Holy Trinity Episcopal Church


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    Sep 09, 2018

    16th Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: James 2:1

    Preacher: The Rev. Ken Massey

    Series: Year B: 2017-2018

    Category: Pentecost


    A woman saw a sign in her neighbor’s yard about free Baptist puppies. She spoke with her family about getting a dog and they decided they were interested, so she walked on over to her neighbor’s house to inquire. When she arrived, she noticed that the sign out front had changed. The name Baptist has been marked through and another name added so that the sign read, Free Episcopalian Puppies. When she met the neighbor, she said, I thought you had Baptist puppies here, and the neighbor said, We did. But now they’ve opened their eyes. I do not know if this former Baptist has open eyes or not, but I can tell you that I see the world differently now, and also the gospel story we’ve read today which is recorded in Mark, but also in Matthew. Matthew’s version actually is a bit more detailed. Listen again:

    “And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.”

    One challenge hearing Jesus in the 21st Century is that many of the words and phrases used to capture his teaching are colloquial or euphemistic. They communicated something very clear to Palestinian Jews in the first century, but now are lost in translation. Imagine the people from biblical times trying to make sense out of sayings like: “his porch light is on but no one’s home.” Or “she’s as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Often language doesn’t translate between cultures or centuries.

                What does this mean? Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. It may be similar to “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.” But the saying has a racist ring because it uses the term dogs, a standard euphemism for Gentiles, and more so because it is said in response to a Gentile. Scholars have tried to soften it a bit, but there’s no escaping the reality here. This woman, in stereotypical fashion, is being put down, along with every other Gentile. Jews are human and Gentiles sub-human. Why should a Jew bother to help a Gentile? Imagine a racial epithet today that makes you cringe and that’s what this is. Of course Gentiles had these slurs for Jews as well. It’s what races and cultures do. But hearing the slur itself isn’t the most troubling part of this story. What’s troubling is the slur is attributed to Jesus. You know; God from God; light from light; true God from true God. That Jesus.

    Yet in two gospels, we hear this expression that lumps every race except Jews into a bundle and calls them dogs. Like every epithet, it defines social status; who’s in and who’s out; who’s accepted and who’s not; who’s valued and who’s not. Gentiles are down below the bottom rung of the human ladder.

                One traditional understanding of this story is that Jesus had not yet evolved in his own sense of mission to believe that Gentiles were included in God’s plan, but that he began to change his mind. And if this view is correct, what we have here is Jesus before he comes to that awareness or as he comes in contact with a Gentile and his sense of mission begins to change.

                I don’t have any problem with the idea that Jesus grew in awareness. He didn’t drop out of the clouds fully formed. He was fully human, our creeds attest, which means he grew in wisdom and stature. Of course Jesus changed as he walked this earth, encountered people and powers, and as he prayed. But I don’t think Jesus, like others in this world, needed to evolve out of dehumanizing people. I need that evolution. But I don’t think Jesus did. I see something else here, though I must say, I’ve not read this view from any scholar.

                I believe these words of Jesus were a test; for this mother and for the disciples. How would Jesus deal with a Gentile invading this Jewish world? What I think Jesus did was say out loud what everyone else in the room was thinking when she made her request. I think he used this dismissive insult not as an expression of his heart, but as a way to parrot the racial animus that existed between Jews and Gentiles.

    By saying it, Jesus shocked everyone and pulled them into the moment. The disciples, the spectators and the woman were suddenly focused. How would she react to his words? Would she bear her claws and return the insult? Would she scream or call him names. Would she run out of the room as a victim? Jesus took the subconscious racism or jingoism in that room and put it on a pedestal for everyone to see. Suddenly, there were no casual observers; everyone had skin in the game.

    And it could have turned into a Jerry Springer moment. She could have thrown a chair. Someone could have started yelling and swinging. It could have become pandemonium; the first historical record of reality TV. This is how we react to insult!

                I think it was a test, so I tried my hypothesis on a Duke fan. Wearing a Carolina shirt, I yelled to him across the parking lot: Coach K looks like a rat! Sure enough; he took offense and said something I can’t repeat. I tried it at home. I left dirty dishes in the sink and dirty clothes on the floor as a test; to see how my wife would respond; to test her capacity for patience; I did this for her own good. Most people don’t respond like this woman in our story. I know my wife didn’t.

                Instead of returning insult for insult, she did some linguistic judo, using the Jewish slur to her advantage. She said, “even the dogs get something from the table.” And when she responded like that, Jesus knew something very important about her. It’s something I think I know too.

                What Jesus found out by her reaction was that this mother had come to the Mariana Trench of life; the lowest place you can be. I’m projecting, but I might be right. I know what it’s like to have a daughter who is sick and there’s nothing you can do to change it. I know how a parent fights reality when that reality is a sick child. That Gentile mother did everything she could; she gave everything she had to save her daughter; and with every failure, she sank lower.

                In biblical language, the young girl had an unclean spirit. If she had seizures, which is how possession is sometimes described in the gospels, it certainly looked like the body had been “seized” by an outside force. So more than fighting an illness, this mother thought she was fighting evil itself, which made her feel all the more powerless. And there was no serenity prayer. She could not accept what she could not change; not when her child was suffering.

                When you are a parent with a gravely ill child, you fight to the death, and I mean that literally, though I don’t mean the child’s death. You fight the reality you cannot change until you die; until the dream you had for that child dies; until you die to the illusion that you can protect your child from anything. Until you get to that place of death, which is a place of accepting reality, you are always in fight mode. Always on high alert.

    Woe to the person who pulls out in front of you in traffic. Woe to the person who brings a basket full of items to the express checkout for 20 items or less. Woe to the person who offers you clichés for comfort like, God has a plan for her life. When you are fighting to change what you cannot change, every irritation seems like a full frontal assault, and you can go off on anyone. This is how I know the mother in this story had already come to the place of death; the place of accepting what she could not change. Because she didn’t fight back! Nor did she run and hide. Instead, she stayed in that liminal space with her broken heart wide open. And look what happened.

                Jesus saw her in that holy place of depth and death and he healed her daughter. And suddenly, her race and religion didn’t matter. Suddenly, everyone was wondering how the Gentile dog got the best bread of all.

                 A pastor colleague of mine experienced a midlife health crisis. It began with increasing neck pain that became excruciating and didn’t respond to conservative therapies. It became unbearable and left him one step short of suicidal. He reluctantly had surgery to solve the problem and ended up with a spinal cord injury that immobilized his right arm and hand for months. Then he had an invasive follow-up test that left him with a slow and chronic spinal fluid leak that created a never-ending headache. He sank into depression and despair. Like this Syrophoenican woman, he reached the end of his rope. He fought and fought to no avail until he hit the bottom. That’s where he found Project Semicolon, an organization that helps people who have bottomed out.

    Now he writes that he has been to a tattoo parlor in Dallas, a middle-aged pastor, to get his first tattoo; a semicolon on the bicep of the arm that was paralyzed. It’s a sign, he says, like the rainbow. It means sometimes you have to get to the end of the sentence to find out there isn’t a period there after all, but a semicolon. The tattoo reminds him that his life is not over.

    Here is the gospel pattern; the kingdom pattern. You can try to change what you cannot change. You will eventually find out that reality doesn’t move for you. And when you hit the bottom, your heart cracks open and faith seeps in. So in the gospels we see that the one on the bottom rung of the ladder find’s healing while everyone else is climbing to find status. The one on the margins finds the center; not the one who claims to be the center; the one who is put down is lifted up; not the one who claims the place of honor. If you don’t believe this, ask someone who has been in a 12-step program.

                This is the mystery of faith: Life and love really do go to the dogs. Thanks be to God.