Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians"

Text: Matthew 15:21-28 (A mother pleads with Jesus)

"Lord have mercy . . . Christ have mercy!" In our Gospel reading today, in the cries of a mother with a sick child, we hear again these central pleas of our faith. And they are pleas which, among others, have been immortalized in thousands of choral masses.

Most choral masses begin with a "Kyrie" movement. Kyrie is the Greek word for "Lord," and Greek was the language in which the gospels were first written. So in today's reading when a desperate Canaanite woman with a sick daughter approaches Jesus and says, "Lord, have mercy on me," the original Greek phrase would be "Kyrie eleison."

Last year, I sang Mozart's Mass in C Minor as a member of a choir at the University of Toronto; and it begins with a Kyrie movement. For a full seven minutes, we sang two simple phrases over and over again -- Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy. For me, the music is some of the most beautiful ever written. The music is as full of pathos and pleading as the two phrases themselves. And, of course, the mass contains the full genius of Mozart.

So when I hear a text like the one from Matthew today, in my mind I sometimes translate the mother's plea -- first repeated, and then shouted -- into the original Greek: Kyrie eleison . . .

Except, in this case, as in nowhere else in the Gospels, Jesus does not respond to her cry for help. At first, he simply ignores the mother. Then when the disciples complain about her shouting, he explains that he was "only sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He is not responding to her pleas because she is Canaanite and not Jewish.

When the mother persists and kneels before Jesus saying "Lord, help me," Jesus goes further. He insults her: Jesus says, "it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she responds to the insult with a quick quip: "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Jesus seems delighted with her reply and so replies in turn, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And the story concludes with the news that her daughter is instantly healed.

So all is well? A woman asks Jesus for help, and with a bit of a delay and a bit of an insult, she receives that help? Her daughter is healed.

I don't know . . . If I were asked to choose the most shocking thing that Jesus says in all the gospel stories, this is the one I might choose. Jesus uses a slur to dismiss a foreign, Canaanite woman. He calls her a dog . . .

The Bible is not kind to Canaanites. While the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph grew to become a great nation during 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they were far from the land of milk and honey promised to Abraham by God. During those centuries, this Promised Land had become home to the Canaanites. So when Moses led the Hebrew slaves through the desert to the Promised Land, it was not an empty paradise waiting for them to enter. The land was called Canaan then, not Israel, and it was filled with a people more powerful than the people of Moses. The Bible then shows God leading his chosen people into Canaan where they slaughter and conquer the Canaanites. Finally, God forbids intermarriage or religious exchanges with them.

However, not all of the Canaanites must have been killed during this brutal invasion and conquest because our story today has a Canaanite woman more than 1,000 years afterward pleading with Jesus to have mercy on her and her sick daughter.

It would not surprise me if one of the disciples called this woman a dog and dismissed her. But Jesus is not just a man. He is also our Saviour. And one of the central messages of Jesus is that God's healing is not just for the Jews, but for all people everywhere. So where does this insult come from?

In thinking of the Canaanite woman, I thought of parallels between her status as a conquered and rejected outsider and the plight of the indigenous native people here in North America. When European settlers first arrived in America 500 years ago, many of them called it their Promised Land. They said that they wanted to establish a New Israel in America. And the native people already living here were cast in the negative role of the Canaanites of the Old Testament . . .

Three summers ago, I took a course called "Engaging Aboriginal Spirituality." One of the articles we read had the same title as this sermon, "Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians" The author, Robert Warrior, was a native American who had rejected the Christianity of his childhood because of the Bible's accounts of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews and because Christians had sometimes used these stories to justify invading, conquering, and subduing native Americans.

And the problem, Warrior wrote, lay not just in the Old Testament. There was also the story of Jesus and the Canaanite mother, which we heard today.

Warrior's article stuck in my mind, but I also wonder about it. There are so many ways to interpret any given story in the Bible, and our passage today is no different. Jesus' insult could be a sly way for him to illustrate the parable he had just told his friends about caring more about what we say than about religious dietary rules. Further, the story ends well. Jesus acknowledges the Canaanite woman's faith and heals her daughter. And overall in the Bible, Jesus is clear that his mission is not just to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel," but to all of us. So the question of how to interpret our passage today is an open one . . .

I have been thinking about first nations people a lot since I came to Borderlands six weeks ago. Saskatchewan has a greater percentage of first nations people than any other province, so I was surprised to learn that there are very few native people living here near the border. There are some French towns nearby, such as Willow Bunch, Lisieux, and Bengough, and perhaps they have a Metis background; although I don't know that.

On Monday, I made my first trip west to Wood Mountain. I went to the museum and I was interested to learn about the coming of the Lakota people to Wood Mountain under the leadership of Sitting Bull following the battle of Little Big Horn in 1877. And as you know, a small native reservation exists there to this day. The displays in the museum also gave a taste of the complexity of the settlement of this area in the early 20th century. There were Seventh Day Adventist immigrants from the Ukraine, Orthodox Christians from Serbia and Romania, Lutherans from Germany, and many, many others.

Another thing that surprises me about this area is how late it was settled. Many farms are only having their centennial celebrations this year or last. The towns were only created in the 1920s. In fact, I now wonder if the border region of Saskatchewan might be the very last part of Canada south of the Canadian Shield to be settled . . .

When I was a child, there was a lot about the history and context of my area that I didn't understand. From the age of three until I was 15, my family lived in Cornwall Ontario, which is a small industrial city on the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. Although I knew there was an Indian Reservation on Cornwall Island, which straddled the Ontario-New York border in the river, I didn't know any native people. Although I understood that the east end of the city was French-speaking and Catholic, I never paid it much attention nor had any French-Canadian friends.

Later, after we had moved from Cornwall, the French and native-facts of that city came to national prominence. First there was a successful fight by the French-speaking east-enders of the city, who made up more than 30% of the population, to have one of the three high-schools as a French school. Second there were a series of clashes between natives on the Cornwall Island Reserve and the police over cigarette smuggling in the 1990s. From those experiences, I know how easy it is for me to live in a place and not really know its history or context.

Now that I live in Borderlands, I hope to not be as oblivious as I was then to the history of how we all got here and the many different realities of our neighbours.

Most of us, I think, have a very complex ancestry. Like the people of Israel, we may have ancestors who were conquered people, and we may also have ancestors who were part of a conquering people. This will be true whether our background is mostly European, First Nations, or a mixture from many places.

For these reasons, we might identify with the Canaanite woman who relies on help from a group of foreign men who look down on her. And we might also identify with the disciples, and in this case, even Jesus, who at first turn their back on the foreigner.

Given our complex backgrounds, we are all Canaanites, I believe; and we are Israelites. We are all indigenous or native; and we are all settlers in a foreign land. These truths stress how wonderful the core message of the Gospel -- that God's love and grace is available to all of us in every time and place . . .

The course on Aboriginal Spirituality that I took in the summer of 2008 had a big impact on me. Much of the impact came from the First Nations' elders who joined us in a learning circle for five days and nights at a United Church retreat centre near the Six Nations reserves in southwestern Ontario. In particular, we were lucky to have in that circle the Very Rev. Stan McKay from the Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba. Stan is a former Moderator the United Church, and he led our Bible study that week. Of all the people I have met in our church so far, no one has impressed me more.

I could say a lot more about that week in the learning circle. For now, I will leave it at this: It helped show me how much we can learn from people of backgrounds different from our own. And that is one of the great privileges of ministry, I believe. We get to learn from all the many diverse members of a congregation; and from our neighbours.

To close the sermon, I offer a saying from another Lakota warrior, Black Elk, who fought alongside Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn, and who, like Sitting Bull, eventually was baptized into the Roman Catholic church. In one of Black Elk's many visions, he wrote:

"I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about me was the whole hoop of the world.  And while I stood there, I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw: for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together.  And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as the daylight and wide as the starlight. And in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of the earth  And I saw that that it was holy.  But anywhere is the center of the world."

So in the spirit of Black Elk, we can affirm that south-central Saskatchewan -- though new and full of wonders and surprises to me -- is the center of the world. It is also a place where we know that our pleas of "Lord, have mercy" and "Christ have mercy" are heard and where healing is freely offered to us all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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