Author and speaker Brene Brown is an Episcopalian who works as a researcher in psychology and has written several books about shame and vulnerability. She’s also done many presentations and videos that are posted all over the internet.
I bring her up because, as I was preparing to write this sermon this week, I stopped to watch a video of hers on Facebook where she talks about empathy and the importance of showing up for each other in the aftermath of Charlottesville and the continuing discussions about race as we listen to more stories than just the one about the history of our country.
In her work, Brene talks about being authentic in our relationships with one another and in community. She also talks about accountability – how we are accountable to one another because we live in relationship to one another.
What does it mean to be accountable to others in a community? What does it mean to hold each other accountable or to hold ourselves accountable to others?
Sometimes what this means is we help them in some physical way – feeding people, clothing people, assisting them with the everyday tasks of their lives.
Sometimes what this means is we stop telling our own story long enough to hear their story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what they’ve said.
But always, it means that we consider the repercussions of our actions on others and take responsibility for those repercussions, even if the results were unintended. This means that we sometimes need to correct our behavior, even if we think we didn’t do anything wrong.
Because we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in relationship.
As humans, we always live in community.
Our readings today point to this accountability we have to one another.
The tale of Joseph is a metaphor or a mythical story that helps us understand the larger narrative of the ancient Israelites. Joseph is the youngest son of Jacob, who was renamed Israel because he wrestled with an angel of God. This is a story about the nation of Israel.
If you recall from last week, Joseph was hated by his brothers because he had prophetic dreams and they plotted to get rid of him, a few wanted to go so far as to kill him. They finally decided upon selling him into slavery. Then, they lied to their father about their deed, letting Israel think that wild animals killed his son.
8 chapters later (the story of Joseph is quite lengthy), we have today’s reading. In those 8 chapters, a lot happened to Joseph but in the end, he rose to prominence in Egypt because of his prophetic dreams, eventually becoming the closest advisor to the king.
In his dreams, Joseph foresaw a famine and ensured that the king’s storehouses were packed with seed. Once the famine started, people from neighboring nations came to Joseph asking for help, this included his own family who were still living as aliens in the land of Canaan.
Which is where we find ourselves in today’s story of reunion – Joseph’s brothers have come to ask for seed and Joseph knows he is accountable to them, even though he has reason not to help them because of what they did to him in the past.
Eventually, Jacob’s whole family, the whole nation of Israel, comes to live in Joseph’s house in Egypt, which is how the Israelites came to live in Egypt. They received sanctuary from the very brother whom they had thought about killing, the brother they had sold into slavery.
Although this is a tale about the nation of Israel, it’s really a story about how we, as humans, are accountable to each other. Responsible for each other.
And it’s also a critique on our culture. We like to say “live and let live” in the US. To each his/her own. “I will do what I please and I’m sorry if you can’t deal with that.” But we’re seeing the unintended consequences of that ideology played out to its extreme for us in living color. What we do over here to feel safe, has an effect on people over there. What we did or failed to do in the past, has a cumulative effect on the lives of whole populations of people.
We are responsible for our actions. We are accountable to each other. We do not live autonomously.
Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann talks about this as being covenanted. In his book The Covenanted Self, he says this covenant is lived out through two things that happen simultaneously – the assertion of self and the abandonment of self. And if they aren’t happening in relationship to one another as corrective forces, then we lose track of the covenant, and relationship and community are destroyed.
The assertion of self is when we are taking up space with our words or our property or our demands or our needs or our opinions or even our physical self. When this is functioning well, we are showing up for each other in supportive, authentic ways.
But when it’s not balanced by the abandonment of self, we filter everything through our own lens and insist that the way we see things is the only way to see things and the rest of the world is there for us to use in some way. We even end up insisting that God sees things the way we do (if we believe in God at all) and that we are the source of our own power devolving into what Brueggemann calls “praiseless autonomy” where there is no gratitude and “self-sufficiency becomes a law unto itself.”
The other edge, abandonment of self, is when we are willing to be taught, to learn, to give ourselves over to an idea or narrative other than our own, to consider that truth might be more complex than what we previously thought. When this is functioning well, we are still showing up for each other, supporting one another, and our presence isn’t about our own needs.
But when it’s not balanced by the assertion of self, we give up our agency and allow everything to happen, looking the other way if things are difficult or challenging, accepting everything as God’s will, offering no grace to ourselves or to one another. Brueggemann says that this devolves into “graceless obedience” in which we let the forces of the world have their way without confronting evil, correcting unjust systems, or seeking ways to heal the wounds that inevitably happen.
Brueggemann tells us that both edges are crucial for the covenant we have as God’s people. Our lives as Christians are not solitary, singular existences. We have inherited from our Jewish ancestors the understanding of covenant – we are in a covenanted relationship with God and with one another.
I will admit that reading the Hebrew Scriptures can be challenging sometimes. God always seems to be angry about something. But the reason God is upset is because people keep forgetting the covenant. They keep trying to dominate others, keep trying to make themselves great, keep trying to deny that they are responsible to one another.
This is exactly why Jesus says that the whole thing boils down to love God, love your neighbor as yourself. That is our covenant as Christians, given to us as sacrifice in the Eucharist.
We can neither give up our assertion of self, nor the abandonment of self. The two must balance each other. We have to show up for one another and act in this world and we have to realize that the world is not for our taking and we are not the sole arbiter of what is supposed to happen.
This is what living in community is. This is what accountability is.
Our actions have an impact on others, but that doesn’t mean we stop acting.
It means we continue to learn about how our actions effect other people and we humbly make corrections whenever we can where they are needed.
It means we listen when someone says, “Wait a minute. You’re treating me unjustly. My life matters.”
Which is exactly what happens in Jesus’ meeting with the Canaanite woman.
Canaan was the land Israel lived in. It was the land they took for their own, calling it the promised land and in the process of taking it, the Israelites sought to exterminate the Canaanites.
As a Jew, Jesus grew up around people who used the term Canaanite as a catch-all for anyone who was unworthy of notice, unworthy of treating justly, someone who had no rights in Jewish law, someone who was inferior.
We like to think of Jesus as someone who was unblemished by his upbringing. But it’s clear from this passage, that he was not. He carried prejudice and brought it to bear in this interaction. He called her a dog.
It’s important to understand just what kind of insult that was. Jews didn’t keep dogs as pets. They thought of dogs as mangy, disease-ridden, unwanted, filthy pests. They thought of dogs as scum. So, Jesus, our loving comforting messiah, is dismissing this woman, calling her scum. Think about that for a moment.
He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Meaning that his healing, the nourishment he offers, is meant only for those who are viewed as the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob.
Her Canaanite life and the life of her daughter don’t matter.
And this woman, this piece of scum, says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
This Canaanite woman reminds Jesus that her life matters.
And instead of feeling angry that this woman dared to challenge him, instead of being annoyed that she shoved her story in his face, instead of defending his first response or rationalizing his refusal as the fact of history, instead of listening to his disciples who just wanted him to ignore her… Jesus stopped in that moment and realized that he was accountable to this woman.
That he was responsible for her and her daughter and his behavior had an impact on them both. And he healed them.
And he healed centuries and centuries of sin in that moment.
Jesus stopped telling his own story long enough to hear her story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what she said. He made himself vulnerable by listening to her story and abandoning his self to a greater truth – the one that was kneeling before him. At the same time, he asserted his self, acting in service to justice to heal the centuries of sin and hurt and division.
Leaving behind the prejudice of his heritage, refusing to be shackled to it and refusing to allow her and her daughter to be shackled to it any longer.
So, here’s what I believe: If Jesus can stop to listen to someone besides himself, perhaps we can too.