The Cool Kids’ Table

We moved to a new neighborhood when I was in my second year of high school.  Now, I must confess that pretty much all through junior high and into my first year of high school, school was a social disaster.  And an academic disaster.  But moving to Lakewood didn’t help matters one bit.

Exclusion was no more apparent than when lunch hour rolled around.  I took my lunch and over by the walkway was a group of tables at the edge of one wing of classrooms where the popular kids ate.  There were the football players and their girlfriends.  The cheerleaders and some popular band kids – an inner circle of popularity all ate there.  To think that any of us mere mortals might sit at one of those tables was to risk abject scorn.  This was the Cool Kids table.  They had the right clothes, the right cars, the right girlfriends and boyfriends.  I was definitely not in the class of the “Cool Kids,” nor were any of the few friends I had.  We sort of hung around on the edges of school.  We definitely did not have the “right stuff.”

I’m not sure when I first heard the story of the unwanted Canaanite woman.  But I had no difficulty in identifying with her.  Matthew tells of this woman who begins following Jesus and his disciples on the road in the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Definitely, the people of this district were outsiders, certainly “not cool.” These outsiders were excluded from the God’s Covenant with the House of Israel.  She implores Jesus for her daughter’s sake.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

It’s like that stray dog which began following me home from school one day.  No matter how much I tried to shoo it away into a vacant lot, it wouldn’t leave.   It would back up a few feet and again resume following me as soon as I took a few steps. 

That’s how Jesus and his little band regarded this woman.  The disciples kept urging Jesus to shoo her away.  She was not their kind.  They refused to recognize her humanity.  She was a nuisance, a pest.

She was like that telemarketing phone call.  The caller first asks your name and how are you like they’re juiced on six cups of coffee. Before you can get a word in edgewise, this marketing monster is off on their sales pitch.  Just a big bother and waste of time.  I’m thinking, “If I really needed this as much as you say, I would have already purchased it.”  Get out of here!  Most often, only rudeness will get them get them out of your hair. 

“Send her away,” the disciples urge, keeping her all the time at arm’s length.  She smells.  She talks funny.  They had no time for this ragged, unkempt woman.  “Send her away.”  She definitely does not belong at the Cool Kids table.

But she persists. 

I remember another woman who more recently persisted.  When Elizabeth Warren insisted on interjecting a letter from Coretta Scott King into the proceedings on the Senate floor, Mitch McConnell would have none of it.  In explaining the Senate’s censure of her on the floor, “She was warned.  It was explained to her.  Nevertheless, she persisted.”  Another “Nasty Woman” not knowing her place.  And this ragged woman yelling and carrying on about her daughter does not know her place.

Finally, Jesus, exasperated, wheels on the woman right there in the middle of the road and explains it to her.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But again, she persists, “Lord help me.”  Finally, he snaps, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

For most women, for most of us who do not belong at the “Cool Kids” table, the matter would have been dropped.  Embarrassed and dejected, we would have retreated into silence and slunk away. 

That is what happens to too many of those marginalized in our society.  These were the immigrants and foreigners then living in Israel in Jesus’ day.  Presently, these are the families seeking asylum from drug gangs in Mexico and Central America – fleeing ruthless dictators in Honduras and Guatemala (tyrants we quietly prop up with American dollars and troops).  These are the children yanked from their parents and locked in cages at our southern border.  They’re just a nuisance.  So what if they all get COVID-19 and die.  Not our responsibility.  No sign here about the “huddled masses,” or “tempest-tossed.”  “GO AWAY,” the sign reads. 

Not many years ago, that is what the “Chinese Exclusion Act was about – what the restrictive covenants in property deeds were about, what “red-lining” was about.  You don’t belong here at the Cool Kids table.

Recently, in the Science section of the Times, I read how much more subtly we communicate the same message in so-called “polite” society.  It was about the not-so-subtle indignities that minorities in science and medicine daily endure, especially women of color.

The new term for such pernicious and not-so-subtle putdowns is “micro-aggressions.”  These are comments, many unthinking, which communicate to another that they don’t belong.  They are not welcome at the Cool Kids table – any more than was that desperate woman.  She was not suitable material for the Jesus Movement.

Oh yes, we sing “In Christ there is no East of West, in him no North or South.”  But c’mon.  That’s nice in theory. But not when a black dentist moves in down the street as happened in my neighborhood when I was a kid. 

Definitely not cool.  So not cool that some of their neighbors gave that family the message loud and clear when the ran a garden hose through their second-floor window and set it to running while the family was on vacation. That song’s a nice sentiment, but not when property values are at stake.

This is the exclusion that especially women of color face in medicine.  Dr. Onyeka Otugo shares of her experiences when training in emergency medicine in Chicago and Detroit.  As she would enter a patient’s room, the comment was sometimes, “When is the doctor coming in?”  This after she had already introduced herself as a doctor.   None of her white male colleagues ever had to face such indignity. 

Patients would let her know where the trash was so she could take it out, or that the sink needed attending to.  These “put downs” were often “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-vocalized exchanges.”  Dr. Chester Pierce, a psychiatrist refers to them as “micro aggressions.”  Not “micro” because of their corrosive impact on the other, but because of their routine frequency. 

Many doctors of color, especially women though, report the high frequency of such derogatory comments.  Or having been addressed as “sweetie” or “honey.”[1]  Even by their male colleagues on the hospital staff.

I can understand the racism behind such behavior.  If you grew up in a largely white society as I did, You may have never encountered any professionals who were not white.  I remember the first time I took our oldest to Kaiser to have his asthma checked out.  We had sat in a small office sometime before the doctor finally appeared. 

When Dr. Pham entered, I had to check my racial stereotypes right there and then.  I wondered, “What kind of training did this doctor from Cambodia have?”  Is he licensed?  Would he be as qualified as another, as a real doctor – read “white” doctor?  As this thought raced through my head, a sense of shame filled me.  Of course, he’s qualified.  He’s had to pass the same exams that all doctors pass – again, read “white” doctors.  Kaiser wouldn’t have hired him otherwise.  Now I’m thinking, “Forney, you jerk.  Get a grip.”

Of course, Dr. Pham was excellent.  He thoroughly explained where our son was with his asthma and which course of treatment would be best.  His manner with Jonathan was kind and thoughtful.  He explained to him in language he could understand what was happening and how they were going to make him well.

Right then and there, I received a master class in race relations.  I left the doctor’s office with some new insights about myself and how easily I, an educated, “enlightened” white liberal, could pigeonhole and dismiss that man.  Dismiss him as Other. I consoled myself with the thought that, at least, I didn’t think he was the janitor!

Dr. Sheryl Heron, a black professor of emergency medicine at Emory, says that these microaggressions can take a terrible toll.  “After the twelve-thousandth time, it starts to impede your ability to be successful…”[2]  The burn-out rate among emergency medical personnel is already extraordinarily high without this crap.  Self-doubt eats at one’s sense of worth and one’s sense of vocation.

Back to the region around Tyre and Sidon.  After having been told that one doesn’t take the children’s food and fling it to the dogs, we pick up the story.  And, yes, we know the term for a female dog – that is what he called her indirectly.  That’s the sort of word that gets your mouth washed out with soap.  So, let’s pick up the story.

This Syro-Phoenician woman — this most original of “nasty women” — had the hutzpah to retort, “Even the dogs gather up the scraps from under the master’s table.”  EVEN THE DOGS!  Say what?

Silence.  Crickets.  More silence.  Shuffling of feet in the dust.

Instantaneously, in a heartbeat, Jesus’ heart grew one size larger. “Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And there was healing.  Not only for the daughter but for Jesus and all those around.  Healing reaching down through the ages, in hearts of all touched by the retelling of that exchange.  Surely, on that day another was welcomed into that marvelous, Spirit-filled band, the Jesus Movement. 

Nothing is set in stone.  Even the most hardened hearts can be softened like butter in the microwave. 

I realize that, not all those considered unfit for the Cool Kids table, will be able to speak up for themselves as did this bedraggled women Jesus encountered.  So many have been beat down for so long that all persistence has wrung out of them.  It is up to those of privilege, especially white male privilege, to hold wide the doors of inclusion, of success.  It’s always about a “hand up.”

That’s what we, the Church, are called to be.  A glorious welcome home party. 

I can still remember that cartoon in one of our Anglican magazines depicting folks exiting a church after the service.  One snooty woman with blue hair piled high on her head, dressed in furs and bling, indignantly demanded of the priest as she glared at the church sign board proclaiming “Decade of Evangelism.”  “What is this Decade of Evangelism?” she demanded with haughty distain. “I thought everyone who was supposed to be an Episcopalian already was one!”

What is evangelism?  It’s simply the good news that there’s a place for all at the Cool Kids Table — for, in the end, it is the Lord’s table.  That’s what we proclaim each and every Sunday.  At least back in the old days when we were still able to gather in person for worship.

In Christ we are still learning what it means that all are invited to the Cool Kids table.  And such a feast that is spread.  Taste and see that the Lord is good.

That is the message of the House of Hope.  In God’s Kindom there are do-overs.  Redemption is our business, God willing.  ALL means ALL.  We may lose the patience,  We may lack the strength to persist.  But God doesn’t!

O Lord, give us, your Church, a heart many sizes larger than it would have had if left to our own devices.  Make of us a joyful welcome party for all to the Cool Kids table.  For all are TOTALLY COOL in your sight.  Amen.

[1] Emma Goldbert, “It can Cause You to Shrink,” New York Times, Science Section, August 11, 2020

[2] Ibid.

August 16, 2020, Pentecost 11

The Rev. John C. Forney

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

“The Cool Kids’ Table”

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