Pentecost XV – Proper 18 September 6, 2015
Mark 7: 24-37
Journeys from the Edge
A sermon preached by Sue Cook at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
I pray that the time we share here bears witness to the inspired teachings woven within the sacred texts from today’s readings.
*Note to the reader – I admit to initially having a most difficult time unraveling the meaning(s) buried in Jesus’s encounter with the Syro-Phoenician mother; very frustratingly so. Thus, my tears – And then some more tears.
The Christian theologian and author Frederick Buechner recently shared this on his daily blog:
You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, …. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.
They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
I’ve heard that it is that which we ourselves most need to hear that we most need to share from the pulpit. And so it was a weepy me who worked to untangle the knots in my throat as I tried to discern what God wanted me to know but that I had thus far resisted hearing from this morning’s Gospel text. Through my unexpected tears it just popped out – my secret: I felt like an outsider, a lesser Christian, a fringe Episcopalian, and thus, who was I to stand up here and speak assuredly about anything found in the Bible. I was raised a Catholic…not a Christian!
The Syro-Phoenician mother stood on the outside of the crowd – waiting for the right moment to make her way to the front. She had to negotiate her way past the many other Tyreans crowded and waiting to see this Judean holy man perform one of his reputed jaw dropping miracles or speak words that would soothe their world-weary hearts. Once she managed to do this, there was also the protective guard of disciples to somehow get beyond. Determined and driven by a force greater than her fear, she slowly slipped between the taller, the wider, the skinnier and even some of the shorter ones…and then at last, she stood before him.
Ken Bailey, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Pittsburgh writes:
There is a parallel chapter in Matthew that shows that Jesus is administering a kind of test to two sets of people in this passage, the woman and the disciples.
Matthew tells us that the woman approaches Jesus with the traditional cry of a beggar: “Have mercy on me.” She humbles herself and adds the title “Lord”—a term she will repeat twice more. She calls him Son of David—she knows something of Judaism and is deeply respectful.
Jesus does not say a word. Matthew deliberately draws our attention to this point. This woman’s daughter is suffering terribly, but when the woman appeals to Jesus with humility and reverence, he acts as if he doesn’t hear. She must decide if she’s willing to persevere.
Meanwhile, Bailey says, “Jesus is testing the disciples. He ignores the woman to see what they will do. ‘Send her away,’ they say, ‘She keeps crying out after us.’ They are exaggerating a little—there’s no indication the woman approached them. But they’re confident Jesus will do what they say.”
I once was bedridden for almost two years following a serious car accident. The pain in my back was crippling. Depressed and tired of being very sore and tired…I was ready to try anything. I went to a series of doctors. From one I received a ridiculously painful series of injections, from another I received electrical wires implanted in my back which required that I turn the dial up and send shock waves to the afflicted region – Nothing changed but the bottom line of both the physicians‘ bank accounts. I looked into joining a chronic pain sufferers’ support group. I went just once and left appalled and shaken to my core by the greater level of pain and the amount of time, money, friendships & marriages that their pain seemed to cost. ‘Sweet Jesus, I hoped it wasn’t contagious.’ I prayed zealously for help in learning to live with my little world of pain.
The following week I made my way to a special event in which our meditation teacher was going to speak. Following this, anyone present could come forward to meet her and receive her blessing. There were many hundreds of people in the hall. The lines to go before her were slow moving and before long I found myself spontaneously crying – The longer I stood, the greater my pain increased. I certainly could have moved out of the line and left the hall, but in fact, I did not. A force greater than my pain continued to draw me forward.
When I reached the very front of the room there was a large Indian family gathered at the guru’s feet. They seemed to have come from her home village in Southern India and had much news to share. They were happily chattering away in Hindi while she continued to bless any other devotees who approached her on either side of this group, with a traditional light bop of her perfumed wand of peacock feathers.
I stood frozen in place. I could not move…not because I was in such pain exactly, but because I felt all the thoughts that normally would have scooted me along, leave me – just evaporate. There was only the scent of her waving swishing wand, the sweet sound of the assembled family voices, and this sparkling flow of love emanating from her dark eyes.
One of her sari draped assistants leaned into me and quietly urged me to move along. Normally that would have been enough to have instantly catapulted me back to my seat, but not this time. I continued stand in place as others filed up and around me. Again, one of the hall monitors tapped me on the shoulder and strongly suggested that I should leave now. She reminded me that even though Gurumayi had not spoken directly to me, I would receive her full blessing. (Irreverent as ever, I muttered, “Right!” without ever losing focus on my teacher’s eyes.)
It was then, only after I persisted in staying beyond all my levels of discomfort, that she looked directly into my eyes, reached out and with her free hand pulled me forward onto her lap. She embraced me as she leaned down and whispered, “Are you done with all this pain and suffering yet?”
I nodded and managed to squeak out a “Yes, Yes I am!” She gave me a strong swat with her wand and then helped me to my feet. “Bodacha, bodacha,” was all she said. This means, ‘Very Good, Very Good’ in Hindi. And with that, all the searing, life altering pain, simply disappeared – never to return.
The words of Christ’s disciples, “Send her away” hung heavily in the air. Bailey continues:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” Jesus responds to the waiting woman, apparently agreeing with his disciples. “I was sent to Israel, God’s favorites.” Good call his disciples think. Let’s send her away. Only he doesn’t send her away, but watches the disciples to see how they will respond. Will any of his students understand that many are coming “from the east and the west”? Will anyone say a word on behalf of the woman? No. They all simply nod their heads.
But the woman will not go away. In her mind she can hear her daughter’s screams. Maybe it is desperation. Maybe it is trust. She kneels on the ground and utters a single phrase: “Lord, help me.” Now the tension in the disciples starts to build. Their theology tells them this woman is to be shunned, rejected. They would say just the same thing Jesus did.
And yet . . . they listen to the anguished plea of a heartsick mother for a suffering child. Something in them is moved—something must have been moved. This is striking at deep assumptions about whom God loves. Could it be that God is better than their theology?
Jesus speaks again—it may be that he is still facing the disciples. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Dogs were regarded as unclean scavengers, little better than pigs. The meaning is clear. Jesus is giving voice to their theology. It is one thing to have contempt for someone behind his or her back. It is another thing to hear the ugliness of our thoughts and feelings expressed out loud to a real human being.
Will any of them speak up for her? Will one of them love her? No. Not today. There will be other tests in days to come, and they will do better. But not today.
Jesus turns to the woman. Bailey notes that of the two primary words available for dog, Matthew selects kunariois—a little dog, a “doggette”—to soften what he says to the woman.
Still, her response is unbelievable. “Yes, Lord,” she says, calling him Lord for the third time. “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She picks up on the diminutive form of the word “dogs” and uses the same form for the word “crumbs”: “even the little doggettes get the little crumbettes from the master’s tables.” Here is a woman who comes back at Jesus with grit, grace, even wit. She has an attitude. “You are still my Lord and master. Go ahead and make it look like you’re pushing me away. I’m not going anywhere. By all means, feed the kids. But I bet you have a crumb even for me. I bet you do.”
She just won’t give up.
Finally Jesus turns to face the woman. Finally the mask is off. For a moment Jesus conceals the great goodness of his heart but that moment is quickly past. The test is over. She’s aced the final.
“O woman,” he says, “Great is your faith.”
The disciples look on in astonishment. This woman—their enemy, their inferior—has been given one of the greatest commendations ever bestowed by the one whom they follow so closely. It turns out that they—who thought they basked in the exclusivity of what C. S. Lewis called the “Inner Ring”—today belonged in a lesser group, while this pagan woman was one of the dazzling stars in the very center of the Ring.
The story of this woman shows what we are all so slow to grasp: that the most desirable society in the cosmos turns out to be the humblest. Father, Son and Spirit are determined that the circle of love they share from all eternity should be ceaselessly, shamelessly inclusive. None are left out except those who refuse to enter.
And so it is that I have returned to the spiritual tradition of my youth, more fully matured and better understanding that the very state I had been seeking was now mine to nurture and sustain through my continued devotion to God and a compassionate caring for all those with whom I share my life.
But she answered him,
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” —Mark 7.28
She lived outside the circle of what he thought was holy.
But within the circle of her heart her Beloved waited.
The blessing he knew of was wrapped and small,
but the grace she trusted was boundless.
He knew of a table neatly kept for the chosen alone,
but she found feast
in the merest crumbs, uncontained.
He lived in his people’s fear of outsiders until
she showed him none are outside.
He was the one paralyzed, unbelieving;
she, trusting infinite goodness, who set him free.
Her love unfolding before his eyes
and unfolded his love.
He, the Lord and savior
needed her to bless his blindness:
“Be opened!” so that he was ready for all that was asked of him.
The gates she opened, grace for the outcast,
can never be moved now, never be shut.
Unfolding Light www.unfoldinglight.net