Passage: Mark 7:24-37
Date: September 9, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
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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!” 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.”
Some sermons flow, and others keep me wrestling up to the last minute. This one was a struggle. I ended up looking all the way back to 2009, when I preached on this same text, and came up with the same questions: Why did Jesus call the Syrophoenician woman a dog? Why, when she begged for healing for her little daughter, why was his first response—no? And, this keeps me up at night, too: her hunger for justice for her daughter was so great, she’d be content with the crumbs under the table. . .
Hungry for crumbs. . . What are you hungry for? Consolation? Healing? Peace of mind and heart? Security? Love? Justice? What would you kneel and beg for?
And who is the person, the people, the concern that would move you to endure risk, loss, perhaps even humiliation—all for justice and love?
This passage in Mark comes after many examples of Jesus’ healing and teaching. He was sought by crowds. The story begins with Jesus, a Jew, leaving his own homeland, Galilee, to cross into Gentile territory. He entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. (Maybe he was exhausted from the crowds and needed a retreat?) Yet, we’re told: “he could not escape notice.” The Gentile woman found him, knelt at his feet, and begged Jesus to heal her daughter. He replied:“Let the children be fed first. It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus was blunt. His mission was to the children of Israel. Sharing his gift with the gentile “dogs” wouldn’t be fair, implying that there’s just not enough healing power to go around.Yes, he called them dogs.In his culture, a dog was not the friendly, fur child that we love. Dogs were unclean, to be avoided.
Let the children be fed, first. (MY family, MY nation, MY own, first).
Does this bother you as much as it does me? The very idea that Jesus was rude; that he would dole out healing grace as though it was limited; that he shared in the prevailing prejudices of his time and culture; that he helped reluctantly, because she made a good argument, because she had “chutzpah”? This is unsettling!
It may even be as unsettling as the protests initiated over two years ago by NFL player Colin Kaepernick. He kneeled during the national anthem in order to draw attention to the racial prejudice fueling brutality in our justice system.
He said: “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. . .There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder… I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. If they take football away, my endorsements from me — I know that I stood up for what is right.. . .With or without the NFL’s platform, I will continue to work for the people because my platform is the people.”
This week, Nike announced its choice of Kaepernick to be the face of their new ad campaign. The text is: “Believe in something, even if it costs you everything.”
He is begging for the crumbs of mercy and justice and he’s one in a long line of other Black people who used their status to bring attention to racial injustice. Jackie Robinson, the first Black athlete to play major league baseball, faced a similar situation. Writer James Baldwin wrote in 1965 in The American Dream and the American Negro: “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
Kaepernick’s protest met with such reaction that despite his track record as talented football player, he has not been signed to play for two years. Why does this protest raise such ire? Stacia Brown, a writer based in Baltimore, Maryland, wrote: “I can’t recall a single public protest against American racism that wasn’t criticized as unnecessary, poorly executed, or outright un-American. That knee-jerk opposition—that unwillingness to engage in the issue, while criticizing the action of resistance—always proves the legitimacy of the complaint.”
“Imagine a country where a shoe ad is more controversial than a school shooting.”
Who would you kneel for? Who in your life needs mercy, healing, justice?
When we read scripture it is helpful to read what comes next. That is certainly true in this case.When the woman persisted, saying “Even dogs get the crumbs,” Jesus replied, “For saying that—your daughter is healed.” The next story shows Jesus touching the ears of the man who has been silenced and deaf. He says, “Be opened.” Then, Jesus goes to another pagan area and feeds not just one or two, but four thousand hungry people, all probably Gentiles.
Jesus takes five loaves and fishes to the multitude of hungry outsiders. All are fed. And there are baskets and baskets filled with the leftovers.
While we may be troubled by Jesus’ initial reaction to the woman, his encounter with her led Jesus to become who he was called to be:a healer and messenger of hope for everyone: male and female, Jew and Gentile, poor and rich. One in whom we see the infinite and vast mercy of God, and in whom we find abundant life.
Sometimes, when we look closely at the places where prejudices fester, we see fear of insufficiency, fear of scarcity. We believe there is not enough:not enough work, not enough food, not enough love. But, with God, it’s just the opposite: The more we love, the more love grows. It grows like yeast, hidden in the dough, making a fresh, fragrant, abundant loaf.
I swim most days in a pool that has only three lanes for lap swimming. It’s a shallow pool, only getting as deep as 4 ½ feet. Two people can swim side-by-side in each lane. But most people at this pool don’t know how to circle-swim, so often when I arrive, rather than hopping right into a lane to swim, I have to wait or convince someone to share a lane. To complicate it even more, I have a lane preference for the lane right next to the wall, because being very near-sighted and swimming without glasses, I feel more confident when I’ve got a wall to guide me. When I manage to get that lane, I’m really happy (and a bit possessive of it). Really, there are NOT enough lanes to go around.
Recently, I timed things just right and was swimming in the lane next to the wall. I was sharing the lane with a man who is often there at the same time. On my fifth lap back, I noticed an older woman waving me to the side. She showed me that the man I was sharing the lane with had left. She asked me if I could swim in his spot, and let her have the wall side. “I don’t swim,” she explained. Mentally, I rolled my eyes and thought, Why would you choose a pool for exercise if you can’t swim!? And, since I got here first, why should I give up my spot? But, aloud, I grumbled, grudgingly: “Yes, you can use the wall side, but I also like the wall because I’m so near-sighted.”
I moved over and she began to water-walk along the wall. We went on like that for a few minutes, and then we both paused.“My name is Laurie.” “I’m Lillian.” “That’s my grandmother’s name!” I said. She beamed at me and said, “I asked the Lord to touch your eyes!” I was moved by her kindness, and thought: She did open my eyes. She showed me that there was an abundance of space to be shared, and that my yielding to her was vastly more important than keeping to my possessive routine.
“Be open.” Healing comes in a variety of ways. But it is always rooted in the infinite bounty of God’s love and mercy. Jesus invites us to open ourselves. To receive the loaves and fishes.
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves
People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
By David Whyte, The House of Belonging, Many Rivers Press,1996