Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon: Not Our Kind

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 27, 2015, Ordinary 26B
James 5:13-16; Mark 9:37-42

Not Our Kind

The Epistle of James is an odd fit in the New Testament canon for many. Particularly when contrasted with Paul’s works, with their constant emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, James comes off for some as being awfully works-obsessed. Probably the most well-known verses from the letter demonstrate this: 1:22, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” and 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
What people often miss about James, though, is that—despite how 2:14 sometimes sounds in the ear—James is not trying to convince his readers that they “get saved” by doing good works or by particular rituals of holiness. Rather, as 2:18 goes on to say, it is by the works we do that we show our faith. All the platitudes and flowery God-talk we can muster is not and will never be sufficient to demonstrate that genuine faith is at work in our lives, when our deeds and behavior do not match those words.
Another point often missed, one demonstrated in today’s reading from this epistle, is that his instruction is directed not at the individual, but the community, a trait that he does share with Paul. Note how the pronouns in this brief passage are so plural – “they,” not “he” or “she.” The community prays for one another, confesses to one another, in the time of illness and need. To a great degree, this falls into line with such famous passages as the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, or chapter 12 in Paul’s own epistle to the Romans, in which the way the body of Christ lives in and with one another.
Sadly, the disciples, at least as portrayed in Mark 9, don’t seem to have gotten this particular memo.
We are picking up from where we left off last week, when the disciples had been caught arguing among themselves who was the greatest only to have Jesus challenge them to welcome “the least of these,” in this case in the form of a child. Somehow John, and probably some of the others, seemed to think that the best way to respond to this challenge was to tattle on someone else. Really, that’s about the best way to describe it.
Apparently some of the disciples had seen someone else casting out demons, and doing so in the name of Jesus—evidently successfully. Perhaps their reaction masked some jealousy, since the disciples had been unable to cast a demon out of a small child earlier in this same chapter. Perhaps there was a certain protectiveness of their status as “the twelve.” Maybe there was even some fear involved. Maybe this person was, as the phrase might go today, not our kind.
For whatever reason, the disciples’ reaction to this unaffiliated exorcist was to try and stop that person from casting out demons. Somehow the disciples could not see the good being done, or if they did it was less important to them than the fact that they didn’t know who the exorcist was.
So, once again, Jesus has to talk his disciples down from the cliff. One almost imagines Jesus letting out a fairly depressed sigh just before doing so. *SIGH*
First, Jesus has to point out that a person who does a “deed of power” in the name of Jesus is not going to be able to turn around and curse Jesus in his or her next breath. A person who is casting out demons, something that anyone in Jesus’s audience would have recognized as a deed of power, is not the enemy here. It’s as if the disciples had forgotten about Jesus’s reply to the religious leaders who had charged Jesus with being in league with Beelzebub – “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” back in 3:22. As Jesus replied then – “how can Satan cast out Satan?” so might he have replied to his disciples in this case. The man (we assume it was a man; we honestly can’t say for absolutely certain) was doing no evil; he was doing good. Why, Jesus would like to ask his disciples, would you want to prevent that?
Verse 40 is familiar to us, probably – “Whoever is not against us is for us” – but we’ve probably become accustomed to hearing it in reverse – “whoever is not for us is against us.” Whether in old movie westerns or modern diplomacy, we’re accustomed to that “drawing the line” demanding allegiance to … what, exactly? To us, and to “the boss” and to the way we’re going to do things? It’s an ugly expression, and the person who utters it never means well towards those to whom it is directed.
But that’s not Jesus’s way. We never find out who this anonymous exorcist is, but Jesus is not at all threatened by this unknown person, even though this person is invoking Jesus’s name in performing these deeds of power. The power of Jesus, the healing of Jesus, the good of Jesus is not a thing to be hoarded, or kept hidden or locked away for a select few. Jesus is not exclusive, folks. He really does love everybody, and want to heal everybody and make everybody whole and bring good to everybody.
We Christians don’t like this, when you get right down to it. You know the hymn “Standing on the Promises,” that we’ll sing at the end of this service? Well, we stand on them, all right, nice and firm so that no one else can get to them. The behavior of the disciples makes it clear to us that this kind of closed-ness has been the case since well before anybody was using the word “Christian” as a way of drawing some in and others out.
I am always amused by those contemporary types who bemoan the existence of denominations or the splitting of churches or any other modern evidence of the division and disunity of the church, while pining for some time in the church’s history when the church was one, whole, unified. Folks, if the disciples themselves were trying to draw some in and some out before Jesus had even made it to Calvary, who are we kidding? The early church disagreed, and sometimes fought, and sometimes even divided over whether new converts should have to go through circumcision to be Christians (Paul tells us a lot about that). The church in later years disagreed and fought and divided over what day of the week they should gather for worship – the Sabbath day or the Lord’s Day. The church disagreed over the nature of the Trinity, over what it meant for Christ to be “fully human and fully divine” at the same time, over when Easter should be observed, over the nature and number of the sacraments, and ultimately over more subjects – some very serious, some quite mundane – than I have time to describe right now.  That mythical time when all were in harmony? Well, “mythical” is a good word for it.
What Jesus says next, though, is a warning against making an excuse out of that frequent division. Seriously, verse 42 ought to send a chill down the spine of any Christian:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a giant millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Read that again. Hear those words. Remember that a millstone is huge, the kind of thing that required several beasts of burden to rotate in order to grind the grain. The millstone would weigh more than you, much more. To have your head jammed through the center of that huge millstone, and to be tossed into the sea…that is a point of no hope.
You. Would. Die.
And yet, in Jesus’s words, you’d be better off to have that done to you than to be a stumbling block for, or to cause to stumble, any of these “little ones who believe in me.”
It does not matter if they are white or black.
It does not matter if they are gay or straight.
It does not matter if they are liberal or conservative.
It does not matter if they are female or male.
It does not matter what way they differ from you or disagree with you.
This does not mean we do not speak out against injustice or abuse or hatred done in the name of God. Don’t be confused here; that is not serving God; that is not following Jesus.
But those who do seek to follow, no matter how imperfectly, Jesus claims as his own. And the one – no matter how Christian you think of yourself as being – who causes such a one to stumble … you’d be better off pinned to the bottom of the sea.
Many of you know I’m not a cradle Presbyterian. I was raised in another denomination, and went so far as to get a Master’s of Church Music degree at a seminary in that denomination. But that happened at about the time that denomination was undergoing its own division, and my best professors, pastors, role models were the ones getting punished. So I couldn’t stay. This was one of those sermons, like many are, that the pastor need as much as anybody else in the congregation, if not more. Even when we’re the ones getting punished or vilified or being called “not Christian” by other parts of the church, we don’t get to be stumbling blocks for anybody else out there who is doing good in the name of Jesus. Never.
And yes, even for that, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above” (PH 483), “Help Us Accept Each Other” (PH 358),  “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (PH 298), “Standing on the Promises” (GtG 838)

Credit to; just go bookmark them already.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: The Greatest

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2015, Ordinary 25B
James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37

The Greatest

Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee
I am the greatest!
Muhammad AAAAA-LI!
I remember this distinctly from my youth; a younger child than I, at my elementary school I think, mashed up these Ali quotes and started chanting/shouting all over the playground. This was well into the 1970s, mind you, significantly after that boxer’s controversial early career and well into that period where he was simply the best boxer, and one of the most popular athletes, in the USA. The distinctive timbre – slightly raspy but highly animated, tending to rise in pitch, with a cadence that must have inspired a few early hip-hop artists…it was hard to miss or to mistake for anyone else.
For someone of that generation, though, the image of “The Greatest” that crashed into the public consciousness some twenty years later was a harsh and rude awakening. At the torch lighting ceremony for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the man who had driven opponents crazy with his brashness and cheek, the man who had fairly danced around the ring, was revealed at the climax of the event as a man mostly immobile, gravely stricken by Parkinson’s disease after all those years of pummeling and being pummeled, seemingly straining mightily to lift his arm to bring the torch to the igniting wire that would set the Olympic flame ablaze. The price Ali had paid to be “The Greatest” proved to be a particularly sharp and cruel one.

It isn’t always so physically evident or debilitating as Muhammad Ali’s decline, but human quests for greatness have a bad habit of ending up in a similar condition. Napoleon meets his Waterloo, Richard Nixon meets his Watergate. Designs on power, or wealth, or status, or fame – the usual ways we tend to measure “greatness” in this human world – flounder on the basic and inescapable fact of our human, fallen nature and its pronounced tendency to cause us to betray ourselves if somebody else doesn’t do it first. And even those who seem to make it to their moral finish line still at a peak of human “greatness” end up discovering that they die just as dead as everyone else, and that in fact the one who dies with the most toys does not win. With so many millennia of evidence, you have to wonder why anyone even tries.
And yet we are as a human race addicted to greatness, or the pursuit of it. If you have any doubt about this, you have a little more than a year’s worth of presidential campaign to remind you of this. If we’re not the ones who are maddened by the quest to be the greatest, then we have this awful habit of glomming on to such figures as if they are our saviors.
Not all such dreams of greatness are quite so grandiose. We just want to be the best in our office or at our job, or on our softball team or whatever. We want to root for the greatest team (or for our team to be the greatest), dine at the greatest restaurants, and so on. We are somewhat unhinged by our urge to compete. And sometimes, as is the case with the disciples in today’s gospel reading, it keeps us from hearing what we need to hear.
Earlier in this chapter Peter, James and John have witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus, and then they came down the mountain to witness a fiasco in which the rest of the disciples have been unable to cure a small boy. This would seem a strange time to be arguing about who among you is the greatest, when none of you have been at your best recently. As they are traveling, finally having found a way to escape the crowds so Jesus can teach his disciples in private, those disciples are confronted – for the second time, the first having come in chapter eight – with Jesus deeply disturbing claim that he was going to die. More specifically, he told them “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” No one quite reacts as badly as Peter in the previous case, telling Jesus that it must not be so only to be rebuked with the stinging reproach “Get behind me, Satan!” Still, their response wasn’t great. They didn’t understand, but they didn’t dare ask. Any teachers among you, or any one-time students for that matter, know that is never really the best answer.
Apparently, the disciples then fell into the argument about who was the greatest.
Now it’s not hard to imagine how any of us might have reacted to a group like this if we were the ones tasked with leading or teaching it. It’s not hard to imagine going on a tirade to put Jim McElwain to shame, and feeling quite justified in doing so. At the very least it would be hard to hold back from ripping into these obtuse clods something fierce.
Jesus, though – master of the “teachable moment” – had a different reaction in mind. All this time he has been trying to show the disciples what it meant to live in the “kingdom of God come near” – that thing he proclaimed back at the very beginning of this gospel, calling on people to repent and believe the Good News. He has been perhaps besieged at times by the crowds who know him as a healer and exorcist, and maybe at times hasn’t been able to teach as much as he would have liked. But now he has the disciples together, and in their moment of great ignorance, he sees the opportunity to show them, in a clear and vivid way, what that Kingdom of God is like.
First he tells them, then he shows them.
The one who would be first, he says, must be “last of all and servant of all.” It takes us no effort to see just how backwards that is. First isn’t last. First is first. No one is going to give your Gators credit for finishing first in the SEC East if they lose all the rest of their games this season. We know that’s not how it works, and if that’s where Jesus had left it, we’d frankly understand their continuing to be confused or maybe even put off by such talk. Life doesn’t work that way.
But then he shows them.
From the crowds that had either followed them to, or gathered around them in Capernaum, Jesus pulls aside a small child.
At this moment, for us moderns, the temptation is pretty strong to switch into “cute mode.” You know, the way we tend to react by default when children are put before us in pretty much any setting, but particularly in the church. We “oo” and “aww,” silently if not out loud. We might chuckle if they do something cute or funny, even if it wasn’t necessarily meant to be so. It’s that mode of approaching children that might cause us, in person, to pat the child on the head or pinch the child’s cheeks. Some of you might know it as “being a grandparent.”
This is, to some degree, a pretty modern way of viewing children generally. It isn’t widespread before say, the nineteenth century. At other times in history, a child might have been viewed simply as an extra hand to help with the household labor, or (negatively) as another mouth to feed. In the Greco-Roman world in which Mark’s gospel is disseminated, a child was, to be blunt, not much. A child would be a figure of absolute minimum social importance, superior only to slaves who would have held no such status at all. Children were nursed by nurses, raised by the equivalent of nannies, taught by tutors, and generally kept out of sight.
So socially, it’s a radical enough thing for Jesus to call attention to a child in such a public setting. But for Mark’s readers, this only scratches the surface of just how topsy-turvy Jesus’s instruction is here. To welcome one such as this child in Jesus’s name, he says, is to welcome him, and to welcome the One who sent him.
Welcome. It’s a loaded word. Welcoming is (as you well know) far beyond merely saying hello or inviting someone in. There is, in welcome, a depth of listening and hearing, of not clutching onto the power of being the host but sharing and making all well for the one being welcomed. It’s not just about physical comforts, though providing for those is certainly a part of welcome, but also of being fully open to the guest, not lording it over them or treating them as lesser. It’s a radical concept, and Jesus is here telling his disciples that the one who welcomes “the least of these,” as he puts it in another gospel, welcomes him.
Who is that for us today? In our society, children have been (in some circles at least) idolized and romanticized so that they might not exactly fit into this category. But who does? Who is it out there that is so status-less, so bereft of any standing or fame or stature or power in the world that we may well not even see them there?
Whoever they are, wherever we see them finally, that is who Jesus is calling us – challenging us – to welcome, and in so doing, to welcome Jesus himself.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Hear the Good News of Salvation” (PH 355); “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” (PH 357); “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!” (PH 341); “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” (GtG 727)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon: What's the Point of Sunday?

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 13, 2015
Hebrews 10:19-25; Mark 2:23-3:6

What’s the Point of Sunday?

I have particular memories of how Sundays went when I was young. Sunday lunch (often whatever roast could be purchased relatively cheaply) was cooking before I got up, so that it could be quickly heated and ready to eat when we got home from church. Since lunch was going to be a big deal, breakfast was generally simple and quick.
My job was to get myself dressed as uncomfortably as possible. (Sometimes I think that’s still the case.) Uncomfortable suit or sportcoat and slacks, uncomfortable shirt, decidedly uncomfortable tie and shoes. To this day I am rebelling against that upbringing by insisting, no matter what else I wear, that I wear comfortable shoes for Sunday mornings. Off we went to church, a largish Southern Baptist church on the edge of downtown in the small town where we lived. Sunday school first, then into worship. The latter was mostly marked by the need to get everything else out of the way quickly so the sermon could go for a solid thirty minutes or more. (I was generally lost after fifteen minutes at the maximum.)
Home for that big lunch, and then, most Sundays, a nap. At the time I thought this was just because everyone was groggy after that big meal. Early on, though, it was as likely because there was nothing else to do in that town on Sunday. If it wasn’t closed, it was frowned upon so as to be impossible to do.  That began to give way over time, particularly when that small town got its first mall. And there were certain odd things, like the sight of a convenience store’s beer coolers covered over with plastic, either early on Saturday night or not yet removed on Monday. I was too young to get it at the time.
Of course, there were things that didn’t quite add up. There was always some kind of sporting event on TV on Sunday afternoons, and no one ever quite explained why it was o.k. for those football players (or baseball or basketball, depending on the season) to be playing on Sunday. It’s possible no one ever explained it because they were too busy watching the game.
The point, I suppose, is that while it seemed rather tricky to figure out exactly what you could or couldn’t do on Sundays, no one ever really explained it, to me at least, beyond you’re not supposed to do that on Sunday. You ended up being more afraid than anything, and fear, as the novelist Marilynne Robinson observes, isn’t a particularly Christian frame of mind. In that sense it was not unlike the situation in which Jesus and the disciples find themselves in today’s reading from Mark, except that for them the potential stakes were much higher and more dangerous.
For reasons unknown Jesus and the disciples are making their way through a field of grain. As they make their way, the disciples are occasionally plucking the heads of grain and grinding them up between their fingers to eat.
For reasons even less clear, there is a group of Pharisees observing this activity, and finding in it a pretext to condemn the disciples. By their understanding of the law and its many interpretations and extrapolations over the centuries, there were possibly two violations of the Sabbath at play here; grinding the grains in their hands was definitely a violation, but the very act of walking through the fields, and having to push through the grain to make a path, might have also fallen afoul of the Pharisees’ Sabbath rules. Frankly it seems that it was probably safer not to leave the house.
Jesus’s reaction is interesting; he goes straight to scripture and the history of Israel for his response, citing an obscure episode we find in 1 Samuel 21 in which David, on the run from Saul, wheedled the “bread of the presence” away from a temple priest.
Why would David do such a thing? Why would David and his men dare to eat consecrated bread, meant only to be consumed by the priests after its time in “the presence of the Lord”? Well, because…they were hungry.
From there Jesus gets to the point, a point about the Sabbath. For the Pharisees, the Sabbath had become a legal monolith, a creation with its rules and requirements that were to be obeyed at all costs. Certainly the basis for respect of the Sabbath was thoroughly scriptural—from the creation story in which God rested on the seventh day, to the Fourth Commandment, the Hebrew tradition makes clear the significance of Sabbath in the life of the people. Over time, though, the question became “what does it actually mean to keep the Sabbath holy?” Inevitably the question becomes “what can I do, and what can’t I do, on the Sabbath and still keep it holy?” or in other words, “what can I get away with on the Sabbath?” Priests and scholars and scribes worked through these scriptures and worked out these things, how much work one could do on the Sabbath, how far one could travel or whether or not one could prepare a meal. Over time, these interpretations acquired the force of law, and the Sabbath became an occasion for fear instead of joy, worry instead of hope.
This is what Jesus cries out against when he says “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” What was meant to be a refreshment to us humans, a day for rest and rejuvenation and restoring our life in God, had become little more than a series of traps for the would-be follower.
If this moment weren’t chilling enough, what followed next, in the synagogue, made clear just how far this situation had deteriorated. Waiting there was a man with a withered hand, along with the Pharisees. The challenge did not need to be spoken to be clear. Amazing as it might seem to us, an act of healing was regarded as a breaking of Sabbath law. Therefore, for Jesus to do what he had already become famous for doing would put him irreparably against these upholders of the law.
Once again, Jesus summarizes the situation clearly: “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?
Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?
What is the point of Sabbath?
Now let’s be clear; our situation today is not quite like that of the Jews of Jesus’s day. For one thing, we don’t really observe the Sabbath, which was after all the seventh day of the week – not the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection that most Christian denominations observe for worship. That changed early in the church’s history, though not without a great deal of debate and disagreement. Still, the question remains compelling for us: what is the point of Sunday? Is it lawful, is it right to do good or to do harm on Sunday? Sunday is made for humankind, and not humankind for Sunday.
Jesus’s words challenge us, even on the first day of the week. What is this day of worship good for? What good do we do on Sunday? What’s the point of Sunday?
It is not my purpose to propose a whole new or old batch of legalisms to be applied to our Sundays and how we spend them. How many hearts and lives were truly won to Christ by Sunday blue laws? What were we showing the world about Jesus with such restrictiveness and sternness? Were we doing good or doing harm?
At the same time, we are still under the command to remember Sabbath. We are not made to be on the clock twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We are not meant to be without regeneration and refreshment, we are not meant to go without being restored and rejuvenated in our faith and reconnected to the very Source of our life. Even our Creator showed us that from the very beginning.
And to be sure, we do need time to ourselves sometimes. I of all people have to admit that I don’t do well without the occasional getaway on my own. But this day, this day of worship and praise directed towards our God and towards Jesus the Son, is something different. We aren’t just rejuvenated and rested and restored; this day, this time of worship and education and being in fellowship with one another is about something more.
It is about not just being restored, but being restored together. It is about being refreshed in the Spirit, reinforced in the Word, rejuvenated in song and prayer and all of the other pieces of worship and study and prayer, and about all of these things being not just individually experienced, but learning and singing and praying and worshiping together, as the body of Christ, all of us, youngest to oldest. All of us together, one Body in Christ. And that only happens in this coming together.
It’s not an accident that the author of Hebrews warns us against “neglecting to meet together,” which was apparently a problem already for this very young church. Rather, our coming together is to be a time of helping each other “hold fast to our confession,” to “provoke” – wow, what a word to use here! – “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” “encouraging one another” – these are things that only happen in fellowship with one another, in communion with one another. This happens here, together.
If we are not finding ways to do those things – holding fast to our confession, provoking each other to love, encouraging one another – we have to wonder why we’re here. Can we find it in ourselves, in this little corner of the church, to make that the object of our Lord’s Day?
I think we can. This is not a congregation that needs to be told how to be compassionate. We get the business of encouraging one another, provoking one another to love and good deeds. And we get that we need to extend that compassion and those good deeds outside the walls of this church. There’s a box out in the narthex that testifies to this.
But can we take that even farther? Can we extend that compassion and provoking even to the point of inviting the world out there inside these walls? Can we risk the uncomfortable, the uncertain?
I think we can.
So here’s my dare to you. I won’t even limit it to this week. Sometime this month, sometime before September is over, invite someone to join us in worship here. Yep, I’m challenging you to invite someone to church. How very un-Presbyterian of me.
But if we are to see this place and this time as something like Jesus saw the Sabbath, as the time to do good, to heal; as a time made for us to be repaired and revived; well, you’d think we’d want to share it.
So there’s your challenge. Invite someone. Be welcoming. Open your arms wide.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “O Day of Radiant Gladness” (PH 470); “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (PH 260); “Jesus Loves Me!” (PH 304); “We Cannot Measure How You Heal (GtG 797)

Who knew this could lead one astray so badly?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sermon: Crumbs

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 6, 2015, Ordinary 23B
Mark 7:24-37


I’m not going to lie to you, folks. This is going to be my least favorite sermon ever. I dare say I may never preach this passage again.
Not that there isn’t going to be something of worth, something for us to learn from this passage. There is healing that happens, and there is a remarkable example of faith that any person should be humbled to see. There is a remarkable opening up of Jesus’s ministry on earth that starts in this passage. In fact, one can argue that this passage is one of the most important turning points in this gospel in which we have invested so much time this year.
Still, there is no way I can make Mark 7:27 sound good.
Can I understand how it could happen? Certainly.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the senior demon Screwtape make the point to his mentoree that human beings, despite their reputation, can actually be quite patient and endure a great deal of stress and pressure. Rather, the great impatience, the great explosion and emotional eruption most often comes when we humans think the pressure has finally relented only to have some other unexpected imposition appear. For example, an emergency room doctor or nurse might endure a full shift of trauma after trauma, one patient after another, with no release and no break, and successfully hold it together throughout the entire shift. Then, on the way out of the hospital, that same doctor or nurse might explode with seeming rage at being tripped up by a stray dog.
Maybe you’ve known something of that experience.
I don’t necessarily want to say that’s what happens here, but there is something about the setup that makes such a scenario plausible. Remember the recent events Jesus has experienced: the death of John the Baptist; the feeding of five thousand; the incident of the disciples’ panic on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus’s walking on water to save them; another round of healings of multitudes of people; and the spat with the Pharisees from Jerusalem featured in last week’s sermon. That’s a lot to cope with, and we humans might find the stress and pressure a challenge, but we deal with it because we see a light at the end of the tunnel – a break from the stress – and hold out until then. For Jesus, so this line of reasoning goes, maybe this was the point of this escape to the region of the city of Tyre, rounghly in what we would call Lebanon today. Although there were some Jews there, perhaps Jesus thought getting away to this primarily Gentile city might offer some relief. Or so he might have thought, only to have this woman – this Syrophoenician woman, a term that conjures the most ancient enmities of the Hebrew people, somehow get into the house and threw herself at his feet to beg for healing for her daughter.
And, according to this line of reasoning, Jesus snapped, and fired off what was a pretty vile insult at her. To say “let the children be fed first,” as Jesus does initially, is to echo pretty standard Jewish thought of the time about the Messiah and salvation – the Jews would be “fed” first, then the rest of the world. It might seem a little out of step with our post-incarnation theology, but at the time it would make sense.
But to repeat the next line – “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” – is just flat-out ugly. Think of the kind of ugly things a southerner might say about “Yankees” in, say, the 1860s or thereafter, or the kind of slurs whites might have used against blacks in the Civil Rights era.
To understand this, you need to understand that dogs were, in Jewish culture of the time, unclean. A good Jewish family of the time would be horrified at the idea of having a dog in the home at all, much less as “part of the family” as we regard them today. To speak of Gentiles as “dogs” (even in the diminutive form as this Greek word is, something like “puppies” or “doggies” but not exactly) was to call them something about as ugly and impure as possible – perhaps not quite on the level of pigs, but close.
You’ll find all manner of efforts to try to soften the blow in the theological commentary literature. To use such a reference, some will say, should be understood strictly metaphorically, and not as a direct insult to the woman. This is nonsense; members of any minority group aren’t going to care about whether the use of, for example, the n-word or the word used as the name of Washington’s NFL team, is strictly rhetorical, and neither should this woman be expected to understand being called a “dog” differently than if it were uttered at her by any other Jew. Other commentators suggest that this is a “test” of the woman; Jesus is probing to see just what she understands about him or how far she is willing to go to have her daughter healed. This wouldn’t be out of character; Jesus engages in such exchanges with other interlocutors at other places in the gospels. Still, if I’d engaged in a “test” like this during my teaching career, that career would have ended a lot sooner than it did. Furthermore, Mark didn’t really drop us any clues that this was the case; no “to test her, he said…” or “he said, with a chuckle…” or any such thing. Just the bald-faced words.
What we can say, though, is that the Syrophoenician woman’s response is absolutely amazing. She takes the Jewish insult and reframes it for the Gentile setting. Unlike Jews of the time, those in the larger Greco-Roman world were inclined to take in dogs as domestic animals, “members of the family” – something like pets. So while a Jewish family would have been horrified to find a dog in the house at all, a Gentile family might well have a pooch lapping up the crumbs from the table (or being slipped a little more than crumbs by children who don’t care for the meal; maybe you’ve seen that before…). So, from the completely submissive position this world forced upon her, she responds – still calling him “sir” or “Lord” – that the dogs – she, her daughter – could still lap up the crumbs the children left behind, and with this answer apparently blew Jesus’s mind. He sends her home with the word that the demon was gone from her daughter, not because of her faith specifically, but because of her answer.
This woman, it seems, has got ahold of something that others who have encountered Jesus may have missed. He is a powerful healer and exorcist of demons, to be sure; but her dogged – pun intended – persistence suggests that she gets that there is more to this Jesus, something besides just the ability to heal. It isn’t fleshed out, but there is some understanding that not many seem to have grasped, certainly not the disciples at this point.
This woman is a not-distant cousin in some ways of the woman with the blood issue from chapter five. If anything her station in society is not marked by a specific impurity of that first woman, but simply by her identity as a Gentile; she furthermore is seeking healing not for herself but her child. Still, though, the persistence against all odds and all propriety bind these two women in the good news of the gospel, the “kingdom of God come near.”
We also can’t escape the fact that the story takes a distinct turn at this point, a turn through Gentile territory. On his way through the primarily Gentile territory of the Decapolis, or “ten cities,” the crowds bring to him a man who was not only deaf, but also stricken with a speech impediment so that he could not speak language. All they hoped for was that Jesus might “lay his hand on him,” but even with this Gentile Jesus goes far beyond – he takes the man aside, touching both ears and tongue (yes, also spitting), and uttered a word; instantly the man’s ears were opened and his tongue loosed. No hesitation about touching an “unclean” person, no hesitation about old purity laws; just a deliberate and unequivocal act of healing.
Pretty good for crumbs under the table.
It’s been the recurring theme of all this time spent in the gospel of Mark that Jesus’s ministry on earth was the ultimate manifestation of “the kingdom of God come near,” part of Jesus’s own words all the way back in the first chapter, at the beginning of his public ministry. What happens in this moment in Mark’s gospel reminds us just how uncontrollable, how unrestrained this in-breaking of God’s kingdom really is. It cares not one whit, as last week’s encounter reminded us, of how we build human traditions atop divine revelations that come to obscure those divine revelations. It does not respect our self-appointed boundaries. And it dares challenge us for not sharing our bread, or refusing those in the most need even the crumbs that end up under the table.
You can see those in that most dire need, wherever you look. They are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, maybe the very descendants of this Syrophonecian woman, desperate to escape a war the destructiveness of which we cannot imagine. They are living, for now, in Arctic regions of Alaska or Canada, with their homes and lives melting away from them and increasingly washed away under a rising sea. They are in our own city, unable to find a place to live no matter how hard they work at one job, or two, or sometimes more. They are out there, or maybe even in here, whether we can see their need or not.  And yes, even when it seems we are reaching out to as many as we can, there are more, desperate, in need of even the crumbs from the table.
And here we are, about to come to a table today. It’s a table that reminds us of a Lord who gathered with his followers around tables large and small, teaching and feeding and healing even when at the end of his physical strength, finally giving them at one last table a gesture of bread and wine to hold in their hearts and minds and souls. When we come to this table, those tables speak to us, remind us of Jesus and bring us to the table with Jesus, not just to share this bread and this cup, but to share the Lord’s presence, all the blessings of the table, with all around us, the ones who need it most, even those desperately searching for the crumbs under the table, for anything from the twelve baskets or seven baskets left over.
Even from a moment that seems inexplicably ugly can come a moment of transformation, a moment of healing, a moment of kingdom-breaking-in that upends our expectations, unsettles our comfort zones, and undoes our human certainties. This is no ordinary table; it’s not our table. The bread isn’t our bread to hoard; the cup isn’t our cup to seal away. Whenever we come to this table, we do so not to escape from the ones desperately in need even of the crumbs from the table; we do so to go right back out to those in need. The words at the table, “the gifts of God for the people of God,” point us to this truth; we can’t keep those gifts to ourselves, no matter how much it upsets our expectations. The gifts of God are for the people of God indeed; all the people of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “All People That On Earth Do Dwell” (PH 220); “In Christ There Is No East or West” (PH 439), “I Come With Joy” (PH 507); “The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound” (GtG 766)