Monday, September 11, 2006

Jesus the Rude?

A sermon the 14th Sunday after Pentecost- September 10, 2006
Proper 18B (RCL) – Mark 7:24-37

May only God’s word be spoken.
May only God’s word be heard and believed.

Ever have a conversation where no matter what you said and how you said it, you were likely to put your foot in your mouth? It has been said that my epitaph should read “I should have kept my big mouth shut!”

Well, here is a conversation ripe for disaster, this conversation between the Gentile woman and Jesus! Taboos and prohibitions abound! First, a Gentile and a Jew are in conversation. Second, a Gentile is asking this Jew, who is to her at least a healer if not a prophet, for help. Third, this is a woman talking in the open to a man as an equal. This was a meeting that could have gone so bad in so many ways. Real conversation is not easy, especially across cultures.

But what does Jesus expect? He has come into Gentile territory! Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities located in what was ancient Phoenicia, by Jesus’ time in the Roman province of Syria (modern day Lebanon). In any case, he is well into Gentile territory. Whether he went there for seclusion or to reach out to Jews who lived in this area is uncertain, but he is in a foreign land confronting foreign customs.

In the Gentile world, Jews were considered a strange and persnickety people: they had strange rules for diet and for a lot of other things, they wore their hair differently, the men were circumcised (which was considered gross!) and they worshiped only one God (which seemed silly and narrow-minded). There is a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding here.

So when a Gentile women from this Gentile part of the world (that Jesus has freely ventured into) comes to Jesus and bows down at his feet, asking Jesus to heal her daughter who has an unclean spirit, things get off on the wrong foot right away.

Jesus says: “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He is saying, my power is for my own people and not for outsiders. To put it bluntly, he just called her--and all her people-- a dog!

Definitely off to a bad start!

Jesus was either being terribly grumpy and insensitive or else he was up to something.

I suspect he is up to something. He starts with parroting what may have been conventional wisdom in Jesus' culture. The Babylonian Talmud says: “As the sacred food was intended for men, but not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the Gentiles.”

But to her credit, she persists. Instead of being distracted by the insult, she takes his words and turns them around. “Yes,” she says. (A clever debating tactic, agree with your opponent and turn it around.) “Well, I may be a dog but even the dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.”

In other words, I am not asking for much from you. Just a few crumbs, just the leftovers, just enough to heal my daughter. And healing is what she was after...that was more important than anything!

With that, Jesus then grants her request and her daughter is healed. What was Jesus up to?

For one thing, once again Jesus engages in a conversation with a Gentile woman as if she were an equal. The Syro-Phoenician woman and Jesus has had a little theological tete-a-tete that you might have heard go on between rabbis: ‘it is written that…’ followed by ‘yes, but it is also written that….’

Not only that, Jesus allows several taboos to be broken for this to happen. He lets a Gentile into his room. He lets a Gentile touch her. He speaks to a woman (who is not family) as an equal.

In other words, in this conversation Jesus opens ears and makes dialogue possible with this woman as just he did when he healed the deaf Gentile man in the next encounter. Which is why Mark put them together.

These two stories show Jesus going into strange, foreign lands and opening ears and making conversation possible. People may not get the significance of what Jesus is doing at first, but they cannot help but be astounded.

In our baptisms, we are called to seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves. And we promise to strive to work for justice and peace, to love our neighbor as ourselves and to respect the dignity of every human being.

This is a call to go to strange, foreign place—especially the ones close to home—and make dialogue possible. As we get ready to observe the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, this lessons seems to me to be especially important.

When we meet strangers, and when cultures meet up, there is not only the chance of misunderstanding, but there is always a chance for violence. Over the last five years we have turned a struggle against one small extreme group of fanatics, a tiny sliver of all Islam, into a war against all Muslims.

In our fear, we have let slip the truth Muslim culture is just as diverse and nuanced as the Christian culture we live in. If among western Christians in America we can produce both Timothy McVeigh and Jimmy Carter, then why should it surprise us that the Muslim world can produce both Osama bin Laden and Anwar Sadat?

One reason we don’t get that is that fear blocks ears, fogs our thinking and tangles our tongues.

Jesus comes to break down those barriers. Jesus come to make it possible for us to hear and speak. We who are baptized into Christ Jesus are called to go into the world and meet people who are different from us, and to touch the things that block our hearing and with God’s power and grace to allow ourselves to be opened.

I remember a scene from the epic film “Ghandi,” who was played by Ben Kingsley. After India has obtained her independence, there is chaos because instead of one country there are two—India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims—and in the cross-migrations and dislocations there is violence. Mahatma Ghandi goes on a hunger strike until the violence ceases. In the scene I remember, a Hindu man comes to Ghandi and confesses that he has killed a Muslim boy out of his rage at the death of his son at the hands of a Muslim mob. Ghando counsels the man to go out and find a Muslim orphan and take him into his home and to raise him. But he is to raise him as a Muslim in his Hindu house. Only then can he atone for his crime and heal the wound of his grief.

Could we do that? Can we channel our legitimate pain and grief and willingly turn into something that heals?

Today, we baptize a child. Today we raise our children in an uncertain world that does not feel safe. But this not new to human experience. All we have to do is look at the Bible and hear about the tense dialogue between a Gentile woman and a Jewish rabbi, to realize that the possibility for misunderstanding, for talking past one another, for violence between people is only a mis-cue away. It is part of what we call original sin.

Jesus came to bridge that. He touched people, opened ears and loosened tongues and cast out the demons of fear and division. We are baptized into that very same ministry.

Five years ago, we suffered a terrible trauma and catastrophe. We were attacked by people who wanted to both hurt us and draw us into endless warfare on their terms. We have entered into this protracted conflict, ruled by fear and instead of being united by being our best selves. We are divided by breatakingly cynical leadership, political wranglings at the highest levels, and a kind of macho posturing that justifies immorality and outright cruelty in the name of safety. We have been tempted to fight evil with the very tools of evil, and then we are surprised when we get evil in return!

The situation may be new to us, and the circumstances ours, but the problem is as old as humanity. The good news is that it is to this that God sent his Son to overcome sin and return humanity to God’s riegn.

Christ’s solution was to go to strange, foreign places—places where the welcome was at best dubious—and to use his power to heal. Christ’s solution was to break through the taboos of place and gender and religion and cast out demons.

Jesus’ answer was to break through those barriers by meeting people face to face. Jesus’ answer was to touch people at the point of their greatest need and open their ears, their language and their hearts.

God’s answer is the cross and empty tomb. The good news is that as far as God is concerned, the chasm between us has been bridged and the wound of sin healed. With God's help and the power of the Holy Spirit, we will in fact live into what God has made available to us.

If we are to find peace in a dangerous world, the first step is to follow Christ: to meet people—even people who are strange and scary to us—and listen, to open the barriers to hearing, and to heal. We start in little ways, beginning in this one corner of Easton by being a people of peace and creating a place of healing.

We already start with our open doors, our work with the poor, the hungry, the addicted and the jailed in our community. There is more that each of us can do, and it is so simple: talk.

The Hindu person who serves you coffee at the doughnut shop deserves a respectful ‘hello.’ How about the Muslim doctor or nurse whom we trust to care for us; what if we asked ‘how’s the family?’ You get the idea. We can start building bridges now. In a time of fear, when some are ready to paint anyone strange with the terrorist brush, our job is to listen, create hope and heal.

Sure, we’ll probably risk putting our foot in our mouths from time to time. If I am going to do that anyway, I’d rather do it while trying to be kind. Jesus and the Gentile woman teach us that without conversation, there is no meeting, and with out meeting there is no healing. And healing comes first.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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