August 20, 2023. On the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, a sermon preached by Rev. Katie Holicky

8/20/23, Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28                          Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector 

A while back, I heard this story about Muhammad Ali while listening to a Civil Rights podcast. This same story also happens to be one that was cut from the Ken Burns PBS docu-series about Ali’s life, “Bigger than Boxing. Larger than Life. Muhammad Ali”. Now, while I was not here for it, it seems like the 1960s were an interesting time. With people, many of them young, calling for change that would bring about a new and more just way of life, not unlike today. On a warm day in the mid 1960s in Chicago, the Chicago PD were clearing homes as they followed through with evictions. Lower income families and elders were being cast out into the street as they could no longer afford the cost of living, again, not unlike today. Their belongings were thrown into piles like a trash heap. 

A law student from the “University of Chicago stood helplessly with a group of housing activists, watching police evict an (elderly) man from his 2nd floor apartment” (interfaithamerica.org). She noticed a man approach, take off his jacket and he asked her to hold it. That man was Muhammad Ali. He then began to carry the belongings of the man back upstairs and into his apartment, starting with the dining room table; the thing that brings us to gather around together. Folks noticed who it was taking up this brazen action and quickly joined in. Soon everyone was working together to put the home back in order. The police saw who was leading the charge and the number of people who joined in and backed off. Muhammad Ali was a man who personally knew oppression and the toll it takes on a people. In that moment he put his privilege as a famous, wealthy athlete aside, rolled up his sleeves and got to work as and on behalf of the marginalized. 

When recounting this story years later the student said, “He does these acts of good… He’s doing it all the time…I think cameras on, cameras off he was always trying to raise humanity where he could ” (interfaithamerica.org). I love this story not just because of the embodied justice of Ali and those gathered that day, but because of how we are invited to consider that “The Law” isn’t always just, and that we are called to the margins to address that injustice in whatever ways we can. In this story the vulnerability of our humanity is palpable and so too is the strength and perseverance of our humanity that brings about real justice. 

And speaking of the nature of our humanity, Jesus really shows us today the fullness of ourselves and the ways we too are called to grow and change beyond our own understanding of what is just. I really cherish when we see the fullness of Jesus’ divinity and Jesus’ humanity all in one moment. 

What is left out of the start of this passage and is helpful for context, is that the Pharisees and scribes have come to Jesus asking why his followers “break the tradition of the elders”, meaning why are they not following all parts of The Law (JANT,29). Super specifically, why were they not doing the ritual washing before eating. We know from the ancient Hebrew perspective that, “Spiritual purity is more important than physical purity of the body” and that in itself is why one should keep all parts of The Law (JANT, 29). This is a point of contention for the elite who bring this question to Jesus.  

In response Jesus gives this beautiful lesson about what comes out of our mouths mattering more than what goes in. A “correction” or new direction to The Law. Jesus teaches us that what comes out of our mouths comes from our hearts and so our hearts should be the focal point of our purity. What a beautifully divine teaching that gives me a sense of where to turn my attention. A sense of knowing that I need to look at and maybe work on what rests in my heart because what comes from there could be a gift or cause harm. Because what comes from there can be what helps to bring about God’s reign in the midst of the oppressive reign of the empire.  

And here is where I start to get excited. Jesus teaches this lesson and then immediately is verbally rude as he rebukes the Canaanite woman when she calls upon him to heal her daughter. But why is this his first reaction? Well, the Canaanite woman is coming from the people who are traditional enemies of the Isrealites (JANT, 29). They meet on the border suggesting that Jesus is not going into the territory of those different from himself. 

She acknowledges his authority as the Son of David and asks for the healing her daughter needs. Jesus responds by simply saying he is only called to the Isrealites. And yet she persisted. Let me be clear about Jesus’ response to this woman insisting she be helped. As modern readers of this story we need to understand that Jesus is being very unkind when he likens the woman to a dog. He does not mean ‘cute little puppy’, he in fact means a word that we use as a curse word in our modern context (WBC, 474). Here is Jesus’ full humanity. 

The Canniate woman doesn’t let this stop her. She still persisted. She names that, “The dogs eat the crumbs”, and in doing so “the woman acknowledges her marginal position but still insists on her rights” (JANT, 29). This Canaanite woman was “the only person in the Gospel (of Matthew) to best Jesus in a verbal contest” (TBC, 303). The woman’s cleverness and her faith bring about the healing of her child (WBC, 474).

Because she persisted… in his divine humanity Jesus changes. He allows himself to be pushed beyond comfort from the margins and into a new way of being. A more universal way that acknowledges that everyone is deserving of God’s love. The beauty here, the Good News today, is that Jesus shows us in that very moment that it is also ok for us to be pushed on in ways that help us to not just be held accountable when we embody words and actions that are unkind /unjust, but to also grow and change beyond that. 

My dad, Dave, LOVES to quote Muhamid Ali. And his favorite one right now is, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life”. To raise humanity where we can, we must be open to being transformed from the margins JUST like Jesus was. And so today, as I hold fast to the power of this story as a reflection of our humanity paired with right action as followers of Jesus… 

I wonder where are the in between places, the borders or margins we are called to so that we may be transformed? I wonder who are we not listening to? Or what barriers are we propping up that make it harder for the vulnerable/ oppressed to be heard? And, I wonder with great hope and joy what will happen when we let ourselves change so that we might take up more of God’s justice and raise more of humanity?

Resources: interfaithamerica.org/article/the-interfaith-legacy-of-muhammad-ali-the-wise-man-changes/, Jewish Annotated New Testament, Theological Bible Commentary, Women’s Bible Commentary.