Last week I watched one of the TED talks. You know, TED is a media organization that posts many inspiring speeches online for free.
The talk was about the power of storytelling. The speaker, Susan Conley, is a writer and a co-founder of “The Telling Room,” and she talked about what she found out while working with the students of The Telling Room. The Telling Room is a creative writing lab in Portland, Maine.
Their program offers a safe space for writing their own stories. She shares that by telling their stories, the students discover who they are, why they matter in the world, and how their stories can make influence on others. She says, “Power of story changes lives and communities. If we understand the power of storytelling to it’s simplest level, then we might begin to help others understand themselves and their place in the world.”
Listening to her, I asked myself, “What is my story to tell? What is my story with power to change lives? The first thing came to my mind was my faith story. Why? It’s because I believe our faith stories—our living experience of God’s love and our daily walk with Jesus—have transformative powers to help us understand better who we are and why we matter in the world. But how much do you think we understand the power of our stories? Not sure? Then, today, I would like to invite you to reflect on our stories of faith with me.
Each of our faith stories is very special by nature. It’s because they are not just individual stories about faith. It’s much more than that. By God’s grace and through our faith, our stories are interwoven with the greater storyline of God and God’s people in the world. And we are making our faith stories within this storyline today. Here, one may ask, “You know what, there are many horrible stories in the Bible…the stories of sin, violence, exclusivism, persecution and so on. What do you say about them?” Yes, that’s so true. But one thing we should remember is that even through all those stories about failures and struggles of God’s people, the primary storyline of God’s salvation has been unfolding in a certain flow, in a certain course. And even through our stories, God’s storyline goes on.
Today’s Gospel story of the Canaanite woman reveals this storyline behind all our faith stories. In the story, Jesus goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon, somewhere in the modern day Syria. In the days of Jesus, the Jews who kept their ethnic and genealogical purity despised this region, because they thought it was an impure place with idol worship, promiscuity, and mixed marriage. But today, Jesus meets a local woman there. She asks Jesus to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. Jesus is silent at first, but as his disciples urge him to drive her away, he says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Now, she kneels before Jesus and begs, “Lord, help me.” Then, Jesus answers, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:25). Is this real? Does Jesus really call this woman “a dog” because of where she’s from? Where is our humble and loving Jesus, a good friend of sinners?
Why on earth is Jesus acting like a terrible racist here? There are many answers out there. And they are roughly categorized into three types. The first type of answers concerns the relationship between Jesus and the woman. They explain that by casting the harsh words on her, Jesus wants to test her faith. The second type of answers focuses on the relationship between Jesus and the disciples. Here, Jesus just acts like a racist on purpose, and the purpose is to break the prejudice of his disciples who ask him to send the woman away. So Jesus says something they would say to her, and let her reply with wise words. Then, by affirming her words, Jesus gives the disciples a lesson that God’s grace has no boundary. The last type of answers is more about Jesus himself. This type is interested in Jesus’ true humanness, and assumes that maybe Jesus doesn’t quite realize yet how widely God’s kingdom can be expanded. So, the interaction with the Canaanite woman was critical for Jesus to deepen his understanding.
How about these three answers? Which one do you buy most? I think all three of them are quite reasonable. But above all such explanations, what we shouldn’t miss in this story is that Jesus does not dismiss her anyway. Rather, he listens to her, and eventually, changes his position. Let’s go back to the story. Even after hearing the d-word from Jesus, the Canaanite woman does not lose her faith in him and replies back to Jesus with such courage. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (15:27). Surprised by her faith, Jesus says, “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (15:28). Indeed, Jesus listens to her and changes his position. And if you read the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, right from this Canaanite woman, Jesus changes his position towards all the gentiles, the whole non-Jewish people. So from his encounter with the woman, Jesus begins to expand his boundary of mission to the outside of Jewish territories.
In this story of the Canaanite woman, we see the flow of God’s storyline of salvation. How does it go? Simply, it goes inside out. And it goes beyond boundaries. The Bible tells us that the story of God and God’s people began with one person, Abraham, then, his family, then, his ethnic group. But the story never ends there. In today’s Isaiah reading, we see God planning on expanding boundary to gather more people for salvation. And Jesus came and fulfilled this plan as he revealed God’s love for all and died for all. The story began within exclusive boundaries, but eventually, it goes over them, every single one of them, until it becomes our own faith stories.
Sisters and brothers of Christ, our faith stories are linked with this one great storyline of God that goes inside out and goes beyond any boundaries. With this storyline in his mind, Paul said two thousand years ago, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). As we continue this storyline in our lives, I believe our faith stories have incredible power to change lives and change the world.
Today, we are living in the post-Charlottesville time. We are living in the world filled with hatred, discrimination, racism, and bigotry. So we should tell our faith stories more loudly and invite others to join in the great storyline of God’s unconditional love and all-encompassing grace. Then they will understand who they are and why they matter in the world as we do.
Go tell your faith stories, how Jesus saved you with his love, and how you’re living as God’s child. Go tell God’s stories through our stories, how Jesus breaks down the walls among us, how the Holy Spirit moves us toward more openness, more love, more welcoming, more liberation, more acceptance, more forgiveness, and more affirmation. From today, tell these powerful stories to the people around you, not once, not twice, but over and over and over again. Amen.