In the past two and a half weeks my wife and I crossed eleven state borders and travelled over 5,000 miles as we journeyed around the United States. Our travels took us up the Rocky Mountains, down through the desert of Utah, and the oil fields of Texas. We hiked on snow-capped mountains in Colorado and through tent rock formations in 95 degree temps in New Mexico. Mountains, rivers, and deep ravens created natural boundaries for state and county lines.
The whole time we were crossing borders I was paying attention to the tragedy happening down on our southern border. Children being separated from their parents. Families seeking safety from violence ripped apart violently. Politicians say, “Zero tolerance” and those seeking asylum say, “We can’t go back.”
This is not a political speech. It is a sermon. This is not about being Democrat or Republican. There is plenty of blame to be had by all. It is not even about being American. It is about the kingdom of God. It is about following after a savior who puts people loyalty above party loyalty.
I won’t say it isn’t political. The moment we claim Jesus is lord, we make a political statement. If we say we follow Jesus, we follow the way of one who teaches us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and who says the way of forgiveness is the way to eternal life. If Jesus is king, then our citizenship is the kingdom of God.
Our current politics can be defined as border politics. The situation at our southern border is just one example. We separate and divide ourselves to the point that border control defines all our relationships. We have established clear boundaries between our political parties. Our economic system has created a separation between the rich and the poor. The United Methodist Church has drawn a line in the sand over sexuality and made that our boundary line that we are willing to divide the church over. Wherever you find racism, sexism, and ageism you will find a border wall. If we are honest with ourselves, Christians have built some of the biggest walls.
And yet, we follow the One who was all about breaking down walls. Jesus spoke to people that he shouldn’t have been speaking with, he touched the untouchables, he ate with the outcast, and he invited into his fellowship the unwelcomed. He spends his life violating clearly defined boundaries.
Jesus lives without regard to the established walls that separate, rules that categorize people, and borders that define national loyalty.
In his first message, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)
The pain of poverty, the horror of oppression, and the brokenness of the body and soul know no boundaries. If Jesus is savior of one, he is savior of all. If his kingdom has come, it has come for all. If the politics of Jesus is boundary breaking, then shouldn’t it be the same for his followers?
It is not so easy. In the account of Jesus meeting a woman from Canaan, we discover that before we can be about the business of boundary breaking we must confront our own prejudices. It is impossible to follow the boundary-breaking savior while building our own border walls of discrimination.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)
She is called “woman.” Gospel of Mark calls her a Syrophoenician. Gospel of Matthew claims she is a Canaanite. The point is that she is not Jewish. But what she is, is persistent. A woman with the audacity to get in the face of the Son of God and demand healing for her daughter. A no-named, no-status woman who was not afraid to walk through a group of men and ask for mercy for her daughter. A foreigner calling out the Messiah of her people’s enemies. Here we have a boundary-breaking, change-maker woman who is not afraid to tear down some borders.
In a world where the demons of sexual exploitation and slavery are destroying our children, we need bold witnesses like the Syrophoenician woman. In a world where the demons of racism are claiming some to be less than human, we need change-agents who won’t stop until justice is for all. In a world where kids are being driven to suicide because of the judgment put on their sexuality, we need ground-shakers to disrupt fear and prejudice. In a world where children are separated from their parents, we need transform-tripping adults to stand in the gap.
When I see Jesus’ response, it looks, well, not like Jesus. Her plea for help was met with a boundary of cultural prejudice. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says (Matthew 15:24). Or as John 3:16 might be translated, “For God so loved the United States, not the world; for God so loved my people, not your people.”
She continues to beg for his mercy. He gets more insensitive, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). Dogs! Did Jesus just call this woman and her daughter a dog? When was the last time you heard someone called a dog and it meant as a compliment? Here is the second person of the Trinity, God-in-the-flesh, the I AM, and he is calling someone created in His image a “dog!”
Throughout the gospels Jesus shows a boundary-breaking presence but here we have a boundary-shaping reality. I believe what Jesus is doing, he is doing on behalf of his followers. He knows he has in front of him a woman who is not afraid to shake hell and run off demons if needed. Other words, he knows what type of faith she has.
When she starting crying out for Jesus to help her daughter, he remained silent. His disciples encouraged him to tell her to keep quiet. “She keeps shouting after us” (Luke 15:23), they said. He gave her the response that his disciples wanted him to give. He replied with a cultural response that they would have been familiar with – you dog! But when she persisted and refused to back down, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table” (Luke 15:27), he responded in a way that would have dumb-founded the disciples. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Luke 15:28).
Jesus plays the cultural bias, religious prejudice part and by doing so he highlights the absurdity of exclusion.
There are many voices in our world that are silenced, lives that are oppressed, hope that is devastated, and situations that are simply demonic. As Dr. Brian Blount put it in a sermon to seminary students at Princeton, “It’s the kind of world Marvin Gaye sang about in his song entitled “Inner City Blues,” where he sang the line, “It makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands.” Like the woman in today’s passage, when our children are being robbed of their life, it ought to make us wanna holler. When man-made barriers keep people from experiencing their God-given freedom, it ought to make us wanna holler. When borders stand in the way of someone’s safety, it ought to make us wanna holler. When children are abused, it ought to want to make us wanna holler. When the poor are taken advantage of, it ought to make us wanna holler. When someone is judged based on the color of their skin, it ought to make us wanna holler. When church traditions keep someone from experiencing the grace of God, it ought to make us wanna holler. When authority figures stand in the way of reconciliation, it ought to make us wanna holler. When healing is restricted, it ought to make us wanna holler.
Dr. Brian Blount continues in his sermon, “I think this is why Mark (and Matthew) kept this story in their gospels. They wanted us to holler for transformation the way that woman hollered for the transformation of her daughter’s life situation……If that woman could stand up to Jesus, I think Jesus was telling us, we ought to be able to stand up to anybody else or anything else on this planet. ‘You want change?’ he seems to be telling the woman. ‘Then you’re gonna have to fight for it. You’re gonna have to raise your voice.’”
It is time for the church to recommit itself to hollering. It is time we show our compassion through our actions and with our words. May it be said that kids are safe, families are together, and bullies have been silenced because we hollered for justice. May it be said that country club neighborhoods are not places of loneliness because we hollered for community. May it be said that homeless shelters are empty because we hollered with our actions. May it be said that every person knows they are loved by God and the church regardless of race, sexuality, or disability because we hollered for love.
May it be that in our hollerin’ and the actions that follow, Christ hollers back and every demon is cast out and the world is more beautiful than ever before. Let’s get to hollerin’ church! Amen.