A Sermon for Eliot Church
September 6, 2015
Rev. Reebee Girash
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
The through-hiker walked into the dining room at Lonesome Lake Hut last weekend and my very first thought was, “O heavens, I hope he does not intend to stay for dinner.” It’s perhaps more accurate to say his scent walked into the dining room before he did - it really must be the end of the trail season - I thought, this place is not for him, and I was truly relieved when he simply refilled his camel-back and left again. I confess it. The person in the room who had walked the farthest to get to this mountainside retreat, the person most in need of water, food, rest, friendship - I was glad to see that person leave.
Jesus says to her: “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
Would you read between the lines with me for a moment?
She is a Syrophoenician woman. A Gentile. He is a Jew. A teacher, a renowned healer.
Her daughter is so ill. If you have loved a child who as been sick, you know that moment, when they are in danger, when you feel helpless, when you would do anything to turn the clock back. You turn to anyone who might be able to help. You want them to see this child, to just for a moment love them like you do, to fight for them the way you will fight for them. Because, you believe - this is the key to your child’s healing.
This Syrophoenician woman, she hears Jesus is nearby. She walks through the door with the boldness of desperation. She bows down at his feet, a sign of respect and deference though she refuses to be turned away at the door. She begs him.
And Jesus called this woman and her child dogs.
Now, that’s as bad as it sounds. Mean, ugly. In historic context it would have been heard as a racial slur.
We would really love to soften the meaning of this reply. Some scholars say he was just tired. Others, that he really just wanted her to stand up for herself. Then there’s the translation of dogs that actually is more like puppies because that’s so much (ahem) kinder. But I am with scholars like David Lose who think in glossing over Jesus’ response, we lose the good news of this moment. He writes:
“I think this more traditional interpretation appeals to us because on the surface, at least, it preserves the picture of Jesus we hold in our hearts -- perfect in compassion, foreknowledge, courage, and love. Yet...maybe, just maybe Jesus hasn't fully lived into his messianic consciousness....maybe even Jesus doesn't quite realize just how expansive God's kingdom is yet. Maybe this desperate woman pushes him, stretches his vision of God's grace, makes clear to him in an unexpected and initially unwelcome way that there is room in God's kingdom for all, for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, insider and outsider, even dogs like her and her daughter. If so, then I think we should give thanks for this desperate mother and her fierce parental love, for in it we see as clearly as anywhere in the Gospel the character of God's tenacious commitment and God's similarly fierce love for all of God's children.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1625, David Lose)
This is the risk of following a great Teacher who was both fully human and fully God - some stories about Jesus reveal his fully human side.
Now, if you were this mom, would you have left when you heard yourself and your child called dogs? No. You would not - for to do so would be to give up on your beloved child. No matter what words are used, she’s still at home sick. How can I convince the great teacher, she thinks. I don’t care what he thinks we are - all that matters is that I leave here with a promise of healing. I don’t care what he thinks, my daughter matters, her life matters, no prejudice will stand in the way of her healing, I will not leave here until he sees that. So she turns the rhetoric on its head and says, even so. Even so.
Brave, persistent, creative loving, fierce, aware of her own self-worth and the worth of her child. We do not know her name but we know these things about her.
And this is why many interpreters say that if not for her, for the way her argument caused Jesus to change his mind, it all would have turned out very differently.
“The story of the Syrophoenician woman is among the strongest evidence available that both Jesus himself as well as the early church were part of an evolutionary process — that continues to this very day — in which we are continually being invited to learn just how much larger, more compassionate, and more inclusive God is then we are capable of realizing at any present moment.” (Carl Gregg, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary23bgospel/)
Jesus, this fully human son of God learns in this moment that God’s love is for all of God’s children. The host of the great banquet welcomes everyone to the table, not for scraps but for the full meal. His healing mercy would from then on be known to be impartial.
Yet. As with many Gospel truths, this one did not quite stick, past Jesus’ time on earth. if it had the early church would have more closely resembled the great banquet.
James says it to them: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” In this moment, the partiality is between rich and poor, rather than between Gentile and Jew. It is a matter of class rather than race. But the prejudice and injustice, on some fundamental level, is the same. Jesus got it on an individual level, now the church in James’ day has to get it on a corporate level.
“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors”
James’ letter isn’t filled with the dramatic tension of our Gospel story. But you can imagine, you can read between the lines, he has been in the back of the sanctuary, watching, when one with dusty feet was ignored. When one in purple robes was ushered to the prized cushion. When someone said the poor little girl might not feel comfortable here (sarcastically). When the biggest pledger set the agenda for the congregational meeting. James will have none of it. I read in this a subtle and complex commission from James. It is not just to be impartial - to welcome everyone, regardless of class. And it is not just to serve the poor. James asks the church to do something very hard: to offer hospitality that is impartial - and to justice that sides with the poor and the oppressed. James sets out to push them, to stretch their vsion of God’s grace and their own purpose.
James asks them to have worship and fellowship (and Sunday School and choir and Vacation Bible School and outdoor picnics) in which no one wonders or cares where folks come from or how much money they have - where folks wonder instead, has everybody met God’s love and compassion here?
James wants them to do more than the charity of food gathering and check writing - to do justice that goes all the way to asking why poverty and oppression continue.
To have mercy triumph over judgement and to have works show forth faith, this is James’ commission to this collective body, the early church.
Yet. As with much of the wisdom of the early church, this did not quite stick, past the first centuries. If it had, the modern church and the society over which the church has supposedly had sugh a great influence - would look a lot more like the great banquet.
Instead, we have churches separated by race and class and political persuasion. We have neighborhoods where affordable housing is unimaginable and childre live in motels. We wake up almost daily to the news of another beloved child of God, dead because of the color of his skin.
If you are listening closely, though, you can hear the voice of today’s prophetic, brave, persistent mothers. Pushing us. Stretching our vision.
I am thinking of Michael Brown’s mother, who cried out: “You took my son away from me...do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?” - Leslie McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/11/us/police-say-mike-brown-was-killed-after-struggle-for-gun.html?_r=0 )
Via Facebook, Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King UCC in Florisant Missouri, one of the chaplains to the protestors in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, wrote this:
“Ruminating on the text for Sunday. Mark 7:25-30. A text of righteous resistance. Thinking "dog" was to Jesus then what "thug" is to the establishment now. ...and how even when the devaluing comes from those we seek out for help...we must resist. For our own sake...and theirs!” (Friday September 4, 2015)
And I come back to the Carl Gregg’s thought: this is an “evolutionary process that continues to this very day in which we are continually being invited to learn just how much larger, more compassionate and more inclusive God is than we are capable of realizing at any present moment.” In other words:
Sometimes it is a provocative, prophetic, uncomfortable word that shakes us out of complacency - pushes and stretches us - draws us further toward justice, toward compassion, toward hospitality, toward the true impartiality James describes.
I think the kingdom of God, thy will be done on earth, the great banquet - might look a little bit like a picnic on a church lawn, where families from a nearby shelter come in by bus & grills are going strong & children are playing. Actually, this is not what the kingdom looks like. James would tell us on the one hand to advocate for affordable housing for everyone - to be on the state house steps screaming about children living in motels just two miles from here - but he would also say: here, in this place, here at this picnic, be impartial. Do not wonder who got here on a bus or who got here in a Lexus - just that they got here, because every one of them needs to feel God’s love. What the kingdom would really look like would be a community a year later where no one could remember who came from where, back at that picnic.
I think the kingdom might resemble, just a tiny bit, a vacation Bible school where no kid and no counselor knew which parents have the money to own in Newton or rent in Brighton or live in a motel in Allston - you don’t know which counselor can’t afford a bus pass and you don’t know if the little girl’s batgirl costume came from Target or the thrift shop, but what you do know is: every child in that circle knew the love of God and the compassion of a dozen adults and the welcome of two congregations.
That’s the mercy side of James’ word.
I wonder what the justice part of James’ message would look like, once we listen carefully enough to all the courageous and persistent mothers crying out right now.
May we never be caught with our compassion down. May we offer hospitality that is impartial - and justice that sides with the poor and the oppressed. Amen.