Winnie Varghese: Lord, Help Me

The Canaanite Woman who confronts Jesus in Tyre and Sidon is, along with Jesus, on the main stage in this week’s Gospel. I am old enough to remember when her story was the bracketed part, the optional part, of the assigned readings from Matthew.

She is a local woman, of the communities in the book of Exodus that would have been conquered by the children of Israel as they conquered and occupied their land of promise after liberation from slavery in Egypt and that long wandering in the wilderness. The Bible gives us hints that the people already there remain, and this is one of those jarring reminders that there were people there, and those people remain even to this generation.

The way they are “conquered” in this time is that, at least in words and religious philosophy in the time of Jesus, they are made outsiders, outsiders to the law, to purity, in their own place, by Jesus’ people. That doesn’t mean that we know who had more money or power or land. We don’t know if she was poor or wealthy or something else. It is reasonable to assume her town was thriving. I have read that she must have been educated because of the sophistication of the conversation, but I have met many extraordinarily intelligent and articulate people without much education. The storyteller has decided that the only thing we are supposed to know about her is that Jesus goes to her neighborhood, and she gets very close to him to tell him exactly what she needs.

Her daughter is possessed by demons. Jesus goes to her neighborhood after saying it is what comes from the heart that defiles, not what enters the mouth. And then he walks through an area where Canaanites live.

It was Vine Deloria Jr.’s God Is Red that opened my eyes to the Canaanites in the Bible. I had read right past them, because they did not fit my theology, the theology I had absorbed from reading the Bible with Christians. God promised the children of Israel that they would occupy the land of promise, and I assumed from that moment that it was so. I heard as I read that the land must be empty - God would not wish harm on anyone, much less cause it, right? - even as I read the story of the guys with the grapes on the pole coming out of Canaan, and every battle and siege.

You are probably a better reader than me. I’m a believer. I tend to lead with that, I tend to make things fit and leave out what doesn’t fit into the way I have been told life and faith work, until someone points out something else, insistently.

Today’s story is a hard one for me. Not because Jesus seems to change his mind and accept the Canaanite woman’s request. That idea is not unsettling to me, and it does appear to be just that. After calling out her request from a respectful distance and being ignored, after repeating it and being scolded, she gets very, very close and seems to beg - articulately and intelligently - but beg. And he sees her and gives her what she is asking for. Her daughter, possessed of demons, is healed.

I find it hard to read because it feels close. I know that feeling. I try to organize my life to avoid it, and most of the time I can, and sometimes I choose to be or have to be the one who insists, who will not let it go, until the blessing is granted. For some of us, it’s our superpower.

On May 18, I got to stand with Matt Oprendek, Matt Heyd, Stephen Breed, Bruce Jolly, Bob Jacobs, Stephen Lee, and the bishops of the Episcopal Church in New York for the launch of the New York Episcopal Federal Credit Union. A Credit Union is a community-held entity that is owned by its members and can loan on its own terms within its membership. It is a federally insured financial cooperative. Now, I might not be as proud of anything in my professional life as I am to have been a part of seeing it through to a charter.

In 2014, a small group of us from the Episcopal Diocese of New York took a resolution to our convention asking our diocese to permit us to explore the possibility of establishing a credit union. The diocese had attempted this before - it is New York after all; we know a financial institution.

The difference in 2014 was the big bank crashes had happened in 2009. The market crash that had to do with bad mortgages and inflated housing prices, the one that devasted so many pensions, had happened. The big federal bailout of banks had happened. Remembering there was no bailout for those pensions, the cynical or corrupt or unethical practices of banks had been exposed. One study at the time found that one-third of New Yorkers were unbanked or under-banked. At my parish in the East Village, I was meeting people with jobs that the local commercial bank would not serve with a checking or savings account. Every conference or meeting I went to about new inclusive financial services, like community lending apps, assumed you had a bank account. They were required. I remembered the Episcopal Credit Union in Los Angeles and their president, Urla Gomes, who told the stories of giving $500 loans to the woman who ran the tamale cart or a few thousand dollars for the house cleaners to get better supplies so that they could level up to grow their businesses.

A longtime member of St. James in Fordham, where the Credit Union opening was held, Raquel Davis, said many community members she talked to at the church’s food pantry while volunteering told her that they are looking forward to joining the credit union. “Most of us are not wealthy,” she said. “It’s impossible for us to get a loan from the commercial banks, so the only opportunity is to go to the loan sharks,” where the interest charged is “overwhelming,” she said. She said, “Thank you for the opportunity in the credit union because it’s giving us an opportunity to have control over our finances.”

Lord, help me, the Canaanite woman says, and she won’t stop asking.

A decade is not how long I wanted this to take. It took us time to understand how we could staff and structure this organization to serve those we wanted to serve. It took us time to agree to a model. There was an unfortunate time there when we got no response to our inquiries from the federal government. I am sure we were not alone in that. When the administration changed, again, so did the rate of engagement. We could not have done it without Dall Forsythe and Bruce Jolly who brought a lot of professional experience and persistence themselves.

There remains much work to be done to keep this thing capitalized and active. But I’m telling you this story because we need more. Adjudicatories of churches are a wonderful field of membership - the great and mighty among us, we ordinary people, and those left out of formal economy, in one group - placing our giftedness and need in relationship, the true fabric of our lives together, not in offering charity, but in building the institutions that empower those we have narratively erased - the losers. Every time the banks crash or the unemployment rate goes up or a politician decides that hating one another will help them get a few more votes, we are binding together what our public life insists must be separated.

There was a time when churches built institutions: schools, hospitals, later food banks and homeless projects. As our institutions are battered in this nation, what were once the common goods of life together - like housing, land, food, and banks - are all organized to maximize the profit of the investor, not produce the best product or service at a competitive rate with market appropriate compensation of employees. It is up to people like us to reclaim and rebuild the commons, what we share of what God has given us. And some of that rebuilding is of institutions.

At St. Luke’s in Atlanta, where I am now, it is literally also about creating more beautiful green space, maybe growing more food, gathering people in a divided city. Yes, and what if we put our resources to work for those possessed by demons today – the demons of sickness, of endless war that is like armed violence in our streets, the demon of being priced out of housing, the demon of jobs whose salaries cannot pay for the basic necessities of life, the demon of a marketplace that will take the most money from the people with the least, the demon of working children, the demon of hunger? Lord, help us.

Lord, help us and bless us with a portion of the Canaanites woman’s courage and persistence. Help us to find ourselves in this story. Maybe you are like Jesus, passing through this particular patch of suffering. Maybe it’s not for you. Are you clever? Maybe you are a disciple, disdainful of the inconvenience of this crap economy and its victims. You’re just trying to follow Jesus after all, or maybe you are like a woman whose child is lost, strategizing to get access to what you need.

May Jesus meet you where you are and go with you as you find your power to heal.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life. Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.