090521 Pentecost 15 News Flash: Woman Rocks Jesus’ World
The sermon begins at minute 18:45 of the video
James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
During my first year of ordained ministry a book was published entitled The Upside-Down Kingdom. I instantly loved the title, and have loved it ever since. It’s a good description of the Gospel in general; but it definitely describes how the Gospel must respond to some events that happened in Texas last week. When the Syrophoenician woman courageously used Jesus’ own proverb to argue back: even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, she was inviting Jesus to see beyond the box his culture had put her in and heal the child. The book’s author (Donald Kraybill) calls this an upside-down moment, filled with irony and paradox. (p. 234) Another author, Karoline Lewis, argues that this woman does more than get Jesus to change his mind — she rocks his world.
Last week in Texas, the state government, supported by the US Supreme Court, did the opposite: they rocked the world of women with an anti-abortion ruling that begs for an upside-down kingdom response. Today’s Gospel might guide that response. The Syrophoenician woman stood up to the voice of authority (Jesus), and got him to admit what and for whom his ministry was really all about. She got Jesus to see God for what and who God truly is. She told the truth. And when the truth gets told worlds change. Her world changed. Jesus’ world changed.
Telling the truth takes risk. It takes courage, so, we don’t always speak the truth. We stay silent. Bite our lips. Wait for the right moment, which never, ever comes. We remain in our illusions; in the made-up worlds we’ve created that are carefully and strategically segmented from the truth we desperately want to live. Many of the biggest employers in Texas, including AT&T, Oracle, McKesson and Phillips 66, declined to comment on the Texas ruling. Even companies that are usually quick to speak up on social issues, like Patagonia and Levi’s, didn’t say anything about the new law. And Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that teams up with big companies to “build workplaces that work for women,” declined to comment. (NYTimes, 9/4/21) So, in both our personal and our public lives we hesitate to speak truth when it might cost us. You don’t need me to tell you how true this this. Just stop and think about it for a minute. The lies we live. The truths we’re afraid to tell and resist hearing. There is no “them” to point to about the failure to speak and hear truth in the world today. It’s all of us.
No one is saying it’s easy. If Jesus himself needs to be told the truth of the Gospel, God knows we do as well. Elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that only those who give away their lives will find it. That’s true both in our personal and our public lives. Jesus first learned how true it is from this fiercely loving mother. She reminds us that neither church nor state can live up to their potential when exclusionary power structures continue to exist. She tells the truth about God and in doing so helps us imagine that truth for ourselves. When truth is suppressed, we start assuming things. So, we must name the truth, put it on the table for all to deal with rather than ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. When we get used to hiding or overlooking the truth, it becomes almost impossible to discern truth from falsehood.
So, this is blatantly true in the face of the new anti-abortion law in Texas. But we must also face our resistance to truth when it comes to racism in this country. I’ve been reading Begin Again for our next book study. The first chapter is entitled, The Lie. It talks about the lies white people tell themselves to maintain control: like, people of color are inferior; the massacre of native peoples and slavery were simply mistakes to be corrected on the way to becoming a more perfect union; and the country is making racial progress toward being the city set on a hill. The author concludes, “The lie… has always allowed America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country.
But there is more to today’s two Gospel stories than facing all that truth. Mark puts the story of the woman from Tyre right before another healing story. Both involved begging: the woman begged Jesus to cast out the demon from her daughter; friends brought a deaf man and begged Jesus to lay his hands on him. But neither the Gentile woman nor the deaf man were seeking mere physical healing. They were members of groups that were excluded from a full embrace by their communities. Jesus himself struggled to heal the Gentile woman. And the deaf man faced a society in which a person who lacked hearing and speaking ability was believed to be unable to conform to community standards of behavior, or moral and cognitive insight. So, to be healed involved more than removing their physical impairment; it required being restored to full acceptance and participation in the community.
After the woman broke so many rules with Jesus, he seemed more willing to break some rules with the deaf man. In that culture, the man’s deafness was a moral failure; he was unclean. But Jesus tossed out all kinds of purity codes by putting his saliva-drenched fingers in his ears, and touching the guy’s tongue with spit on his fingers. Then Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and sighed. Why do you think he sighed? Could it be because people were not understanding what his mission was all about? People wanted cures and Jesus wanted wholeness and equity. The very word he used shows that: he didn’t say “hear again” but Ephphatha! “be opened”. Even though he’d taken the man aside privately, it’s like he was telling the whole community to open up, expand their understanding, see people like this deaf man as the person he is, not who their cultural stereotypes and purity codes tell them he is.
We see these same issues in the community that James addressed in the Epistle. James saw Christian communities treating rich people better than poor people, giving them greater access to healing and other ministries of the church. In the churches to which he wrote, James saw the same dynamic that Jesus saw: those with physical limitations – whether it be blindness, deafness, demon possession, ethnic origin, or poverty – were being discriminated against among the faithful. James didn’t see this as a side issue, like you could still be a good Christian if you had a little prejudice. He saw it as the core of what it means to have faith: do you really claim to have faith in Jesus while treating people with favoritism? The obvious answer to that rhetorical question was, yes you are claiming that. James is saying, that is the antithesis of who Jesus is. It’s upside-down.
We also see this dynamic in the community called the United States. We see it in the immigration crisis, the global refugee crisis, the criminal justice system, police-community relations, gentrification, church membership, employment, housing and homelessness, and in Texas this week as rich women can still get abortions by travelling to other states. If the mission of the church doesn’t address these matters, we’re fooling ourselves to think we care about the upside-down kingdom of God. As the late Verna Dozier, Episcopal teacher and theologian, put it: “Don’t tell me what you believe; tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”
So, on this Labor Day weekend, say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. We are invited to take our fearful hearts and become truth tellers, and open ourselves to being told uncomfortable truths; to become doers, and not hearers only; and to open ourselves up to human beings, seeing them and reality with eyes we didn’t have before. That is the project of community-wide liberation we are invited to join. ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.