“Inside Out”

Isaiah 56:1-8;  Matthew 15:21-28
South Presbyterian Church at the Meadows – August 17, 2014
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift

 

            Figuring out where we are most comfortable is something we go through life doing in one way or another, isn’t it? 

            Take our configuration here.  Last week, our first week in this space, we took one of the traditional configurations … straight lines with a center aisle … and said, “Let’s try this.”  But I have to tell you that the feedback I received from some people was that it was a little too “traditional church” and a couple of people said, “We don’t like seeing the backs of heads. We gave that up a while ago. Let’s not go back to it.”  And so we’re trying something new here today.

            But this idea of figuring out where we are most comfortable was present in the Biblical times, too.

            In the case of today’s gospel reading, we have a woman who society said was totally OUTSIDE the mainstream culture but who was obviously very comfortable with herself. And she, as far as I can remember, is the ONLY person we know of who questioned Jesus and he changed his mind. Pretty impressive.

This woman, who remains unnamed, was a Canaanite woman.

            Canaanites were descended from Canaan whose father, Ham, was the son of Noah. Kind of a regal lineage when you first think about it. The world is destroyed and your family is saved. BUT … there’s more to the story and it directly affected how this unnamed Canaanite woman came to be so marginalized.

I said that the Canaanites were descended from Ham, and The Curse of Ham is a very negative legacy, the meaning of which has been debated for 2,000 years.

            Now, I’m not going to ask who among us have heard of the Curse of Ham because it often falls along either scholarly or racial lines that people know about it in 21st century America.

            In Genesis, the story is that Noah got drunk and something happened wherein Ham saw his father, Noah, NAKED which was a serious offense. There are a LOT of interpretations about what the original Hebrew really meant … did Ham see Noah naked?  Did Ham see his mother, Noah’s WIFE naked?  Did Ham see his father and mother having sex? Did Ham have sexual relations with his father or his mother?  It’s all very murky as to the real meaning, but the upshot is that Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed by Noah because of what Ham saw or did.

            The etymology of the name “Canaan” is uncertain. One explanation, according to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia, is that it has an original meaning of “lowlands”, from a Semitic root meaning “to be low, humble, depressed”, in contrast with Aram,  which means the “highlands.”

            Wikipedia also quotes noted Biblical scholars in saying that some modern writers view the curse of Canaan (also known as the Curse of Ham) in Genesis 9:20-27 as an early Hebrew rationalization for Israel’s conquest of Canaan. [1]  

When Noah cursed Canaan in Genesis 9:25, he used the expression “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brethren.”NKJV The expression “servant of servants”, otherwise translated “slave of slaves”,NIV emphasizes the extreme degree of servitude that Canaan would experience in relationship to his “brothers”.[2]  And later on in the Biblical narrative,  the conquest of the Canaanite territory is all justified through this Curse.[3] Biblical scholar Philip R. Davies explains that the author of this narrative used Noah to curse Canaan, in order to provide justification for the later Israelites driving out and enslaving the Canaanite people.[4]

            But this is also a passage that was used to justify SLAVERY for 2,000 years.  You see, most of the Canaanites were black. In later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some Jews, Christians and Muslims as a curse of, and an explanation for, black skin, as well as slavery.[5]  Fortunately, most Christian denominations (including ours) strongly disagree with those interpretations due to the fact that in the biblical text, Ham himself is not cursed and race or skin color is never mentioned.[6]

            We don’t know EXACTLY what was so bad or so wrong with being a Canaanite woman. Surely, being a WOMAN wasn’t a good thing in those days. But this story is SIGNIFICANT because it is the only time I can think of where someone disagrees with Jesus, ARGUES with him, and he changes his MIND. And it’s not just ANY someone … it is a Canaanite … MARGINALIZED … looked down upon … discriminated against … WOMAN!

            It’s someone who represents the “other” … the OUTSIDER … the UNWORTHY. And in fact, the Disciples even SAY … “she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.” And she HEARS them say this. She HEARS him … this JESUS guy who we all know and love … she hears HIM say, “You take care of her. I’ve got MY hands full with the lost sheep of Israel here.”  In other words … I’m dealing with the people who MATTER.  YOU take care of her.”

            Can you IMAGINE what that must have FELT like?

            You KNOW that you are part of the marginalized … you KNOW that people don’t like you and can’t STAND you … and STILL you go to this man, this healer, to BEG him to heal your child.

            There’s so much on so many levels here.

            ALL of us who are parents or grandparents … what wouldn’t we do for our CHILD? She’s BEGGING.  There’s no room for embarrassment or feeling humiliated … she is begging for her CHILD. And she has to beg from a man who she DOESN’T know … a STRANGER … and one who is part of a group of people who HATE her just because she is the race or color that she is.

 

            It doesn’t take a lot for us to drop this into a contemporary story involving  … oh, let’s say a black man in Ferguson, Missouri.

            Or a homeless Muslim woman wearing a burka approaching a fundamentalist Christian who is railing against her people on a sidewalk crossing in a modern city today.

 

            But this Canaanite woman persists.

            She does not give up.

            And when Jesus says, “It’s not right to take bread out of the children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs,”  which … let me just point out was REALLY saying, “It’s not right for me to waste my time on YOU when the lost people of Israel need my time and attention” … NOT one of Jesus’ finest hours as far as I’M concerned … but I digress … he says that and SHE comes back with:  “You’re right, Master, but even the beggar dogs get the scraps from the Master’s table.”  She didn’t argue about his impressions of her … she didn’t take on his upset … she just made the point that EVERYBODY is worthy.

            And what did this Son of God do?

            He went against the teachings of his time.

            He not only ENGAGED this WOMAN … he listened to her and he CHANGED HIS MIND.

            What an amazing thing when you think about it.

            He changed his mind and he HEALED her child.

 

            See, if we believe in Jesus and his teachings, we have to realize that they are NOT just for those who say the right words or do the right things.

            His love and his healing … his very PRESENCE and ATTENTION … are NOT just for those who say, “Lord, Lord, I believe.”  They’re NOT just for those who read Scripture and STUDY … for those who pass through some New Member class or for those who drop money in the collection plate.

            EVERYONE is part of the “in crowd” when it comes to God’s love: believers and non-believers alike.

            There IS no “inside” and “outside” … we’re all ONE … Inside Out … Outside In … it’s all ONE for those who really practice the teachings of Jesus.

            And I LOVE this passage because he is not ABOVE being ENGAGED by just any old person. This woman wasn’t a priest or a member of the Sanhedrin … she was just like you and ME. And he listened to her and it shaped HIM as much as it affected her and her child.

            That’s what it is to be in relationship … with ANYONE.

            There’s give and take … there’s conversation …  there’s sharing …

That’s what it is to be in relationship with GOD … There’s give and take … there’s conversation … and there are no prerequisites.

 

            I don’t want to share too many stories from the Evangelism and Church Growth Conference with you because I want to wait until all of us have returned and we can share some of our experiences together. But I will tell you this one.

            On the afternoon of the last day when some people had already left, Barb was sitting and talking with a woman minister from Pittsburgh who had taken our workshop. And they were really engaging over whether that woman’s church should be encouraging people who come to their NON-churchy programs to come to their CHURCHY programs like Bible Study.  In OUR case it would be like encouraging members of Mt. Hope World Singers to come to Bagels and the Bible. In THEIR case, I think they had a Snow Cone Party for the neighbors and the minister wanted to mail everybody who came to that a schedule of services and Bible Studies, I think.

            Well, as you can imagine, Barb was not in favor of that. “It’s like the Red Cross,” I heard her say, “If I give them money, I don’t want them sending me lots of information because that means they want MORE money. Maybe I just want to give once. That should be good enough.”

            So the minister says, “But I want them to know about God.”

            Barb:  They DO know about God. They learned about God through the Snow Cones.

            Minister:  But you know Scripture. I’ve heard you. You refer to it. It’s part of your relationship with God.

            And then Barb said: Do you think that people have to know the Bible before they can have a relationship with God?

 

            And the gal knew she had to be careful about how she answered that. And then she said, “No.”

            To which Barb said, “I had a relationship with God LONG before I read the Bible.”

            And slowly the REAL issue started to emerge … this woman had left a successful teaching career in order to become a Minister of Word and Sacrament and I don’t think she’s figured out yet what her ROLE is with this new understanding of church.

            In some ways she was like the Disciples … or maybe even like Jesus in the beginning of this story. She was coming from a place of the traditional idea of church membership, ATTRACTING new people to the church and working out of a model that said it was her JOB to teach ABOUT Jesus … but along came this other input (in this case Barb and the conference workshops) pointing out that the people had already EXPERIENCED Jesus and the Beloved Community with the Snow Cones.

            This is a very tricky time for us in the church … it’s  looking at God and what it means to be “church” in a whole different way. It doesn’t mean only doing things INSIDE the structure of the faith community, but it means BLENDING the inside and the outside because it’s ALL God’s world.

            And imagine how hard it is to be a church LEADER right now with all of this changing. I can relate to Jesus who thought he was there to do one job and share one message that day and it all got upended by this Canaanite woman.

            These are hard things, these relationships, aren’t they? And some churches make it sound so EASY to be a Christian these days. Not in MY book … because each one of us here continues to be challenged to EXPERIENCE and ENGAGE God … or Jesus … or Spirit … and not just THINK about them.

It’s all about RELATIONSHIP. And when we are in relationship with God or Jesus or Spirit, we get rid of the structures and practices that keep some people out and some people in. We get turned inside out. And that can be a little scary for us at first … but eventually, after a little bit of time … to do it any other way would be unthinkable.

            Jesus formed a relationship with a Canaanite woman and HEALED her child.

            That tells ME that there ARE NO barriers to God’s love.

            NOBODY is outside any more.

And it’s OUR job to make that true today.

Thanks be to God, and Blessed Be.

[1]  Donald E. Gowan, Genesis 1-11: Eden to Babel, Wm. B. Eerdmans, ISBN 0-8028-0337-7, p.110-15

[2]  Ellens, J. Harold, & Rollins, Wayne G., eds. (2004). Psychology and the Bible: A New Way to Read the Scriptures. v.1–4. Westport: Praeger Publishers. ISBN 9780275983475 p.54

[3]  Stephen R. Haynes. Noah’s curse: the biblical justification of American slavery, 2002, (ISBN 0195142799, ISBN 978-0-19-514279-2), p. 184

[4] Philip R. Davies; John Rogerson (2005). The Old Testament World second edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 121–122. ISBN 0-664-23025-3.

[5]   Dictionary.com: black 3.a “a member of any of various dark-skinned peoples”21.a“specifically the dark-skinned peoples of Africa, Oceania, or Australia.”

[6]  “Global Census”. American Anthropological Association. Retrieved 10 December 2012.

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