Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 20, 2017

2017.08.20 “Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?” – Matthew 14: 21 – 28

Central United Methodist Church
Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 14: 21 – 28
August 20th, 2017

 

Caanite Woman

“Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canannite Woman asks for healing for her daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 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.” 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.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

– Matthew 14: 21 – 28, The New Revised Standard Version

“Can you teach an old dog new tricks?” Most of us know the meaning of that phrase; it means it is difficult to teach someone – especially those of us who are older – new beliefs, new attitudes, or new behavior. It’s one thing when our beliefs, attitudes, or behavior are good, but what about when they are bad; harmful to self, others, and society?

It was such beliefs, attitudes, and actions that we saw on display last week in Charlottesville, in the revived version of some of America’s ugliest qualities: neo-nazis, the Klan, and other versions of White Supremacy. And we wonder – as we have wondered since the beginning of America – through the Revolution and the Civil War and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement – can hearts and minds be changed? Everytime we think we are making progress – like after two terms of an African-American President – the old ugliness erupts, in a new and different way. Are such eruptions birth pangs or death throes; I vote for the latter.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? There are two schools of thought on this: one is no matter how hard we try, it is almost impossible to teach old dogs new tricks. Every time we think we have shamed these racist attitudes, they keep coming back, even among the young; there were a lot of millenials in that crowd last weekend. The old trick of blaming others for your misfortune dies hard.

However, if it is hard and maybe even impossible to teach old dogs new tricks, where does that leave us, sitting here in church on a Sunday morning? Is this a futile exercise we should have abandoned long ago, especially given the racist and judgmental attitudes of some Christians and some churches? Sometimes we wonder.

On the other hand, there is the opposing view that we can change, that by what happens here in church on a Sunday morning, we can make a difference. As former President Obama – quoting Nelson Mandela – tweeted this week, in the most liked tweet ever:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I am an example of this. I grew up in Western Kentucky in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, a time and a place permeated with racism. My high school was South Marshall High School, our school flag was the Confederate flag, our high school song was “Dixie.” On the court square in Murray, KY, the county seat of Calloway County, stands a Confederate monument of Robert E. Lee. The statue was erected – like most such statues were – not after the war, but in 1917, which would be like building a WW II monument today. It was built during the Jim Crow era, not as a memorial to the dead, as a statement to the living; of defiance, and intimidation, placing as they were in front of polling booths and courthouses and public buildings. They served as reminders that though the war was lost, the mentality remained.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know this; I absorbed it like the air I breathed and the food I ate. But through education and encounter with others – not to mention preaching these stories of Jesus for over 40 years – now I understand. I confess and repent and through my encounters with others – including you – I have been changed. So if you get tired of listening to this liberal progressive preacher every Sunday; let me tell you, I have come a long way, baby, and there’s no going back. I’ve seen the enemy, and it is us.

Can an old dog learn new tricks? It’s not just my story, in today’s Gospel; it’s Jesus’ story: even he learned something from a poor Canaanite woman. If even Jesus can learn something, what does that say for us?

As Jesus led his disciples through the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, where wise Israelites did not walk alone, they are on the alert, shaped by their attitudes against the Canaanites, their ancient idol-worshipping enemies, the original inhabitants of the land, much like the Palestinians in Israel or Native Americans in this country.

They are approached, and there is a cry, but it is not the curse they expect; it is a poor mother, begging for help for her daughter. Though invisible walls separate them, she cries out with the desperation of a parent: “Lord, have mercy.” “Kyrie Eleison:” It is a prayer that has rung through the centuries: chanted in cloisters, whispered in hospitals, screamed on battlefields. When we see the division in our country today, we pray: “Lord, have mercy.”

Jesus’ disciples were ready to send her away. At first, Jesus’ behavior is acquiesent; commentators say “Jesus is here caught with his compassion down.” At first, he is silent, ignoring her, refusing to acknowledge her. Then, he says, “I’ve got my hands full with the lost sheep of the house of Israel; sorry!” Finally, when she persists, he says food should not be given to the “dogs,” a Jewish epithet for people like her.

Has Jesus gone to the dogs? Could he be rude or even wrong? As human, he learned like we learn, which means partially, incrementally, through the ideas and attitudes and actions of those around him, some good and some bad, just as we did, wherever we grew up.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Perhaps – as a woman, like women still – she is used to rejection and rebuke. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And Jesus was surprised: “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.”

Jesus – the respected teacher and healer, the Son of God, the Word made flesh – learns from an outsider. She becomes the spokeswoman from beyond the boundaries who stakes her claim on the mercy and generosity of God, teaching Jesus that the mercy and generosity of God are not just for the lost sheep of Israel, but for all people, a lesson the church would have to relearn after Jesus. By the end of the Gospel, when Jesus says: “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations,” might it be because of what he had learned from this woman?

Indeed, this poor unnamed woman gave a lesson not only to him, but to us. Through engagement with the other, we learn that they are not dogs (or whatever name we call them) but people, who have feelings, needs, and children, who desire mercy and happiness like everyone else. Through encounters not with stereotypes but real people, we learn that we are more alike than different, that we are all the children of God. Whether to Pharisees or disciples, foreigners or outcasts, racists or victims, God is a merciful God. We may want to send people away, but God brings them near, even giving  them a seat at the Master’s Table.

In the end, I am left wondering how many stories are out there, of people we might continue to learn from, especially women, especially African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and even Filipino women, whose stories the “official” history books have omitted.

One of the most moving such stories that I have read in the last year was in the June Atlantic Magazine, by Filipino-American author and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, Alex Tizon. Sadly, Alex Tizon died prematurely just last March at the age of 51. But before he did, he built an exemplary career listening to people: forgotten people, people on the margins, people who had never been asked for their stories. (Alex Tizon’s brother, the Rev. Al Tizon, is an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor, the executive minister of Serve Globally, the international ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and a professor at North Park Theological Seminary.)

His article in the June 2017 Atlantic Magazine, entitled, My Family’s Slave, tells the story of Eudocia Tomas PulidoMy Family's Slave, whom they called Lola. Lola was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes. She was 18 years old when his grandfather gave her to his mother as a gift. She did not know at the time that what began as an arrangement for a poor girl to receive food and shelter in exchange for taking care of children, would be for life.

When the family moved to the United States, they brought Lola with them. Alex says: “No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been.”

In more detail in the article, Alex describes the ups and downs of his family, and Lola’s life with them:

Her mother, Fermina, died in 1973; her father, Hilario, in 1979. Both times she wanted desperately to go home. Both times his parents said “Sorry; no money, no time.”

When Alex was 15, his father left them for good, abandoning the kids and his mother after 25 years of marriage. Lola became his mother’s main consolation.

In time, Alex’ mother developed cancer. The day before she died, a Catholic priest came to the house to perform last rites. Lola sat next to her mother’s bed, holding a cup with a straw, poised to raise it to his Mom’s mouth. The priest asked her whether there was anything she wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. She scanned the room with heavy-lidded eyes, said nothing. Then, without looking at Lola, she reached over and placed an open hand on her head. She didn’t say a word.

Just after her 83rd birthday, Alex paid her airfare to return to the Philippines. The unspoken purpose of the trip was to see whether the place she had spent so many years longing for could feel like home. “Everything was not the same,” she said. The old farms were gone. Her house was gone. Her parents and most of her siblings were gone. Childhood friends, the ones still alive, were like strangers. It was nice to see them, but … everything was not the same. She’d still like to spend her last years here, she said, but she wasn’t ready yet. “You’re ready to go back to your garden,” I said. “Yes. Let’s go home.”

Lola made it to 86. Alex says, “I can still see her on the gurney. I remember looking at the medics standing above this brown woman no bigger than a child and thinking that they had no idea of the life she had lived. She’d had none of the self-serving ambition that drives most of us, and her willingness to give up everything for the people around her won her our love and utter loyalty. She’s become a hallowed figure in my extended family.” He took her ashes back to the Philippines, and buried them with her family. (Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave, The Atlantic, June, 2017. I highly recommend everyone read the full story here.)

Can old dogs learn new tricks? As even Jesus learned, by listening to the voices of others, especially those we ignore or oppress: “Yes, we can.”

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