learned by rote — truly I shall further baffle that people with bafflement upon bafflement; and the wisdom of its wise shall fail, and the prudence of its prudent shall vanish.” (Isa 29:13)
Rote living is what makes a Pharisee, Jesus says: accepting categories as they’re given
to us by politicians, marketers, media producers, preachers, teachers, parents, friends,
and then processing reality according to those categories — that’s living by rote.
It’s fair to say that this congregation has a long history of standing against rote
thinking: many years ago, when the letters LGBTQ were merely letters, this congregation made the radical assertion that everyone who wants to eat at this table should be offered a chair, even ‘those people,’ especially ‘those people.’ That assertion made some of your neighbors see you as ‘those people’ and wish that you would go away, or at least stay out of sight. We can let ‘those people’ be here as long as they don’t make us look at them.
They treated you like Canaanites, in other words.
Why did they do that?
Modern Biblical scholarship has invested a lot of energy in the question of the
Canaanites: how did they become the quintessential other? Why was their name still used as a label meaning “people we automatically dislike” a thousand years after they were all supposedly exterminated?
Perhaps because they weren’t other at all. “The consensus on the subject at the
beginning of the twenty-first century favors the view that the Israelites were basically
Canaanites who gradually developed a separate identity,” the scholar John Collins
asserts. Maybe they were a marginalized group that escaped oppression in Canaanite
city-states by retreating to the hills. Maybe they hung out in the hinterlands, nurturing their resentment against the mainstream until they felt strong enough to invade the cities, where a feckless cultural elite, vitiated by exotic tastes and queer ideas, didn’t stand a chance against their rage.
Perhaps we hate the Canaanites, automatically, because they are the aspect of ourselves that we despise, the part of our story that we’d like to erase, that we try to forget, that we yearn to undo, but we can’t.
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” the disciples say.
Jesus answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And this is
where it gets personal for me.
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus says, which doesn’t
include the likes of you. But instead of going away, the woman gets down on her knees
Have you ever begged?
I have, on my knees, day after day, night after night. I begged God to heal my family,
much as that Canaanite woman did, and I got the same answer: get away from me, dog. Actually, I didn’t get any answer at all, but when I finally quit begging, I felt like a dog.
Maybe the reason I don’t like this Jesus is that he does finally answer that woman, but
he didn’t answer me. Why not? Because my faith wasn’t great enough? Because I didn’t beg long enough? A hundred days and nights on my knees in fervent prayer, and he doesn’t answer me at all.
“It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he tells the begging woman, but he doesn’t answer me at all.
“Yea, Lord,” she says, “but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s
Whereas I don’t even get the chance to make a clever come-back — which is one of the
ways I try to protect myself, with cleverness. Why am I still trying to protect myself?
Do I still believe it’s possible to do that? The Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr says
that if I’m going to pray “thy kingdom come,” I have to be willing to follow that phrase
with “my kingdoms go,” or else I’m praying insincerely, which means I’m trying to
That’s the natural reaction to the quality that binds me most profoundly to that
begging Canaanite, which is fundamental human vulnerability.
Consider also this: one of the texts appointed for today is the climax of the Joseph
story, where the theme of other-ing that runs through the book of Genesis reaches its
culmination. That story makes it clear that the others in our lives are actually our
brothers, and that we throw our brothers into pits, or sell them into slavery, or run
them out of town, or just ignore them, in an effort to overcome or control or deny our
fundamental human vulnerability. Dad loves him more than he loves us, and that hurts
us, so let’s throw him into a pit. Then maybe we can get the love that Dad’s been giving
That’s how it feels to me: Jesus gave that Canaanite woman a coat of many colors and
called her his favored one, whereas he didn’t answer me at all.
Is that because I didn’t have enough faith? Because I didn’t keep the covenant? Well,
if that’s the case, then I’m stuck protecting myself, and I don’t see how that’s going to work, unless I carry automatic weapons.
How does any of this help me handle other-ism? Isn’t that one of the things the church
should do? I want this worldview to solve my problem, the way Jesus solves that
woman’s problem. I want to know why he didn’t solve mine, even when I begged.
What would happen if I drew a swastika on that woman’s wrist, so I had to see that
symbol every time I see that woman reaching out? Then how would I feel when Jesus
Maybe the solution to the problem is to keep it open even when it hurts.
Maybe I should look to the prophet Isaiah, not at what he’s saying so much as what
he’s doing: he’s naming a reality that doesn’t exist in the world he lives in — none of
what he says about the world is true: we’re not all gathered on the holy mountain in
joyful liberation from the ancient prejudices that make us want to throw each other
into pits: we’re arguing about how many high-capacity magazines a person should be
allowed to buy. The reality Isaiah celebrates does not exist in his day, so he’s calling it forth. That’s what this congregation has been doing for the last thirty years. That’s
what the Canaanite woman does, too. Some times it works, but that’s not the reason to
do it. We do it because it keeps our human vulnerability at the forefront of our daily
life, which is where it belongs if I’m going to dwell inside the paradigm that prays Thy
If we see other-ism as a manifestation of fundamental human vulnerability, then hatred
of Canaanites or liberals or gays becomes comprehensible, and the act of calling forth
the world we want to live in becomes even more provocative, and the fact that Jesus
responds to the Canaanite as a Pharisee might have includes him in the antivulnerability
reflex for a moment — even him! Then he remembers that other-ism is broken down only by the radical embrace of our fundamental vulnerability, and extrapolating forward from that principle might suggest that we flourish by embracing our weakness, which is the last thing any of us wants to do.
So this an other-ing text that manages to line me up with the other I’m inclined to
scorn — I’m a Pharisee? — and then it tells me that the best way to handle vulnerability — which is the motivation for other-ing — is by embracing it rather than trying to ignore it. I don’t want to hear any of that.
And that’s why I’m here.