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The Transforming Touch: Nobody’s Born A Bigot!

Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus was on the road.

Of course, Jesus was always on the road. The Bible says: “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” He was always on the road. Only this time was a bit different, because this time the road led to the land of the Gentiles, to what we know today as Lebanon, to the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon. As far as we know, this is the only time Jesus ever traveled beyond the bounds of the land of His birth. The reason for the journey? Well, I suppose you could call it a time of spiritual retreat.

Jesus knew that the end was near. The opposition to Him had become entrenched and organized. That meant that every single day He was dogged by the presence of both those who hated Him and sought to bring Him down, and those who loved Him and sought His uplifting help. It was a pressure-cooker existence, to say the very least. So there came a point where Jesus sought release from the pressure for a time. He journeyed north to the area of Tyre and Sidon, a place where the Gentiles lived and where, therefore, no Jews would dare to follow. It was a place where lived people who were hated by the Jews and who returned the hatred toward the Jews; but it was a place, interestingly enough, where Jesus was accepted, if not adored.

If you look back in the early portion of the Gospel of Mark, you will learn that some of the people from Tyre and Sidon came down into Galilee in the early part of Jesus’ ministry, were moved by what He said and did, and apparently went home telling everyone what they had seen and heard. Consequently, the people of that area had heard about Jesus. That ought to give you some idea as to just how far the word had spread about Jesus. Remember, this was a land not His own. Little wonder the religious leaders and authorities were so threatened by Him. So Jesus went to this region of Tyre and Sidon to “get away from it all” for awhile—Mark says: “He didn’t want anyone to know He was there”—but He could not escape notice. When the word got out that Jesus was there, among those who came to Him was a Canaanite woman.

This woman had a daughter. This daughter was ill—severely ill, mentally ill. And this woman came to Jesus seeking help. Understand, please, that in order to get to Jesus, she had to overcome the barrier of hatred and prejudice. I want to suggest to you there is no stouter barrier in the human experience than the barrier of hatred and prejudice. You see, this woman was a Canaanite; Jesus was a Jew. The hatred between the Canaanites and the Jews then was every bit as intense as the hatred between the Arabs and the Israelis in our own time. Do you remember Joshua? Joshua led the people into the promised land. The people who were then displaced, driven out of their homes, were the Canaanites. There was born then a hatred that burned white hot right up to the time of Jesus. And this woman was willing to overcome the horrendous barrier of racial hatred in order to get to Jesus. And as a result, Jesus tore the barrier down.

I know that’s true because of what the story tells us. We are told that the woman came to Jesus and cried: “Lord, help me.” Then Jesus did a very interesting thing. He responded to her by quoting an old Jewish proverb. Jesus said to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The proverb was actually a racial slur containing a racial epithet, and it was commonly used by the Jews against the Canaanites. You see, they referred to the Canaanites as “dogs”—and not just dogs, mind you, but street dogs, mangy dogs, cur dogs, vicious dogs who roamed wild and scavenged in packs. Such dogs were hated, and that’s why the Jews employed the racial epithet “dogs” in speaking of the Canaanites.

But what I want you to see is that Jesus gave that commonly used racial slur an interesting and very important twist. You see, He didn’t quote the proverb verbatim. When He repeated the proverb to this woman, He changed the word for “street dogs” to the word for “house pets” or “puppies”. He deliberately softened the saying and changed its whole character from one of ugliness to one of affection. And the woman, so quick-witted herself that she caught the warm and winsome wit of the Master replied to Him with the same figure of speech. She said: “Yes, Lord, but puppies do get the delicious crumbs that fall from the Master’s table”. Those words must have burst with great joy into the heart of Jesus. For He then said to her: “Woman, great is your faith! Your daughter is made well.” And the daughter was healed, the Bible says, “instantly.”

Make no mistake about it. Here in one magnificent gesture, in a land not His own, with a woman of a race not His own, Jesus destroyed once and for all and forever the barriers of racial hatred which separate people one from another.

That’s the story. Now what does the story say to us today?

The story forces us to acknowledge that racism is alive and well in America today. Oh, it’s not as overt and obvious as it once was in this land—it’s much more subtle now. What we have done is to substitute for overt racism what I would call aversion racism. That is, we develop an aversion to people of other races.

Some examples culled from conversations with some African-American friends. One man tells how he was shopping at a supermarket. He was dressed in his business suit, white shirt, and tie because he was on his way home from work and stopped to pick up a few things for supper. He noticed an older woman wheeling her cart down the aisle toward him. Several white men passed her and she kept moving her cart down the aisle. But the minute she saw this black business man, she picked up her purse out of the cart and clutched it tightly under her arm as she walked past. Another man tells how he went to the nearby 7-11 store, a store he regularly frequents. He picked up a newspaper and a bottle of milk, and then discovered that all he had in his wallet was a $50 bill. He asked the man behind the counter if he could make change for that size bill. The man replied: “You people”—get that, please!—”You people love to flash your money around, don’t you?” Mind you, this man was a regular customer in the store! An African-American woman says: “When my son went off to college, he was required to attend an orientation seminar with other incoming black students to learn how to get along with white students, but there was no such seminar for white students to teach them how to get along with black students.” Another African-American woman who works for a local “temp” agency, a place where businesses call looking for temporary help on the job. She reports that frequently the caller will say on the phone: “Please don’t send us any blacks”, not recognizing that the very person to whom they are speaking is black.

Wrap your mind around this, please. The unemployment rate in our state is about 7%. However, among black males, the figure jumps to 12.5%! If you add in those who in frustration have simply dropped out of the labor force altogether, the figure is a whopping 22%. In this country 22 black babies die out of every 1000 born—among whites, it is only 5 out of a thousand. The average life expectancy of a black male is 14 years shorter than the average white male. The principal cause of such differences is racism. Yet, for the most part, our African-American sisters and brothers continue to be like the Canaanite woman of long ago—they do not erupt in violence, but instead they cry out to the Lord and to the Lord’s people for help. I think that is true, because black leadership from the time of Frederick Douglas to Andrew Young has been dominated by those who are Christian. And I believe that the only hope for racial peace in our world lies in this barrier-breaking Christ of ours.

Racial prejudice, my beloved, can only be described as inane or insane. Take your pick. It denies the God who created all equal. It denies the Bible which teaches that God has made of one blood all the nations of the earth. It denies the unity of the human family. It denies the truth of Christian principles. It denies the authority and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who died on the cross, not for some, but for all.

Tom Mills, a member of this church, is a photographer for Campus Crusade for Christ. Recently, he shared with me some photographs he had taken of a Campus Crusade ministry in New York City. It’s called IMPACT—and it is designed to break down racial barriers between people and to build bridges instead. It’s a ministry which is accomplishing amazing things. Tom’s photographs became a part of a magazine article about the ministry. In one of his photographs, in the background, there is a poster which speaks of one of IMPACT’S goals. The poster shows a black child and a white child in a glad embrace. And then in big block letters are these words: “Nobody’s born a bigot!” And then at the bottom are the words: “Learning to live together—the unfinished task”.

The truth of the poster hit me like a blow to the solar plexus. It’s true, we aren’t born as bigots. We aren’t born hating people of other races. It’s something we learn. We learn it from others. We learn it from society. We aren’t born with it. We learn it. And if we can learn it, we can also unlearn it! How? A few suggestions:

  • We can ask God to forgive us for our aversion to people of other races, and like the Canaanite woman we can pray, “Lord, help me to overcome this barrier in my life.”
  • We can pray for the controlled courage of our African-American friends, and thank God for their incredible patience.
  • We can pray that those who are racists will be illuminated and saved, for surely by their present behavior and beliefs, they are rejecting salvation.
  • We can pray for our churches that they might open their doors to people of other races, and embrace those people in the love of Christ, and allow those people to rise to positions of influence and leadership.
  • We can be agents of peace in the office, at home, or at school driving away deeds of darkness with the light of Christ’s love.
  • We can use our businesses to hire people of other races, and give them every opportunity to succeed.
  • We can make sure that we have at least one personal friendship with a person of another color, and that we involve our family in that friendship.
  • We can commit our time, our talents, and our cash to the cause of Jesus Christ and put down racism wherever it rears its ugly head.

We are not born as bigots. It’s something we learn. And if we can learn it, we can also unlearn it. We are not born a bigot. We dare not die a bigot. We dare not face the Christ of glory, the Christ of the Canaanite woman, with this ugly stain up our hearts and upon our lives.

How can I bring this all together?

Perhaps by telling you about a man some people are calling a “20th century saint”. I would not quibble with the designation. The man’s name is John Perkins. John Perkins came to Jesus Christ in 1957. He surrendered his entire life to the Savior and Lord of us all. Over the next several years, he came to believe that God was calling him to share the Gospel with people whose skin happened to be black like his. So, in 1960 he settled down in a place called Mendenhall, Mississippi, and he devised a plan. The first step was to reach the children. John Perkins and his wife began traveling to the rural schools in that part of Mississippi, telling the children the stories of Jesus. They were reaching 10,000 children a month. On that foundation, they established a church, and that church began to grow and people were won to Jesus Christ. And then John Perkins realized that he needed to find ways to feed the hungry people who were part of his flock. So the church bought a few acres of farmland and a little country grocery store, and they began to grow and to distribute their own food; giving people both the Bread of Life and bread for the body. John Perkins reputation began to spread—a risky thing to have happen to a black man in Mississippi in that time. One day he was arrested on a trumped-up charge. The sheriff began by beating him, and then the deputies played cruel games—like putting a single bullet into the revolving chamber of a gun, spinning it, and putting the gun to John Perkins’ head and pulling the trigger. Ultimately they clubbed him into unconsciousness and dumped him in a ditch. It was months before he recovered. But he kept on preaching and living the Gospel. Now, 34 years later, that church has a self-help and vocational assistance program serving thousands of people, a Bible institute, a medical clinic and on and on I could go. No government money, just a handful of black and white committed Christian businessmen working together, and they are turning things around. Today, people from all over travel to Mendenhall, Mississippi to see John Perkins and his remarkable ministry called “The Voice of Calvary.” By the way, do you remember the sheriff who so viciously beat John Perkins all those years ago? Today, he teaches a children’s Bible class at “The Voice of Calvary”.

The day Jesus touched the life of the Canaanite woman, he destroyed once and for all and forever the racial barriers separating people from each other. Dearly beloved, nobody’s born a bigot. Please, in the name of Jesus Christ, don’t die as one….

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