Sunday, September 06, 2009

Pentecost 14 Year B

“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” writes salty theologian Anne Lamott.

Someone should have told that to Jesus' disciples.

I'm sure that some of Jesus' followers began that day with great comfort in knowing who they were better than. Many of them thought they knew who was on their team and who wasn't. Who they were allowed to talk to and who better not get in their way. For some of them, the world was firmly ordered. Fixed. The furniture was nailed down.

And yes, Jesus pushed the edges of that world, adjusting the furniture.

Yes, he brought those treasonous tax collectors into the group, those sell-outs to the Roman empire who stole the lifesavings of the little old ladies, leaving them to starve in the street.

Yes, he brought women into his circle, sending them out to preach and work miracles, ignoring the “proper role” they're supposed to play in their little world – making babies and cleaning up after men.

And yes he brought Zealots into his church, Zealots who wouldn't shut up about politics, who kept needling Jesus to join the revolution to overthrow the Romans through any means necessary.

But these were all JEWISH folks. That was the one thing they could agree on. And since they might agree on that, some of them might also agree that gentiles, those non-Jewish folks, were filthy, dirty, rotten, toilet scum. Slug feces. Especially those from Syrophoenicia. Half-bred. In-bred. Ignorant.

And some of these gentiles didn't like Jewish folks any more than some Jewish folks didn't like them. It's like they spiked the water with anger.

Folks in the first century didn't have 21st century politeness. They could say anything they wanted about anyone without being dragged into cultural sensitivity training. Leaders could let their prejudices all hang out without it appearing on YouTube.

For a lot of folks back then, the lines around people were etched in granite. Unerasable. Firmly defined. They knew what they thought were the rules and respected those clearly drawn etchings.


I'm always astonished by today's gospel reading. Astonished that Mark would have added it to his gospel. I'm even more astonished that the lectionary includes it (the lectionary being the series of readings that we have each week.) because the lectionary has been accused of leaving out the really hard bible passages, lest your innocent ears be offended by primitive religion.

Usually, the lectionary assembles the readings in such a way as so preachers can find good news in them without breaking a sweat.

Not today. Today we find Jesus behaving badly. And being corrected by the person that Mark's readers would least suspect.

A Syrophoenician woman. Someone whom Jesus was almost mandated to hate. She needs help for her kid and asks Jesus for it.

Jesus calls her and her sick child a “dog” and shoos her away. Not the kind of behaviour you'd expect from the messiah.

But she won't let a personal slight get in the way of her mission to save her child. Her feelings aren't the point. Her child's health is. She's the mamma bear going toe-to-toe with God's only Son – and she holds her own.

Some say that Jesus was testing her through this little encounter, to see if she was REALLY serious about her daughter needing help. Testing her to see if she REALLY had FAITH. That, they say, might explain Jesus' behaviour.

But I don't buy that. Seems like a crappy thing to do to someone; to test them to see if they're worthy of God's love and healing. Doesn't sound like any God I know. It's almost as if JESUS is the one being tested here.

So, what's REALLY going on?

I think the answer lies in how these stories are connected.

Mark links the story of the Syrophoenician woman with the healing of the deaf man. I think this healing story is a commentary on the last one. Jesus opens the deaf man's ears because HIS ears were opened to the cries of all people, people beyond the circle he grew up in. The only circle he had ever known. And his ministry was being challenged to include everyone. Not just his fellow Jews.

I think the message of these two readings is that Jesus repairs what is broken, and in doing so, enlarges the world these people live in, because his world has been enlarged.

The deaf man could suddenly hear his wife's voice, his children's laughter, the singing at church, the birds outside his window, the music in the street.

But he can also hear the moans of his friends who lost their child. He can hear the groaning bellies of those who hadn't eaten that day. He can hear his neighbours fighting. He can hear the laboured breathing of those who are dying. And now he has to ask himself, what do I do about what I can now hear?

The Syrophoenician woman's daughter is back to her old self. Mom can watch her daughter play with her friends, help with the dishes, and clean the house.

But since her encounter with Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman knows that she has been included in something larger than herself, that she is no longer a filthy Syrophoenician dog who deserves to starve while her child suffers. Her vision of world has broadened just as Jesus' vision of the world did. She no longer worries about just her own child, now she's the mother of EVERY child, no matter where they came from. No matter who they were.

She finds that she can no longer harbour hatred or anger towards people, because she's been victimized too. She helped Jesus see beyond her Syrophoenician skin and to peer into her heart. Her job now was to bring God's kingdom love to anyone who needed it. God is making the world bigger. The world is changing. And it's starting with her.

Who is the Syrophoenician woman for YOU? Who is the Syrophoenician woman for US? I have them. WE have them. I think it's part of our sinful nature. I think it's part of being human. Not a nice part. But a part.

We human beings like to draw lines around people, so we can know who is with is and who is against us. Who is one of “ours” and who is one of “them.”

But God doesn't see the world that way. If there's one thing we can learn from these two stories is that God is busy rubbing out the lines that we draw. As soon as we draw a circle, the Holy Spirit pulls out an eraser. And we have to draw the farther and farther out, until the only circle we can draw is the one that God placed around the whole of creation.

But that doesn't always sound like good news, does it?

Last week an article by a prominent American Lutheran theologian landed in my inbox, who was, in part, complaining about the marginalization of old, white, men in the Lutheran church.

He was deeply concerned that too many “radical” voices were influencing the church's direction, he was offended that so many women were now in positions of leadership, too many blacks and hispanics were finding their way into Lutheran pulpits and church committees.

He deplored what he saw as a “quota system” designed to push old, white, males to the periphery of church life. Diversity and multiculturalism, for him, were thinly veiled efforts to advance a politically correct assault against the aging segment of white men.

I felt more saddened than angered by this article. Saddened that he would finish what was a brilliant theological career by lashing out at a changing church; belittling an effort to widen the circle; pummeling what I think, is the work of the Holy Spirit.

If he's feeling marginalized by the church, then I thought that he might have a greater sympathy for those who've been trapped outside the circle for so long. But he was only interested in what he felt HE lost.

But we ALL do it. He's not the only one. We may not advertise our efforts on the internet, but that's still a problem we have. We don't always like who God likes. We don't always approve of who God calls into ministry. We don't always appreciate those whom God dumps on our doorstep.

But God's grace makes our world bigger. God's grace has it's sleeves rolled up and dirt under its fingernails.

God's grace is agile, jumping from place to place, erasing boundaries, taking risks, enlarging our circles, pushing limits.

We may not always like it, but grace changes us. Grace changes the world. So that, one day, everything will be made new, and all people will find themselves inside God's circle.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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