“Signs of the Times—Part 2: No importa de donde eres…”
Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Matthew 15:21-28
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
May 18, 2017
The top third of the sign has a green background, with Spanish words: “No importa de donde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.” The middle is blue, with the English translation: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” The bottom third is orange with Arabic letters—but I don’t know how to read it to you.
The sign is in Fran’s and my front yard, given to us by a colleague from a UCC church in Wellesley. It was easy to put it on our lawn.
It takes more effort to join Mary Memmott and friends from Stand up for Racial Justice holding signs every Saturday afternoon at the intersection of 126 and 135 in downtown Framingham. The words are similar: some form of “Everyone is welcome in Framingham,” in Portuguese, Spanish and English. Many people honk and wave, Mary reports; occasionally someone stops to argue.
The lawn placard and the hand-held posters are signs of the times—or perhaps signs necessitated by the times. As we await a federal appeals court ruling on the executive order banning travelers from six Muslim majority nations, as we try to support our Brazilian and Latina neighbors in Framingham, the signs send a much-needed message: you are not alone.
They are signs that reflect our times; they are also signs that reflect a central principle of our Christian faith. No matter where we are from, no matter the color of our skin or the shape of our families or the ways we worship, we are all beloved children of God. We are siblings, interconnected and called to care for one another.
We find this principle in our sacred scripture—in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan, in our Hebrew Bible passage’s exhortation to care for the stranger in our midst. And then we read this troubling story from Matthew’s gospel. Here is our savior, our teacher, our role model. He is approached by a Gentile woman, a Canaanite. She asks him for help—not for herself but for her little girl. In response, Jesus calls her a dog.
It gets worse. The woman is so determined to find healing for her daughter that she doesn’t walk away from the insult. Instead, she seems to accept the denigrating slur and begs him for crumbs. Her persistence apparently changes Jesus’ mind; he applauds her faith and heals her daughter.
What an awful story! Why would Jesus treat this woman so badly? In our Wednesday and Thursday Bible Study classes, we struggled to make sense of this passage that seems to go against the heart of Jesus’ own teachings.
Our study led us back to the Hebrew Bible—to the Torah and prophetic writings Jesus would have studied as a devout Jew. In the Exodus, and later during the Exile, there was an understanding that the Hebrew people had been set apart by God to be a light to the nations, a light that would ultimately guide people from all over the world to the beauty of God’s law and God’s love. Jesus may well have begun his ministry believing he was called to awaken his own people to the coming of the kin-dom of God so that they, in turn, could share the news with the rest of the world.
Almost from the beginning of his ministry, though, Jesus found himself making exceptions. A centurion asks for healing for his slave—and Jesus agrees. He casts demons out of a man in Gadarene, a Gentile village. The healing power of God’s love simply could not be constrained. The breaking in of God’s kin-dom broke through even Jesus’ expectations. This disturbing scripture passage, perhaps, reflects the moment when Jesus’ original conception of his calling was broken open for good.
As we wrestled with this passage, my perception of this story changed—from a text I’d like to pretend isn’t there to one that can help us in our own efforts to fight racism and prejudice.
Prejudice has deep roots—in the human brain, in the evolution and history of our species. Our brains make sense of the world by putting things into categories. We see an object and compare it to other objects we have seen before—and so we recognize a chair as something to sit upon. We even put the chairs into categories—soft, practical, uncomfortable. Without our capacity to make judgments based on past experience, we would waste a lot of time testing every chair every time we wanted to sit down.
The stakes are higher when it is people we are putting into categories. We make assumptions about people based on the clothes they wear, the way they talk, the expression on their faces, the bumper stickers on their cars, the color of their skin, whether their hair is gray. Our brains put the people we encounter into categories—trying to figure out whether someone is likely to hurt or help us.
The stakes are high because we do need to know whom we can trust and whom we should avoid. And the stakes are high because humans are complex beings who defy categorization. Every time we make an assumption about another person, we miss out on the fullness of who they are. At best, we limit the potential for meaningful relationship; at worse we dehumanize on another.
The brain’s need to create categories becomes dangerous when it is layered on top of what seems to be a deep-rooted human instinct—to assume that the people who look like us are the ones who can keep us safe and that those who seem different are potential enemies. Layered on top of that is our human desire for power, our propensity for abusing power, and our long and troubling history of some groups consistently having power over others.
The result is the tragic and horrifying legacy of racism in our nation—a system of prejudice and power that takes on a life of its own. The result is our Muslim neighbors wondering whether they will ever belong in the nation that is their home. The result is our friends from the churches that worship on our campus worrying that their families may be torn apart. The result is the absurd reality that we need to post signs to let our neighbors know we care.
“No importa de donde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino… No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” Putting out a yard sign is a nice gesture—maybe a necessary one in this current climate of fear and distrust. To overcome the scourge of racism and prejudice, we need to do so much more. It is a lifelong journey to live into the meaning of our lawn sign.
Our human brains do make sense of the world by putting things—and people—into categories. We cannot escape that reality. We can, however, become aware of the ways our categories continually fall short. We can remind ourselves, over and over, that every person we meet is more complex than our minds can comprehend. We can question the assumptions we make about the people we encounter—and take the time to listen to the stories of their lives.
Our vigilance needs to begin with ourselves—as we uncover layer upon layer of our own assumptions. Our vigilance needs to expand beyond ourselves—as we notice the assumptions made in media, as we become aware of the economic and cultural impact of hundreds of years of racism. Our expanded awareness calls us to action—to struggle our way through a multi-lingual conversation, to advocate for criminal justice reform, to stand on the street corner holding signs.
It may well be true that prejudice is a deep-rooted human instinct. It is certainly true that the desire for power—along with the potential to abuse power—is a deep-rooted human instinct. Our faith calls us to refuse to be controlled by those very real instincts. Instead, we choose to be guided by something greater, by our conviction that we are all God’s beloved, sacred and deserving of respect. And so we put out lawn signs—as an expression of respect for our neighbors, and even more as a reminder to ourselves to keep making that choice, to keep challenging our own assumptions, to keep working for justice. We need lots of signs, for the journey of dismantling racism and prejudice is a long and circuitous one, with confusing directions along the way.
That is why I am ultimately grateful for this perplexing gospel reading. It reminds me that Jesus is not standing, aloof, at some impossibly perfect destination, judging us for making so many wrong turns. Instead, Jesus is on the journey with us. Jesus knows first-hand how our minds work. He understands the inclination to surround ourselves with people we perceive to be like us, for he too fell into the trap of pushing away someone he saw as different.
Jesus is on the journey with us, offering a model for how our hearts and minds can change. Even though he initially ignored the Canaanite woman, he ultimately chose to engage in conversation with her. Through the conversation, he awakened to her humanity—to their shared humanity. Like Jesus, we are changed when we dare to engage—in a conversation, in a relationship that breaks down barriers and breaks apart categories.
Jesus is on the journey with us, urging us to risk a conversation with a stranger, offering grace and guidance when we are lost, encouraging us to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep acting. Let us walk this journey, together with Jesus. Amen.