Rescue Dogs and Refugees

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 Jesus 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 15:22-28 (NRSV).  


If this story strikes you as strange, you are not alone.

Granted, the whole demon-possession thing always sounds foreign to post-modern western ears, and miracles are miraculous in any age. But any semi-regular church goer has heard stories of demons and miracles before.

It’s not the miracle that seems strange here. It’s the miracle worker. It’s Jesus, who seems strange here.

How often does Jesus tell anyone, nope, sorry, no miracles for you? But that’s what he tells the woman in this story. A woman approaches Jesus seeking help, not for herself, but for her daughter, and Jesus says, sorry. No time. Gotta go help my people.

It doesn’t sound very Jesus-like, does it?

To make matters worse, he follows this dismissal with the most insulting of metaphors: It’s not fair, he says, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Yeah, that’s right. A woman comes to him, desperately seeking aid, and he responds with a derogatory one-liner and an “Israel First” slogan. That sounds like someone I can think of, but it ain’t Jesus.

So what’s going on? Is Jesus just joking around? It seems a cruel joke. Is he testing her? Again, it seems a cruel test. Or did Jesus really believe, at that moment, that he was called to serve only his own people? Maybe it was this woman, who opened his eyes to a much wider call.

Because she doesn’t give up. The disciples turn her away, but she persists. Jesus turns her away, but she persists. He calls her a dog, but nevertheless she persists. She tells him, Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

Surely God must have some leftover grace, for us?


The woman, Matthew tells us, was a Canaanite. The Canaanites, you may or may not recall, were the people who lived in the Holy Land before the Israelites got there. Before it was Israel, it was the land of Canaan. But, as the Bible tells it, these indigenous people, these First Nation folks, were subdued and displaced by the armies of Joshua.

Mark’s gospel also tells this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, except that, according to Mark, she was not Canaanite by Syrian. Apparently the disciples who witnessed the exchange weren’t entirely certain of her ethnicity. Which I suppose is telling, in and of itself. All they knew, all they needed to know, was that she wasn’t one of their own. And so as far as they were concerned, she was someone else’s problem.

There are all sorts of borders, then, separating her from Jesus and his disciples. Borders of gender, of ethnicity, of religion – by all of these measures, she is one of them, not one of us. She is an outsider, an outcaste, an immigrant, a foreigner. But she won’t be shut out. She persists, because she has faith – faith that God’s mercy crosses all boundaries, faith that God has grace enough to spare, faith that even a dog deserves a crumb of compassion.


I’m reminded, here, of a story I heard on the radio last week, about a group of folks in Atlanta that has been importing rescue dogs from Turkey. Apparently, golden retrievers are considered a status symbol in Turkey, so lots of people get golden puppies, only to dump them when they get tired of them. The big, goofy, sweet-tempered golden retrievers don’t do well as street dogs. They aren’t aggressive, so they are terrorized by the other feral dogs. So a group of dog lovers has been gathering up the Goldens into shelters, and shipping them to the US, where a long line of willing owners stands ready to adopt them. The dogs are given patriotic American names – like Liberty, Freedom, and Glory – and issued passports. Over a thousand dogs have been rescued in this way.

Meanwhile, there are 3 million human Syrian refugees in Turkey, all of whom are banned from travel to the United States.

If we can recognize a Golden Retriever, no matter where we may find it, why is it so hard to recognize a human being?

If even the dogs may eat the children’s crumbs, surely we can spare some bread for the children themselves?


Last Sunday was World Communion Sunday, a date chosen by global consensus for all Christian churches to break bread on the same day. The symbolism is obvious: that although we may be separated by great distances, still we are one at the table. This is what the Canaanite woman affirms, when she asks Jesus for help: that God’s table is open to all.

But Jesus says no. My nation comes first.

Too many American Christians act as if the Gospel story ended right there. As if our faith and our nation shared the same borders. We mistake our country for God’s kingdom, and our tribe for God’s people. We confuse church with state and vice versa; we put God on our currency and flags in our sanctuaries. We say “America First” and “God Bless America” in the same breath, as if they meant the same thing.

But when we hear that same creed on Jesus’ lips – “my country first” — it sounds strange, doesn’t it? We know this is not the voice of Christ. And the Canaanite woman knew it too.

And so the story does not end there, because the Canaanite woman persists. She crosses over all the boundaries that kept her in her place, and she demands that Jesus do the same. And he does.

Jesus calls her a woman of great faith.

And so she was. She had faith that there was a greater God, a greater love, a greater abundance of grace, than she had been told.

Indeed, it is always the ones who live outside our own borders, of tribe, of nation, of class, of race, who call us to greater faith. For they persistently remind us, that God is not limited to our own narrow horizons, that God’s table stretches clear around the world, and that there is enough grace there for all.

We are not, and never have been, Americans first, but rather earthlings first: the children of God, made in God’s image.

Come to the Table, and break bread with the World.

(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, October 8, 2017.)

The Stones Cry Out

I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. (Luke 18:28-48)

This is the day that will seal his fate.

He does not enter the city quietly. He does not try to blend in with the crowds. Instead, he makes an entrance, much as a military general might enter in triumph, riding upon a his steed, surrounded by loyal soldiers, greeted by a cheering crowd.

But his ride is no war horse, and his disciples are no army. Their only power, is the power of their testimony. Luke tells us that as Jesus came into the city from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God with a loud voice, rejoicing for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

That loud voice is their only weapon. But it is threatening enough, to the powers that be.

Those words — blessed is the King who comes in the name of God – are enough to convict Jesus and his disciples as enemies of the state. No wonder the Pharisees in the crowd urge Jesus to silence his disciples. After all, they know how the Romans deal with public dissent. They have seen the crosses before.

And so the Pharisees say, Teacher, order your disciples to stop! But Jesus replies:

Were they to be silenced, the stones would cry out.


I used to imagine that this as a something miraculous and joyful – maybe loud, rocky clapping, or a ringing of bells – the sound of creation itself bearing witness to the presence of God.

I used to imagine it that way, but now, I’m not so sure.

Luke doesn’t say, the stones will shout for joy – although some Bibles translate it that way. Luke says, the stones will cry out. It’s the same Greek verb that Luke uses for the blind man, who cries out to Jesus for healing. It’s the same verb Luke uses for the possessed man, who cries out to Jesus for deliverance. They cry out, save us.

Which, by the way, is the meaning of the word Hosanna.

Jesus speaks of the stones again, in his very next words. Jerusalem, he says, if only you knew the things that make for peace.  But the days will come upon you, when your enemies will surround you, and crush you, and there will not be one stone left upon another.

Is it then, I wonder, that the stones will cry out?


Palm Sunday is one of those holy days that move around from year to year. Like Passover, and Ramadan, and Easter, it falls on different calendar dates in different years.

In the year 2011, Palm Sunday fell on April 17th.  It was on that date, in the year 2011, that a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside their mosque in the city of Homs, in western Syria. They were calling for an end to nearly five decades of martial law. They carried no weapons, except their voices. But their voices were threatening enough, to the powers that be. They were met with a rain of bullets that killed twenty five people.

The next day, more protestors filled the streets. One of them told a news reporter: ‘I am forty-five years old, and this is the first time in my life that I have broken the barrier of my silence.’  

For weeks, the protests continued — but so did the gunfire, until eventually the protesters took arms themselves, and the government responded by laying siege to the city, and bombarding it with artillery.

On Palm Sunday, in the year 2011, Homs was a city of 1.4 million people. Today there are less than half that many living there. Drone footage over the city shows block after block after block of walls ripped off, roofs collapsed, rubble littering the streets. In the oldest part of the city, there’s barely a single intact building. There are just stones.

But the stones still cry out. More forcefully and more eloquently than any words, the stones bear witness to the injustice done there.

The people who took to the streets of Homs on that Palm Sunday took the same leap of faith that Jesus and his disciples took on the very first Palm Sunday, nearly 2000 years ago. Speaking truth to power is never without risk.  The cross, the tear gas, the fire hoses, the bullets, the bombs — the tools of empire may change, but the rationale is the same. Then as now, the oppressor offers a choice: silence, or violence.

But then as now, the words of Christ ring true: Your violence cannot hide the truth, for God is our witness. Silence these voices, and the very stones will cry out.


Today it is Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples take to the streets, shouting Hosanna. By the end of this week the disciples will have been driven into hiding, and Jesus himself will be dead and buried, beneath the rock. Yet even then, the stone will have its say.

But that is a story for next Sunday.

Today it is Palm Sunday, when the streets ring with the voices of those who will be silent no longer.  And we cry out with them, for this is our work this day: to find our voice, to speak our truth, to risk the cross for freedom’s sake. To take the step that may seal our fate.

Let us bravely cry Hosanna today, so that in the fullness of time, we may shout Alleluia when the stones at last roll away.



Sermon by Liza B. Knapp at First Church of Deerfield, MA, on April 9, 2017

Photo: Destruction in Homs (20120, photo by Bo Yaser. Published on Wikimedia Commons.

Make Yourself at Home

Serve the city where God has placed you; for in its welfare, lies your own. — Jeremiah 29:7

Jeremiah was about thirty years old, when the armies of Babylon swept across Syria and Palestine. They left the capital city of Jerusalem standing, but at a price: a good portion of its population was deported – carried off to exile in Babylon. Jeremiah was one of those who remained in his native land.

The Israelite captives were hostages of the state. They were not exactly prisoners, but neither were they free. Living in the midst of strangers, they were exiles, not immigrants; their families, their homes, their hearts were elsewhere.

The mourned, for the old country. They dreamed of returning. They sang songs of lament. (You know the words: by the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept, when we remembered Zion…)

But then — rumors began to spread, and hope began to grow. There was political unrest in Babylon; the King was losing power. They’d be out of here any day now! They would return home – and their real lives could resume.

It was at this moment that Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles, in which he told them: Make yourself at home, because you’re not coming back.

Build houses; plant gardens; have children. Seek the welfare of the city in which you live. For in its welfare, lies your own.

Well, it turned out Jeremiah was right; King Nebuchadnezzar survived the attempted coup, and reigned another 32 years. It would be another 25 after that, before Babylon fell, and the Israelites were allowed to return home.

By then, two generations had been born on Babylonian soil. Did some of them decide to stay? Did they have a choice? When they finally got back to Jerusalem – did it feel like home?

Last August, I brought my kids to see my old neighborhood for the first time. I grew up in Greenwich Village, New York, in an 1840’s carriage house, which had been really barely renovated into faculty housing for NYU. The house was pretty much one enormous, two-story room, with a roof of leaky cross-beamed rafters; the bedrooms were tucked up in what had been the hayloft. The first and second stories were connected by this crazy, open metal staircase that had been put in by a couple of set designers who had lived there a decade earlier. This was the family home for over thirty years, until my Dad retired from NYU and moved out.

That was almost twenty years ago, but sure enough, as I turned the corner onto my block this summer, there was the familiar cobble stone street, looking almost exactly the same as it did during my childhood. There was my house, with its dark brick walls, its heavy wooden door, and the wisteria vine still climbing up the front.

As I stood there with my family, the door suddenly opened, and a couple of workmen came out, who had been doing some repairs inside. They let us peek in through the door.

Gone was the hanging staircase, replaced by a more conventional (and doubtless, safer) enclosed staircase. Gone was the open balcony, replaced by glassed-in second story. Gone was the raftered ceiling.

I told the kids, don’t look inside. That’s not the house I grew up in.

The inescapable truth is that my children are growing up in a different world than the one I think of as home. I don’t know about you, but my experience of aging is sometimes not so much a feeling that I am getting older, but a feeling that the world around me is somehow getting younger. It’s like that old trick with the tablecloth and the plates. I stay in one place, but somehow the ground beneath my feet changes.

Even those of us who stay put may find ourselves longing for the old country, for the way things used to be. It is not only the refugees who find themselves in a strange new world. Many of us live with a persistent sense of dislocation. The world around us changes so quickly.

How do we make ourselves at home, in this brave new world?

Serve the city where God has placed you; for in its welfare, lies your own.

After all, the exiles in Babylon weren’t the only ones who found themselves surrounded by strangers. What did their Babylonian neighbors feel about this influx of foreigners, I wonder? Did they say to these refugees, make yourself at home? Or did they, too, long for the day when the Israelites would finally leave, and their city could return to normal?

It is one thing to live alongside outsiders, but another to let them in – in to our homes, into our families, into our hearts. To seek their welfare, as our own.

In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles, I hear an echo of a later letter, this one written by the apostle Paul to the newly converted Christians in Ephesus. Some of the other leaders of the early church had balked at the inclusion of Gentiles into what had previously been a monocultural, all-Jewish group of disciples. But in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul proclaimed Christ has torn down the barrier that divided us into two separate peoples. “You are no longer strangers and aliens,” he wrote, “but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

In other words: Make yourself at home.

Today, 26 centuries after Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles, there is again a mass deportation going on in the middle east. Armed conflict in Syria has driven over four million Syrians to seek refuge across the border in Turkey and beyond. Half of these refugees are children.

A friend recently shared with me another letter, this one written just last month. It was posted on facebook by a grassroots group in Iceland, called Syria is Calling. Earlier this year, the Icelandic government announced that it would accept just 50 Syrian refugees. In response, the group posted this letter, demanding that the government increase the quota:

Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People [to whom we will] never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.” Open the gates.

In other words: Make yourself at home.

So far, the group has generated individual pledges of housing and support for 10,000 refugees.

Jeremiah’s letter is not just for the exiles, but also for those who receive them; not just for the migrants, but also for those of who stay put; not just for his ancient audience, but also for us, right here, right now. Are we willing to echo Jeremiah’s words, and say to the newcomer: make yourself at home? And – just as important – are we willing to make ourselves at home, in this new city, with these new neighbors that God has given us?

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have children, and let your children have children. But seek the welfare of the city God has given you to live in, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare, you will find your own.


(10.18.2015, Belchertown United Church of Christ)