As I write, this country is still in the midst of a potential declaration of war by the President of the United States against its own citizens. There are people on the streets in dozens of cities, trying to find a path of God’s love between their own outrage, anger, pressure from left and right, white and black, all telling each and all of them how they are wrong headed. This morning, in my time, not yours, my priest and spiritual guide wrote that he had awakened with the words of Matthew 24 on my mind. So, of course I grabbed a copy of Scripture and turned to it. It was terrifying to read in the light of the real world today. We often read in the Gospels and in the letters of Paul and others the assumption that the world actually would end in, let’s say, a week from Thursday. But the Thursdays came and went and deeper prayer and thought reinterpreted those warnings in the hands of many preachers and theologians. But on a day like today, and a week like the one past – with COVID-19 still with us, the murder of Mr. George Floyd, peaceful and violent protests, looting, and the current incumbent in the While House calling in the army, gassing peaceful protesters, and that blasphemous photo-shoot in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church – is the end this Thursday? Probably not, but it sure feels like it. But we are not here to remember horrors. We are here to listen to Jesus and to turn our hearts to his words.
Matthew 24 left me in tears. Jesus’ exhorted us. The abomination on the altar. The need to flee in haste. But yet endure, for our God just may shorten the time of this punishing whirlwind. Forgive us. Do we deserve his mercy? Where we will be when you read this is anybody’s guess. I cling to FB and Zoom support from those whom I love and trust. And prayer. Lots of prayer.
Today’s Gospel is also from Matthew (15:21-28), one of the two places where we are told the story of Jesus’ encounter with a foreign woman, Canaanite or Syrophoenician, whose daughter is possessed by a demon. The other is Mark 7:24-30. They seem pretty much the same, but today’s news cycle colored my exegesis.
I have, in the past, found the reading from Mark to have an intimate feel. Jesus is exhausted. He takes refuge in somebody’s house. He has just crossed over to Gentile lands. Maybe to escape the desperate need of the people crying out, reaching for him. Mobbing him. And now he has a moment of quiet, but no. A woman is there, begging for help for her daughter. Does he snap at her? Remind her she is not a Jew? He is here to bring salvation to the chosen of God, the Judean people. She does not slink away. She gives as good as she gets. With the wit of a rabbinical scholar she reminds him that even dogs get the crumbs under the table. Jesus is satisfied. Here is another whose faith overvaults that of the Judeans.
But now it is the account in Matthew. And the account is just enough different that it calls to me, teaches me something new. I am reluctant to read into our Holy Scriptures what I want to see. They are here to tell me what God wants to teach me. But there is something that I think speaks to the disenfranchised on the streets of our cities today. The difference between the two accounts is the presence and actions of the disciples. It reads, “And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ (Matt 15:23-25).” Jesus’ disciples, his chosen, his friends, were bullying her. Chasing her away. She was a Canaanite. Probably had the wrong gods. Unclean. Looked wrong. Sounded wrong. Smelt wrong. Couldn’t let her defile their Master. Annoying woman, and we know what female dogs are called. Is that why she quoted the folk saying about dogs under the table? Jesus lets it go on a little. Was Jesus being cruel, saying that thing about the lost sheep? Or was that Jesus giving his own a chance to think about what they were doing? “Lord, help me.” How often have we bent the knees of our hearts and said that?
On the streets of our cities today and, at the time of this writing, for the past ten days, people have stood in solidarity for those who long have cried “Lord, help me.” Mr. Floyd didn’t set out to be a martyr. God chooses martyrs, and his public murder became a flame to bring the world’s attention to the systemic racism in the United States, left over from African slavery. And I will say out front that it isn’t only African-Americans. Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ+ people, and more, have been murdered by police officers and neighbors. But right now the issue that has called down the whirlwind is the systemic racism against people of color, predominantly Black men and boys. Now we are united in solidarity to bring about change. Change in our own hearts and minds, but also change in entrenched institutions. Those men and women who take an oath as police officers, wear a shield and a uniform, are called to a higher moral compass, because they hold power. And bear arms. And many have failed. The militaristic culture of almost any local cop shop is not favorable to the people they serve. And a life was snuffed out. Jesus weeps, and we weep with him.
The Four Apocalyptic Horsemen have been pounding down our streets. Plague. Famine. Death. Could War have been far behind? And now we have war. The nation’s leader stood before the Episcopal Church of St. John with a Bible in his hand for a photo-op which can only be called blasphemy. And he called down forces, civilian and military, on the people, innocent people in a peaceful protest. With three months of isolation, unemployment, victims of COVID-19 everywhere, the steaming stew of discontent and anger was ready to boil over, and, even then, the people were peaceful. And it is a miracle. Did Mr. Floyd’s death and the solidarity of the people break open our corrupt world to the healing power of the Spirit? Did our ears finally hear, our eyes see? Will God’s love win? Is this solidarity an atonement, a turning towards Christ, for all the mistakes of the past, or at least a start. Remember, repentance is not breast beating. That is ego. Repentance and atonement are about turning to God, making changes according to God’s law. It will be a struggle.
Back to Matthew 24, we have seen a false prophet and his minions brandishing our Holy Scriptures like a weapon. Well, the Scriptures are a weapon, but not the way it was used. It is a weapon of endurance, obedience to Jesus’ command to love one another, to be his Body in the world, and bring forth the Kingdom. Endure. Pray. Trust in the Spirit. Act from Love. Jesus taught us that we are all his and sanctified, not “other” and expendable. Our country is on the line. So are our souls.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is with The Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.