The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Out from bigotry (sermon for August 17, 08)

with 5 comments

And a bit about white privilege …

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

1 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.[…]

Something’s about to happen – what is it [a revelation of God], and so what do we do? Maintain justice,” Isaiah has God saying, “and do what is right.”

6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant-
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Who’s this about now? Foreigners. And those who will follow God from any land (though following God is described here in Jewish terms, of course), gain a rich welcome to the presence of God.  Watch:

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

I love it!  “A house of prayer for all nations.”  Is this just about white middle-class Americans like me?  Nope.

8 The Sovereign LORD declares- he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”

Check out Psalm 67 now, which makes a similar pitch:

Psalm 67
1-7 God, mark us with grace and blessing! Smile!
The whole country will see how you work, all the godless nations see how you save.
God! Let people thank and enjoy you. Let all people thank and enjoy you.

Let all far-flung people become happy and shout their happiness because
You judge them fair and square, you tend the far-flung peoples.

God! Let people thank and enjoy you. Let all people thank and enjoy you.
Earth, display your exuberance!

You mark us with blessing, O God, our God.
You mark us with blessing, O God.

Earth’s four corners-honor him!

And Jesus adds a taste of toughness:

Matthew 15:(10-20)

10He then called the crowd together and said, “Listen, and take this to heart. 11It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life, but what you vomit up.”

12Later his disciples came and told him, “Did you know how upset the Pharisees were when they heard what you said?”

Why?  Ceremonial washing and careful selection of “clean” food was a Bible-required element of their faith.  And the Pharisees, convinced God’s blessing awaited people’s rule-keeping, saw him as what we today might label “unbiblical.”  Jesus’ disciples are worried – this is the holy crowd, after all.  But …

13Jesus shrugged it off. “Every tree that wasn’t planted by my Father in heaven will be pulled up by its roots. 14Forget them. They are blind men leading blind men. When a blind man leads a blind man, they both end up in the ditch.”

15Peter said, “I don’t get it. Put it in plain language.” 16Jesus replied, “You too? Are you being willfully stupid? 17Don’t you know that anything that is swallowed works its way through the intestines and is finally defecated?

18But what comes out of the mouth gets its start in the heart. 19It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. 20That’s what pollutes. Eating or not eating certain foods, washing or not washing your hands–that’s neither here nor there.”

How can that be?

Remember these words: “It’s from the heart that we vomit up evil arguments, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, lies, and cussing. That’s what pollutes…”

Swamped by crowds and controversies, they leave Jewish country.

Matthew 15:21-28

Healing the People

21From there Jesus took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. 22They had hardly arrived when a Canaanite woman came down from the hills and pleaded, “Mercy, Master, Son of David! My daughter is cruelly afflicted by an evil spirit.”

[See also Proper 18 B: Loving People I Forget to Love]

Here’s a pagan woman in a pagan city.  But “a Canaanite?” Calling her a Canaanite is like calling any given New Yorker “Dutch” or any Arizonan “Mexican:”  It ignores centuries of cultural transition that have washed over the place, and uses and old-timey, rather ignorant label.   She certainly wouldn’t think of herself as a Canaanite.  That’s what Jews called the victims of their onslaught a thousand years before.  Strange, hard-edged way of speaking, especially to a woman with a mother’s aching heart.  Ah, we know what Jesus will do …

Turns out that’s nothing compared to what comes next. Hold your breath:

23Jesus ignored her. The disciples came and complained, “Now she’s bothering us. Would you please take care of her? She’s driving us crazy.”
24Jesus refused, telling them, “I’ve got my hands full dealing with the lost sheep of Israel.”

25Then the woman came back to Jesus, went to her knees, and begged. “Master, help me.”26He said, “It’s not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.”

Whoa! Jesus, dogs? Did you call her a dog? What’s up here?  Jesus!

Richard Swanson writes [Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, p. 199)]:

A truly excellent series!

Jesus floats through our stories and our sermons and comes to our Sunday Schools without a hair out of place.  He is calm and in control of every situation. […] This notion of God which owes much more to Aristotle than to biblical texts, is open to question. It has little to do with the passionate God we encounter in biblical stories […] The Gospel stories show Jesus reacting and overreacting, planning and changing his mind […] I think faithful readers […] of the Gospels must make room for the possibility that Matthew’s storyteller paints a picture of a Jesus who learns things and changes for the better. […]

How’s that for a paradigm-changer? What if it isn’t meant to be explained away?  Perhaps you have heard, as have I, a dozen sermons on this story, all of which came up with neat explanations that were so weak as to leave you embarrassed.  Perhaps there’s a simpler possibility:  What if it is as insulting as it sounds?

Here’s what happens next:

27She was quick: “You’re right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master’s table.”
28Jesus gave in. “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.

This is stunning:  She responds graciously, and Jesus changes his mind: A minute ago he was calling her a dog; now he’s impressed.

Could it be that Jesus was so very human that he reflected the human values of an isolated culture?  Could he make a mistake that bad?  Swanson:

Perhaps his actions are rooted in the memory of the support offered up to Antiochus IV by people who lived around Tyre and Sidon [Antiochus being the Seleucid king who had, a century and a half earlier, slaughtered and roasted Jews on the altar of their own temple, triggering the Maccabean revolt]. Perhaps he simply has never met a person from that region and assumes what people often assume about strangers.

To this point, he’s been the champion of inclusion.  But now, in hostile territory, he blurts a cold comment to a presumed-less-than-important “foreigner.”  A moment later, the lights go on.  He sees in her what he’s looking for in his own followers.  How can that be?

Certainly his first words to her don’t live out the lesson he’d just taught about vile things that come from the mouth.  And then, it’s as if he awakens to something he’d not seen before.  In her graciousness, his eyes are opened!  She is like them all, though with more faith.

It’s a helpful possibility, for we, too, live in a society where race and class are the elephants in the room; we, too, find ourselves on the wrong side of simple-minded assumptions that we’ve heard all our lives. What if Jesus is likewise so very human, but so full of grace as to forsake such views when he sees them for what they really are?  That could be a pretty inspiring Jesus.

Some believe the best thing is to ignore the elephants:  this is the “color-blind” approach common among white people.  An internet friend of mine left this comment on a Clipmarks post:

Bigotry will not end as long as we continue to differentiate people by skin color.
Archie Bunker was NOT a role-model

I wrote back [I’ve polished my sentences here, a bit]:

I don’t think many black people would agree with you. White privilege [do check out that historic essay] is still the currency of American culture. White men still have more power than any other group, and they will not share it out of the mere goodness of their hearts. They would like nothing better than to fool us—and themselves—into dropping the subject of race altogether under the label of “color-blindness.” Status quo. Nothing further need be done. And oh, by the way, they, conveniently unaware, remain comfortably on top.

We’ve got to look and say, “Where are the people of color? Why are an overwhelming majority of people who are moving into positions of power—a much higher percentage than their share of the population —white?” Personal color-blindness will, at least for now, prevent us from seeing and repairing the color-dependent injustice that remains a part of America.  And we who would follow God are commanded, as Isaiah wrote, to “maintain justice.”  It is our problem.

Another reader responded to me:

Masbury [as I’m known on Clipmarks], there is no “white privilege” any more–especially thanks to affirmative action. Affirmative action has created what has been phrased reverse discrimination. If black people would wake-up and realise that no one is holding them down except for themselves, then they would do better.

And I wrote again:

Why is it that black men get the death penalty more often than white men convicted of the same crime?
Why is it that black men get prison terms more often than white men convicted of the same crime?
Why is it that cocaine sold in the form in which it’s distributed in the ghetto has mandatory federal prison sentences, but cocaine sold in the form that rich people buy it doesn’t?
Why is it that people of color have shorter life expectancies than white people?
Why is it that predominantly black schools have lower budgets and lower test scores?
Why is it that people of color, on average, have less access to healthcare than white people?
Why is it that unemployment is so much higher among black people than among white ones?
Why is it that a black child is so much less likely to go to college than a white child is?
Why is a black baby less likely to survive till adulthood than a white baby is?
Is it the black baby’s fault?

You wrote: “If black people would wake-up and realize that no one is holding them down except for themselves, then they would do better.”

So, your stereotype of black people is that they are holding themselves down. And white people mostly are not, I presume.

That, friend, is white privilege at work: we’re living in a world where many white people are certain that negative stereotypes of black people are true (that they are so morally or intellectually or emotionally dysfunctional as to “hold themselves down,” for instance). Black people have to fight off your assumption before they get to the same starting line as white people, and then they fight it over and over and over again.

Tonight I was with a friend of mine, a young, brilliant black man – a medical student and soon-to-be surgeon. He’s getting married soon, and his bride is an equally brilliant white woman.

My friend has relatives in [an especially racially tempestuous state.] One of his local relatives warned him: “You can-NOT take her [there]!”

Let me ask you now, if white privilege no longer exists: is there any state in the union to which YOU could not safely travel with your wife? I don’t mean high crime areas, unsafe for anyone. I mean a state where you might be beaten up for something you did that people of your race were not supposed to do.

Of course not. Because what you have is white privilege.

Let’s face it and change it, and let’s not leave the whole work of overcoming to black people – who have neither caused nor benefited from it, as we have […] Being white makes it harder to see; we’re going to have to look seriously at our own assumptions. White racists are certainly not going to listen to those they despise; white people must get in the faces of white people and insist that white privilege is real, unjust, ungodly—sin, as we say in Christian circles; injustice, the Hebrew scriptures might call it—and it’s up to us to renounce and ruthlessly forswear it in the name of Jesus Christ.

And if we pretend that the answer is for us to be “color-blind,” we make excuses that enable us to perpetuate a system that gives we who are white privileges that people of color do not yet enjoy.

Fortunately, we have this Jesus, who faced and rose above such attitudes – perhaps even in himself.

That’s an example I find pretty motivating.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury

Bible from The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

For Sunday, August 17 (but preached on 24th) Proper A 15
Genesis 45:1-15 or Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 133 or Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-20, 21-28
Music: Indescribable, Your Great Name We Praise, Song for the Nations, The Reconciliation Song

5 Responses

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  1. The Hawk’s suck! Fire Ferentz!


    September 27, 2008 at 2:55 pm

  2. Hey Monte, check this out: Hope to see you there


    September 27, 2008 at 1:24 pm

  3. Amy did ask Amadinejad about the gays in Iran. My mistake. I’ll give her credit for asking him.


    September 27, 2008 at 11:19 am

  4. Keep up the good work Monte. Anytime you rile folks up it causes us all to think. Fact is often it is quite uncomfortable but necessary if we are ever progress beyond this place we’re in. Thanks again.

    Rick Reiley

    September 26, 2008 at 8:43 pm

  5. Bigotry? What Jesus says and what the left wing do is two different things. Rep. Alcee Hastings (Democrat from Florida) has told blacks and Jews not to vote for Sarah Palin because “anybody toting guns and stripping moose don’t care too much about what they do with Jews and blacks.”
    Oh, let’s don’t forget Father Flagher, one of Obama’s disciples preaching in his church when he said, “damb, there’s a white person stealing my show”.
    And Amy Goodman? Wonder if she would ask Amadinejad why there isn’t a problem with gays in Iran? Fact is, the Islamic regime has murdered them all. Instead, we hear her rant about Bush.
    Can you tell who the bigots are?


    September 25, 2008 at 2:27 pm

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