What do you do when you find yourself in a mess?
What if the mess was partly your creation?
Today’s readings from the Gospel and the Hebrew Bible present us with a bit of a mess. Maybe you came to church today looking for words of comfort, of solace. This has been quite a week. After the events in Charlottesville, and the rantings of the president, I could have used a different scripture passage. But we already read “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” this summer. Frankly, as much as I wish for something a little lighter, I think these may be the stories we need.
Today we encounter two sets of characters that find themselves in a bit of a mess. Joseph and his brothers face a difficult reunion. Now, remember, Joseph’s brothers sold the young dreamer into slavery. They brought back the coat of many colors, stained with animal blood, to their father Jacob. Joseph’s father mourns. We fast forward. Joseph has made himself useful, indispensable. He is the Pharaoh’s right hand, and a famine falls across the known world. Joseph has served the Pharaoh well. They have stockpiles, enough not only for the Egyptians, but to sell to others. Joseph’s brothers come with their hands outstretched. Little do they know, they are dealing with the one they sent to slavery. After much back and forth, today Joseph can’t contain himself. He comes out to his brothers. He tells them who he is, and they are unable to speak.
The other set of characters are Jesus and his disciples. This is perhaps the messiest story we have of Jesus. It seems clear what Jesus, and followers of Jesus should do when a woman comes asking for healing for her daughter. “Have mercy on me,” Kyrie Eleison she shouts again and again. Jesus does not answer. His disciples try to shoo her away. When she finally does get his attention Jesus calls her a dog. We can try and rationalize and explain away Jesus words, but they are there, even in Scripture. Jesus uses a racial/ethnic epithet, common among his people, who viewed themselves superior to the Canaanites. Jesus demeans this woman.
Both of these situations are messy and uncomfortable. How do you confront a sibling you pretended to own, and sold away? How do you engage when you encounter racist language?
Sometimes it can seem like the Bible is an old dusty collection of documents that have little relevance for our own day. Then sometimes, you have a week like the one we’ve just had and you encounter scripture that asks: “How do you confront a sibling you pretended to own, and sold away? How do you engage when you encounter racist language?”
Make no mistake, both of these questions are our questions. The Episcopal Church was complicit in the institution of slavery. We had special baptismal rites for enslaved people. White adults who were baptized promised to follow Jesus as their lord. Enslaved Africans, in order to be baptized, had to promise to obey their masters. We have repented, officially, as a body. But the demon is still with us. We are one of the most segregated denominations, in that people who identify as white make up roughly 90% of our membership, across the church. (Holy Communion is helping those numbers, but it’s a big church).
I learned something new about The Episcopal Church this week. There is a parish in Virginia named “Robert E. Lee Memorial Church.” Lee was an Episcopalian. So were many other confederate generals and leaders. The church generally goes by “R.E. Lee Memorial” and the vestry voted to keep that name back in 2015. Our church has deep ties to this history. As messy as it is, we will continue to be confronted by this history.
As an aside, in my opinion there is one great memorial to Robert E. Lee, very close to our nation’s capitol. The memorial was begun by Abraham Lincoln. Lee’s wife inherited from her father Arlington House, on a beautiful bluff overlooking the Potomac River and Washington DC. Arlington was his home. During the Civil War, having taken Northern Virginia, the US Government seized the property, and the Lincoln Administration began burying Civil War dead on the grounds.
Today Memorial Bridge connects Arlington Cemetery directly to the Lincoln Monument. Standing on the steps, where Marian Anderson gave a concert the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow in their hall, on those steps where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, on those steps where I once heard the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, Gene Robinson pray before Beyonce performed for President Obama’s first inauguration, on those steps you can see Robert E Lee’s house in the background, surrounded by the graves of Union soldiers. That memorial reminds us from where we have come as a nation, and of the sacrifice and struggle that has brought us this far. I don’t think Lee needs any other memorials. That Virginia vestry should vote to change for a more saintly name.
So What do you do when you find yourself in a mess? What if the mess was partly your creation?
In both of today’s Biblical stories we learn one strategy that doesn’t work: silence. Joseph’s brothers are stunned. They want to slink away without words. Joseph won’t let them. Jesus’ silence is more problematic. You know that saying: “Silence is Violence.” It applies here. Why would Jesus ignore this woman’s pleas? Why won’t he heal her daughter, the way he’s been walking all over Palestine healing and casting out demons? This Gospel is a mess. Thankfully the Canaanite woman won’t put up with his silence. She persists. Jesus finally responds. “Great is your faith!” The woman’s daughter is healed. Silence wasn’t the answer.
This story from Jesus has been one of the most difficult for scholars. They have tried to explain away Jesus’ words, said that he was simply testing the woman and his disciples (though there’s no evidence of a test in the text). Black Womanist and Latin American Feminist Theologians have pointed to another potential reading, one that I think helps us to manage the mess. Liberation theologies famously point to the “option for the poor” the “option for the marginalized.” They say if you want to understand what is happening in Scripture, look to the poor. God seems to be working, across the length of the Bible, for the liberation of the least, the lost, and the left-out. Joseph is a prime example.
Womanist and Feminist scholars take the argument further. They say, if you can see this pattern is Scripture, apply it to the newspaper as well. If you want a Christian analysis of economics or of a violent situation, if you are a politician attempting to make a difficult decision, make the “option for the poor.” Look to how the decision or situation will affect the most vulnerable. God sees the world through the eyes of the marginalized. And feminists and womanist point out, the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor, tend to be women.
This woman that Jesus encounters, could she be inviting him and his followers to re-consider? Question the stereotypes, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because her and her daughter’s life and livelihood are at stake? In this case an ethnic slur isn’t just impolite. If Jesus had walked away, silent, if he had denied the healing, the consequences would have been huge for this woman. And dare we ask: “would Jesus be Jesus if he had stayed silent?” If he hadn’t listened to this woman, this persistent woman, if Jesus had kept believing he was only sent to Israel, where would that leave this room full of Gentiles?
When you find yourself in a mess, a mess you and your kin have helped to create, what do you do? Today’s Scripture gives us a direction: look to the most vulnerable. Take heed of the weak. Ask how your decisions could harm folks who are struggling to make it day by day. Look at the world through the eyes of those who are suffering. If you don’t know what the world looks like through those eyes, you don’t know how God sees the world.
We are in a bit of a mess these days. I’m very aware that I’ve been feeling like if I could only say the right words, or re-post the right article about race, I could prove to myself and others that I am “woke.” The temptation to think we will solve this all with the right words is high. Still…
We saw this week the power of words, as our president stumbled and failed to use the words that were necessary, required. Words matter. And don’t know that I always have the best ones. But I hope to leave you with a little hope. I hope to listen more to the words of women and people of color. As much as I am able, I hope to magnify the words and perspectives we hear too little from these days. When we marginalize these perspectives, we remain stuck in the mess. We risk missing the ever persistent voice of God.