Passage: Mark 1:14-20
Date: September 06, 2009
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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The  comic strip “Momma” by Mell Lazarus, shows Momma’s youngest son, Francis, dropping by her house and saying, “Momma, I’m bringing my new girlfriend in to meet you.  Now, will you keep an open mind?”  Momma replies, “Yes, dear.”  “Remember, Momma, an open mind!”  “Open mind, open mind.”  She waits, smiling to herself, and in the last frame, turns to the reader and remarks: “You’d be surprised how much prejudice can be crammed into an open mind.”

Prejudice, that’s part of what’s challenging in this passage from Mark this morning.  Did Jesus really call the woman a dog?   I’ve  done a lot of research on this, and it seems to boil down to this question: Why was Jesus so rude?  So unkind?  Was his  insult some sort of test?  Did she change Jesus’ mind?   Or was Jesus making a point to his disciples about their own prejudices?

I knew I was in trouble sermon-writing this week, when the view I most  resonated with on this, was on a website called  Austin Cline noted that here was a woman begging Jesus for a small favor, something Jesus had done, dozens of times before.  Austin  wrote, “There isn’t even the issue of his needing the time and not wanting to make a trip to help the girl–when he does consent, he is able to help from a distance.  And he helps reluctantly, because she made a good argument, she had “chutzpah?”  Excuse me, what sort of defense is that?  Overall, it’s not a very positive picture of Almighty God we are getting here.  What we are seeing is a petty person who picks and chooses which people he helps based upon their nationality or religion.. . .”

Jesus was Jewish.  This passage shows how, for  the early Christian community, the relationship between Jews and Gentiles--was loaded: and it was all about the struggle of who was “in” and who was “out”.   Who was clean, and unclean.  The woman in Tyre, which was a pagan region,  was unclean.  First of all, she is a woman.  Second, she is a Gentile (the Greek actually says that she is a “Greek”).  And she is a Syrophoenician– that is, her lineage was Phoenician, and she is from Syria.  In other words, what Mark is doing by laying out such genealogical details is saying, “this woman  is a Gentile–I mean a Gentile of the Gentiles– I mean, she is as Gentile as a Gentile can get.  There is not an ounce of Jewish blood in her.  She is unclean!”

This passage is shocking because it portrays Jesus mouthing prejudice: 
“Let the children first be fed; for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

This prejudice seems at odds with other stories in which Jesus eats with and touches and heals the unclean: the leper, the tax collector, the woman.  In a sermon in 2003, Dan Breidenthal pointed out that this word from Jesus  was probably authentic, since it is unlikely that Mark’s largely Gentile Christian community, would have preserved such an anti-Gentile sentiment, otherwise.

This story was shared orally for a long time, before it was collected and written by Mark (and later, Matthew.)   It’s possible that rather than this being history, a story teller had no qualms about Jesus saying what many would have said:  The people of  Israel are God’ chosen people; Gentiles are like dogs–unclean. Or it may be that Jesus was intentionally voicing his disciples’ own thoughts, as a way of teaching them.  Because what happens next?  Jesus  praises the Gentile  woman for her faith, and then goes to another pagan area and feeds 4000  hungry people, probably Gentiles.  And he proclaimed the second great commandment, after loving God, “with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength,” you are “to love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Another passage, appointed for today, comes from the letter of  James 2:1-4, 8.
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of  favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assemby, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes, and say, “have a seat here, please” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts. . . .You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Isn’t it interesting that even in the first century, attention was directed to how we welcome people when they join our gatherings?

Taken together, these two passages open up some tender places.   Issues of  partiality and prejudice.  We want to believe that in Northeast Portland in 2009,  we’ve risen above class-ism, racism, sexism.  But we really don’t have to look too far below the surface to recognize that uncomfortable though it is, even with our best intentions, we are in a culture seeped in prejudices.

Twice a year, I meet with a group of other clergy women at a Benedictine monastery in Indiana.  I’m part of a small covenant group with four of those women.  Yolande is one of our members who is an African American pastor of a non-denominational church.  From our first group meeting, she let us know that she’d had a painful time with white women, in seminary.    I took her caution, personally, as a challenge.  I determined from the outset:  I WILL be sensitive to Yolande.  I’ll show her that I’m not racist.  But interestingly, over time, I’ve realized that even with my best intentions, it’s difficult for me to see above the presumptions that I carry in me, as a white woman.  Presumptions about how I communicate; how I worship, what I find funny or not. . . Despite my efforts, despite all our efforts, Yolande has repeatedly felt like a “stranger in a strange land” in our group.  The point is not to feel guilty about it.  The point is, we are working hard for honesty, forgiveness and trust.  We are doing the hard work of   “loving your neighbor as yourself.” We trust, that though it is difficult, God is working through us to shape one another in new ways.  Through our halting efforts, we are growing in friendship and faith.

I’ve heard some say, “How can you hold faith in Christ and behave in such a way that discriminates against people?”  The answer is: quite easily!  We do it all the time.  That is why we need the sort of wisdom instruction from James, and from the Gospel to hold ourselves, our church and our institutions to the light.   We are trying at Westminster, to address some of that through our Welcoming Conversation this month.

Can we hear and accept the story from Mark, without trying to tame or solve the scriptural quandary, but embrace it as a moment in which God’s kingdom breaks open and becomes more inclusive, a moment in which we are reminded that no one is outside the embrace of God?

Jesus understands our initial wariness of strangers, especially the ones who seem most different from us.  But there is no one we shouldn’t invite to the feast.  There is plenty of bread for everyone, even those who’ve been traditionally relegated to eating the crumbs under the table.

 No one can be excluded.  All must be given food.  None can be treated like dogs. 
Think about it:  There are  “dogs” in our community who know what it is like to be shut out, told to wait, given second best.  They have been treated as dogs so much that it has become natural to treat them that way and to ignore their plight and our naive prejudice–until the Syrophoenician woman gives them a voice.  Those voices are still to be heard, for those with ears to hear. 

Sometimes, in families and in churches, the hardest voices to hear are the ones closest to us.  Certainly, over past decades, political and theological differences have pulled us away from one another, so that our partiality may be towards those who think and believe as we do.   I confess that in my own strong beliefs, I may have hurt others by implying that my way is the only right way.  I am still learning how to follow Jesus and learn to better love my neighbor.   

The feast we share in Christ’s body isn’t constricted  by correct theological or political views.  All who seek to follow Jesus are invited.  As the body of Christ, in our relations to each other, we can cross the boundary to be with the other, or we can trespass against the other.  There is a big difference. 
 In the household of God,: every crumb from God’s table is the whole kingdom.  Every encounter with God’s mercy is a completely new beginning.   Every taste of God’s goodness is total assurance that God will give us everything we need, and more.

The Rev. Murphy Davis, from the Open Door community in Atlanta, wrote about a young man named, Chris, who was on death row.  She saw that he had a deep “father-hunger.”    Murphy found another pastor to visit Chris, someone who could be a sort of father figure for him.  Pastor George began to visit Chris and they formed a wonderful relationship that became deeply meaningful to both of them.   The time came that Chris received an execution date.  The  date was set for Chris to be shaved, fed his last meal, strapped into a large oak chair, and hooded and electrocuted.

On the Sunday afternoon before the appointed day, George called Murphy, very  shaken. “I’ve found out … well, I’m learning …,” he stammered, “I don’t know how to pray!” He was almost beside himself.   He had been in  ministry for 35 years.   But now he had found and begun to experience a new level of  Christian unity: he had become family to the poor.

In spite of the class barriers, George had become “poor in spirit.”  George had learned to love his neighbor as himself.

Murphy continued: “If we live in a well-ordered lovely home in a nice section of town and we never see, smell or otherwise encounter the poor, if we sit in a church sanctuary where everybody looks like us, talks like us, acts like us, smells like us; if we never have to wonder where our next meal will come from, then our prayers can be quietly ordered, respectfully uttered, melodically intoned praises and petitions. But if we have put our bodies side by side with those who are hungry, sick, deranged, condemned, humiliated, then we are more likely to scream, “HELP!”   Prayer in the discipleship community is about rooting ourselves deeply in the spirituality that gives us the eyes to see and the ears to hear.”

 Mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg wrote:   “How should one live?  Live welcoming to all.”

The sisters of Our Lady of Grace Monastery have taught me this Rule of St. Benedict:
“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for his is going to say,”I came as a guest, and you received me.”  And to all let due honor be shown. . . Let both Abbot and community wash the feet of all guests.  In the reception of the poor and of pilgrims the greatest care and solicitude should be shown, because it is especially in them that Christ is received.”

Are we  willing, not only to love others as we love ourselves, but to rejoice that God loves them as much as  God loves us?  What would our church and our world look like if we did?
 What would the world be like if we welcomed the stranger as Christ?   What if we realized that love is the true goal of life and that we only realize that through humility and love of the other?  What would our lives, our church, our world, be like, if we were aware that love is already growing, in our midst?