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In nomine Jesu!

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

I don't know if the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America looked at the appointed Gospel for today before they decided to recommend to our parishes that we observe today as "Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday." If their goal was to reach the largest possible audience, they could have picked a better time than the Labor Day weekend; but they could not have picked a Sunday with a more appropriate Gospel narrative. Today Jesus confronts prejudice. In the harshest possible language, Jesus says aloud what Mark's hearers are thinking:

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Not only does Jesus say this, he acts on this. This Syrophoenician woman, who carried her child in her womb, birthed her, named her;
nourished, clothed, fed and nurtured her, desperately begs Jesus to heal her and — solely on the basis of her race and ethnicity — Jesus says no:

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Jesus' words are shocking. Of course, we would never say that!

The story is even darker. Mark the Evangelist will not even name the mother or the girl. Two chapters earlier, Mark goes out of his way to identify Jarius, the leader of a synagogue who comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter, yet Mark grants this Syrophoenician woman no such an honor. Jarius' daughter is called his "little girl." This woman's daughter is denied even that. Mark does this on purpose because, you see, in leaving them nameless, he names them with the prejudice against them. The woman and her daughter are merely "one of them." What are THEY doing here?

It's a three-fold prejudice. Jesus is in "the region of Tyre;" pagan territory with pagan history. This
unnamed woman is branded with the always demeaning label, pagan. She's a "Greek woman," no compliment, with a Greek child. Their race — Syrophoenician — is the final indictment. Pagan. Greek. Syrophoenician. Member of the recognized underclass; subhuman. Not to be spoken to. Never to be listened to. Never to be heard.

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

The Greek here is even more offensive; the translators cleaned it up. Jesus calls the woman and her daughter by a more degrading name — we still use it — they are female dogs — you know the word, it rhymes with "witch."

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Mark's readers were offended. Mark's hearers are offended too.

We know the end of the story, so we admire the woman because she is so persistent. She doesn't
give up. She keeps on naming the problem. She continues to nag and pester Jesus. She will not let him go when he dismisses her, disses her and behaves as if it's not his problem. Even in the face of Jesus' seemingly prejudiced "no" and Mark's heightened marginalizing of her, the woman remains persistent; and to this very day we continue to admire her for that.

What offends you most about charges of racial prejudice today? "Black lives matter!" No, we say, "All lives matter," covering up persistent sin — systemic racism — with undeniable truth. "Hands up, don't shoot!" How about "police lives matter!" "Say their names!" shouted at the campaign rallies of politicians we know are, by liberal lights, "enlightened." The flag is down! A black man sits in the Oval Office? Haven't we given enough? What more do they want? Why are they so persistent? Have you ever heard someone say things like that? Have you ever had thoughts or even said words just like that?

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

If we didn't know the end of the story, Jesus'
words would offend us. He sounds exactly like Donald Trump, who I think is leading in political polls because although he offends us, he is saying what many of us really think about "them," whose color, language or customs are different from ours, who historically have been treated as lesser than we are. "We want our Country, our city, our church back!"

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Whenever a sermon like this is preached by some like me, or when an oft-called "liberal" church body like the ELCA suggest a Sunday emphasis like "confession, repentance and commitment to end racism," a thoroughly justifiable critique is leveled -- something like "what can we do," or "what are we supposed to do?" I suggest that, through his behavior in the Gospel today, Jesus suggests three things.

1. Start admiring, and stop dismissing or disparaging, persistence. There's little difference between "black lives matter," and "say the names," spoken to us and our leaders and the Syrophoenician woman's words, "Sir, even the
dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs," which that woman addressed directly to Jesus.

2. Cease behaving as if persistence is always a bother, as if motives are always deceiving, as if giving respect, dignity, justice and wholeness equals always losing your own. Dignity for all is never a zero-sum game.

3. Rejoice in, rather than resent, the actions of Jesus, who responded to more than a nameless woman and healed more than a faceless girl in the Gospel today. He created a community. He expanded its valued members. What he, and the woman, labeled as crumbs was enough to nourish all and is still feeding all God's children today.

A lot more persistence and a lot more push-back are in store for our nation and our Church in the next ensuing months and years, until the demons have left and we all call this home. Rejoice in the actions of Jesus. Remember the Syrophoenician woman. Make Christ's actions for her, for them and for you, your own. We know the end of this story. We know what God is planning for all. Not just fairness for some, but justice for all. Not fairness at all. Resurrection!
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York