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Sermon at closing worship service, Doorn

Sermon preached at the closing worship service of the 14-17 June 2009 conference "Churches responding to the challenges of racism and related forms of discrimination and exclusion"

17 June 2009

of the 14-17 June conference "Churches responding to the challenges of racism and related forms of discrimination and exclusion"

by Rev. Dr Deenabandhu Manchala

Doorn, Utrecht, The Netherlands

17 June 2009

Matthew 15: 21-28

Four days ago we began this conference thanking God for the committed and faithful witness of the churches through the Programme to Combat Racism. As we did that we also asked for God's guidance to discern appropriate responses to overcome racism that exists in very many subtle forms in our communities and the world today. We have reiterated our conviction of the divine will for the dignity of all human beings. We have committed ourselves to strive for a world of justice, peace and life for all.  We thank God for the bonds of partnership of our Dutch friends that has brought us here and that we were able to create during our time here. And we pray for God's journey with us from now on.

I come from India, a land of ancient wisdom and a rich diversity of people and cultures. But it is also a society which treats one fifth of its population as less than human beings, as untouchables and outcaste communities. Most often these are treated as inferior to and referred to as animals, like the dog that Jesus refers to when he speaks to the woman from the despised Canaanite community in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Not just dog but dirty dog, pariah dog, black dog, stupid dog, etc., are the adjectives often used to address and describe these people. They are called by various names – often derisive and patronizing, by the dominant society. But they have rejected all these imposed identities and now call themselves - Dalits which means we are oppressed, crushed, and rent asunder. When they say this, they are also saying that you and your society have oppressed us and you are responsible for what we are today. They hold them accountable to their continued poverty, misery and economic backwardness. By saying this, they are also calling their oppressors to reclaim their lost humanity.

Language, gestures, attitudes, actions and sometimes even inaction, too, that abuse, insult, disempower and exclude millions of certain sections of people all over the world characterize modern day racism. We may not anymore have racist ideologies and visible structures such as apartheid that can be confronted but we are faced with attitudes and mindset, prejudices and assumptions, and cultures and traditions that deny and encourage abuse of human life. These seem hard to change. Indeed a difficult task. But we are called to a ministry of transformation of hard hearts, stone hearts, and no hearts.

The Canaanite woman persisted in spite of Jesus' unresponsive attitude and even sustained humiliation that equated her with a dog. She didn't give up because she didn't want to go back to see her daughter suffer. Often times, mechanisms of subjugation, violence and violation of sorts, economic slavery flourish in situations of vulnerability, resulting in blatant and massive human abuse. Her persistence in spite of the abuse seems to have yielded the anticipated result for the woman. But that also seems to have transformed Jesus. He commends her, "Woman, you have great faith, your request is granted".

This is not a lesson to the victims to persist in their struggles in spite of insults and oppression, nor is it a glorification of suffering for ultimate achievement. It certainly cannot be understood as her acceptance of an imposed image. But it is one that asserts the centrality of the sanctity of life that the gospel upholds. Through her pain and suffering and in her predicament of having been humiliated she seems to have transformed Jesus. She seems to have demanded a response, her need to be met. Her response seems to suggest, "even if you consider me to be a dog, one appealing to your generosity, I want you to know that I am a human being and that you have a responsibility towards me. You may have your own mission of meeting the needs of your own people, and your relative notions of justice, you may have your own traditions and norms, you may have your own loyalties and responsibilities. But my daughter has the right to be healed, has the right to live, right to experience God's healing power and my right to be human." She calls him to expand the contours of his own faith and to look beyond for the sake of the sanctity of life, even if that is of a Canaanite woman. The story of the Canaanite woman reminds us of many stories in our world today, of people who are despised, disempowered and displaced by the dominant social, political and economic powers. But it is not a story of pathos alone, but a story of transformation. It teaches us that concern for the poor if is not matched with respect for them, their identities and dignity as human beings is nothing more that paternalism.

The Lord changed and responds. But we as his beloved and called communities sometimes find it hard to change. Traditions, institutions, aspirations of power and privilege often inhibit us, the church, from living out the gospel which is the celebration of life in each context. Churches often are closed communities not only for their narrow theological but also for sociological reasons in many contexts. Racism, sexism, casteism, xenophobia, etc., overwhelm our life within, even with the awareness that such are a contradiction of the core of our faith.

But here we have a possibility to learn about the mission and message of the excluded people - those who are impoverished, despised and disempowered. They may not have the infrastructure, expertise, and resources to do mission the way we are used to through our institutions and organizations but in their struggles for life and actions of resistance for justice, they announce the reign of God which is life, justice and peace for all. The message of the Kingdom is addressed to the powerful and the privileged and in that it becomes good news to the poor. Those who have plenty are asked to share, those who received more are asked not to complain when those who came late received respectable wages. Jesus puts himself in the place of the privileged and in his response to the Canaanite woman, reasserts the need to change for the sake of life.

The gospel calls us to expand our horizons, embrace the new, constantly become like the way our Lord has. God's salvation in Jesus Christ is not a religious affair that needs to stay that way, defined, organized within the parameters of organized religion. God's justice is beyond the confines of culture and tradition and structures and boundaries. It is free for all and all embracing.