Schooling Jesus

(sermon 9/9/18)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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A little more than a week ago, Rev. Robert Wood died. He was 95. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him; I hadn’t either until I saw stories about his passing. It turns out that Rev. Wood holds an important distinction in church history – he was the first member of the clergy to write a book calling for the full welcome and acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church, and the church’s performing of same-sex marriages. He wrote his book in 1960. And he was the first member of the clergy to participate in a march calling for full civil rights for LGBTQ folk. That was in 1965. The church owes a debt of gratitude to Rev. Wood.

After reading his obituary, I was curious about his book – I’d never heard of it before – so I started to look for it, and it turns out that the entire thing is available online as a pdf file. So I downloaded it and was reading through it, and the obituaries were right – his ideas about church welcome and marriage were forty or fifty years ahead of where the rest of the church was. But I have to admit, a lot of what I was reading in the book was just… bad. It was peppered with all sorts of misguided negative prejudices, assumptions, and so-called conventional wisdom that the culture of 1960 just *knew* to be true, but which advances in biology, psychology, and other disciplines have now proven to be completely false. The great irony in this is that Rev. Wood was a gay man himself, and even he couldn’t escape internalizing all that negativity that you’d think he’d know  wasn’t really true. In the decades that followed the book’s publication, Rev. Wood’s knowledge and understanding grew, evolved, and truth be told, I’m sure that in the decades that followed, he probably felt pretty silly about some of the things he’d written in 1960.

Today’s gospel text deals with this same idea of the continual growth of understanding over time. In this case, it’s Jesus whose level of understanding evolves. In this story, Jesus is going from place to place, proclaiming God’s good news for the people – but up until this point, that message has really been aimed at Jewish listeners. In this story, though, Jesus is approached by a non-Jew – a Syrophoenician, an unclean Gentile; a religious and ethnic outsider, someone to be scorned and dismissed, and a woman on top of all that. In short, this woman had three strikes against her before she’d even opened her mouth, and when she actually does, Jesus shuts her down by dismissing her with the terribly insulting ethnic slur of calling her a dog. Stop bothering me, he tells her; I’ve got more important things to do than to waste my time with the likes of you.

Of course, we heard her answer – very pointedly telling Jesus I may be a dog, but if your God’s so great, surely, you’d think that God would give the dogs of the world the table scraps.

We don’t really know anything about this woman beyond what we can get out of her words here. Maybe Jesus’ insult hurt her deeply. Maybe she thought Jesus was being an arrogant jerk. Frankly, that’s what I’d have thought, if I were in her shoes. On the other hand, maybe she’d internalized all the negative messages that the culture had dumped on her, like Rev. Wood apparently had, and she didn’t think any better of herself than Jesus apparently thought of her. Maybe she thought that Jesus was right, she wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ time – but at very least, she believed that her daughter was. The preacher David Lose once wrote that she was convinced – she had faith – in the truth that her precious, innocent daughter was absolutely worthy and deserving of Jesus’ attention, and she was willing to do whatever it took to help her – even if it meant going toe-to-toe with this supposed great teacher and healer; even if it meant putting up with his verbal abuse.

Based on the story, it seems that Jesus got her point. It seems that on this particular day, Jesus had gotten himself schooled, and by a most unlikely teacher – an outsider among outsiders. He learned, just as Rev. Wood had, that even he had to gradually learn to get rid of his prejudices, his religious and cultural biases and assumptions, in order to have a fuller, more complete understanding of the fullness, the breadth of the kingdom of God. This gospel text goes on to talk about Jesus healing a deaf man, but as he talked with the Syrophoenician woman, it was his own ears that were opened. And this shouldn’t shock us, or sound like blasphemy. We know that three days after Jesus was born, he wasn’t tying his own shoes, or solving quadratic equations. That isn’t how the incarnation worked. We know that the scriptures say that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom; it didn’t happen instantaneously, so it shouldn’t bother us to imagine that he had to learn this lesson from someone.

Of course, that lesson that Jesus learned is just a short hop, skip, and jump to what we can get out of the story. I think there are two takeaways that we can get from this story. First, we learn these same lessons – that God’s love is for everyone; and that we can gain new insights into God’s love and about the kingdom of God – insights that we might be blind to from our vantage point, from the outsiders of our own time and place, whether we’re considering the church, or society in general. We can be taught, and have our faith deepened, when we hear the voices of those outsiders – whether we’re talking about people from other races, other ethnicities, other nationalities, whatever classifications might make someone an “outsider” to what we’re accustomed to.

I think that in general, Springdale has done a pretty good job at being open to hearing, and learning from, a broad range of people. We’ve probably been better at that than many, if not most, congregations. We’ve been open to, and accepting of, a broad range of people, and we’ll continue to do that even more, and even better, in the future.

There is another important point about this story that I want to point out. Jesus had to learn something in this story, to get a better understanding of the good news that God had called him to proclaim. But we don’t hold it against him that he had to learn this lesson. We don’t hold it against him that he didn’t know the truth of the expansiveness of the kingdom of God before the woman showed him that God’s good news was intended for her, too.

In the same way, we can acknowledge, just as one example, that the Presbyterian Church engaged in terrible abuse of Native Americans, especially Native American children – taking them from their homes and putting them in special schools that tried to strip them of their culture. We eventually grew in our understanding, and saw the great sin that we were engaging in, we repented of it, and we don’t have to hate the Presbyterian Church for its past mistakes. And similarly, Rev. Robert Wood held some really appalling beliefs about gay people, but he eventually grew in his understanding, and we can still consider him a great trailblazer in church history.

My point in all that is that each of us has grown in our own journeys of faith. I suspect that each of us, in some way or another, used to believe something as a part of our faith that we no longer do – that we look back on, and realize we were really mistaken about. Maybe it’s something that we feel a little silly about for having once believed it. Or maybe it’s something that has hurt people. Or whatever – the fact is, we’re all going to have something like that in our experience if we’re living out our faith in an ongoing journey of faith development.

And if we do, maybe it’s something that we aren’t proud of. Maybe that old belief is something that we feel guilt over. Maybe it caused a big falling out within the family, or with friends, or coworkers, or a similar setting. Maybe we’re carrying a bunch of baggage because at some point in time, we’d messed up with our way of understanding our faith, and what God is all about.

Well if that’s happened, this story shows we’re in good company. Jesus got it wrong in this passage. And the good news for us is that God didn’t beat Jesus up over having to learn this lesson the hard way, and neither will God beat us up when we have to go through the same thing. God knows that we call it a faith journey for a reason; that we’re engaged in a faith-building process. So in faith, and with God’s help, let’s be open to hearing what God wants to teach us, and from whatever teacher God may use to teach it. Let’s learn the lessons we need to learn. And let’s turn the rest over to God, and trust in God’s love, and not beat ourselves up over the reality that we aren’t perfect and never will be. God knew we weren’t perfect long before reaching out to us, and letting us know that we’re loved and accepted.

Thanks be to God.

Scraps (sermon 9/6/15)

giants-1970

Watch video of this sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIvnv-xwH_c

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From there [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

     – Mark 7:24-37

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When I was a kid, from the ages of nine through eleven or twelve, I played on a baseball team. It was kind of like Little League, but this was a separate league started by the people in my home town that was in competition with the local Little League. This was the Little Knights League, and eventually, Little Knights became a bigger thing locally than Little League. One of the few differences between the two leagues was that, unlike Little League, every Little Knights player played at least two innings per game. This was a very good thing for me, because up until the last few games in my playing career when something finally clicked, I might have actually been the worst player in the league. I was a guaranteed strikeout, I was guaranteed to not catch the pop fly that was hit to me, literally out in left field. The only reason I played was because my grandfather was a founder of the league and the manager of one of the teams – the Giants – and every other family member had been a Giant before me, so I had to be a Giant, too. Up until that last year, every game was pure hell for me. And it had to be the same for my parents, who had to be cringing as they sat in the bleachers watching me mess up every single game.

One of the best things, though, about Little Knights was that unlike Little League, Little Knights had a concession stand. For a dime, you could get your choice of a bag of popcorn, or a snow cone, or a bottle of pop, and at the end of each game, every player got their choice of a free snack. For me, it was always a bottle of Orange Nehi, and I’m telling you, at the end of a hot, sweaty evening, there was nothing, then or since, to match the taste of that ice cold, sharply carbonated orange pop going down your throat.

And at the end of the evening, as everyone was heading home and the concession stand was closing up, all the kids who didn’t have the money to buy something would gather around the window, next to where Mrs. McCann would be cleaning out the popcorn machine, and they’d all ask her, “You got any scraps? You got any scraps?” You know, the popcorn scraps. The tough, little, half-popped kernels that you get in every batch of popcorn and that end up on the bottom of the machine, that you’d never really want to eat and you certainly couldn’t sell. But if you didn’t have a dime, it was better than nothing.

There’s something like this going on in today’s gospel story. Jesus, who has been going all over the Jewish countryside preaching about the realm of God and God’s love for them. But he’s tired and needs to take a mini-vacation away from things to recharge his batteries, so he leaves there and goes to Tyre, which is not part of ancient Israel but is the neighboring Syrophoenician kingdom. The Jewish people looked down their noses at the people of Tyre, just as they did with all Gentiles. They weren’t part of God’s chosen people; they were disrespectable, unclean, even contemptible; good people aren’t even supposed to associate with them, let alone do them any sort of kindness. So Jesus slipping off to Tyre would be kind of like us slipping off to Canada for the weekend, if we hated all the Canadians and thought they were all filthy subhumans worthy of our scorn; but they had a nice beach and the exchange rate was good, so we just put up with them.

And while he’s here, trying to go off the clock for a bit – trying to do some “self-care,” as pastors are instructed to pay attention to today – this strange Gentile woman seeks him out and asks him to heal her daughter. And in one of the most shocking and seemingly atypical stories we have of Jesus in the gospels, Jesus is downright insulting and rude to her. He says that it isn’t right for him to help her – he’s been sent to proclaim good news and to help God’s children, the Jews, not to Gentile “dogs” like her.

This sounds bad enough to us, in English, today. But in ancient Middle Eastern culture – and even in some of those cultures yet today – to call someone a dog is one of the worst insults you could call someone. This was the first-century equivalent of calling a black person the “n-word,” or a gay person the “f-word,” or similar slurs to others. It really isn’t what we’d expect from Jesus. And then, of course, we heard this woman put Jesus in his place. She’d come, desperate for him to help her daughter, and now, when facing the ultimate of insults, she stands up for herself against him as she continues to claim that she’s worthy of at least some attention and compassion from him. She asks him at least for some crumbs off the children’s table. She asks for some scraps.

This seems to have been a turning point in Jesus’ own understanding of his ministry. The scriptures say that, divinity aside, he had to learn things as he grew and matured – he “grew in stature and knowledge;” and here it appears that he learned something from this woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her daughter, and the suffering and injustice they were enduring, to ask for his help. And as we heard, Jesus honored her faith, her trust that he could help her, and her tenacity in standing up for it even in the face of the social and cultural deck being stacked against her, and he healed her daughter.

This is an important story for us to remember, especially now when we’re continually seeing the protests and demands from various groups in our own culture today that they be treated in accordance with the promises of our country’s founding documents and our legal system. For too long, these groups were considered the dogs. They didn’t even get the crumbs, the scraps, or our society, and then they eventually got at least that, and now, they’re calling for full equality – demanding to be recognized not as the dogs under the table, but as children equal to all the others in our family. In one way or another, we’ve all been complicit in treating these others like dogs, or at best, less-favored stepchildren, in society, and even in the church. And because we’ve all been complicit in this, whether as individuals or just as members of cultural structures that systemically did it, we have an obligation to take an active role in fixing the problem, and making a place at the table for these children, our long-shunned brothers and sisters. This is true whether we’re looking at society, or the church itself. We all have to learn the lesson that the plucky Syrophoenician woman who maybe figured she just didn’t have anything left to lose, taught Jesus on that day so long ago.

Friends, we have to learn this lesson over and over as we come to see the fullness of the realm of God. Jesus, and then the earliest church, had to learn that God’s message of love and acceptance wasn’t meant only for the Jews, and in every age we come to terms with expanding our understanding of who’s inside that “circle.” We need to keep focused on the incredible, extravagant grace that God has given us, and to understand that God has given us the responsibility to reach out and extend that love, and grace, and justice, and acceptance, to all those around us. That’s the simplest, most essential truth of the gospel – God’s good news. And any time you hear someone talking about the gospel in a way that excludes some group or another, you know they haven’t learned the lesson Jesus learned the hard way in this story. We need to learn, and re-learn, that in God’s eyes, we’re all called to share in the abundance and beauty and wonder, and especially the justice, of this world – not just the scraps, but the whole, big, puffy, white kernels, buttered and salted for all of the flavor of God’s great creation.

Jesus had to learn it. And if we learn it, and if we do everything – everything – that we can to open up room at our table in church and society, and to give everyone – everyone – an equal seat, equal respect, equal dignity, equal consideration – equal justice – then in God’s eyes, we’ll have hit a home run. And in God’s eyes, that will qualify us for something even greater than a free, ice-cold, Orange Nehi.

Thanks be to God.