Sunday, September 5, 2021
Lectionary 23, Year B

Prayer of the Day
Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord. Amen.

Readings and Psalm

Isaiah 35:4-7a   Like streams in the desert, God comes with healing
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17   Faith without works is dead
Mark 7:24-37   Christ healing a little girl and a deaf man

Title:  Carefully Taught, Mercifully Re-Taught

Imagine the twitter storm that would have been created by the episode reported in the first part of today’s gospel reading if it had happened in today’s climate.

I’m sure we can all come up with some choice tweets based on some of what we have heard and read over the ast couple of year of #metoo, disgraced movie moguls, punished politicians and public servants, not to mention religious leaders.  What do you hear in you imagination?  Maybe you have some tweets you would like to attack Jesus with yourself, having heard the way he talked to that poor woman who came to him for help.  Any of these sum it up for you?

“Holy man harasses and harangues hurting woman.”  OR “Itinerant preacher turns irrationally irate after a simple request is made from a mother seeking help for her ailing daughter.”  Or maybe, “Who is the one possessed with a demon here?”  How about:  “Hey Jesus, What’s with the canine comment that cuts to the quick?”  Or maybe throw his own words back at him.  “Where is the love your neighbor and your enemy, teacher?  Practice what you preach.”

You have to admit, what Jesus says to this poor woman is quite shocking.  I can’t think of anyone else mentioned in the gospels who gets treated this way.  The Samaritan woman at the well – Jesus tells her some hard truths about herself but there is also encouragement and even mission. The hemorrhaging woman from earlier in the summer is instantly healed when she sneaks a touch. The woman about to be stoned for adultery, receives only mercy.  Sure, the religious leaders are judged harshly, but not people coming to Jesus for help.  Okay, she is a gentile, but come on Jesus, …we expect more, …we expect different, from you.  Mark offers no commentary to help us understand just what Jesus’ motives might have been or what he might have been thinking or reacting to in this encounter.  So, let’s look deeper than a tweet reaction and lay out some options, try to understand just what might be going on here.  Why did Mark include this less than flattering story about Jesus, the one who is the Son of God, the embodiment of God’s heart filled with love and mercy.

First, how about a very human explanation. After all, this incarnate word of God, this word made flesh is flesh.  Fully human and fully divine.  Mark tells us that Jesus has ventured to the region of Tyre.  A non-Jewish land north of Galilee.  It should be off limits to Jesus as a Jew.  But he goes up there seeming to hide out.  Was he exhausted?  Did he need some time away from those children (his own people) that he claims he was sent to serve and save?  He certainly wasn’t going to find any of his people up here.  Perhaps he was exhausted from the teaching and the healing and the crowds and the testing.  He needed a break, a retreat, some R & R.  The account even points out that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there or where he was staying.  But with all that had been happening down south, there was no escaping notice and the woman at the center of our story searches him out.  Does she encounter an exhausted Jesus?  Does he just snap?  He is human after all.  We can all relate to that, can’t we?  We accept and are even moved by his humanness when he is suffering on the cross.  When we hear him cry out with feelings of fear and abandonment.  Did his human fraility not show itself at other times in his ministry?  Like here, with this woman.

Speaking of the woman herself, a popular take on this story by contemporary commentators is that Jesus’ behavior is bearing witness to the world in which he was raised.  For his entire life he has been told that gentiles (non-Jews) are lower class, they are godless, they are to be avoided at all costs.  And of course, that fact that this is a gentile woman makes her, in the eyes of the culture in which Jesus was raised, the lowest of the low.  If you know the musical SOUTH PACIFIC, you might cue the song Carefully Taught at this moment.  The character Lt. Cable sings this song that describes the way prejudice is handed down from generation to generation.  He sings:  You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.  Was Jesus so effectively taught that in that moment of meeting this woman, his well-learned prejudices clouded any other wisdom that might have directed his actions?  Possibly.

Some like to take the approach that Jesus was testing the woman and testing her faith.  This is not a favorite option for me.  I’m not one who thinks that God tests us through suffering or prolonging our suffering.  I don’t believe that pandemics, fires, floods, earthquakes or anything else that happened last week are sent from God to test us.  These things do test us and challenge our faith and our hope.  But I don’t see God as a testing God causing pain and suffering for the sake of getting an education.  God didn’t invent the school of hard knocks.  We did, and we like to put the blame on God.  After all, Job, the poster child for keeping the faith in the face of overwhelming testing, was tested by Satan, not God.  On the positive test side, this episode does give the woman an opportunity to witness to the depth of her faith.  Perhaps if Jesus had not said what he did, the followers might not have remembered it, the gospel writer would not have never heard it and recorded it, and we might not have it to learn from, be inspired by, and again see the depth of God’s love and mercy, reaching beyond human limitations and prejudice, extending a radical welcome that shows no partiality.  We need these stories to be told to us over and over again to counter that which our respective cultures and families do so well at carefully teaching us.

No when it comes to testing, one of my personal favorite takes on this story is to see that Jesus is testing those around him.  Right before this little trip to Tyre, as we heard in last week’s gospel reading, we heard Jesus dismissing the concerns of the religious leaders because the disciples were not following the strict dietary laws of tradition.  Jesus turns it around and says it not what goes in that defiles but what comes out of a person.  Now we have Jesus himself spewing disrespect and turning a cold shoulder to someone in need.  But no one who was there to hear the previous lesson steps in on the woman’s behalf and says, ‘hey Jesus, what about what you just said back there.’  Complete the sandwich – a literary technique that Mark loves to use throughout his gospel writing – with the healing of the blind man who had trouble speaking and Jesus saying: “Be Open!”  So, you get: (1) it’s what comes out that matters, (2) faith pours out of this gentile woman, (3) be open to what you see and hear, be open to what God is doing in your midst.  Perhaps Mark saw this in a way that the disciples in the moment did not.  Most likely they too had been carefully taught and thought Jesus was in his rights to speak to her the way that he did.

Whatever the reason, whether human frailty and exhaustion, whether cultural indoctrination and racism, whether a test for the woman or those watching, the important thing is that God has the final word.  The divine wisdom, as present in Jesus as the frail flesh, shines its light bringing affirmation, welcome, healing, and encouraging witness.

In our second reading, James challenges the people of the early church to follow Jesus’ lead and set aside the way the world judges and justifies, the classifying and the categorizing, the favoritism and the faultfinding.  James uses economic elitism for his example, but our carefully taught lessons go much deeper, don’t they? What influences, or better put, contaminates our welcome? Racism, intellectual superiority, sexism, classism, gender identity, political leaning.  The syllabus of our cultural education is long.

As we begin this month of celebrating the bicentennial of our sanctuary, perhaps this is a great place to start – refining our understanding of sacred welcome.  After all, it is God’s house to which we are welcomed and we ourselves are welcome. And when we really see just how radical God’s welcome is, how wide stretched are the healing arms of Jesus, and when we, through the work of the Holy Spirit, truly strive to express and practice this welcome, we grow in the faith and confidence that we ourselves are radically and unconditional welcomed by God through grace.  God through Christ has opened the grave so that we are welcomed home.  We, in turn, are called to Be Opened! So that all might know the welcome to the new life in the Spirit that is ours: born in baptism, sustained at the supper, made wise by the word, and fed with fellowship. That is news worthy of a twitter storm.

The Rev. Mark Erson,

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