September 9, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
When Kate was about 2 years old I dropped her. No, this did not leave her with any brain damage so don’t tease her about it but I didn’t know I hadn’t given her brain damage at the moment that I dropped her. It was a scary and painful moment at the time.
We were leaving the church I then served and crossing the lawn, the way almost everyone at that church did to get to the parking, which was on the street back then. I stepped in a hole, twisted my ankle and in my reflex to catch my self, I dropped Kate on her back. In my memory there is this slow motion moment of my baby in her pretty little white dress looking up at me with wide frightened eyes and not breathing, me having caught myself, kneeling and leaning on my hands now in the grass on either side of her (my ankle strangely not hurting – yet). Kick back into real time and she began to cry and so I knew she could breathe and I scooped her up and got her in the car seat.
But as I drove home my little girl found her voice and through her sobs lectured me, “You dropped me! You’re not suppose to drop me! You are supposed to look after me. You’re supposed to take care of me!” over and over again, all the way home she recanted this admonition. I was appropriately filled with guilt but I was also a bit impressed with her persistence.
I, in turn, became persistent. Yes, I carried her more carefully after that but more, I sought out the Junior Warden, the person in charge of building AND grounds, and took up with him the issue of this particular problem with said grounds, and said hole and asked him to fix that hole so it wouldn’t happen again. He ignored me.
Well, he was nice, he listened, he nodded with concern, but he did not fix the hole. I asked him again the next week and got the same response. I asked him again at the next vestry meeting, still nothing. I began to pester this man about that darn hole in the ground for months. He unwaveringly smiled and nodded and did nothing.
I was persistent, but it didn’t pay off. Not soon enough for me anyway.
The story of this Gentile, Syrophoenician woman in today’s lesson from Mark is a bit confusing. This woman would have been a sort of “nobody” in that culture. Jesus was traveling through the region of Tyre, among gentiles, not in his own Israelite territory when he was sort of accosted by this woman and Jesus’s initial response to ignore her, or give her the brush off would have been expected, in that culture at that time.
The only equivalent to this phenomenon that I can think of is that it would be like the way this Junior Warden ignored me. It’s the kind of thing that happens every day. You see, the Junior Warden was aware that that hole was part of the yard that was about to be dug up when the new parking lot began construction. This would happen in just a few weeks. That hole would be replaced with a much bigger obstacle, one that would be obvious, one that would eventually make that little spot very inconvenient for a while but eventually used for a larger purpose. So, placating me for a few weeks was easier than explaining all of that big picture stuff, I guess.
Today and last Sunday we return to Mark after some jumping back and forth between Mark and John. We’ve been doing that a lot in these lectionary readings this year and the difference between these two gospels has caused some squirming. Today’s reading from Mark is especially squirm worthy because Jesus seem to be rather harsh with this woman who comes to him begging for help.
The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should prevent her from doing so. She is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). In other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside of the land of Israel and outside of the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man -- another taboo transgressed.
On top of all of this, her daughter is possessed by a demon. Although we are not told exactly how the demon affected her daughter, we can probably guess from other stories about demon-possessed people that it made her act in bizarre and anti-social ways. This woman and her daughter were not the kind of family most people would be likely to invite over for dinner.
Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider. And what is more, Jesus actually has the nerve to say as much to her face. When the woman falls at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter, Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). The “children” in this statement are the children of Israel, the “little dogs” (kunaria) are understood to be all other peoples. So, he essentially calls her a dog because she’s not a Jew.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus knows all and is perfect in every way. In John, Jesus is divine. In Mark, especially in this particular story of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus seems to have a learning moment. He seems to change his mind. He seems very human.
This brings up that big theological word, “Christology.” Christology is that branch of theology which is primarily concerned with the identity, the person of, (ontology of) Jesus. The early church engaged in fierce and often politicized debate about whether Jesus is fully God or fully human. Christology became a major focus of these debates, and every one of the first seven ecumenical councils addressed Christological issues. The bottom line is difficult, like the trinity, difficult to fully understand. The bottom line is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
How can this be? Well, it is a mystery. And so we continue to struggle with this God-Man who is God incarnate. That is, God became a person and walked around on earth for 33 years and taught us a bunch of stuff about loving each other.
But the God side of Jesus is difficult to fathom and so we often emphasize the human side.
That, scholars say, is what Mark did with this story.
Jesus was tired, he wanted to get away for a few days for some quiet. He went to the very outside corner of the country, into Gentile country - away from the Jews, away from the Pharisees and Sadducees and away from, it seems, his own followers and he found a little Air BnB and he tried to take a mini-vacation. We love this. We can relate to this. We want him to have a nice weekend on the coast. But, alas, his fame catches up with him and people start bugging him again.
This woman is easy to hate - she is about as different as she could be from the first century Christians who were the audience for this story. She’s sort of villain like when she shows up making demands on our tired messiah. We want to yell at her to leave him alone! And at that point in the story, from the vantage of hating her, we don’t mind if he’s a bit snarky.
Then later, when we’ve had our laugh at him calling her a dog, later, maybe on the way home from the show, we wonder for a moment that pestering question, “How can the fully divine God-man be snarky?” It doesn’t make sense for perfect, peaceful, loving Jesus to be mean even to an annoying, single-mother-nobody.
When I was a kid I loved the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. It was one of the first Rock Operas in the 70s and tells the story, our story, from a very secular lens. Many of you may have seen this broadway musical produced in a live television production this past Easter. The point of this telling of the Christian story is to emphasize the humanity of Jesus. It was written to take place in a contemporary set with contemporary costumes and so the first one had a disco ball and the disciples wore polyester, three piece, leisure suits. I kid you not!
The movie had the more hippie look going on with beach-nicks running around the desert in cool shades singing rock anthems.
I wanted to write a paper about this in seminary. There are some real theological problems with this version of the Gospel narrative. For one, there is no resurrection. It depicts political and interpersonal struggles between Judas Iscariot and Jesus, and Mary Magdalene and Jesus, that are not present in the Bible. And in general the writers jumped around the Gospels cherry picking dramatic scenes that adapt well to the stage or screen but lose their actual edge of meaning when taken out of context.
On the other hand, the theology I was drawn to in that Rock Opera version of the Gospel story was that Jesus was a superstar. He was powerful, he could perform miracles and healings and cast out demons and he could have avoided the cross but he chose not to. This was very impressionable on my adolescent spirit.
Telling the story in this way emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. Jesus is fully human so he suffered, he struggled, he worked hard and yes, maybe he did feel overwhelmed at times. That would be understandable. This is why we love Passion Plays, in order to see God suffer in some way that we relate to.
There is one scene in Jesus Christ Superstar when Jesus was walking alone and came upon a leper colony. Now this is a story found only in Luke you may remember, in which Jesus heals 10 lepers and only one is thankful and the others are not. But in the original story, they keep their distance. They don’t come at Jesus that way. In the play, the lepers crawl all over Jesus and overwhelm him until he is calling out for help. That’s the problem with this musical, scenes like that and a mix and match of poorly interpreted scripture and a whole bunch of fiction.
But I loved it as a kid because of the music and because of the emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. And it made me think and ask questions. So, this bad rock opera was actually a catalyst for my formation as a Christian. I guess that’s alright.
So, we love the Jesus who wants to take a mini-vacation on the coast of Tyre. We love the Jesus who hits up some folks for the use of their house as a hide out. We love this Jesus who ends up changing his mind, at first saying “go away” to this woman from the ghetto and then granting her wish anyway. We love this Jesus who is snarky to someone from across the tracks. But then, we don’t love that he was snarky. And we begin to long again for the Jesus of John’s gospel who knows all, loves all, is all powerful and is never snarky (except maybe to the Pharisees.)
The problem in all this is how easy it is for us to fall into defining God. It is so easy for us to decide who and what God is and how God thinks and what God will do for us. We like to emphasize the humanity of Jesus so that we can get our agenda in the mix. We don’t mean to do this. It’s just human nature.
And so we stand divided because we take sides in the argument. Some side with John and say Jesus is perfect, Jesus is God, we can only worship and adore the Bread of Heaven, the King of Kings. And some of those folks mix in their own quest for power.
Others choose Mark’s Jesus and say that Jesus is one of us, “just a slob like one of us,” and that’s why we can enjoy the love he bestows on us because since he’s human he gets us and loves us in spite of our sinfulness. These folks have an agenda too of getting all the love they want. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace.
And so, my friends, we are left with the frustration of division. When all we really need to do is lay down the armament of our agendas and listen for that thing in the story that maybe we were missing before. Because there is always something new to learn about Jesus the God-man. Jesus the Christ. Jesus the King of Love.
And whether he knew or planned on this interchange with this woman in order to use a teaching moment, or if he stumbled into a teaching moment in which he was the one who actually learned something. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that we remember to follow him instead of try to control him.
What matters is our effort to ever increase our abilities of seeing the Syrophoenician woman in the eyes of the strangers we encounter and the lives of the marginalized people we encounter every day. What matters is noticing her.
What matters is letting go of control enough to receive the healing that Jesus offers either in the wide open social spaces or in private, around the corner spaces like this man whose ability to speak was healed.
What matters is to receive the healing of becoming freed from demons, receive the healing of our words speaking to His agenda not ours, to receive the healing and then becoming speakers of truth and then use these gifts for the building up of the Kingdom. God’s Kingdom. Not ours. Not the kingdom of our agendas. The Kingdom of Love.
So, I’ll leave you with this week’s pulpit joke.
Three ministers sat at an outdoor cafe discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby. “Kneeling is definitely best,” one minister argued. “No,” another contended, “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven”
“You’re both wrong,” the third maintained. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”
At that moment the repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, y’all,” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole!”
There can be more than one way to pray. And there can be more than one way to tell a story. Mark and John tell it two different ways, just as the people in the joke decide on different ways of praying best. The point is that not only can more than one idea be right, but God can use them all in different ways. We need not focus on whose praying posture is best; we need only focus on the prayer and our relationship with God. God can use it all in different ways for different purposes.
Persistence to change God’s mind is futile and the stuff of division. We would do better to work, through prayer on our faith that God will provide all we need, heal us eventually of all our wounded-ness and lead us safely on.
Thanks be to God.