September 6, 2015

15th Sunday After Pentecost, Pastor Gordon Braatz

Mark 7:24-37.  The passage we just heard from the Gospel of Mark contains one of those awkward stories about Jesus’ life that we might be inclined to skip over altogether if the Sunday readings didn’t keep bringing it to our attention. What makes it so difficult is how harsh it sounds. Jesus seems to be hiding from those who want his help, and when a woman finds him and pleads with him to heal her daughter, he implies he has nothing to offer a person like her, and he likens her to a dog before the sheer force of her faith changes something, and he decides to help her after all. His reluctance to help is puzzling for us, and the language is something we would never expect to hear from one who is love and goodness personified.

Now I know there are hundreds of years of interpretation that try to soften this a bit. Scholars of the Aramaic language point out that the word for dog used by Jesus really means a house pet, but I’m not sure that helps very much. If someone is going to call me a dog, it doesn’t really matter if they mean a mangy mutt roaming the streets or precious Rover sitting on the sofa. It still won’t put me in a very good light.

The issue here is that the woman is a foreigner. A Syrophoenician, Mark says, which means she came from the seafaring people along the coastal part of Syria — people who stood for practically everything devout Jews were against. They had strange gods and strange customs — and they were at home with the sea, which Jews had always thought was the place where all that is ungodly was sure to dwell. They were, in short, people with whom Jews were to have no dealings at all, and it seemed for the most part Jesus agreed with this position. He had told his followers when he sent them out to preach and to heal that they were to steer clear of the Gentiles, and he reminded them that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. The only problem was that a lot of those lost sheep didn’t want to be found. In spite of all that Jesus said and did, his own people were not exactly rushing to respond to his call.

Now from Mark’s account, by the time we get to today’s episode, a lot has been happening. Jesus had been to his hometown where his family and friends had misgivings about him and had taken offense at his teaching. Then he received word that John the Baptist had been killed, and he tried to cope with that news by going off to a quiet place by himself.

But the crowds followed him, and crowds can be demanding.  Jesus taught the people and he even fed 5000 of them in the wilderness, but it was abundantly clear that nearly all of them were more interested in bread for their stomachs than the bread of life he was offering. Everywhere Jesus turned, there were needy people who wanted what he could do for them, but nobody seemed to have a clue about who he really was or what his real purpose might be.

And when he went even farther away, probably hoping for some quiet time at last, he is approached by this foreign woman pleading for him to heal her daughter — one more voice crying out for him to do something. Only this woman is crying out in a surprising way. Matthew’s Gospel says she calls him, “Son of David,” — the title reserved for the Messiah, the title he had mostly failed to hear from his own people. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out, when this woman addresses Jesus, she names something in him even some of his closest followers have had trouble recognizing. It must have been ironic indeed for Jesus to hear what he most wanted to hear coming from the mouth of one he least wanted to hear it from.

And his response was to draw a line. Enough is enough. The doctor is out. The shelves are empty. The sign on the door says, “Closed.” He is not going to take any time with this foreigner. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says.

The words seem harsh and even cruel, but I think we can understand what is going on here. And if we cannot understand, maybe it is because we have skipped over that part in creeds that declare Jesus to be a genuine flesh-and-blood human being — “Like us in every way but without sin,” the apostle said. In view of all that had happened, I think Jesus was tired and discouraged, worn out by all the demands, and probably wondering what his mission really was after all.

I think we can understand this because in small ways it happens to us, too — not the Messiah part, of course, but the frustrations that get to us, and the demands that wear us down. The telephone rings when I am in the middle of a meal, and for the third time that day someone is urging me to buy something I have never wanted and most assuredly do not need. I pick up my mail, and there is a request from a charity I’ve never heard of, complete with a carefully written appeal designed to make me feel guilty as I throw it away. I walk down the street enjoying the sights of a city I’ve never been to before, and I see someone heading toward me with his hand out and that look in his eye I’ve have seen a hundred times, and I have to decide if I’m going to ignore him or find really decisive way to say no.

All of us draw a line somewhere — and most likely we draw it around our own families and friends and neighborhoods. We want to protect ourselves and the things that are precious to us.   And like Jesus we may lose our temper when somebody insists on trying to cross over the line, and we say things that are not like our usual selves at all.

But this foreign woman was not going to stay on her side of the line — not even when Jesus called her a dog. She had gotten her foot in the door, and she shows no sign of giving up. Looking right at him she says, “Even the dogs… eat the children’s crumbs.” And with that, everything changes. One great theologian says that all of heaven must have been holding its breath, waiting to see how Jesus would respond. The pace of Mark’s Gospel doesn’t slow down even for a moment, but I think there must have been a long silence here. And when Jesus does respond it seems that something in him has been rearranged forever. The boundary line he had drawn has disappeared. He has a new understanding of who he is and what he is supposed to do. He is no longer Messiah only for the lost sheep of Israel, but God’s chosen one for the whole world. From now on for Jesus nothing is safe, nothing is predictable, as he opens his arms wider and wider — until they are nailed to a cross.

It seems to be no accident that in the very next paragraph of Mark’s Gospel we find the account of Jesus healing a deaf man — healing with the dramatic command, “Ephphatha – Be Opened.” Surely it ought to be our prayer that this might happen to us, too. Not literally to have our ears unstopped, but that we might be open — to pleas for justice, to the cries of our neighbors in need, and to the still small voice of God urging us along the way of righteousness and goodness.

Today our Presiding Bishop has urged us to consider again our part in the sin of racism, through confession and repentance and action. It is an issue we have heard addressed by many voices on many occasions in this place, but it is an issue we cannot put to rest — not when injustice is clearly present and people are hurt. The corroding influence of power and privilege and prejudice cannot be ignored.

And hard upon the Bishop’s urging for us to consider racism was this week’s call to stand in solidarity with the refugees streaming across Europe, fleeing from homelands that have become unsafe and unstable to seek a better life.

You will have to decide for yourself exactly what this means for you, but one thing is certain: It will require resolve and courage and the strengthening presence of the Spirit of God. For some of us it will mean action and activism to end the achievement gap, and the ceiling on opportunity, and the disparity in incarceration, and to find a means of bringing hope and help to those who have so little to sustain them. For all of us it will mean an examination of attitudes, a commitment to do even little things that demonstrate we can change, and then to reach beyond ourselves to offer healing and acceptance across the street and across the world.

You see, Jesus’ encounter with that foreign woman tells us that faith and desperate need can turn up anywhere, even on the other side of the line we have drawn to protect ourselves. Our inclination may be not to notice, or to build a higher wall, or to construct a stronger fence. But we are called not to lives of comfort and safety; we are called to faith and goodness, to service and love.

Today I think the challenge for us is clear: Be opened, and listen for the voice of God — and not be surprised if that voice directs us to step over an old boundary, to push a limit, to take a risk. The only thing we have to lose is life the way we have been living it. And if we get scared (and we might) ­­— or if we get angry (and that might happen, too) — let’s remember these stories from Mark’s Gospel. And then break down the boundaries, because God is also on the other side.

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Portions of this sermon have been adapted from “Crossing the Line,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, in Seeds of Heaven, Forward Movement Publications, 1990.