In his book Civility, The Yale law professor Stephen Carter describes his childhood memory of what it was like to be a black family moving into an all-white Washington DC neighborhood in 1966. While only eleven, he had heard stories about things white people did to black people – stories based partly in truth, but largely on the imaginative retelling so typical of children that age. Carter remembers sitting on the front porch of his family’s large, new home feeling lonely, isolated, and afraid.
Suddenly a neighbor appeared next door – a woman with a booming voice they would come to know as Sara Kestenbaum – and as she got out of her car she shouted a very loud and enthusiastic “Welcome!” to Stephen and his siblings. Sara quickly disappeared into her house, only to reemerge moments later with a tray of snacks for the children to eat. Her simple act created for Stephen a sense of belonging where it had not existed before. Years later he would reflect that her action required both generosity and trust. He writes:
“Sara Kestenbaum was generous to us, giving of herself with no benefit to herself, and she demonstrated not merely a welcome that nobody else offered, but a faith in us, a trust that we were people to whom one could and should be generous.”
Her generosity, Carter observed, involved a cost – the price of the snacks, the time spent preparing them, foregoing other opportunities, perhaps inviting the scorn of others in the neighborhood – and, he writes, her trust involved a risk – she took a chance that the children she reached out to would receive, value, and respect her generosity.
More and more we live in a society where we do not know each other, and not knowing each other seem to think it does not matter how we treat one another. Today’s gospel reading goes right to the heart of this. It is a unique story in the New Testament in that its hero is a gentile woman and its villain is Jesus. She has so much going against her. She is a woman. She is a despised Canaanite. She is in need and uncontained in her pleadings for help.
Jesus is tired from weeks of exhausting preaching, teaching, healing, and confrontations. He simply wants to be left alone and so is dismissive and insulting. “I was sent to find the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he tells her. Then he adds, “It is not right to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.” It was a cold, cutting thing to say, wasn’t it. If Sara Kestenbaum displayed generosity and trust, then, here at least, Jesus displays the exact opposite. He is not willing to do anything for this woman nor does he see her as a person worthy his time.
Some biblical commentators, uncomfortable with the way this story portrays our Lord and Savior, suggest that Jesus was just testing her – a little challenge to see what she was made of. Some play off the notion that Jesus is all-knowing and thus knows where the conversation will end. This, they suggest, renders the insult meaningless. To be honest, I don’t see it. All I see here is a very human Jesus doing exactly what we humans do from time to time. He is selfish, rude, and uncivil… at least at first.
But the Canaanite woman will not be deterred. Motivated by a desperate desire to get help for her daughter, she is resilient and resourceful. She shrugs off the insult and uses it to her advantage. “Even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Hers is a costly response in that it foregoes the anger appropriate in the face of such disrespect and it goes right to the heart of generosity; “Jesus, even a little bit of your time and attention will do me great good.” It is a trusting response, risking that Jesus can be a better person than he has shown up to this point.
Instantly Jesus’ perception is transformed. He wakes up to a new reality that all human beings – which the Gospel proclaims were made by and through him – all human beings (even if they be ‘foreign dogs’) are worthy of God’s love. It is a first glimpse into a debate the early Church would have to hash out some years later – that the Gospel is intended for Jews and Gentiles alike. Until this moment in his ministry, it appears that even Jesus did not grasp this. But through this encounter, the Canaanite woman’s faith in him expands his faith in all people.
The exchange from her on is brief. Jesus expresses great admiration for her faith and grants her desire. The text says that her daughter, who may or may not even have been present, is healed at that moment. They did not know each other before this encounter and there is no indication that Jesus and the Canaanite woman ever met again, but still the story tells us that how we treat one another, even (and especially) the stranger, does in fact matter.
In today’s Old Testament reading we hear the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who years before had sold him into slavery. Now a powerful figure in the Egyptian government, the brothers need food that Joseph has placed in reserve against a severe famine. Joseph’s act of generosity is very costly. He foregoes revenge he could have (and some might argue should have) enacted on his brothers. His trust in them is risky. They might be the same jealous rascals they had been so many years ago, but even more likely it could jeopardize his position in Egypt. But Joseph’s actions, like those of Sara Kestenbaum, create a sense of belonging where it had not existed before. It transforms brokenness into blessing.
This morning we welcome two persons – one a child, the other an infant – into the Christian faith and life through baptism. Next week another infant will be baptized. In the liturgy I will ask if you will do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ. In effect, God is asking if you are willing to place your trust in these children; believing that they – along will all God’s creatures – are worthy of God’s love. And God will be asking if you will be generous with them; giving of your time, your talent, your treasure, and your heart. In some respects what God asks of you will cost you very little, in other respects it will cost you everything, for it will require you no longer to live merely for yourself, but also for the sake of others in the Name of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.
Last Friday several of us gathered at Jack and Barbara West’s home for our monthly Holy Smoke & Ale. Eric Freel brought his daughter Polly, who is one of the youngsters we always see running up here to attend Children’s Chapel. Several times during the evening I saw Ginger Owen, who is one of the people who teaches Children’s Chapel, take Polly out in the back yard to see the water or inspect a bird feeder or look at that the flowers. Ginger was both generous and trusting, as was Polly who now sees her as someone worthy of her generosity and trust. How much did it cost them? Not a lot, in terms of how the world measures cost, but everything in terms of how Jesus measures it. How much did each risk? Again, not a lot and everything.
Again I say that more and more we live in a society where we do not know each other, and not knowing each other seem to think it does not matter how we treat one another. Sara Kestenbaum, Joseph, Polly and Ginger, and the Canaanite woman remind us that God’s kingdom looks very different from the ways of this world. Even our Lord needed to be touched by the generosity and trust of others so that he could be transformed into the image God.