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Sermon: Dogged Discipleship

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on September 6, 2015.

15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps. 125; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

        Two women check out at the grocery store, one in front of the other. One is mixed-race; with blue eyes, she looks white. The other is a black woman. They happen to be sisters-in-law who grew up together and have raised their kids together in a wonderful multicultural family.

          The first, who looks white, writes a check for her groceries. The young checker; strawberry blonde, freckled, delightful and warm, carries on with light banter: “Hey, how you doing? Isn’t it a great day today?” Completing her purchase, the ‘white’ woman steps aside to wait for her sister-in-law.

          The second woman, who looks black, steps forward. The checker looks at her and there is no conversation as she writes her check. The woman’s ten-year old daughter immediately notices the difference of the moment. The checker then says, “I need two forms of ID.” The daughter is suddenly embarrassed, looking to her mother, tearing up, wondering if she is going to allow this to happen. ‘Why is she doing this to US?’

          In line behind them are two elderly white women. The mother considers what needs to be done while trying to avoid becoming that ‘angry black woman.’ She tries to second-guess all the drama, but decides to say nothing and produces her identification. But to make matters worse, the checker pulls out the ‘bad check book’ to see if her license is listed among those who have passed bad checks. Humiliation hangs heavy in the air. Now the young daughter is in full-blown emotional distress.

          The sister-in-law watching all this steps forward to question the checker. “Excuse, me, why are you doing this?” The checker says, “What do you mean?” “Why are you putting her through all these steps?” “Well, this is our policy.” “No, it’s not your policy. You didn’t do that with me.” Then flustered checker says, “Oh, but I KNOW you. You’ve been …” “NO, she’s been here for YEARS. I’ve only just moved here three months ago.”

          Now the elderly white women in line begin to say, “We can’t believe what this checker has done to this woman. It’s totally unacceptable.” And the manager walks over to ask, “Is there a problem here?” The sister-in-law says, “Yes, there IS a problem. Here’s what happened.”

          She used her white privilege. Even being half-black and half-white, she recognized what that means, and she made the statement. She pointed out the apparent discrimination and injustice. She, as a result of that one act, influenced everyone who was there.

          What would have happened if the ‘black’ woman had shouted, “This is unfair. Why are you doing this to me?” We can’t know for certain. Would it have had the same impact? It’s hard to say. However the one woman knew she walks through the world differently from her sister-in-law, and she used her ‘white privilege’ to educate and make right a situation that was wrong.

          Let’s just admit upfront that humanity is, indeed, a strange lot!

        

If we truly believe we are created in the image of God, how on earth do we discriminate against others based on where they’re born, or where they live, the color of their skin, whether they are rich or poor, a Southerner or a Yankee, blue collar or white collar, English speaking or Spanish speaking?

          Today’s Epistle from James, the brother of Jesus, suggests ‘as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ’Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But in showing favoritism, you sin.’

          We have the "royal law," which refers to the whole law in the Old Testament and the New Testament as it is interpreted by Jesus, the author of life. It is summed up in the commandment to Love Your Neighbor. Yet James takes it one step further: to show partiality is to sin. I think this is radical stuff to say: ’show no partiality toward anyone.’ For God does not show favoritism and neither should we!

          This week, we are inundated with the news of migrants fleeing war, violence, strife and oppression in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa; some are perishing in the flight, with small bodies washed up on shores for all the world to see. And yet, last month the news was all about economic migrants trying to come to the U.S. In all cases, nations are struggling with how to respond to the immigrants, with some reacting with more compassion than others.

          Everyone we see or meet or hear is to be like Jesus to us, whether they were born here or there, dress in rags or in the most expensive designer clothes. For all are sinners in need of God’s kindness, love, mercy, and salvation. This is what Jesus faces in today’s Gospel.

          Jesus has gone off to the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But a woman finds him, a Greek woman from the coast and asks him to heal her daughter, possessed by a demon. Jesus is rude in his reply – “Let the children be fed first,” he says. “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.” Matthew’s version of the story offers an explanation – Jesus tells her he was sent only to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." In today’s version, the rebuke to the woman just hangs in the air.

          In fact, Jesus is more rude than it appears. Dogs in the ancient Near East were not the pampered pets we have today. They were scavengers, thought of much the way we see rats today.

          So, today’s Gospel lesson presents what appears to be a rude and unresponsive Jesus.

          In Mark's Gospel, Jesus interacting with a woman usually signals a change or an expansion in his ministry. It is after healing the woman who bled for 12 years that Jesus broadens his ministry to include people who were considered unclean, outcastes, people on the margins. It is after being anointed by the woman in the house of Simon the Leper that Jesus turns finally to his upcoming death. And, it is after today’s reading that Jesus opens his ministry to the non-Israelite world.

          That, of course, is the main message of his rejection of her – the people of Israel, the people of God come first. Giving the word of God to the pagan unbelievers is like throwing it to the dogs. Now, the woman doesn’t contradict his insult – she admits that she is not one of the favored children of Israel, but rather the least of creatures, a dog. But, she stresses, even the dog gets the children’s crumbs. Even the lowest of people have a place in the Kingdom.

          I hope you appreciate how clever she is. Her retort almost sounds like verbal judo, using Jesus’ own words against him. Even if I am a dog, she is saying, I’m your dog. Don’t you owe something even to your dog? I love her diligence – she is going to get help for her daughter and she isn’t going to let her self-image get in the way. It is this kind of ‘parenting’ when we put up with long lines or busy doctors, when we beg and plead if necessary to get the help our children need, or when we call out social injustice when it pops up in a grocery check-out line. And I admire the woman's faith, her reliance on God in Christ. She knew where to come for help. She is a wonderful, corrective example of Christian assertiveness.

          Now we come to what many think is a crucial point – does Jesus change his mind? Has the woman taught this God-man a lesson of some sort? Has a woman, of all people, argued successfully with God?

          I’m tempted, of course, to say that people who doubt this probably don’t know very many women, but that’s too easy. It is striking that in the culture of the ancient Near east where women’s opinions were not highly valued that Jesus would take her so seriously.

          Centuries of interpreters have tried various explanations that don’t involve Jesus changing his mind. Some say Jesus is testing the woman’s faith with his rude reply. Yet Jesus hardly ever tests anyone other than Pharisees and, in the Gospels, doesn’t test people who come to him in faith. Others say that Jesus’ comment is cynical or ironic, reflecting as it might the views of the Pharisees whom he has just been debating. But, if that’s true, no one is there to hear his irony, because he and the woman are apparently alone.

          I myself am not troubled with Jesus changing his mind. The Bible has a few instances where people change God’s mind. Abraham tries to talk God out of the destruction of Sodom and would have succeeded if Abraham had been able to find ten righteous men. Moses does convince God to not destroy the Israelites after the casting of a golden calf. Our God is endlessly creative, always surprising, regularly in search of new ways to bring creation back to God. If you will, God adopts new strategies.

          Now, does this mean that God has taken back the election of Israel as the people of God? No, God is faithful to the promises made both to Israel AND to us. What is happening in this reading is that God through Christ is extending the offer of reconciliation to the WHOLE world – that it had become time in the world to embrace all of creation in love and peace. This theme is central to the Gospels, to the Acts of the Apostles, to all the epistles.

          The reading from James warns us against partiality, against choosing the people of God on the basis of our own standards. At first glance, we might think that this is what Jesus is doing in his response to the Syrophoenician woman, showing a partiality for the people of Israel. But instead, what we have is the recreation of a moment, a chance, a choice a new way for God to reach out to God’s creation.

          How we understand “God changing God’s mind” has a lot to do with how we understand God, and none of those understandings can be complete because God is always more than we can comprehend. One way that works for me is to say that God graciously structures our reality, that God opens paths and opportunities for us to return to God. Jesus becomes for us the best, complete path to God, the way to deny that the death and evil we bring into the world or that we find in it, to deny that death and evil are all that there is. In every moment, every choice, every thought, every action, God opens new pathways to God.

          And that may be the deepest message of today’s Gospel – that God’s help is never absent. God is as close as our prayer, as open to our needs are we are to expressing them, as willing to embrace us as we are to be embraced and even more willing than that. We need not be passive or naïve. Indeed we should be as alert and as resourceful as that woman who two millennia ago sought and received the gift of healing for her child and who, in the process, changed God’s mind. She is a wonderful example of 'Dogged Discipleship.'         

          There are no foreigners in God’s sight. We are to see Jesus in the face of every man, woman and child, for God created every human being in God’s image, to love and be loved. We must continually pray to God that we too, like Jesus, will be able to look past the prejudices of our culture and love everyone equally -- just because God loves them and died for them!

          Everyone of every race, gender, nationality, and class is in need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and let’s face it, we live in a very diverse community! We must continually seek to overcome any and all racial barriers and, like the Syrophoenician woman and the woman in my story, to name discrimination when we see it. We must find ways, as the church, to constantly reach out to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others around us, whether they look like us or not!

          Yes, as humans, we are a strange breed because we live in this evil and fallen world.

          And as Christians, we are an even stranger lot because while we live in an evil and fallen world, we are called to be different.         

          We are IN this world, but through faith in Jesus Christ, we are no longer OF this world. We are counted as part of the Kingdom of God, and in God’s Kingdom, there are no foreigners. Thanks be to God!

          In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.


Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
seekingservant
Sep. 6th, 2015 07:00 pm (UTC)
Sermon Feedback
David:

I missed seeing you at the door so this note to thank you for the fine sermon this morning. Your candor and courage to read the agony of the world through the lectionary text was admirable. Seldom do all the texts speak so directly to the heartache and hypocrisy around us in the moment. It is sobering, as JS suggests, to give thanks to the German people for such welcoming kindness. Would that this country might heed James and translate pious words into saving acts of charity. Sad it is that our brothers and sisters in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland are more interested in naming the “dogs” in an effort to protect a “Christian Europe."

Your sermon made me wonder how the text might also suggest that it is Jesus who learns from the uppity woman about another dimension of God’s love that was waiting to be revealed - aware as well that he must face fellow Jews and followers who are committed to a God not as inclusive as the woman revealed. Thus a question arises as to how, like Jesus, I might be opened up to a larger and more inclusive image of God? And where I might find the courage to risk offending dedicated and true believers in their noble but restricted sense of God and God’s mission for all humans.

Your sermon created a striking sense of focus upon things that matter and grieve us all. MA’s reading of the prayers captured that amazing tension of heartache and hope.

Hope you enjoy the transition to the new chapel and thrive in a new chapter in the history of the parish.

* This is feedback rec'd from a parishioner who is retired clergy+ *
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )