“Lives Matter”

Pentecost 15

September 6, 2015


Text: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37


          One of the troubling aspects of today’s society is that there seems to be a terrible argument going on about who and who does not matter. Much of the debate surrounds the Black Lives Matter movement, which has arisen in the last couple of years around some highly-publicized killings of African-Americans by non-African-American police officers and public safety officials, and which focuses in particular on what it considers “police brutality”. This movement first coalesced after George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of the charges against him after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida while on neighborhood watch patrol in 2012. Since then there have been other situations that have fueled this movement, including: the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York City when he was choked by a police officer who was arresting him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes; the 2014 shooting by police of John Crawford III in a Dayton, OH Walmart—he was reported to be waving a gun, which turned out to be a pellet/BB gun that the store was selling; and the controversial 2014 shooting in Ferguson, MO of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson.

          Unfortunately, in recent months some elements of the Black Lives Matter movement have started doing some things that have turned ugly. They have disrupted several presidential candidates’ campaign appearances. They booed one candidate whose response to them was “Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter.” At a recent rally in Minnesota they were chanting slogans that were calling for police officers to be killed. In response, some supporters of police officers have started a counter-movement called “Blue Lives Matter.”

          Now to me, because of my faith in Jesus Christ, it is obvious that “all lives matter”. I know many others who feel the same way and have a hard time understanding the unrest. However, I also understand that movements such as Black Lives Matter, gay pride movements, feminist movements, poor people’s movements, and anti-bullying movements arise because in our society there are many instances where some people are treated as if they don’t matter.

          I am not an ethnic minority. I am not gay. I am not female. Although I sometimes struggle financially, I am not poor. I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against for being one or more of those things. I only know what the people in my life tell me who have had those experiences, who have been stopped by police simply because they are black (even our Bishop reports having had that happen to him), who have been taunted and cursed and threatened for being gay, who have experienced employment discrimination because they are female, who have been called lazy welfare bums because they are poor. The experience I have had that maybe is closest to any of this is the fact that I was picked on a lot as a kid, although what I experienced was fairly tame compared to the kind of bullying I hear happens today.

          This kind of thing is nothing new. The writer of Proverbs found it necessary to remind people that God made rich and poor alike, and it is good to be generous to the poor and evil to treat the poor unjustly, because God comes to the defense of the poor. James, in his letter, criticizes church people who treat rich people with honor and show disrespect to poor people. He reminds us that the poor are often far richer in faith, that God defends them, and that it is our responsibility as Christians to care for them with loving deeds, not just with loving words. Showing favoritism makes us judges with evil motives. It puts us in the spot of deciding which lives really matter, even though in God’s eyes all lives matter.

          Because of this, it is easy for me to find the story at the beginning of our Gospel lesson troubling. Jesus was on vacation in Tyre, which is today part of Lebanon. But almost immediately, a Greek woman, Syrophoenician by birth, heard about him and came to him, begging Jesus to deliver her daughter from possession by an unclean spirit. Of course, today most people living in technologically advanced societies are not sure what to make of the idea of demon possession. Some suggest that it is how people in that time period understood mental illness. Whatever was going on, this woman wanted her daughter set free from it so she could be whole and healthy.

          At first Jesus was apparently unwilling to grant this woman’s request. He said, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

          To our way of thinking, this statement is scandalous. Not only did Jesus refuse her, he insulted her as he did so. At this point in his ministry, Jesus understood his ministry as being directed toward his own people, the Jewish people. This woman was a Gentile, an outsider, so apparently Jesus thought she was not worth his time.

          But the woman did not give up. She replied, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Consider the faith this woman demonstrated. Not only did she refuse to be turned away, she expressed trust that even a crumb of what Jesus had to offer would be sufficient to bring healing to her daughter. Recognizing this, Jesus said, “Good answer! Go home. The demon has already left your daughter.” And sure enough, when she got home, she found it as he had said.

It seems to me this incident was God’s way of helping Jesus understand that his ministry was bigger than just Israel, that Gentile lives also matter to God. Indeed, the second part of our Gospel lesson indicates that Jesus got the message.

When Jesus left Tyre, he traveled through Sidon and then through the region of the Ten Cities, also known as the Decapolis (which means “ten cities” in Greek). This also was Gentile territory—the cities of the Decapolis had been founded as Greek colonies. Here some people brought a man who was a deaf mute to Jesus and asked Jesus to place his hand on the man and heal him. Jesus took the man aside and healed him. Although we likely find the method strange—putting his fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, touching the man’s tongue, sighing, and saying “open up”—the point I take away is that here Jesus willingly healed a Gentile. He understood that all people matter to God.

Sometimes it is hard to remember this. I find it all too easy to forget that people who hold beliefs and opinions that I find reprehensible matter to God. There are many categories of people that some people in our society find it hard to see as mattering—people of certain religions, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, political persuasions, socio-economic statuses, or other things we used to make distinctions among ourselves. Many of the ones that are looked on as not mattering are people who are considered to be on the margins by those who are part of mainstream society. But James makes it quite clear—when we show favoritism to some people over others, when we decide some people matter more than others, we become evil-minded judges. We take on ourselves a role that rightly belongs to God alone.

Lives matter. All of them. May God show us the places where we need to change our attitudes toward others, and give us the courage and strength to do so.


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