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Children of Ham

Reverend Philip Stringer

Matthew 15:21-28

LET US PRAY: Lord of Life, give us ears to hear and hearts willing to receive, that your word may be food for our lives and a blessing to the world. AMEN

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it didn’t matter if we were rich or poor; black or white; male or female?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if what moved us and inspired us were our faith in the power of God’s grace?

There was a woman who believed in the justice of God, and that through Jesus, the justice of God would wash over all people, not only the people of ancient Israel, but Gentiles too. She was a Canaanite-- an outsider. In Hebrew Scripture the Canaanites are said to be the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah who looked upon the nakedness of his father and was cursed:

“Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

The children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never forgot this curse-- and in Jesus’ day, the Canaanites had no illusions about how the Jews looked upon them. And among both cultures was a shared understanding of the place of women as lower than men. Certainly, it was not a woman’s place to speak to a religious teacher or make a request of him.

And yet when Jesus was near, she came out shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

She should not have done that. But she did. And Jesus should have sent her away.

Do the children of Ham still walk the face of the earth? And are they still “cursed?”

For eleven years, I operated a home health agency. I hired my caregivers based on their character, compassion and skill. Most of my caregivers— more than 95%— were women, and roughly 80% were black. Most identified as Christian, but a few were Muslim. I remember one woman in particular who was born in Mali, in west Africa. She is gentle and kind and was an exceptional caregiver— one of the very best I ever hired.

As the owner and director of the agency, my first responsibility was to provide the best possible care to my clients, but a second, equally important responsibility also fell to me: That I ensure the safety of my caregivers.

I often felt that my caregivers were treated like Canaanites— the cursed “Children of Ham."

I was mindful of the fact that not all households were a safe place to send a woman.

I tried my best to avoid potential clients who were overtly racist, but on several occasions my caregivers were clearly treated unfairly because of their color.

And I was particularly anxious about the safety of my Muslim caregivers. In recent years, those who thrive on stirring up fear have had a field day, painting broad generalizations about all Muslims as blood-thirsty, cruel and heartless; evil people bent upon the destruction of people like you and me. I have— quite literally— heard people say that people like my caregiver should be kicked out of the country.

Those who thrive on dividing have had a similar field day by heaping hatred upon migrants who enter our country without documentation. The de-humanizing of them is so extreme that many people are willing to support violent and callous treatments of them and turning a blind eye toward their suffering.

Stirring up fear and division are so productive for fear mongers that we have even seen a deep division form between Democrats and Republicans, with Americans treating each other as “outsiders” and enemies. Yes, I believe that the cursed “Children of Ham” still walk the face of the earth.

Jesus should have sent the Canaanite woman away. But what would happen if he didn’t?

Some scholars suggest that Jesus’ own vision of the kingdom of God was too small until this point, and that it was the Canaanite woman who gave Jesus a larger vision of his own lordship. Perhaps. Other passages present Jesus as struggling with such questions.

Is our vision of God’s kingdom too small? How might God be challenging us to see and experience something more?

Maybe, when Jesus heard this CANAANITE WOMAN calling, it was so brazenly inappropriate that it made him stop and wonder if something important was happening. Maybe he did not answer her at all because he wanted to see what would happen next. Or maybe— as I suspect— he saw clearly what was happening but also saw a teaching moment rapidly approaching and he waited for the inevitable reaction from his fellow Jews.

The disciples told him to do the acceptable thing-- to send her away-- but Jesus doesn’t do it. Instead, Jesus drags into the open— and puts into brutally simple words what all of Israel believed-- that she was beneath them-- the lowest of slaves-- de-humanized as a dog at their feet. By saying what he said, there was no longer any way to avoid the topic. Jesus had most certainly focused the attention of everyone present upon the issue of inequality. Upon the issue of sanctioned prejudice and discrimination.

What will happen next?

Have you ever been confronted with your own weaknesses, publicly humiliated or dismissed as unimportant or insignificant? Certainly, children know how this feels as do all who have been treated unjustly or marginalized by discrimination.

The Canaanite woman who came to Jesus didn’t argue the point, but she didn’t go away, either. She didn’t tell him his words were insulting and unfair. She didn’t take issue with the statement at all. Instead, she spoke about the justice of God: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

It is as if she is saying to Jesus-- and for the benefit of all who are around him, “This isn’t about me. Who I am is not the point here. The relevant issue here is who YOU are!”

There was a woman who believed in the justice of God, that the justice of God does not have limits, and that through Jesus the justice of God would wash over all people.

There was a woman who dared to believe that -- regardless of what others thought about her -- she was a child of God and would therefore not be forgotten or dismissed.

There was a woman who believed . . . and because she believed, the Kingdom of God was revealed as bigger and more wonderful than anyone imagined.

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

There was a woman who believed.

What would happen if we believed what she believed?

How would we see the kingdom of God being revealed among us and beyond us? How would our vision of the kingdom be expanded?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if who we are didn’t matter? Good or bad. Strong or weak. Educated or not. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if what mattered most to us was the power of God’s grace?

Then you and I wouldn’t have to worry if we are good enough.

Then we wouldn’t worry about what makes our neighbor different; We wouldn’t see anyone as a “Child of Ham”— We could just accept them for who they are— and maybe even see that what makes them different adds something of value to us.

We live in a world that is shaped in many ways by fear. A world with heavy lines of separation between the wealthy and the poor; the weak and the powerful. There seems to be a love for separating classes of people, and it has been this way throughout human history, up until the present day. In some places like India, separating the value of people by caste is still common— but in all places there are divisions between people as “insiders” and “outsiders”— sometimes easily defined by race, gender, nationality— and other times, more subtle— as seen, for example, in our own country with the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

I often worried about my Muslim caregiver, and how she might be treated by my clients. Just as the Canaanite woman inherited the legacy of Ham, Muslims have inherited the legacy of Osama Bin Laden.

One day, I introduced my caregiver to a client— a Lutheran, by the way— who needed someone to stay the night with her. It was the season of Ramadan when Muslims fast and pray. There would be no avoiding the issue this time. “Mrs. Smith,” I said, “Daphne is Muslim. It is Ramadan so she will be preparing her meal at night and will take several short breaks during the day for prayer, but it won’t interfere with her care of you.”

Without batting an eye, my client turned to her and said, “I would be proud to have you pray in my home.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful— isn’t it wonderful— when who we are doesn’t matter? Only the hospitality of God— the grace of God— directing us.

On that day in the ancient district of Tyre and Sidon, it did not matter to Jesus from where this woman— or her daughter came. God’s grace. That’s what matters— to Jesus and his church.

Today— after worship— we will be gathering to assemble kits for Leslie House. The kits have simple supplies for homeless women. People too often are treated like “Children of Ham.”

Here— and around the world — Christians of every faith are at work, ministering in the ways needed for their particular place and this particular time. Jesus celebrated the faith of a woman who believed in the power and goodness of God.

A man in a Xi’an Museum was explaining peasant art to me. There was a painting of a village with what looked like a cross in the middle of it. I asked if the artist was a Christian-- he said he didn’t know, but possibly. “Uneducated peasants are not as modern and often continue to believe in primitive myths.”

If this artist was a Christian, was he merely ignorant, or did he paint a cross in the middle of his village because he saw something at the center of their life together that was powerful and holy? — and he wanted to share that. How might the witness of Christians expand all people’s vision of the kingdom of God.

I have traveled extensively through some remote areas of China and passed several churches in rural villages. When I would see that, I would wonder about them. I wonder what it is like for them to live as Christians in China. I wonder how many generations they have been Christians. I wonder what might we learn from them, and if we would find that they are not empty, but that they are full in ways that could benefit us. I wonder if they know that we are their brothers and sisters, and what would it mean for them if they knew that we pray for them? And how might our own understanding of the kingdom be expanded by knowing them?

Today we have reason to celebrate. Not only the witness of the Canaanite woman, but the faith of those around the world who believe today.

And like the Canaanite woman, our attention should not be on what is wrong or right about ourselves and the world around us; Our attention should be on Jesus, and what God is doing through Jesus to affect us and the whole world.

What is God revealing to you about the kingdom of God? About the dignity and gifts of others? About what is pleasing to God? About your role in God’s good and just plan to reconcile all people to God in Christ?

The work of God within you, among you and through you is most certainly not finished.

There was a Canaanite woman who believed . . . and because she believed, the Kingdom of God was revealed as bigger and more wonderful than anyone imagined.

What would happen if you and I were to believe what she believed?



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