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Matthew 15:10-11, 17-28
I would like to tell you that I chose today’s scripture readings solely in response to the president’s regular verbal attacks on public figures—including, just last week, calling a former White House staff member, an African American woman, a dog. It would, after all, be almost too easy to cite the president’s constant denigration of the intelligence of black folks and his routine disparagement of women’s looks as the polar opposite of the scripture’s warning to “let no evil talk come out of your mouths.”
I would like to tell you that I was further convinced to go down this road by my reflection on the increasingly hateful nature of our civil discourse and how the distance created by social media seems to give us license to be much nastier online than we would ever be in person.
I would like to be able to say that my decision to turn to the admonition to “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander” and, instead, speak only “words that give grace to those who hear” has absolutely nothing to do with me. I would like to be able to say that, in thinking about what Jesus had to say about what comes out of our mouths—that this is what taints us and reveals the brokenness in our hearts—I did not recognize myself at all.
But I cannot say any of that. I cannot even begin to pretend that a sermon about the importance of watching what we say has nothing to do with me. I know all too well that that my words do not always give grace to those who hear. I cannot say that my words always reflect well on my heart.
And I would guess that most of you cannot say that, either. Not because you’re bad people, but because you’re human. Not because anyone here is a potty mouth or a gossip, but because we all sometimes say things we shouldn’t. Because we all get tired and frustrated, stressed out and confused. Because it is human nature to project out our failings and fears onto others. Because even those of us who are very serious about non-violence sometimes use our words as weapons. Because we all fall short of the glory of God. And because we live in a political culture that runs more and more on falsehood, anger, slander, spite, and name-calling.
But the point is not to make ourselves feel bad; that rarely leads to anything good. Nor is the goal to point fingers, at ourselves or at others, or to prompt us to walk through our days biting our tongues. The Ephesians passage begins, after all, by encouraging us to “speak the truth to our neighbors.” Why? Because we belong to each other. Because we are all connected. Because we need each other, and part of that is needing to be able to speak and live our truths with some sense of safety, and another part of that is needing to be able to trust that we will be spoken to, and spoken of, in a spirit of love and grace.
What I hope this sermon is about is learning how to better live together, how to be, as the Ephesians passage says, “kind and tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” It is about how to be the body of Christ so that everyone—including people we disagree with, people we have trouble getting along with, people we have trouble communicating with—might discover through us the same healing love we have found in Christ. It is about demonstrating to the world, including our toxic political culture, how to live in a way that nurtures peace and hope, compassion, and the recognition of all that we share.
It is also about being able to believe the best in one another, even when someone has said something unkind. It is about forgiving and loving one another into our best selves, into wholeness and joy and beloved community.
Chances are, of course, that neither our scriptures nor this sermon would put so much emphasis on how we speak to one another if it were easy.
And if you don’t believe me, if you think I’m just making excuses, consider the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Coming, as it does in Matthew’s gospel, immediately after Jesus’ statement about what comes out of our mouths, it is almost as if Matthew wanted to demonstrate just how hard our mouths are to control. Even Jesus doesn’t always manage it.
In Jesus’ defense, it is worth noting that he had left the Galilee region and gone northwest into Syria, which was Gentile territory. Which is to say: Apparently, after feeding five thousand and then four thousand, after being chased down by the crowds and teaching them, healing them, and debating Jewish religious customs with them, he needed a break. He was worn out.
But no sooner did Jesus get away from the Jewish crowds than he was all but accosted by a Gentile woman, who saw him from some distance and began shouting at him, pleading for help for her daughter.
Jesus’ first response was to simply ignore the woman. To him, a Jewish man, she was the “other.” On top of that, she seemed to be lacking in manners. The disciples urged Jesus to get rid of her, because she had also been hounding them.
In reply, Jesus doesn’t join the disciples in criticizing the woman. Instead, he explains to them why he will not respond to her: It’s because he believes his ministry is only to the Jews.
But by this time, the woman has reached Jesus, and she drops to her knees in respect and humility. She calls him “Lord.”
“Help me,” she begs.
But Jesus will not.
And then, he seems—in an unbelievably Trumpian moment—to call her a dog, if somewhat indirectly.
“It is not fair,” Jesus tells the woman, “to take the children’s food [that is, the children of Israel]—and throw it to the dogs.”
To state the obvious: This is not Jesus’ finest moment. His words are indeed reflecting something of his heart, a heart that seems closed to non-Jews, or at least to non-Jewish women. He has spoken words of judgment and exclusion.
That could have been the end of it. The woman, chastened and publicly humiliated, might have hung her head, turned, and walked away, never to be heard from again. Never to give Jesus another kind thought. Never to have her life changed by God’s grace.
But she does not. Whatever hopes had been raised by what she had heard about Jesus, whatever high opinion and deep trust in him had led her to call him Master, will not be squashed by one cruel word of rebuke and rejection. While Jesus might say that his words had reflected something lacking in his heart, she believes his heart is much wider than his words suggest. She will not leave Jesus in his narrowness. She believes he is much more than that.
“Yes, Lord,” she replies to his insult. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
And with that lovingly spoken, tenderly offered challenge, Jesus is changed. Jesus is healed. He hears the truth the woman has spoken, and it opens both his heart and his mind. The still-speaking God has spoken a new word—to Jesus, through the other. Because the woman has the courage, the trust, and the love to speak her truth in deep trust, Jesus is able to see things differently. Jesus is given a new way of seeing and being.
Jesus realizes that the woman had trusted him in spite of his hurtful words. She had believed the best in him, even though he had treated her badly.
“Woman!” he says to her, deeply moved. “Great is your faith!”
The story says her daughter was instantly healed. Well. I would say hers was not the greatest healing that happened that day.
Great is our faith—not when we have no doubts, not when we accept unfair judgment, not when we keep our mouths shut—but when we speak the truth in love, when we believe the best in one another and in the Holy. Great is our faith when we keep pushing on to understand one another. Great is our faith when our kind and trusting words open another’s heart. Great is our faith when we do not respond to hateful words in kind, but are able to put away all bitterness and wrath and anger. Great is our faith when we speak healing words. Great is our faith when we can forgive one who hurt us and continue to open our hearts to them.
And so we, too, are healed.