Fifty-four years ago, at the heights of the civil rights movement – the spring of 1963 – eight Birmingham clergymen (one of whom was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham) wrote an open letter which was published in the Birmingham News on April 12th. Even though the letter didn’t mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. or the Southern Leadership Conference by name, there wasn’t any doubt concerning who this group of religious leaders had in mind when the letter was written:
“We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.”
A friend smuggled a copy of that newspaper into the Birmingham jail where Martin Luther King Jr. sat after being brusquely arrested a day earlier for leading a non-violent demonstration against racism and segregation.
Dr. King responded with his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” setting the tone of the letter by saying, “…since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”
What followed was one of the most formidable defenses of the intentions, strategies and goals of the Birmingham Campaign and the Civil Rights Movement.
When he was finally released from jail, on April 20th, Dr. King went right back to work, helping to organize the renowned “Children’s Crusade,” in which more than 1,000 children skipped school to march in the Birmingham city streets, peacefully advocating for integration and racial equality. Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered fire hoses and police dogs to be turned on the young protesters.
Martin Luther King’s dynamic persistence, along with the disturbing images of repeated police brutality being broadcast on the national news, eventually helped to turn the tide of white Christian support for the civil rights movement. People of faith began to see the plight of African Americans with new eyes and a new heart; and to hear the Christian gospel with new ears.[i]
One of the central debates in early Christianity was over the inclusion of Gentiles – non-Jews – into the covenant of the people of God. For generations the Hebrew people believed they had a special covenantal relationship with God; one that wasn’t shared with any other people in world. It was inclusionary primarily in the sense that it called God’s people out for service to the rest of the world.
What’s remarkable about today’s gospel reading is that Matthew presents Jesus as the one who is the long-awaited Messiah, to be sure, but also a man who was the product of his culture and religious upbringing.
Jesus was raised to be a devout Jew; and, according to Matthew’s perspective, Jesus saw his mission essentially as a reform movement to Judaism. Which is why Matthew begins his Gospel by reciting the long lineage of Jesus (from King David and the Hebrew patriarchs) with the intention of proving that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to God’s chosen people, Israel; and then ends his Gospel narrative with the great commission in which Jesus command his disciples to now, “Go, make disciples of all the world.”
Matthew’s gospel world was one defined by insiders and outsiders; the haves and the have-nots; the privileged vs. the marginalized, us vs. them – them, generally speaking, being the enemy. So when Jesus and his disciples leave Galilee (which was then and is still northern Israel), to travel to the region of Tyre and Sidon (in what is now southern Lebanon), they were basically in enemy territory.
So it’s understandable that when he’s accosted by the Canaanite women, the disciples felt aggravated, agitated, perhaps even a bit threatened by the intrusion.
At first Jesus seems to simply ignore her. Or, it occurred to me that, maybe he was even experiencing a bit of “compassion fatigue;” just being drained by the overwhelming demands of human need everywhere he went.
And yet the woman persists, “Have mercy on me, Lord! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Still, Jesus doesn’t seem to hear her.
Like a dog begging for food scraps under the table; perhaps if you ignore her, eventually she will stop.
Yet, the woman keeps following and shouting after them, “Lord, help me!”
Jesus still doesn’t respond. It is now becoming an embarrassment.
Finally, the disciples sort of snap Jesus out of whatever trance he seems to be in: “Say something, Lord. Send her away!”
In the same moment she pushes her way to the fore and throws herself onto the ground at Jesus’ feet. And cries out at him, “Lord, please, help me!”
And Jesus, basically, calls her a dog. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to take food meant for the children of God and throw it to the dogs.”
It wasn’t necessarily unusual term for a Jew to so label a Gentile.
Nonetheless, it is a cruel designation.
And for those of us who view Jesus as being the very Heart of Compassion and Progenitor of our Faith; it seems disturbingly out of character.
But there it is in black and white. There’s really not getting around it.
Contemporary bible commentators point out that this is a story about the Canaanite woman’s faith; and leave it at that. But, as Cynthia Campbell says, “it is at least as much about the woman’s persistence, her stamina, and her wit.”[ii]
Unlike any other gospel story, “this petitioner turns Jesus’ words inside out. She turns his own metaphor back on him. She turns an insult into an opportunity. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.””
And there the debate ends. She is not a dog. She is a human being. And, as such deserves equal consideration, compassion, equal justice.
And, I believe, in that moment, something fundamental changed in the way Jesus understood himself, his mission and perhaps even God’s purpose for his life.
Now some literalists suggest that this notion is tantamount to apostasy— because God is God and Jesus is God: all-knowing, unchangeable; One-and-the-Same yesterday, today and forever.
But I believe that this pivotal self-revelation of Jesus – instigated as it was by a complete outsider – makes him more human and more accessible. More real. It gives us anecdotal evidence of his sense of compassion for humanity, which both deepened and expanded as he ministered to others.
I would also argue that there are numerous accounts in the Old Testament whereby God’s mind was changed by the entreaty of urgent human need.
In response to the endemic violence toward African Americans in our nation, on August 28th, 1963 Dr. King delivered his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Fifty-four years later, just a few days ago, the Lincoln Memorial was defaced with graffiti expressing the language of hate.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” proclaimed Dr. King, “but it bends toward justice.”
And today many of us are asking, along with the psalmist and that old spiritual, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
“When the clouds hang heavy and it looks like rain – How long, O Lord how long?
Well, the sun’s drawing water from every vein – How long, O Lord how long?”
These are surely the dog days of summer.
The hatred and violence that we believed – we prayed – we had begun to overcome some fifty years ago has reared its monstrous head once more with a vengeance. And the vehemence with which it has done so can be overwhelming; leaving us feeling hopeless and powerless. Stumbling forward in a mute trance.
Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in neighboring Richmond, Virginia wrote, “As we collectively peer, yet again, into the abyss that is hatred for those who are different, I confess that I am cast into a weary and almost reluctant silence. I know that my words are insufficient to express the pain of those who are similarly wearied. They are certainly insufficient to express the horror we all feel for those who have lost their lives diving into the abyss with the hope of conquering, or at the very least, containing it.
After all the speeches that I and others more eloquent than I have written and spoken, the darkness yet churns. Perhaps even more furiously form all the effort wielded against it. The words I have left are pale imitations of the prophet Habakkuk: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you `Violence!’ and you will not save?’
“It is the violence that has brought us here. The violence of hating others because they are different. The violence that comes from idolizing symbols in divisive and dangerous ways. The violence that comes from using those symbols as a pretense to foment hatred and sow discontent as if both were protected ideals of our body politic.”
Blount goes on to say, “We can hope that Heather’s mother, Susan Bro, was right when she said at Heather’s memorial service, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what. You just magnified her.
We can hope that the continuing spirit to resist the type of evil that marched in Charlottesville last weekend indeed magnified each of us as we talk together, pray together, and seek together the vision that Martin Luther King, Jr. so often called the beloved community.
We must raise our voices even when we think we have little to say. We must move our political representatives even when they seem reluctant to move. We must stand when it comes our turn to stand.
“At present, it is our turn to stand with the people of Charlottesville. They have been hard pressed by the evil of bigotry and racism that forced itself upon their community. Such evil is neither lethargic nor stationary. It will no doubt wander its way energetically into more cities and more lives within the near future. When it does, we must do all we can in the face of it to represent the light of God’s love as that love was expressed in the ministry and resurrection of a man who went out of his way to touch, heal, teach, revive and resurrect people from every gender, ethnic, racial, diseased, differently-abled and differently-positioned station in life.
“Directly, through the movement of God’s Presence that surely is at work, and responsively, through the words and actions of God’s people, I trust that the light of that love is even now, despite how it looks, coming into the world. Bathed in that light I feel a spiritual energy that transforms my weariness into a new and even more fervent resolve.
“It is such a transfiguration of weariness into work that King spoke of when, in 1955, he addressed a congregation preparing themselves for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when a people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.”
“Seems to me like, in Charlottesville and across our country, that time is just about now.”[iii]
*Grateful acknowledgement to Rev. John W. Vest and Rev. Dr. Cynthia M. Campbell for inspiration, direction and historical context in developing this sermon.
[i] Vest, John W., from his sermon “Outsiders,” August 17, 2014
[ii] Campbell, Cynthia M., from her sermon “Crumbs,” August 18, 2002
[iii] Blount, Brian K., Violence Has Brought Us Here, “My Union,” August 19, 2017