Sunday, August 20, 2017

Clapping Back at Jesus

Trinity Cathedral
Year A Proper 15

But the [Samaritan] people [of the town] refused to welcome [Jesus], because He was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do You want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them and they went on to another village.… (Luke 9:54-55)[1]

I’ll come back to that in a moment.

One of my favorite pieces of contemporary slang is “clapback.” According to Urban Dictionary, a clapback is basically a comeback or a retort, most likely pumped with attitude and sass. The term goes back to at least Ja Rule’s rap titled “Clapback” in 2001. It’s the rhetorical backhand that is the response you give when you are insulted. The term is mostly used in social media settings to describe when folks start trading insults and feuds come and go fast and furious.

Of course, there are many ways you’d use a clapback- particularly effective is pointing out the hypocrisies of whoever just insulted you. Or when you can point out people abandoning their ideals for the sake of expediency. That gets pretty easy when so much of one’s life and thoughts are online.

So, the concept of a clapback is not a new concept at all; just a new word for what happens when you have a beef with someone and you go about conversation.

The term has been echoing through my head as I’ve been reading our gospel passage over the course of the week.  The gospel passage has not one but three examples.  First, Jesus claps back at the Pharisees and instructs his followers on the spiritual meaning of a matter of the law.  Second, Jesus claps back at his disciples who just aren’t getting it. But then, a Canaanite woman claps back at Jesus, and this is important—she wins. She gets what she wants.

Consider the scene:  Jesus is walking along with the disciples, and then there is a woman who is misbehaving in a couple of different ways.  First, she’s a Canaanite; Canaanites and the Jewish people did not get along.  In fact, they had beef going back at least to the time of Moses and Joshua, when the Hebrews forcibly conquered Canaanite land after the Exodus and the wandering.  Second she’s a woman addressing a group of men; that’s pretty transgressive.  Third, she’s yelling at them from a distance, which is just rude.  It’s not uncommon to ignore those who are breaking so many social mores at once.

Jesus doesn’t even address the woman until the disciples are annoyed enough to ask him to do something about it.  When he does, first he says, essentially, “I have nothing for you.  I’m here for those of my religion, of my nation.”

But she doesn’t go away.  She doesn’t shrink back.  She comes right up to Jesus and kneels at his feet.  Close enough to touch.  She wasn’t invited.  She wasn’t bid to do this when she asks him again for deliverance for her daughter. 

Jesus then makes a more pointed stated. Just a minute ago, he simply said who he was here to serve.  Now he’s going to tell her who he will exclude.  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I need y’all to hear me, and more importantly to hear Jesus.  Jesus just called the woman kneeling at his feet and begging on behalf of her daughter a dog.  We have a derogatory term in our language for female dogs.  We need to recognize that Jesus called this distraught mother kneeling at his feet our word for a female dog.  Let that image sink in. 

Then comes the clapback. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

She says, “Fine, I’m a dog, but sometimes people treat dogs nicely.”

I’m not sure what was in the woman’s mind at this moment.  Was it shame at being brought further down?  Was it a willingness to shame Jesus into action?  was it sass or desperation?  Was it both?

I don’t know.  But it was enough to change Jesus’s response. He is impressed with her faithfulness and heals her daughter.  All while the disciples are standing there.  I wonder what was going through their minds.

Now there are two paths to interpreting this story at this point.  The first is to ask whether Jesus changed his mind; or repented of his own hard-heartedness.  The text is silent on Jesus’s internal monologue; and that’s frustrating.  We are so used to thinking that Jesus is sinless that the idea that Jesus would individually express the systemic sin all around him in the culture he inhabited leaves our theological constructs with a problem.  By that I mean that our understanding of Christ being a sinless perfect sacrifice on the cross could be endangered by admitting that Jesus had to repent of something evil.  But, frankly, making Jesus’s sinlessness obvious was not a concern for Matthew while he was writing, so we have this story that does nothing to make our theology neat and tidy. 

Thanks, Matthew. 

In any case, this interpretation means that Jesus learned not to be racist, and this is the turning point of the Gospel at which Jesus knows that the Gospel is for everyone and must be available to everyone, regardless of any human-made divisions.  Jesus’s mission will bring into reality the dream of Isaiah’s prophecy we also read today: that God’s house will be a house of prayer for all, and all are welcome to gather.

The second, more traditional understanding seeks to preserve Jesus’s sinlessness, and it does so by suggesting the episode was a test—that Jesus was going to heal the daughter all along, but he had a point to prove. It comes to the same conclusion:  that the Gospel is for everyone and must be available to everyone, regardless of any human-made divisions. 

But the traditional interpretation immediately raises the question: Who needed to be tested? Usually, people say the faith of the woman needed to be tested.  But frankly, she seemed to have the faith bit locked down.  She’s the one bugging him relentlessly.  Why further test someone who is so obstinately seeking Jesus out because she is already convinced that Jesus can help her.

So I am going to go ahead and for the sake of argument assume the traditional stance.  Jesus is sinless, and in this case, he is testing someone--but he already knows he’s going to help the woman.  The woman seems faithful already.  I think that means we have to look at the disciples.

There is a popular image of the disciples as good-natured bumblers.  Salt-of-the-earth fishermen.  Fine people; if a little slow on the uptake as to what Jesus was laying down for them. 

But there’s a pesky story that has never been far from my mind since I read it years ago.  Namely, that among the disciples there were at least two who had no issue with the ideas of destroying all of the men, women, and children of a village, all because the villagers had heard about Jesus and didn’t want any trouble.  In other words, the disciples had among their ranks a few who openly advocated for the genocide of a village of a different ethnic group because of a perceived offense.

That’s pretty far from a definition of ‘good, fine people.’  The disciples, given a little bit of power, were ready to go into ethnic cleansing.

The culture they lived in upheld these ethnic divisions. We see those divisions when the disciples want to destroy a village; we see it when they wish this foreign woman at Jesus’s feet would just shut up.

So, if Jesus knew what was going on and what he would do for the woman that might mean he wanted to teach the disciples something in this interaction.

I suggest that he wanted them to witness the moment when his message went from being one to Israel only and became something for everyone.  And I think it was important that the disciples saw that change as a result of an impetuous woman’s clapback.

So, here is a powerful man; the messiah; getting told off by a foreign woman—in front of his followers no less—and Jesus does not try to save face by reasserting his ‘no.’ He acknowledges the justice and compassion of the woman’s cause, and relents.

That is amazing. Typically, when you’re surrounded by your friends and someone comes at you, you don’t back down.  Not in front of your people.

But Jesus did.  And in the process, Jesus showed by example that the gifts of God’s gracious reign are for everyone.

Now, we stand outside of the text; but by being in the stream of the Christian tradition, we may as well be standing around Jesus and the woman, too.

We’ve just listened to Jesus respond in a racist way to a woman, and then change his tune.  Our Lord and Savior got called out for his racism, he accepted that he responded to the woman according to a racist social structure, and he rewarded her faith with divine healing.  In so doing, he showed the disciples what it means to repent of the evil that surrounds them and us.

You can probably guess where this sermon is going next.  We’ve reached a point in our national life where the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists feel free to take to the streets.  This is not news to those of us who study hate groups.  These white supremacists have been telling us that for the past 8 years that their recruitment has increased, sometimes exponentially.  Even if they were exaggerating, the images of Charlottesville serve to convince that the groups may still be exaggerating, but they are not lying.

Now, we sitting here may not claim racial superiority.  If you do, repent and return to the Lord today. 

But there are a number of us who are in a position to either aid or abet racism or challenge it. 

You see I am from Mobile, AL.  My hometown has an infamously distinguished pedigree of institutionalized racism.  And if you sitting here, and white, you probably know what I mean when I say that , there are conversations that white folks will only have with other white folks.  Nothing but my skin color grants me entrance to these conversations, and they are not pleasant conversations.  And these conversations make me a party to continuing a conspiracy of white supremacy that I want nothing to do with and cannot easily avoid.

I’ll give you an example.  In 2002, I was starting my undergraduate degree, and hoping that after military service, I might find a career in the FBI or some other law enforcement organization.  Sitting in the office of the college recruiter, he looked at me, and began the conversation that white men only feel comfortable having with other white men. 

He said to me, “Robert, you have two things going against you in this world; you are white, and you are a man.  You should consider taking a degree in finance instead of criminal justice; that way you will be more hirable than those who will take a degree in criminal justice.”

In a world in which women earn at best 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, and in which the poverty gap between whites and blacks is steadily increasing with black unemployment double that of white unemployment, I was shocked and frozen by what he said.  For this man and many like him, any perceived loss of power is considered a threat.[2]

In this recruiter’s office, I was being brought into a conspiracy to maintain supremacy over others.  It was a wake-up call for me; yet while I did not challenge him then and there, I never took a class in finance.  I’ve always wondered what he told women and African Americans he counseled. 

Perhaps you have also known those conversations. In the course of our work, our days, and our lives, we may find ourselves in a situation in which someone we speak to wants to know if we are a safe person to talk to about keeping and maintaining supremacy, just as the college recruiter did with me.  It comes in conversation:  a sexist joke, an observation about how races do certain things, a slang term for someone from a different country.  When that happens, it is assumed we agree with the other person, or we are essentially being asked if we are in the conspiracy of this world, to keep those divisions in place.

You know that you have a choice—an uncomfortable choice: half-hearted agreement in the hope that the conversation shifts to something more pleasant, or silence, or confrontation. 

The Gospel passage today begs us risk confrontation.  It may mean that we have to tell someone why we cannot participate in such a conversation.  It may mean remembering aloud to the other person that our connection to God and to all of humankind renders racial divisions meaningless at least, and malicious at most.  And that can be a hard thing to say.  My own track record in confronting such speech is not as good as I wish it was. And yet the imperative is there—whether we are the ones who clap back at racism, or have our ideals thrown right back in our face when our silence equals complicity.

The good news is that we do not do this alone. We never have.  The presence of God makes all things possible for those who face enormous odds.

I want to go back to disciples. Well after this moment with the Canaanite woman.  Well after thar desire to destroy a village, the Holy Spirit descends upon them and empowers them.  Suddenly, they are baptizing Gentiles and coming to grips with this inclusive work of God.  Then, in the 8th chapter of the book of Acts, Peter and John and Philip go to Samaritan villages, to preach the Gospel and live in peace among the ones they rather have seen killed.  After Jesus ascends to Heaven, the story of the early church is the story of recovering racists trying to keep up with an inclusive God as they get kicked in the pants by the Holy Spirit into situations and with people they would not have chosen on their own.

That’s the work God hands to us every new day.

Shall we get to it?   

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