Tuesday, September 11, 2012

crumbs under the table

September 9, 2012
Proper 18

"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock, and our Redeemer." Amen.

The Gospel of Mark is a gospel written with urgency. It’s almost as if the author is attempting to write down the words as fast as possible, trying to inform people of the Gospel message before Jesus’ imminent return. It is concise, yet action-packed.

At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has performed exorcisms and healed many sick people. Crowds continue to follow him wherever he goes, their desperation and persistence portrayed with almost violent imagery: While he is visiting his hometown, the house where he is teaching is overflowing with people. In order to get Jesus’ attention, some people dig a hole through the roof (2:1-12). On several occasions Jesus climbs into a boat so that the crowd does not “crush” him (3:9; 4:1). His family tries “to restrain him” because they think “he has gone out of his mind” (3:21). The crowd “rushe[s]” to bring their sick to him (6:55) and people are constantly trying to grab at the fringe of his cloak to capture some of his healing power (6:56). 

Jesus can’t get a break. Every time he tries to go somewhere to pray and rest, the crowd follows closely behind, even when he travels by boat. Finally, Jesus decides to take his disciples on a retreat far enough away where people won’t have heard of him. I imagine that as he closes the door and sits down after the long journey, he breathes a sigh of relief: finally, some peace and quiet! But it doesn’t take long for the newfound tranquility to be shattered. News of his arrival spreads quickly and a desperate woman, an outsider--a Gentile--comes to the house, begging Jesus to heal her daughter. 

This is the last straw. 

What follows is not Jesus’ finest moment. His response to the woman comes off as rude, even unfeeling. He makes it clear that the woman is not his priority, even going so far as to call her a dog. This is not the Jesus we are used to! Have the old prejudices between Jews and Gentiles been so ingrained into him that he cannot see beyond them? Or is he simply tired and frustrated that his work is never-ending? I’m not sure, but it appears we are witnessing a very human moment for Jesus.  

The Syrophoenician woman lets his slur slide right off her shoulders and counters, “Look, I may not share your customs or be part of God’s chosen people, but I am still a person, created by God, and should be treated as such.” 

Woah. That takes some guts. But she has a point, and Jesus recognizes the truth in her response: there is no limit to God’s love. God is not going to run out of love; there is enough love to go around. God’s love has no borders; it spreads beyond the chosen people to include all of the children of God. In response to the woman’s courageous words, Jesus heals her daughter. 

The fact that a Gentile woman demonstrates courage and faith is not atypical for Mark’s Gospel. Throughout the Gospel, there is a stark contrast between insiders and outsiders. The disciples, the people closest to Jesus, repeatedly get confused. They don’t understand his parables, and they don’t fully comprehend who Jesus is. Ironically, it’s the people on the margins, the outsiders rejected by society, who most often recognize Jesus as the Son of God. In this case, a Gentile woman’s words lead Jesus to rethink his mission on earth.  

When it is time for Jesus to return from his retreat, he does not go straight back to Galilee, but travels out of his way through more Gentile territory. On his journey he heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. There are some interesting parallels between the two healing stories. What I find to be most compelling is that the people being healed are not the ones asking for help. The people in need of healing are unable to speak for themselves, and rely on others to champion their cause. 

Each time Jesus heals someone, the result is not merely physical; the person is reintegrated with their community, making the community whole again. This is what Communion is all about.

In this highly charged political climate, it’s easy to get sucked into an us vs. them mentality, which can potentially fracture our life together. We tend to draw circles around ourselves to shut out the people we disagree with, placing them on the margins. Each group sees the other as dogs, as unworthy of attention. But in the kingdom of God, none of these distinctions are made; God brings all of us in by drawing a larger circle around the circles we make. We draw circles of exclusion, but God draws circles of inclusion.  

For those familiar with Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer, the story of the Syrophoenician woman might call to mind the Prayer of Humble Access. The prayer’s words reminds us that, “[w]e are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs underneath thy Table” (BCP 337). None of us are worthy of God’s love. Yet all of us are desperately in need of God’s grace. The Good News is that God’s love is big enough to hold all of us within God’s saving embrace.

If you want to hear an audio clip of my sermon, you can do so here.

This is what I listened to while I was writing.

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