Prejudice and Jesus and the Kingdom of God

August 19, 2017

Bible Text: Matthew 15:21-28 |

It’s been a disturbing week in America.

We’ve long supposed across the political spectrum that things like Nazism and the KKK are evil and are pretty much obsolete. And then, all of sudden, they were thrust in our face as a current event. even if it was a minority voice, it was galvanized in a manner we’ve not known for decades, and – to a certain degree – it was defended in a manner we wouldn’t have thought possible in this day and age.

And so we come to church, expecting to be comforted by the gospel, expecting Jesus to behave, well, like Jesus, and what do we get? a story where Jesus sounds disturbingly similar to the racists we’ve just been watching with our jaws on the floor.

Here’s the story: Jesus and his disciples left Israel and headed into the region of Tyre and Sidon; way out of their way into Gentile territory. We don’t know why. This is the only story we’ve got from this little side-trip of theirs. And while they’re there, a local woman sees Jesus and starts begging him to cure her daughter who’s possessed by a demon. And Jesus ignores her! So she keeps crying out. She’s making a scene. The disciples are annoyed and want him to do something. And he replies, “Well I didn’t come for her. I came for the Jews.” Basically he’s telling them, “She’s not my problem.”

Well she keeps appealing to him for help. And finally he responds to her directly by telling her it’s not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs.

Whoa. Did Jesus really just call her a dog? I think he did. And if the Middle East then was anything like the Middle East today, that had to have been incredibly rude.

This is not the Jesus we’re accustomed to – the Jesus who always shows a preference and a spaciousness for the outcast. But not today. Today it seems like he is aligning himself with the ethnic divisions and stereotypes of his society: Jews are in. Gentiles are out. We’re God’s chosen. You’re the dogs. I have no responsibility for your welfare. It feels a lot like the news reports we watched with disgust from Charlottesville: America is ours; it’s not yours. It’s for white Christians and “Jews will not replace us.” Jews and Blacks and anyone different have no place here.

We’ll return to this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in a moment.

But first I want to recognize the range of – what some might say are – justifiable responses to what happened in Charlottesville.

  • There are some whose anger and fear want to silence these fellow-citizens who are spewing hatred and filth – even if it requires using their same methods of aggression. Ultimately this response is framed in a “Just War” theory: Yes violence is bad, but there are times when nothing but violence can stop an aggressive enemy.
  • Others call for a non-violent protest, like what the world experienced with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Others think mockery will be effective. I’ve ready an awfully intriguing way this is being used in a Germany.
  • There are some who certainly detest Nazism and the KKK, but feel threatened by the counter-protests and their supposed agenda of “political correctness” that is threatening what they believe to be Christian and American values, so they’re pushing back.
  • And yet, at the same time, those very people who our country has just recently begun to tolerate by so-called political correctness are suddenly afraid to come out of their houses because of a freshly-vindicated permission to do violence to them. They don’t know what to do, but to hide.

We’ve heard all these ways that people are reacting to the current events – often with an appeal to their perspective on what Christianity is supposed to stand for. And tempted though I am to defend or dismiss each position, I know this morning I’d only be adding my voice to the shrill clamor that’s clogging our senses. And I recognize that I have an unfair advantage of standing in this pulpit alone, and such one-sided arguing tends to create narrow-minded congregations of preached-to choirs.

So instead, I would like to tell a story. It’s a story I’ve just recently heard that seems to soar above these arguments with a kind of wisdom and simplicity. It actually sounds totally ludicrous – which is what gives it such Jesus-like authenticity.

It’s the story of Daryl Davis.

Daryl is a black man who, for many years now, has made it his passion to befriend members of the KKK. “How can you hate me,” he asks, “if you don’t know me?” And with a posture of extraordinary ease and graciousness, he offers them his friendship.

There was one guy who had just been elected to some higher rank within the Klan and he was too embarrassed to ask his fellow Klansmen what he was supposed to do with this rank. So he called Daryl and asked him. Because, you see, Daryl has studied the Klan. He knows a lot about them: their history, how the organization works. And so he answered the guy’s question – told him what he needed to know to be a better Klansman.

There was another time when he heard that some Klan members were looking for a bus to rent for one of their rallies. “Why don’t you use my bus?” he offered. (In his professional life, Daryl is a musician.) “Uh – you know we’re the Klan don’t you?” “Yeah. You can use my bus.” So they borrowed his bus, they did their Klan rally thing, then brought the bus back to Daryl’s house where he invited them in and served them drinks. I kid you not.

And do you know what Daryl collects? He collects KKK robes that belonged to former Klansmen who have left the Klan because of their friendship with him. He has dozens of them – dozens of men who have left the KKK because he became their friend. The entire Klan organization in his home state of Maryland collapsed because its highest ranking members were Daryl’s friends.

Now obviously, there are many strong, progressive antagonists to racism who are disgusted with what Daryl’s doing. They call him an Uncle Tom. They insist that, because the Klan is evil, it must be forcefully opposed – that entering with peace and friendship is giving it tacit approval. That makes sense. But he responds with a question, “How many robes have you gotten?” If you’re only talking with the friends who agree with you, how can the change begin?

And you have to understand, he’s not silent to their beliefs. But he chooses to fight racism with the power of friendship. He’ll share a meal with them, and listen to what they have to say, and over time he’s found, they’re willing to listen to him.

How do they get to the point where they’ll sit down together? Why are they even open to his friendship? I’m not exactly sure. But I suspect that for many of them, they’ve never actually known a black person. They’ve just hated the caricatures they’ve believed about them. And when Daryl approaches them with such open-handed gestures of friendship, they’re so shocked that they can’t help but be intrigued.

There was one family full of racists who’d been on the Geraldo show with Daryl. They hated him. But some time later, the father was put in prison hundreds of miles away. So Daryl called the mother on the phone. When she heard it was him she started cussing him up and down and he finally said, “Shut up, Tina. Listen to me.” Turns out he wanted to drive her family down to the prison so they could visit their husband, their dad. No Klansmen had offered to do that. And now the family is out of Klan and praising God for their friendship with Daryl.

I could go on and on about this man, but there’s not enough time. If you’ve got Netflix you can see this story in a documentary called, “Accidental Courtesy.” Maybe we could show it at the church.

I tell you this story today because – in the face of so much fear in our country, and so many responses to that fear – I have heard nothing and seen nothing that compares to this man who looks hatred in the eye and has the wisdom to see that that power is no power. True, disarming power resides in the Kingdom of God which is always grounded in mercy, compassion, and an unfailing willingness to see and believe the holiness of the one who stands before you, and is willing to take that courageous and vulnerable step forward. That is a power like none other.

Who the world would call an enemy – and guard itself from and justify itself against – Daryl has the ludicrous wisdom to call a friend. It’s as if he is walking towards them from the direction of heaven where he’s already encountered the true union of our common humanity. He’s walking backwards to this place, showing us what the forever truth of the Kingdom of God is all about – that truth whose guide is mercy.

It is this same mercy that was eventually revealed and proven in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Jesus told the woman it was inappropriate to feed the children’s bread to the dogs. And without missing a beat she replied, “But even the dogs get the crumbs under the table.” It was as if to say, “C’mon, Jesus, there’s no reason you can’t help me out here.” And suddenly he does a 180. “Great is your faith,” he told her. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

What happened? Why did he suddenly pivot like this? The Bible doesn’t tell us. We’re left on our own to work out our discomfort.

This is my take:

Like Daryl walking towards the KKK, Jesus walked to Canaan to show his disciples what it looks like to break the ethnic barriers we’re born and raised to believe in. Without them even realizing it, Jesus begins acting out a kind of living parable: This is how you’ve been raised to treat the Gentiles: You avoid them; you are annoyed by them. You call them names and excuse yourself from any responsibility for them…and you don’t even know to be ashamed of yourselves. Now let me now show you what it means to repent and truly live as the people of God: You go out of your way – even if it means walking a hundred mile round trip into enemy territory – and you show them mercy.

The message is as hard for us today as it was for the disciples. But we too are followers of Christ, and there is no other way in the Kingdom of God.

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