a sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15A/Lectionary 20]
Matthew 15:10-28 and Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
In this morning’s lesson to the crowds who are following him, Jesus talks about the sewage system and things that are unclean. Sounding a little bit like Captain Obvious teaching an elementary anatomy lesson, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” And so here I am at the sewage treatment facility of our city to see it (although I don’t want to get any closer than this front entrance). If I understand it correctly, and not to be too indelicate about it, all the stuff people put into their mouths in the city of Richmond eventually (ahem) ends up here. In fact, 75 million gallons of sewage and stormwater runoff is processed here each day.
I was curious about where this facility was located. They tend to be tucked out of the way, because, let’s be obvious, no one really wants these places in their backyard. I had to Google this place to find it, and I was somewhat surprised to discover that I’ve passed it dozens of times. Not too far away from the James River on the south side of downtown Richmond, the wastewater treatment facility is tucked down a road that has little else on it.
Yet every day, 75 million gallons of sewage and runoff water from Richmond goes through this plant, gets cleaned, and go right into the James River…fresh, I presume, as a daisy.
We live in an age of cleanliness, especially now. We live in the age of Purell and Clorox wipes, of operating room grade air filters in airplanes and hand sanitizer dispensers by every doorway. I haven’t ordered too many restaurant meals since the pandemic began, but in each establishment I’ve been in, there are now two little jars by the cash register: one labelled “clean pens” and the other labeled “used pens.” And when you sign your receipt, you pick up a clean pen out of the clean pen jar, use it, and then deposit it in the “used pens” jar. We know what “used” means. Just by touching that pen for ten seconds, you have rendered it unclean. And someone, presumably the serving staff, is ritually cleaning ballpoint pens now as part of their job and returning them to the clean pen jar.
It’s kind of ironic that Jesus says at one point this morning “that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person.” Anthony Fauci would argue with that, I believe.
The point, of course, Jesus is trying to make is not really about public health. It is about the sources of the things that truly make us unclean, that make us foul and it’s not a pen. And it’s not our hands. It’s not even living near wastewater treatment plants.
Much like us during a pandemic, Jesus lived in a world where many people had become obsessed with this topic of being ritually clean or undefiled. For a large number of religiously-minded people, the world was sorted into jars of pens. There were certain things you could touch or certain activities you could do that you could do that could get you placed in the unclean jar. Many of these laws had some basis in the ancient Hebrews’ purity codes, some of which are found in our Old Testament. But some had been expanded on by religious authorities to such a degree that having a relationship with God seemed to come down to how pure you could keep yourself.
It was really about power. If you had the ability to avoid certain situations like particular sicknesses or body functions or keep yourself out of certain neighborhoods or professions, then you had an easier life. If you had the ability to declare who was clean and who was defiled then you had the ability to declare who was in and who was out. You had the authority to determine whose life or whose living situation was worth what. Some people, just based on things they could not control about their life, were considered to be permanently in the unclean jar. The Pharisees were law-enforcers, they had power, and in many cases when we encounter them in Scripture, they are overly concerned that Jesus and his followers abide by the clean and dirty jars.
Jesus basically tells his disciples not to worry about them in this regard. He seems to know already that trying to keep the whole world divided into neat jars of clean and dirty is going to be a pointless task leading nowhere. Jesus wants his followers to be aware of the things that originate from within us, the things that everyone, regardless of where they stand socially or racially or economically, is subject to. He names several of them, and they’re more or less based on the ten commandments—evil intentions, murder, lies, insults, misuse of sexual relationships and marriage. These things are inside of us and come out to defile ourselves and the world around us. They harm our relationships, they harm our communities, they harm the truth, they harm our faith. His point? Stop being obsessed about what might make you immoral if you touch it. Stop worrying about who might make you unclean if you hang out with them. Being sick or disabled doesn’t make you less-than. You know what—altogether stop dividing places and conditions and jobs and especially people into clean and dirty jars. How about that?
And then as if to show how serious this particular topic is, Jesus immediately ventures into Tyre and Sidon, a region outside of Jewish boundaries, a region filled with supposedly unclean people. It’s like he goes straight toward the neighborhood with the wastewater treatment plant. And the first person he encounters is a Canaanite woman. Racially she is an outsider to Jesus’ people. From a gender standpoint, she has much less power than a male and the fact that she confronts Jesus in public would have immediately drawn negative attention. Here is a person who is beyond the boundaries of clean who furthermore doesn’t seem to obey those boundaries.
She is in need. Her daughter is possessed by an evil spirit. Can you imagine? Can you imagine how desperate she must feel? Some dark force, some unnamed, hard to describe ailment is tormenting her child. All she must want is for that child to be well. And so she comes up to Jesus, who has ventured outside his familiar territory, and she sees her chance. She knows he could imagine, if he is of God. She comes up to Jesus, who clearly embodies more power than she does, and she asks for him to help.
And Jesus ignores her. His disciples ask if they can shoo her away. Eventually, after three attempts and even after being somewhat insulted by Jesus, after being told she is not of the right ethnic group, she reaches through to him. The crumbs of mercy are all she is after. She doesn’t want a full place at the table. She doesn’t want to barge in on the party. All she wants is some tiny word of mercy carelessly dropped from the feast. It will be enough.
It takes some monumental faith and persistence on her part, but Jesus eventually learns and then shows that Canaanite lives matter. After giving a lesson about systems of ritual cleanliness that have kept out certain people, Jesus demonstrates that Canaanite lives matter. Those who have been excluded from the tables of justice, those who have been systematically ignored and oppressed by rules and laws are people who matter to God. It’s not that all other Jewish lives don’t matter, or that this woman’s life is overall more special than others in Tyre and Sidon, but that those who have been disadvantaged need to hear in no uncertain terms that God’s mercy is for them, because they haven’t been hearing it or perceiving it from culture and religion. He says to her, “Woman, great is your faith!” He doesn’t mean other people don’t have great faith. But she does. And it’s worth saying it.
Why does Jesus take so long to come around to heeding this woman’s request? There have been books written about that. Perhaps Jesus was just off that day. Or perhaps Jesus himself was still learning what God was doing through him in a bold new way. Or perhaps Jesus was caught off guard by just how quickly the Spirit would take him into new territory and just how many boundaries would fall in his Father’s kingdom.
Whatever the case, Jesus is pointing us into our Tyre and Sidon now. Jesus is bringing to our feet and our doors and our streets people who have been judged and disadvantaged and left out of opportunities of prosperity solely because of their race or ethnicity. Can we bring ourselves to say and do things that say their lives matter?
Black Lives Matter is a social justice movement, for sure, with political goals and aspirations. As a phrase it can be confusing and divisive. People can decide on their own whether or not its official stances line up with their own. We do that kind of thing with political party platforms all the time. I’ve been doing my own struggling with it. Aside from being a social justice movement, it is a sentiment that communicates blessing and mercy and love to people who need to hear that, who deserve to. And Black Lives Matter communicates a truth that the speaker of it needs to hear, too.
We are people of a table, where all lives do truly matter. But when we come here to receive whatever crumbs are offered, we hear Jesus look at us and say “My body is given for you.” He doesn’t say, “This is my body, given for all lives.” Could you imagine if the pastor or person distributing communion said that to us as we came to the altar? She looks at you, hands you bread and in all seriousness says, “The body of Christ, shed for all lives.” No. The pastor breaks the bread and passes the cup and says, “This is my body given for YOU.” Because each of us needs to hear that. You and I need to know that on the cross Jesus has taken all the evil intentions, lies, insults, impurities of our hearts and sent them through his treatment plant of grace where we are made clean.
As we leave the table, then, people of faith can look at the Canaanite lives in our midst and say, “Yes, your lives matter. Your downtrodden lives matter. They are not unclean. They do not belong in the dirty jar. Ever.”
Samuel Wells, who serves as vicar of St. Martins in the Fields Church in London, tells the story of a time in his first congregation. When an 11-year-old boy began attending his church at the suggestion of his middle school teacher. The boy was clearly from rough circumstances, didn’t mix well with anyone and had some behavior issues that the congregation members struggled with. They took up money so the boy could attend a weekend prayer retreat and pretty soon Vicar Wells was hearing complaints about how rude he was, how greedy he was with food, how he bullied other kids. They had a meeting to decide what to do with him and, after a long discussion, decided they needed to be patient, as factors in his home life were working against him. He eventually found his feet and became more integrated with their community.
Nine months later at a special service he was baptized. No one in his family came to support him. It was just the members of the small congregation. They had a custom at baptisms where members were invited to go around and share what it was they most valuved about the church. One said friendship. Someone else said acceptance. Wells reports that when it came time for the boy to speak, “his narrow, fixed frown broke, for once, into a smile, and he replied, ‘You didn’t throw me out after that weekend.’”
Thanks be to God who makes a house of prayer for all peoples, who gathers people to him besides those already gathered, who receives the Canaanite, the ruffian, the one from the neighborhood no one wants to live in. Thanks be to God who doesn’t just say, blandly, that all lives matter, but who shows, on the cross, that each individual life matters, and shows it in a way that is personal, honest, and pointed directly at the people who are one the margins.
Thanks be to God for not throwing anyone out.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.