Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 12, 2017
“Nevertheless, She Persisted”
Matthew 15: 21-28 – New Revised Standard Version
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This is a marvelous story, but before studying this passage, I didn’t know that it had been handed down for centuries in African American communities because of its inspiring message of women’s persistence in the midst of humiliation. I hadn’t made the connection that the Canaanite woman is of African descent. But knowing this, I can’t help but think differently about this woman whom generations of men have described as “annoying.”
In her book Daughters of Dignity: African Women in the Bible and the Virtues of Black Womanhood, LaVerne McCain Gill calls the Canaanite woman “determined, defiant, and rebellious” – much to the annoyance of the disciples who complained bitterly about her – “she keeps shouting at us.” A woman, an unwanted outsider – a different race, language, color; a pagan, and in her own community, a nobody… But as Gill reminds us, persistence is often the only tool of the disenfranchised.
Nameless, hers is a story still based in reality today. She came seeking healing for her daughter, but a bunch of men were bothered by her. Sound familiar? They were probably complaining that health care for the poor is too expensive. They may have been annoyed that health care is not the right of this woman’s daughter because she can’t afford it. And then bothered at being forced to provide emergency room care for those too lazy to get insurance.
But she wouldn’t go away, so these men went whining to Jesus to get him to send her away. She’s a pest that keeps bothering us. But here’s what is so shocking about the story: Jesus doesn’t scold them for trying to get rid of her. What is so shocking is that Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples but her!
Remember when the disciples tried to keep the children away? Don’t bother him. Jesus responded, “bring the little ones to me, for to them belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Yet in this case, instead of giving such a welcoming response, he makes it worse – claiming that helping her was the equivalent of throwing food to the dogs. Why should I waste my time on the likes of you?
Imagine hearing that from Jesus – the legendary healer, recognized as a deeply spiritual man. But, nevertheless, she persisted – she talked back, she argued with him – until she received what she came to get: a blessing; healing for her daughter.
But she got more than that. Matthew gives this unnamed Canaanite woman credit for changing the heart and mind of Jesus – for converting him – to a more inclusive mission than just his own people.
Gill compares the Canaanite woman with Fannie Lou Hamer. A share cropper who persisted. She wasn’t granted what she wanted. She realized the only way to get justice was to begin her own political party – the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
She was born in 1917, the youngest of 20 children. Like so many others, at age 6 she was picking cotton. It would appear that her life was destined to end in the fields of Mississippi, eking out a living as a sharecropper, a second-class citizen (or third or fourth class…). In her quest for freedom, Hamer endured beatings, personal terrorism, economic reprisals and death threats. Still, she persisted in taking on the racist all-white, all male, Southern Democrats. Even LBJ participated by trying to silence her, attempting to preempt her televised testimony by holding a press conference to announce a non-event. But all these tactics to stop her and silence her were no match for her thirst and determination. You may recognize her most famous quote: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
In the encyclopedia Black Women in America, she is quoted as saying in 1965: I remember one time a man came to me after the students began to work in Mississippi, and he said the white people were getting tired and they were getting tense and anything might happen. “Well, I asked him, how long he thinks we’ve been tired. I’ve been tired for 46 years, my parents were tired before me, and their parents were tired.”
The Canaanite woman tells Jesus, I will not go away until you perform a blessing for me because I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. My people are not second class, and don’t deserve to be stuck with crumbs. Heal my daughter. By her persistence, she not only got what she sought, she planted hope in the others standing on the outside that day looking in. And her blessing extends even to us today.
During this Black History Month, I think it is of particular importance to name women of African descent who have largely remained nameless among the better known stories of men. Our world and our faith have been continuously expanded by such persistent women.
The Canaanite woman is in a line with other women of African descent in the Bible who expanded the notion of who is chosen.
Along with many others, they demonstrate that God is not and was not ever exclusively for the people of Israel. I believe Jesus knew this, but chose this particular moment to honor this particularly persistent woman. And with his incredibly shocking statement, attempted to change the minds of his stunned followers.
In our own times, the three women in the movie Hidden Figures are finally getting their due. Had you heard the names Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson before? Had you even heard their story?
And this week’s Black History Month handout: Zora Neale Hurston. I’d heard her name before but didn’t know her story.
I was particularly taken by the beginning of Hurston’s story. Her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. Established in 1887, the rural community near Orlando was the nation's first incorporated black township. In Eatonville, Zora was never indoctrinated in inferiority. She could look all around and see the evidence of black achievement. She could look to town hall and see black men, including her father, John Hurston, formulating the laws that governed Eatonville. She could look to the schools of the town's two churches and see black women, including her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, directing the Christian curricula. She could look to the porch of the black-owned village store and see men and women passing new worlds through their mouths in the form of colorful, engaging stories.
Later in life she suffered terrible discrimination and died penniless, but the town where she grew up was quite the contrast to black life described by the 45th president.
Remember when the candidate tried to appeal to black voters by describing their life: “Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No homes. No ownership. Crime. You can go to war zones in countries that we’re fighting and it’s safer than living in our inner cities,” erroneously suggesting that all African Americans live in inner cities. President 45 continued his dystopian description, “Look, it’s a disaster their living. We’ll get rid of the crime. You’ll be able to walk down the street without getting shot. Right now, you walk down the street, you get shot.”
This is not a narrative meant to care or to solve anything; this was not meant to uplift or encourage. He was simply repeating the fantasy of white supremacists. A dog whistle for the “alt-right.” A reason for the KKK to cheer. But it’s also a danger with many Black History Month vignettes – meant to uplift but making the predominant narrative of black life as one mired in suffering and humiliation and degradation instead of achievement and triumph and accomplishment.
Jesus argued with a woman who was defiant, not annoying. He debated with this woman. And it moved him. I even think it pleased him. The persistence of this nameless woman opened the way for healing, a river in the desert of oppression, a spring of fresh water for survival – not just for her daughter but for her people and all others excluded.
We owe a debt of gratitude to those who when blocked or silenced nevertheless persist; those who made and still make history for our sake – especially the nameless. And to those in our pews today who pass their legacy of civil rights on to us. There’s much for us to learn because we must remain just as “determined, defiant, and rebellious” in the face of men who are annoyed, or rather afraid, of women who speak up. Only this kind of persistence will achieve the kind of healing that continues to elude us as a nation. But which will come.
And to that task, I love Maya Angelou’s poem,
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
 Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000
 For these and more, see http://www.biography.com/news/little-known-facts-about-black-history-20730659
 In July 1905, when she was thirty-seven years old, Sarah (her real name) and her daughter moved to Denver, Colorado, where she continued to sell products and develop her own hair-care business. Following her marriage to Charles Walker in 1906, she became known as Madam C. J. Walker and marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. (“Madam” was adopted from women pioneers of the French beauty industry.) Her husband, who was also her business partner, provided advice on advertising and promotion; Sarah sold her products door to door, teaching other black women how to groom and style their hair. In 1906 Walker put her daughter in charge of the mail order operation in Denver while she and her husband traveled throughout the southern and eastern United States to expand the business. In 1908 Walker and her husband relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they opened a beauty parlor and established Lelia College to train "hair culturists." After closing the business in Denver in 1907, A'lelia ran the day-to-day operations from Pittsburgh, while Walker established a new base in Indianapolis in 1910.