Relationship over Law
Entitled to Salvation? - delivered to the Annual Meeting of the South Central Conference of the UCC
Before I begin I want to take a minute or two to thank some of the incredible people that worked to make this annual meeting happen. I want to thank the inimitable Debra Joseph, without whose sheer force of will five small churches could never have organized this event. I want to thank Cellie, for making the beautiful quilt that sits on our altar. Cellie runs a quilting ministry at Beecher UCC that produces hundreds of quilts a year to give to the needy. I want to thank Ron Bufford, a leader in our denomination, whose work has brought hundreds, if not thousands into the life of Christ in the UCC. But perhaps more than anyone else, I want to thank Rev. Earnest Salisberry, who has been blessing us to kingdom come with his incredible music. We are here talking about turning the world upside down, and getting a largely white room of UCC folks to sing, and clap, and sway to such beautiful, black music is more than a little revolutionary. You heard us this morning, not singing dirge like hymns, or corny praise music, but really getting down, getting the Spirit, as Earnest said, having CHURCH. So thank you, Earnest for sharing your gifts with us, for turning our little world upside down. Now, I’m going to attempt to do the same, to turn the world upside down in my own little way. I’m going to try to pose a question or two that we haven’t heard before, see if we can’t leave here thinking in new ways, just like Earnest had us singing in new ways.
On the 17th of last September, I was in a hospital room just a few miles from here, waiting for my wife to give birth to our second child. Her first delivery had gone really smoothly and I was expecting the same, when all of sudden the small crew of nurses began a flurry of nervous activity. You could tell they worried, but they were still trying to be good nurses, trying to keep a calm demeanor in front of the patient, trying to not to alarm my wife and I. So one of them calmly explained that the baby’s heart rate had dropped, and that it was probably nothing to worry about. Could just be that the kid was in an awkward position, so they tried rotating my wife to her side and everything was fine. This was a little scary for me, but it seemed like we had things under control. And then it happened again. This time, the nurses were failing to keep a calm demeanor as they frantically whispered back and forth, and then they called for the doctor. Something was wrong. I’ll never forget that moment and how it felt. My whole life was in that delivery chair, my wife Shannon, my unborn son Samuel, and something was wrong, worryingly wrong, seriously wrong. It felt like the bottom of my stomach fell out. It felt like my whole being was being sucked away from me. I thought my wife and child were dying and I was utterly powerless to stop it. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t call her a doctor, we are already in a hospital. I had nowhere to turn, I had nothing at all in that moment, nothing but God. I was completely vulnerable, the life of my wife and child were slipping before my eyes, and I was utterly dependent upon the mercy of God. Everything turned out alright, mostly the baby was coming before anyone expected, but even though the crisis passed, I will never forget that feeling of powerlessness.
In the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel, we’re no longer a powerful people. Their days of empire in the time of David and Solomon were long gone. Mighty and massive empires from the North and the East, Assyria and Babylon, had descended upon the Israelites, they had crushed the Northern Kingdom, wiping it from the map forever. And though the Assyrian destruction hadn’t quite reached Jerusalem in the South, the Babylonians had. This fearsome empire routed the people of God, burned and sacked their holy city, and destroyed the very temple of God. And when they were finished, these horrible oppressors, they took many of the survivors into exile, forcing them to march to Babylon. Living there in Babylon, the people of God had precious little hope. There was no rescue mission forthcoming from Jerusalem. There were no friends or allies in Babylon. They were prisoners, brought to their new home in chains and forced to live in exile in the land of their oppressors.
It was to these oppressed and persecuted people that the word of God came through the mouth of Isaiah. Although they had no options, though they had nowhere to turn, though they were powerless, nevertheless they had reason to hope in God. God had the power to save them. And Isaiah told them that God could and would save them. Not because they had been righteous, for they had not. Not because they deserved to be saved. They did not. Not because there was anything great or special that they could give to God in return, for they had no such thing. God could and would save them for one reason and one reason only, because God is a merciful God. Because God chooses to show mercy to the oppressed. Their God had always been a God of and for the oppressed. God had chosen them as God’s people when they were oppressed slaves in the land of Egypt. And God had spat them out, when they became the oppressors of their sisters and brothers. And now, oppressed and persecuted in exile, God once again reminded them of Her choice to show mercy to the oppressed. Hear the word of God from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Salvation is the liberation of the oppressed. That is what salvation meant to the slaves in Egypt, it was what salvation meant to the exiles in Babylon, it is what salvation meant to Jesus Christ, and if we are to be a church of Jesus Christ, it must be what salvation means for us as well.
In certain circles, proclaiming that salvation means the liberation of the oppressed might constitute “turning the world upside down.” But this is the UCC, we ought to all be familiar with liberation theology, the mere idea that God is the God of the oppressed shouldn’t be all that new to us. But I want to take a step further if you’ll go with me. I want to tell you something that Rev. Ray Jordan shared with us, during our last clergy retreat, when we were discussing race and powerlessness. Rev. Jordan said that he had noticed a funny thing doing ministry with white people. Every now and then he would be sitting with a few of us white folks talking about a serious problem, a difficult problem, one for which there was no apparent solution. When it got to this point Rev. Jordan would suggest that they pray. And everytime the white people would look at him like he was crazy. What are we gonna pray for? Shouldn’t we do something instead? Having a problem that they couldn’t use their own power to solve was a new and novel experience for these white people, as it is for many of us. Ray said it reminded him of something his grandmother once said, “You don’t really know God, until God is all you’ve got.” I tell that story because it illustrates a truth that is often unacknowledged in our society- that broadly speaking, our society endows white people with tremendous amounts of power, while it does everything possible to keep black people powerless. White people, when faced with problems, have a dizzingy array of resources available to us, we have generational wealth produced from the labor of slaves, we have the support of the government and the laws of the land, we have the ability to call the police with no worry of being shot. White people have access to worldly power in a way that is specifically denied to black people. Broadly speaking, the history of modernity is the history of European colonization of nearly the entire non-white world, it is the history of oppressive empires who came to define themselves as white, and the corresponding oppression of non-white peoples. In the language of the bible, in the terms of the Old and New Testament, European nations and their descendants who claim to be white, are the oppressors, and all non-white persons, perhaps most especially black persons, are the oppressed.
If you’re willing to follow me here, if you’re willing to contemplate the historical truth that white people have played the role of the oppressor in modern times, than we are approaching an interesting question. If salvation means the liberation of the oppressed, and white people are the oppressors than it must be asked: Can white people be saved? Whew. That’s a doozy, its not one your likely to hear in many mostly white settings, so I’ll ask it again in case you missed it, “Can white people be saved?”
Because I believe this is a serious question about the salvation of our souls, I want to take it to my personal authority on salvation- Jesus the Christ. To attempt to hear what Jesus Christ has to say about the possiblity of white people being saved, I want to take you through the text we heard from Mark this morning about the healing of the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter. One day Jesus has ventured just outside his homeland of Galilee and into the urban area of Tyre, a wealthy trading port on the Mediteranean. Tyre was founded by the Phonecians, but they had been run out by Alexander the Great. Ever since, the city had served as an important center of economic and military administration for whatever empire happened to be controlling the surrounding area. Although Tyre was a very wealthy city due to their role in international trade, a quirk of the ancient world, had left them dependent upon the surrounding rural area of Galilee. You see, in the ancient world, shipping large quantities of grain, of food, was cost prohibitive. In order to eat, you had to grow the food nearby. And Tyre was enitrely urban, to feed their populace they relied on the exploitation of the surrounding Galilean populace. The people of Galilee, mostly Jews, were forced to produce the food that allowed for the affluent and abundant life of the Tyrians, while they themselves survived on the meager allotment left after Tyre had extracted its taxes. The Jewish Galileans were oppressed by their more powerful neighbors the people of Tyre. It’s a situation that should not be entirely foreign to white and black people living in the United States today.
So here’s Jesus, the Galilean Jew, walking around the city of Tyre, when all of sudden a Greek woman, from the Roman province of Syria, specifically former Phonecia, came and threw herself at his feet. The greek word here used for woman, is best translated lady, meaning that she was of the upper class. This wealthy Greek woman of Tyre, throws herself at Jesus’ feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
To help us understand this scenario, to continue with our modern day analogy, I’m going to translate it to New Orleans. We have this wealthy, white woman of the Garden District who desperately wants her daughter to be healed. And she throws herself at the feet of a black miracle worker from the Lower 9th Ward. You know what gets white women from the Garden District to go to the Lower 9th Ward? Nothing. Not a thing. Not a thing but sheer and utter desperation. This woman must have turned to every doctor she knew, every quack and religious healer and therapist she could find, before she made her way to this black man in the Lower 9th. A wealthy Greek woman of Tyre, simply does not ask things of a Galilean Jew. Not unless there was literally nowhere else to turn.
Here is Jesus face to face with the question: Can white people be saved? Can the very people who oppress the people of God, also have access to God’s salvation? It is at this moment that Jesus say perhaps the harshest saying attributed to him in all the gospel accounts. To the woman who is desperately seeking healing for her daughter, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch. What a terrible thing to say. To call a human a dog, in any culture, is a cruel, degrading, insult. How could Jesus have said something like this? It doesn’t sound like Jesus does it? It sounds like something someone who felt they were better than other people would say. It sounds like something that an oppressor might say to justify their oppression of another people. It sounds a lot like, how white people have spoken of and treated black people in our country, in our time. In fact, it seems to rather succintly summarize the attitude of the city of Tyre towards the surrounding Galilean populace- by defining the Galileans as dogs, the Tyrians could insist that it was only proper that they, the children, receive the lions share of the food. That is precisely what I want to suggest. What’s happening here, in my humble opinion, is that Jesus has taken a popular phrase of the people of Tyre and turned it back upon the wealthy Greek woman begging for his help. He is reminding her of how her people have treated his own. You come to me asking for salvation yet this is how your people have spoken of mine, as dogs, as less than human, as undeserving of the fruits of our labor. On what grounds do you ask for salvation? On the grounds of your privilege as the oppressor? Do you demand it as something to which you are entitled, as something which I, a Galilean Jew, must provide to you?
To this devastating, yet accurate accusation, the wealthy woman of Tyre first responds simply, “Yes, Lord.” When Jesus reminds her how her people have oppressed and harmed his own, she simply agrees with the truth of the statement. Those of you who are familiar with the phenomenon of white fragility will appreciate how incredible this response is. She does not say, “Hey, wait a minute, my people were once oppressed too.” She does not say, “Hey, not all Tyrians are like that.” This remarkable woman says, Yes, Lord. You are correct. That is how my people have treated yours. This recognition of the truth, the reality of oppression, of our complicity in it, and its devastating effects on the oppressed, is certainly one necessary step towards salvation for all white people.
Yet it alone is not enough. It is what the woman says next that is truly remarkable. She says, “yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She identifies herself with the oppressed, with the derided and the downtrodden, with the powerless. She approaches salvation in the way of the oppressed- in the way of the powerless. For in reality, before God, that is exactly what she is, it is what we all are: powerless. Her wealth and her status and her race and her history and her education and her connections, none of it, not one bit of it, can save her daughter. All my education, all my cleverness, all my connections, all my parent’s money, all my degrees, all my whiteness, none of it could help to save my son in that hospital room. There at the feet of God, this wealthy Greek woman, sheds her privileged status, she divests herself of whiteness, she abandons all sense of entitlement and righteousness, and throws herself and her daughter’s life upon the mercy of God. It is upon hearing this that Jesus says, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”
Can white people be saved? Yes, but it is incredibly difficult for us. Powerlessness is a terrible, frightening reality; one from which we run as fast as we can. Because the history of modernity has left white people with so much oppressive human power, it is easy for us to deceive ourselves, to believe that it is human power that saves. Human power can be a very useful thing in this world, but ultimately, before the ineffable reality of God, it is nothing. Our own power cannot save us. Wealth does not save. Military might does not save. The police do not save. Our whiteness will not and cannot save us. It Is Jesus Christ who saves. Our salvation is utterly dependent upon the mercy of God. More than that it is utterly dependent upon the mercy of the God of the oppressed. For white people to be saved we must recognize our powerlessness unto salvation and our dependence upon God. We must shed our investment in whiteness, in power, and invest ourselves instead in the liberation of the oppressed, for that is where salvation may found. My prayer for the UCC, for the South Central Conference, and for the New Orleans Association is that God will bring our white people to true repentance, that God will help us to see our true powerlessness and dependence, that God will help us to learn from our black, latino, asain, and native american sisters and brothers, and that we might truly be joined to the power of God that is working this very moment to liberate the oppressed. May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast