Proper 15, Year A
If you drive, as I have now had the privilege to do twice, the road from Kampala to the outskirts of Tororo, where the clinic Saint John’s help build is situated, you will notice two types of persistence. First, unless you are deprived of all your senses, your western, privileged, self will immediately become attuned to the persistence of poverty. In the air you will smell smoke from a million small fires, burning trash and cooking meals, because the country is too poor to dispose of garbage and most people cannot afford anything more than wood to cook their food. You will see row upon row of ramshackle buildings and huts along the road, built out of an almost frenetic pastiche of corrugated metal and crumbling bricks. And in front of these buildings and huts you will see the sum total of most of Uganda’s commerce – piles of fruit, hindquarters of goat dangling in the warm breeze, sandals made out of old tires, and furniture for sale, all marinating in a thick coat of red dust. You will hear the honking of bodas, the ubiquitous motorcycles that clog the streets helping the somewhat less poor travel faster than they could by foot. You will see and taste and smell and hear the persistence of poverty. But, so too you will encounter persistence of another kind – call it the human spirit or hope or the desire to rise above and overcome. This persistence comes in the people who are working diligently and earnestly to make a way for themselves and their children, striving and trying to stay afloat, to keep alive, to keep going. On our recent trip to Uganda, as we drove this more than five hour stretch of highway, we were mired in traffic at yet another ill-designed intersection and one of our number, I think it was Eric, observed that what we were witnessing might be the epitome of the gig economy. As we were stuck in traffic, boys wove in and out of the sluggishly moving lories and bodas with buckets of samosas on their heads, boxes full of bottles of soda and water, some were even trying to sell individual sticks of gum. Everyone had a gig. Everyone was working and striving to scrape by. Persistence.
This is the overwhelming image found in today’s gospel in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. In this memorable exchange, Jesus is confronted by an outsider, someone with whom the Israelites would have been known to have historic rivalries and animosity. She is not just any outsider, she is a Canaanite. Some have argued that this is simply a retelling of Mark’s story of the Syro-phoenician woman. One scholar says that the term “Canaanite” is just an archaic version of Syro-phoenician, much like calling someone of Norwegian heritage a Viking. By naming her thus, Jesus dredges up all of the historic animus rooted in the stories we’ve read in the Old Testament. Remember that God’s chosen people, the Israelites, had to evict the Canaanites from the promised land in order to claim it. Indeed they were ordered, by God, to exterminate the Canaanites from the land. Such a harsh position then is echoed in Jesus’ words – “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs!” This woman, desperate, in need, an outsider and an enemy, is throwing herself, and the life of her daughter at the mercy of this rabbi. And his response is to call her a dog. But, she is persistent. She reminds Jesus of the crumbs that fall from the masters table. “Sure” she seems to be saying, “God’s mercy extends to those you have been called to save. But, surely if God’s goodness and mercy are as abundant as you seem to claim, even the dribbles and crumbs are enough for everyone.” Jesus is brought up short. He is convinced. Her persistent appeal breaks through what appears to be the persistence of historic boundaries of insider and outsider, enemies and opponents. It is almost as if her persistent call for mercy conquers Jesus, as though she is reclaiming the blessings from which her people had been historically excluded. Persistence.
This story echoes with the conversation happening all around us in this nation in which we live today. If we’ve been paying attention to the news we know that like the Canaanite woman, people of color in this country have been persistently bringing their case before the wider community, in town halls and statehouses and in editorials and on the street, that there is a fundamental problem in our society, and that problem is white supremacy. That demon has been afflicting the children of this nation with horrific and tragic results for centuries. We see it not just in the hoods of Klansmen or emblazoned in the ugly twisted crosses of Neo Nazis – for it is surely and clearly there. But, white supremacy is more than torch wielding mobs. It is the persistent use of whiteness as normative in art and imagery and in most of our culture around us. We need look no further than the stained glass of our churches or the frescoes in our capital building to find it. White supremacy is the denial of loans or the inability to get an interview because of the blackness of your name or the brown of your skin. White supremacy is the policing of neighborhoods of color differently than predominantly white neighborhoods. White supremacy is hearing white colleagues and friends bemoan how exhausted they are hearing about race without giving thought to how exhausting it must be to not have white skin in our culture today. This sin has persisted in our culture for centuries, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. It has persisted and our friends and neighbors of color have been crying out “Have mercy!”
And, this sin will not go away because we are able to destroy neo-Nazis or somehow shame white nationalism into silence. We cannot defeat white supremacy by force. We cannot root it out by laying the blame for it at the feet of a few fringe groups in our society. Each of us who have white skin participates, wittingly or not, each day in the spoils that this sin brings us. When we enjoy the benefits of a system built to for us first, we are a part of the problem. So, we must be converted from it. Just as the persistent appeal of the Canaanite woman shifts Jesus’ perspective so that he sees the horizon of God’s mercy extending to include his people’s historic enemies, so too we must have our vision transformed. We must hear and see the persistent appeal of our neighbors and repent of our complicity with the destructive powers of white supremacy that cripple our communities of color. And, we must dismantle the work of white supremacy, brick by brick, and build something better in its place.
In Uganda we visited the homes of some of the very first families whose advocacy and persistent appeal transformed Mary Steiner’s heart and inspired her to found Give Us Wings, the agency we partner with in Kayoro. In the face of persistent and debilitating poverty, mothers and grandmothers brought their case to the nearest point of access to privilege and resources – a visiting woman from Saint Paul. Mary heard their appeal and what grew from that transformative encounter is bringing life and health and hope. When we visited this time, the same families greeted us with singing, dancing, joy, and gratitude. What we had built together, a clinic, brick by brick, a partnership of new hope born out of the persistent appeal of Ugandan families (not all that different from our own), was and is literally saving lives. But, like Mary who first heard it, we too had to have our hearts transformed by the persistent appeal to respond to the evil of poverty. And, so too, we have had to then be persistent in resisting poverty. Together we’ve built new systems, insurance, family sponsorships, a maternity ward, and staff housing – each of these a joint venture – and it is having an effect. Lives are being saved. The community around the clinic is being slowly and surely transformed. It is taking persistence – ours and theirs – but it is working.
I think we can take some cues from this experience of partnering to respond to poverty in Uganda in our response to the evils of racism and white supremacy in our own communities and lives. Like there, and as in the story of the Canaanite woman, we must first be willing to engage, to hear the stories of pain and hurt, to dialogue as we seek to recognize our part. Over the summer we began some of this listening and dialoguing in the very safe territory of our own parish community. But, as one of our participants said, we did not get to the stinky cheese. We did not get down into the smelly truths about our own complicity and participation in systems of oppression. We need to get there. This fall a series picking up that conversation will begin anew with a small group of folks from St. John’s. If you want to participate, please talk to me or Kate after the service. But, we need to be persistent in this work well beyond the comfort and safety of the walls of this church. We need to show up in our communities, in forums and meetings where issues of race and class are being discussed. We need to listen to stories of neighbors and citizens whose experience has been shaped by white supremacy – consider reading a book on the topic by an author of color, subscribe to a publication produced by persons of color. Listen. Learn. Hear. Then, we can and must be allies in building something new and better in place of the systems of oppression that have defined much of this nation’s history. We can be a part of providing sanctuary, we can advocate for better laws, and we can be a part of a growing movement that takes the stories of white supremacy seriously.
We can persist in being part of the work of justice, peace, and reconciliation, the work that Jesus has called us to do, the work that by our baptism we have committed to being a part of.
If we do these things, like Jesus, our hearts and minds might be transformed. We might truly see where mercy is absent and become willing agents of it in our own lives and community. We might repent of our collusion with injustice. We might build a more just world.
But, in order to these things, we must not flag or waver. We must persist.