I preached this sermon yesterday at the 8:00 worship service at Fourth Presbyterian Church. The scripture readings were Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:21-28. You can listen to an audio recording of the sermon here:
Fifty-one years ago, in 1963, at the height of the African American civil rights movement, the eyes of the nation were fixed on Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staged non-violent protests to press for the desegregation of public facilities and non-discriminatory hiring practices in businesses. Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor responded by turning police dogs and fire hoses against protesters and marchers. Images of these brutal measures filled American television screens and brought an unprecedented awareness of the violence erupting throughout the American South.
Fifty-one years later, as we watch riots breaking out in Ferguson, Missouri in protest of the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, it seems like some things haven’t changed very much in half a century. Well, one thing has definitely changed: images of violence on our television screens is no longer a novelty. In fact, in 2014 it is easy to watch this situation unfold and not even think that much about it. Yet in the same way that the images of police dogs and fire hoses woke up white America to the plight of African Americans in the South fifty-one, what is happening in Ferguson needs to wake us up to the continuing struggle of African Americans, even in our so-called “post-racial society.”
Of the many news reports, opinion pieces, and blogs that have flooded social media this past week, the ones that have caught my attention the most are the ones that boil down to the plea of black parents for white America to understand that they live in fear of their children being racially profiled and maybe even killed simply because of the color of their skin. Black children are taught to be mindful of harsh realities that would never even cross the minds of white children in this country.
Fifty-one years ago, white clergy were slow to get on board with the civil rights movement. Especially in the South, white religious leaders agreed with the basic notions of civil rights and equality, but urged moderation and restraint when it came to protests and demonstrations. In Birmingham in the spring of 1963, eight clergymen—one of whom was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham—wrote an open letter that was published in the Birmingham News on April 13. Though it didn’t mention Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by name, there was no doubt who they had in mind when they wrote the following.
[W]e are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.
We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
This letter prompted King, who was characterized by these leaders as an outsider provocateur, to write his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Along with the disturbing images of police brutality broadcast from Birmingham, this letter helped turn the tide of white Christian support for the civil rights movement. These images and this letter helped people of faith see this situation and the plight of African Americans with new eyes. King and his movement of outsiders helped white Christians to hear the gospel with new ears.
That’s what outsider do. They come into a situation and perceive the context without the cultural blindness that tends to keep insiders from noticing the truth. And when they speak this truth, if insiders are open to hearing it, they can change the world.
One of the pivotal debates within the early church involved the inclusion of gentiles—non-Jews—into the covenant people of God. For centuries the Jewish people believed that they had a special covenantal relationship with God that was not shared by the other peoples of the world. Properly framed, this special covenant was not meant to be exclusionary. Rather, it was meant to call out God’s people for service to the rest of the world.
When, through the missionary work of Peter and then Paul, the Jesus movement began to expand into the gentile world, the question quickly arose: do these non-Jews first have to become Jewish in order to be followers of Christ and experience the salvation promised in the gospel? Was Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom only for the chosen people of Israel, or was there a place in this kingdom for all of God’s children to come as they are?
While we can trace the contours of this critical debate and the way it reshaped the church in the Book of Acts and some of Paul’s letters, it’s difficult to know what Jesus believed and practiced when it came to those outside of the Jewish fold. Almost all of his ministry took place with fellow Jews. In fact, rather than the creation of a brand new religion called Christianity, it is most appropriate to consider Jesus’ ministry as a reform movement within Judaism.
Yet there are certainly indications that Jesus pushed the boundaries of who was in when it came to God’s kingdom. Of course, it’s perennially difficult to parse out what in the Gospels traces back to Jesus himself and what has been shaped by the Gospel writers in their efforts to convey the essential message of Jesus. But in today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew we have a fascinating story that cuts directly to the heart of this matter.
Jesus had just left the Jewish region of Galilee and entered the gentile territories of Tyre and Sidon. There he meets a gentile woman who asks for a blessing—she asks for the healing of her daughter. Jesus responds in words that seem harsh to our ears but were certainly in line with the prevailing attitudes of his Jewish sisters and brothers. In fact, Jesus’ followers urged him to be even more forceful in the dismissal of this woman.
What is remarkable about this story is the persistence of the Canaanite woman. She is most definitely an outsider in this situation. And she challenges Jesus—even Jesus—to understand God’s kingdom in radically new ways.
Did you catch that? According to this story, even Jesus was blinded by the cultural prejudices of his people and his day. It took an outsider—a Canaanite woman—to enter that situation and speak truth into a context that was less than fully in line with God’s vision of a kingdom filled with all of God’s children, a kingdom that is a place of prayer for all nations. Through this faithful outsider, something special happened in the course of Jesus’ ministry. A seed was planted that would eventually grow into a radically new movement that has changed and continues to change the world we live in.
In the church today—in the world today—who are the outsiders among us? Who are the outsiders we need to be paying attention to? What blindnesses do we need to be freed from?
The church—indeed the world—needs outsiders to see things differently, to think outside the box, to shake things up, to change the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Robin Williams this week in the wake of his tragic death by suicide. As a pastor—and, really, just as a human being—deaths like his absolutely break my heart. To think about the depth of pain that someone must feel at that moment is more than I want to comprehend.
News of Williams’ death was especially hard this week because there is already more than enough tragedy in the world right now. In addition to all that has happened and continues to happen in Missouri, there’s war in Israel and Gaza, renewed hostilities in Iraq, conflict in Ukraine, an Ebola epidemic in Africa.
The loss of Robin Williams hits home for a lot of us because we’ve grown up watching him on television and in the movies. His career has been precisely coterminous with my pop culture awareness. Just within the last several weeks I had begun to introduce his multilayered work to my own son as we watched Popeye and Hook together.
Already I miss the genius of Robin Williams and know that the world is less rich without him. He was most definitely an outsider. He saw the world through a different set of eyes and helped us to see things differently too. He thought outside the box—way outside the box.
One of his last projects was the television show The Crazy Ones. The title of the show is taken from the famous Apple advertising campaign from 1997 called “Think Different.” The centerpiece of that campaign was an iconic commercial that featured a black and white montage of cultural innovators like Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon, Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi, Jim Henson, Frank Lloyd Wright and Pablo Picasso. Richard Dreyfuss reads an evocative monologue that captures the spirit of Robin Williams, indeed the spirit of all outsiders. I believe it’s the same spirit of this Canaanite woman, the same spirit of all those who change the world.
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.