What We Can Learn about Black Lives Matter from Jesus' Encounter with a Syrophoenician Woman

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

August 24, 2015, "Black Lives Matter Minneapolis," Facebook post
Our scriptures have a lot to say about what matters in life and about who matters in life.  This morning’s brief excerpt from the book of Proverbs tells us that “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”[1]  In other words, both the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor matter because they were both created by God.  But, if we look carefully at the arc of the biblical story we will note a consistent theme --- God sides with the downtrodden, the weak, the poor, the hungry, the destitute, the outcast every time.   Not because the strong, the rich, the well-fed, the joyful and the in-crowd do not matter but because there are other lives that have been pushed to the sidelines; other lives that have, in some instances, been trampled upon.  For those lives, we are told, “the Lord pleads their cause” because those lives matter too.[2]  Again and again God sides with the downtrodden, upholds the outcasts, and demands justice for all whom the dominant society says there shall be no justice. 
Now, in this morning’s gospel reading, we have a bizarre story – a story that seems to run counter to the primary narrative of God’s commitment to the outcasts.[3]  Here we have a woman whose daughter is ill.  But, she is a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin.  When she begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, Jesus replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[4]  I want to be really clear here because this is a passage that is easy for us to skip over because it is ugly.  Jesus compares the woman and her child to a dog.  Jesus does not even see the humanity in this woman who stands before him begging for help for her child.  But then something happens.  The woman stands up to Jesus and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”[5]  And with that single sentence, Jesus is changed.  And, in his being changed, Jesus does what the woman asks – he heals her daughter.
Last Monday morning, when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a Tweet from Phil Ruge-Jones, professor in the theology department at Texas Lutheran University. He wrote, “Jesus understood justice more deeply because [the Syrophoenician gentile] insisted that Syrophoenician lives matter.”[6]   In this moment, Jesus doesn’t do what many of us might be inclined to do – he doesn’t defend himself, he doesn’t try to explain away what he had just said. He simply hears her and is changed.  And, then, what’s even more important, he uses his power to do what she said was needed. Her daughter is made well.    This, according to Professor Ruge-Jones, is what makes Jesus truly human – not that he gets it all right all the time but that he willingly changes when he is correctly called out.[7]  “Jesus understood justice more deeply because she insisted that Syrophoenician lives matter.”
In our time, all around people are shouting, “Black Lives Matter!”  And, like Jesus, we – especially those of us who are white – but all of us collectively who make up what we refer to as “society” – we are being offered an opportunity not to defend ourselves demanding that all lives matter and not trying to explain away the inequities experienced by persons of color in our communities. We are being offered an opportunity to hear the cry and to change the systems around us that continue to create unequal access to education, to healthcare, to housing, to food, and to due process of law. 
Justin DaMetz is a father, a husband, an aspiring seminarian, an amateur blogger and writer who wrote a provocatively titled blog post last week – “Why Black Lives Matter is Crucial, All Lives Matter is Unnecessary, and White Lives Matter is just Racist.”  I read his post – the whole thing. It’s good and it is worth reading (I’ll put a link to it on the sermons page of our website).[8]  But here’s the part I want to share:
“[Black Lives Matter] isn’t an assertion that no other lives matter.  Stop reading Black Lives Matter as a zero-sum statement. It isn’t.  Acknowledging the existence of one injustice does not negate the importance of others. Acknowledging the humanity of another person, or of a specific oppressed group, does not deny the humanity of everyone else. . . .” [9]
He continues by offering this analogy:  if a man goes to the doctor for a broken arm and “the doctor starts examining the rest of the man’s body,” the injured man stops the doctor and says, “’Doc, it’s my arm that’s broken; everything else is fine’ and the doctor responds, ‘All bones matter.’ Of course they do! But they aren’t the ones that are hurting right now!”  Likewise, “when Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor,’ no one stood up and yelled ‘Blessed is everyone!’”[10]
Black Lives Matter! It is shorthand for a whole lot of injustice in our world.  It is shorthand for confederate flags flying in public spaces. It is shorthand for 60% of the prison population in this country being African American men when only 12-13% of this country’s total population is African American.[11] It is shorthand for Trayvon Martin killed in Florida. It is shorthand for Michael Brown killed in Ferguson, Missouri.  It is shorthand for Eric Garner killed in New York City.  It is shorthand for Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray.  It is shorthand for Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  This list, my brothers and sisters in Christ, this list is already too long and it only begins to scratch the surface of what Black Lives Matter means.
So you and I  - collectively and individually - have a choice:  we can argue about why we should really say “all lives matter,” we can make excuses for why the systems are the way they are or we can listen to and hear the message being proclaimed:  Black Lives Matter.

Because God has always sided with the oppressed and the downtrodden.

Because God continues to invite us to participate in the ongoing work of liberation, of justice-making, of peace-building.   

[6] Phil Ruge-Jones, tweet posted at .
[7] Phil Ruge-Jones, Facebook post at 8:30 AM on September 5, 2015 accessed on September 5, 2015.
[8] Justin DaMetz, “Why Black Lives Matter is Crucial, All Lives Matter is Unnecessary,and White Lives Matter is just Racist,” Justin DaMetz Blog accessed on September 5, 2015.
[9] DaMetz.
[10] DaMetz.
[11] Heather C. West, “Prison Inmates at Midyear 2009–StatisticalTables,” U.S. Department of Justice, June 2010, NCJ 230113 accessed on September 5, 2015.