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November 10, 2015

Practice What You Preach

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment. (Matthew 15:21-28) NIV

“If I knew you and, you knew me.

And each of us could clearly see

By the inner light divine,

The meaning of your life and mine,

I am sure we would differ less

And clasp our hands in friendless –

If I knew you and you knew me.”


(“At Church One Sunday,” author unknown)

The moment I said yes to Rev. Dr. Alvin O. Jackson’s challenging invitation to speak at his event I prayerfully sought God’s help in what I would say. Over the course of several weeks, at least three incidents, with the same theme have taken up residence in my mind. I want these three incidents to serve as sought of a back story that will context for you what I want to share with today.

I was watching a You Tube talk given by Nikki Giovanni on her latest book, “Searching for Utopia.” In her introductory statements she referenced how white America mistake her for someone else. On this occasion her identity was first confused with Tony Morrison. She laughed it off and remarked that she wouldn’t mind being a Nobel Peace prize author. The second was a little more to take. The person said to Ms. Giovanni, “Ms. Angelou, it is so good to see you. Using an expletive, Nikki said that was too much. Maya is 6’1 and I am not quite 5’, red hair, light skinned. How do you mistake me for Maya Angelou. The person persisted and Nikki said she just acquiesced and pretended that she was Maya Angelou. I submit that white people don’t see us. I am personally beyond offended by the notion that all black people look alike.

That was the first incident. The second I read in Dr. William James Jennings book, The Christian Imagination – Theology and The Origins Of Race which I highly recommend as a source on the issue of race. Dr. Jennings recants this moment in his childhood that in many ways mirrors what Nikki Giovanni experienced. He writes that the Pastor and an Associate from First Christian Reformed Church visited his mother and him while his mother was attending her garden in her backyard. They came as evangelist says Jennings, speaking to them as if they were strangers. His mother interrupted their evangelist efforts and informed them that they were members of New Hope Missionary Baptist church, where the Rev. J. V. Williams is the pastor. Jennings states that the First Christian Reformed Church was about two hundred yards from 717 Franklin Street, his family home. He played basketball in the church parking lot and was a regular visitor to the church for other events. Reflecting on the visit of the two divines, Jennings thought out loud – “Why did they not know us? They should have known us very well.” He concludes his thoughts on this moment by repeating – “Why did these men not know me, not know Mary and Ivory, and not know the multitude of other black Christians who filled the neighborhood that surrounded that church?”

A third incident is more personal. It happened to me. I was invited for a second time within a four month time frame to preach during a midday worship service at a white downtown church. I was greeted by the Pastor who extended the invitation and while conversing before the service began he asked me this jaw dropping question. Bill, is this your first time preaching here. After my quick recovery from the shocking question, I said with a smile, “I preached here by your invitation four months ago.

The Pastor showed no embarrassment and expressed no sorry in not remembering that I had been there before. In fact the more we talked, I am convinced he did not see me the first time and time will tell whether my second visit registered that the Rev. Dr. William L Lee had been there before.

I submit that those persons who encountered the poet, writer, artist Nikki Giovanni did not see her. I declare that those two collared white clergy persons standing in Rev. Dr. William James Jennings mother’s garden did not see them. I know that my host for the noon day service did not see me. The words of Ralph Ellison penned in the prologue of his book, “Invisible Man” came floating to my memory;

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.”

It is impossible for Black Lives to Matter if you cannot see “ME.” That is the essence of the poem I read “ If I knew you and you, knew me,” black lives would matter.” I have chosen the story of Jesus’ memorable meeting with the Canaanite women as a case study of what may happen if we could see each other. There is a similar story in Mark 7:24-37 and the woman is referred to as a Syrophoenician. Matthews rendering of this event has elements that I find very helpful for our discussion.

When we enter the story we find Jesus entering a region that is populated by Gentiles. We must always remember that Jesus was born a Jew, raised and educated in that culture. We all are clear concerning the racial, political and religious divide between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John’s gospel affords us a quick review of the differences between the races.

This Canaanite women was acutely aware of the possibilities of her meeting with Jesus. Her need for her daughter’s deliverance drove her to risk any pain she may personally have to endure. It is revealing to me that she approached Jesus “crying out. “The suggestion is the woman was making a great deal of noise. We understand that. When you are not seen you must put on a performance to be recognized. Black people have had to make a lot of noise over the years in order for the larger society to see us.

That was the genius of the civil rights movement. America had to see evening after evening on the 6:00 news how ugly racism was. This country had to be embarrassed into seeing us. They began to see us when the noise of the bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama resulted in 4 little girls in Sunday school died. What a price to pay to get someone to see us. What a price paid in South Carolina for legislators to see the pain of a flag to many of her citizens. Yes, this woman represents all of us who have to make noise to be seen and heard.

May I make this woman’s cry contemporary? You will note that the “Black Lives Matter” campaign is a modern version of the Canaanite woman’s cry. The alarming rate of young black males dying at the hand of policeman has caused us like the woman seek deliverance for our children. Black Lives Matter is our national cry for resolve. Look what has happened. Those who are pained when they have to see us as brothers and sisters want to turn down the volume of the noise. Much like Jesus’ disciples. To drown the noise that makes us visible, the larger society comes up with another tag line – “All Lives Matter.” All Lives will not matter until Black lives matter.

The woman’s cry gets Jesus’ attention but she now has to work on his heart. Jesus speaks to her out of years of conditioning. He speaks from years of teaching and tradition. His initial response to her cry was boiler plate – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He did not see her. The woman tells him I heard others say that you were different. I have been told about your Good Samaritan parable. You sir said any one in need is your neighbor. I am asking you Mr. Jesus, Practice What You Preach.

In order for Jesus to practice what he preached he would have to see this woman. This woman would have to help him see her no matter what she had to endure. Here the two of them are. Jesus says again out of his context that he could not see her. Listen, it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” The deflected that comment and pushed Jesus to Practice what he preached about being a neighbor.

Yes it is, Lord, she said. I am not here to argue the issues that have made you superior to me, or how I am viewed by you. My daughter deserves the same treatment as any other person you attend to. The woman’s plea removed the years of racial cataracts from Jesus’ eyes and he finally saw her. Not a Canaanite Woman, but a woman who happens to be a mother with a sick child who needs healing.

Woman he says. I see you. You are as valuable to my father as anyone else. My love for all of humanity overrides all I have been taught to the contrary. Woman, you have great faith! Your faith has sparked my love. My love moves me to see you and help you. YOUR REQUEST IS GRANTED. ”Healing, deliverance, reconciliation, barriers and sight comes when the grace of God moves us to love. Love enables us to see each other.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I'm found.
Was blind but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Then when we first begun.


“If I knew you and, you knew me.

And each of us could clearly see

By the inner light divine,

The meaning of your life and mine,

I am sure we would differ less

And clasp our hands in friendless –

If I knew you and you knew me.”
 

(“At Church One Sunday,” author unknown)

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