Rev. Danielle K Bartz June 19, 2022
Matthew 15:21-28 “How Are the Children?”
Some years ago, when I was working for the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, I organized a gathering for the leaders of the UCC’s child and family service organizations. It was filled with educational opportunities, resource and idea sharing, and we ended with worship. I invited Rev. Traci Blackmon to lead that worship service. Traci is one of the Associate General Ministers of the UCC and was then and continues to be one of the UCC’s most staunch advocates for racial justice. She opened that worship service by teaching us something I did not know.
The Maasai tribe of eastern Africa, predominately in Kenya, greet one another not by saying hello or how are you. Rather their greeting is translated as “How are the children?” “How are the children?” is the first question and word of greeting. The tribe believes that everyone is only well if the children are well. The community is only healthy if the children are healthy. Everyone’s well-being is dependent on the well-being of the children. This ancient Maasai wisdom has stayed with me and I believe should be a guide for all people today.
And today is Juneteenth, in which we remember and celebrate the news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaching the chattel slaves in Galveston, TX in 1865, two and a half years after the proclamation was signed and just over two months after the end of the Civil War. Juneteenth, otherwise known as Liberation Day marks the end of chattel slavery in the United States – and is the newest Federal holiday of the US. We celebrate and remember this day, but we do so with the heavy knowledge that in today’s world racial violence is on the rise, in startling ways. We mark today knowing that voting rights and education rights and housing rights meant to bring equity to our country are being slashed. On this Juneteenth, when we ask ourselves “How are the children?” the answer is: in dire need.
And we also mark this day as Christians. We come to this celebration with the belief that we are all created in the image of God, leaning heavily on God’s grace, and seeking to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Today’s lesson from the Womanist Lectionary is one that despite our initial discomfort with it, is actually a compelling and powerful lesson to follow. Let me explain.
Our scripture lesson for today is a story about Jesus that, I think is safe to say, has always made people uncomfortable. In it, we hear Jesus reacting to the pleas of a mother on behalf of her child from a place of learned prejudice. The woman is Canaanite, a term used in the scriptures for ancient Israel’s pagan enemies. In this instance, we are to understand that this woman was considered a gentile and therefore unequal to the Jewish people. Jesus says, in his initial response to the woman’s pleas, that he came to save the “Lost sheep of Israel” meaning he came to offer the Good News to the Jews, and no one else. He goes further and uses a racial slur, referring to the woman and her child as dogs – an unclean animal.
This is not the first time Jesus speaks disparagingly of the Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew. There are five other instances when Jesus clearly places Gentiles as a lower-class people. This is learned prejudice, something he was undoubtedly taught – either intentionally or unintentionally – by the community he grew up in. And I think that is why this scripture makes people so uncomfortable. It is too human, too recognizable, a fault that we see in ourselves. Therefore, far too many people try to explain away Jesus’ initial response. It is a special test of faith, they may say. Or, he always intended to help but wanted to teach the disciples a lesson. I have been on the receiving end of so much spiritual and scriptural gymnastics about this text that I worry the true power of it has been lost. Because if we only focus on explaining away his initial response, then the power of his final response and action is missed.
What we have in this scripture is a moment of unlearning, a moment of repentance, a moment of God’s grace – all of it in the lived example of our guide in the faith, Jesus Christ. I don’t know if he appreciates the mother’s audacity, her devotion to her child, or recognizes in her a faith that is so familiar to his – or perhaps all of it. But, he sees her, and her child, fully – perhaps for the first time. He sees in them a reflection of God. And he sees in them an opportunity to begin anew. By the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has removed the restrictions for God’s Good News and tells the disciples to go and share that Good News with all of the nations, which is exactly what they do. If we explain away his initial prejudice, then we rob ourselves of the opportunity to follow the example of Jesus – to unlearn, to see the stranger as a neighbor, to begin anew, and to share the power of God’s blessings with all people, no matter what.
But this story isn’t just about Jesus. It is also about a desperate mother and her child. Mothers and parents have been trying to create a better world for their children from the beginning. They have not allowed their children’s need to go unmet, they speak up against forces of prejudice and fear. They hope and work for the possibility that their children’s lives will be just a little better than their own. For all parents, of every race, who have done this – we give our thanks and praise. But it must not just be the parents, it must be all of us. Because, as the Maasai people remind us – the question we must always ask upon greeting one another is “How are the children?” If the children are not well, then none of us are. And geneticists are beginning to understand how the good we do today can have long-lasting effects, coded into the very DNA of our children.
A growing science called epigenetics is beginning to understand how the trauma of one generation is carried in the genes of subsequent generations. I am not a scientist, so I could not dig too deep into this with any sort of expertise, but I found the CDC’s definition of epigenetics within my grasp. It says, epigenetics is the study of how environments can affect the ways your genes work. Further, these genetic changes can and often are passed down from one generation to another. Further, there is a growing research field studying how the trauma of one person can be passed down through the generations. Meaning, that the environmental effects of trauma on one generation can continue to be seen in following generations – leading to poorer health outcomes like obesity and diabetes, and more mental health challenges like anxiety and stress-resilience reduction. What does this all mean, especially on this Juneteenth holiday? The racial trauma of the past continues to affect the very genes of people today. And, the work that is done today to reduce that trauma, can and will have positive effects for generations to come. So, when we ask ourselves the question, “How are the children?” and if the answer compels us to do better in this world, then we are not only caring for the children of today, but we are caring for their children, and their children’s children.
Juneteenth was the beginning of liberation for our Black siblings in Christ, but it was not the pinnacle of it. We have taken tremendous steps forward – the Civil Rights Act was signed on this day in 1964, 99 years after that fateful day in Galveston, TX. In 2021, Pres. Biden signed into law this Federal holiday – drawing all of our attention to liberation and the ongoing work of liberation. Juneteenth is a day for all of us, and in particular the church, to ask “How are the children?” And then to follow the example of Jesus Christ – to begin to unlearn the prejudice we have all learned, to see the stranger as a neighbor, and to heal the children. By holding one another accountable, by holding our elected officials accountable, by learning our history so it doesn’t repeat itself, by turning to the scriptures to find in them the reminder we are all created in the image of God and that we have the ability to unlearn and start anew – leaning on the promise of God’s grace. And we do all of this with the fervent prayer that our children and their children will look around this global community and be able to answer that Massai greeting with “The children are well.” Amen.
Good and Just God, you created all of us in your image, breathing into us your Spirit, your spark of life. You are only fully known in the diversity of your people. Your presence can only be fully experienced when we come together as community. For this miracle of diversity and creation, we give great thanks. It is in this spirit of gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
Today, God, even as we mark with celebration the end of slavery in our country, we also acknowledge that the work of liberation is far from over. Too many children are hurting, too many people are suffering, and too many remain apathetic to their cries. Leaning on your grace, we ask that you give us the courage to do what we can, in the way we can, and work together with you for good in this world.
Even as we turn our prayers to our neighbors, we also hold within ourselves the prayers we need to be fully present in this world. In these moments of silence, we turn over to you, even if for just a moment, the cares of our hearts, trusting that you hear and you respond…
Good and great God, you have given us the power to be your co-creators in this world, working to create a just world for all. Again, with our gratitude, we look to the world and see not only the hurt, but also the possibilities of what good can accomplish. We pray all of this in the name of the great example of our faith, our imperfect guide, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray together by saying…Our Father…