Sunday, September 06, 2009

Open to Change

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter |September 6, 2009 | 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture: Mark 7:24-37

So I’m thinking of getting one of those “WWJD” bracelets … you know, “What Would Jesus Do?”. The phrase and the resulting wearable accessories came out of the evangelical corner of the church … probably some 25 years ago. The phrase was most popular, I would guess, in the 80’s and 90’s. WWJD was meant to keep the believer mindful of Jesus in ticklish moments of moral decision-making where their own baser instincts might lead them astray. I guess it was sort of like a portable cold-shower or nagging parent. Angela, did you ever wear any WWJD paraphernalia? [Ed. note – Angela responded that while in high school she handed out WWJD bracelets in the Walmart parking lot. Hmm.]

If WWJD was made popular by so-called evangelicals, I think things got interesting when more progressive and liberal Christians noticed the phrase, and, surprisingly, liked the phrase, and started asking: “Yeah, what WOULD Jesus do?” As bombs began dropping in the first and then the second gulf war, bumper stickers started showing up on beat-up Volvos which is the obvious car of choice for left-leaning Christians. The bumper stickers played off of the WWJD question and asked, rather provocatively: “Who would Jesus bomb?” As I saw more and more bumper stickers that asked those kinds of difficult questions, it seems that I saw fewer and fewer bumper stickers and bracelets that asked the original question.

You see, I think it can be very dangerous to ask “What would Jesus do?” Because asking the question will lead to some uncomfortable answers. Let’s take today’s passage, for example … today’s scripture reading from Mark’s gospel.

Now we know from our own reading and from classes and sermons in this place that a fair piece of Jesus’ ministry was done among folk that “good and proper” folk seemed to avoid. That is to say that much of Jesus’ ministry was among the marginal and the broken and the dispossessed. In a culture with some pretty rigid boundaries that determined who was in and who was out, there were a lot of marginal, broken and dispossessed folk in the time of Jesus.

If you think about it, Jesus must have been sending off some pretty strong vibes that said to the marginal, broken and dispossessed folk: ‘I have good news and real hope for the likes of you.’ Otherwise, why would these folk in their need, so long and so effectively put off by the religious establishment, come flocking to Jesus, ferreting him out even when he did his best to hide away for the sake of his own need for rest?

So if, when bombs are dropping, it’s fair to ask: “Who would Jesus bomb?” … then when mud is being slung on and around Capitol hill during the healthcare debates, then—with this morning’s reading fresh in our minds, I think it’s fair to ask: “Who would Jesus heal?” What WOULD Jesus do?

This morning’s gospel reading depicts Jesus doing just the kind of thing we have come to expect from him. Jesus is moving and ministering outside of the comfort zones of most others—including his own disciples. He’s always slipping off the main road out to ditches and cardboard shacks where the “dogs of society howl”—a little Elton John reference, but it’s not a bad one. Most of Jesus’ ministry runs counter to the grain and counter to the well-worn grooves of the faith of his upbringing. And today’s reading is no different. It seems that even Jesus’ travel itinerary is meant to symbolize his unconventional understanding of just who it is God’s love and mercy and healing is meant for.

Jesus spent most of his life and ministry in Galilee—what you might think of as “northern Israel”. But occasionally, as in Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus left Galilee for the gentile regions. Jesus travels to the region of Tyre which is northwest of Galilee on the Mediterranean coast. It’s possible that Jesus’ notoriety was such that the crowds made it hard to move about and get any rest. It is there that he enters a home and Mark makes it very clear that Jesus is trying to get away from the public eye. This may be Mark’s way of demonstrating the humanity of Jesus and the effects of endlessly giving without pausing to replenish one’s energy. Jesus tries to slip into the home unnoticed … incognito … but before he knows it, a gentile woman is before him begging him to rid her daughter of an unclean spirit.

Jesus surely had many healing encounters in his travels, but Mark preserves this one because of the peculiar exchange Jesus has with the woman and what it implies for his ministry … and, of course, what it implies for Mark’s community.

Let’s remember the exchange: The gentile woman asks for healing for her daughter, and Jesus, knowing she was a Syrophoenician gentile, replies: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Many people, upon reading that, are shocked by Jesus’ response … its harshness and seeming callousness. What happened to “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? Commentators are all over the place on interpreting this text. But in general, let’s understand that Jesus’ words simply echo a strong sentiment that his primary ministry should be focused on the people of his own faith, the children of Israel … the Jews. This sentiment would be especially true for Jewish Christians. It’s a matter of not throwing the pearls of Jesus before the swine of the gentiles. It’s not just a matter of to whom Jesus essentially came to minister, but it is also a matter of whether non-Jews were even worthy of his ministry.

It seems to be a question of whether or not God’s gracious mercy is only wide enough for the original family members, or if it is, in fact, wider than that … wide enough to encompass those beyond the original family. This essential conflict of perspective and understanding has perpetuated itself endlessly from Jesus’ time to our own … and if we had the time, we could name some of those ways.

As I see it, as portrayed by Mark, Jesus is merely, and with some calculation, repeating the Jewish-Christian party line to the gentile woman—but with a twinkle in his eye and just a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The gentile woman understands that Jesus is not necessarily committing himself to the party line, but giving lip-service to it as a bit of a goad to see how she will respond. It’s a bit of a theological fencing match … parry, and now thrust.

“Oh yeah?” she says, in essence. “Even if your ghastly portrayal of your mission—and your representation of God—is correct … and, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that it is … that the “dogs” shouldn’t get any of your “bread” … even in that depiction the stray dogs under the table will yet find scraps and crumbs that will feed their hunger and supply their need.

“In other words,” and I imagine this as a finger-wagging lecture of a now broadly smiling Jesus, “In other words, you know good and well that the gospel you have been proclaiming and the gospel you have been working out in your ministry of healing demonstrates a God whose goodness cannot be contained or limited in any way. God’s love poured into you cannot help but overflow from you into any life that will seek and accept that love, even a Syrophoenician gentile woman like me. Now … heal my daughter (dammit)!”

For me, that is the only tenable way to understand this encounter … this exchange … the only way to understand Jesus’ crass and cruel words to the woman … as a bit of a gauntlet thrown down to demonstrate the woman’s determination and … to demonstrate the extraordinary wideness of God’s mercy.

By the time Mark’s gospel was written, the mission to the gentiles was a rather large bone of contention and likely there were, in Mark’s community, Mark’s church, those who considered gentiles unworthy of their attention, unworthy of God’s mercy and unworthy of membership in the community of Christ. “Dogs” is the derisive term that might be spat from their mouths, which, from the perspective of Jan’s and my canine companions, might seem like pretty high praise.

Let’s remember that every time we read the Gospels, we need to keep two very particular contexts in mind. There is the context the writer seeks to portray of the actual life and ministry of Jesus in Jesus’ own time. And there is the context of the writer and the writer’s community and their particular challenges and needs and perspectives.

In Jesus’ time there was, one might say, a simple prejudice against non-Jews … against gentiles. And, of course, we know what a good Jewish man like Jesus would have thought about women. So Mark’s story viewed from the perspective of Jesus’ time is a fairly simple one of Jesus, as Jesus so often did, simply crossing the old boundaries like a river of mercy overflowing its banks.

But viewed from the perspective of Mark’s time, the church is beginning to be established and its mission and priorities worked out. There is the natural question in any church of where its best energies should be expended and, less nobly, who is in and who is out. Did Jesus come to save only the Jews? Or did Jesus come to cast a wide net of Shalom over all people? This is a question that is very much on the minds of Mark’s community.

And today’s healing story may very well be Mark’s way of using a turning point in Jesus’ own ministry to preach at his people of a turning point needed in their ministry.

A door that once was closed seems to have been opened and once that kind of door has been opened, it’s nearly impossible to close it back. Once people “get” these hints about the wideness of God’s mercy that go all the way back to Isaiah and even further, then there’s no telling who might be worthy of the full gospel of Jesus and the healing and the grace and the goodness he has to offer.

And this “opening” that begins with the brassy Syrophoenician woman continues and becomes explicit with the healing of the deaf, mute man. Remember that the word Jesus speaks to the man is “Ephphatha” … an Aramaic word that means “be opened”. And if it is a word that Jesus intends for this suffering man, it is ESPECIALLY a word Mark intends for his deaf/mute community with their stunted understanding of Jesus’ mission and mercy.

Take note that in the instance of the deaf and mute man, Jesus orders the man and his friends to be silent—which is quite a bit like trying to put a fire out by pouring gas on it. Good news of this magnitude cannot be squelched … cannot be muted. The man is graciously and miraculously given back his powers of speech and now you think he’s going to be silent about it? I don’t think so. As witness to the goodness of God, even the STONES will shout, Jesus said.

“Be opened!” Mark says to his community. Stop trying to control the flow of God’s love … stop trying to erect dikes and damns against the river of God’s healing mercy. Allow that healing mercy to flow through YOU … through the church … through your proclamations … through your prophetic words and actions.

On this Labor Day Sunday, we do a serious injustice to Jesus and to Mark and to these healing stories if we don’t step back and allow them to get into a marquis wrestling match with some of the painful realities of our own time and place. High unemployment. Healthcare for the lucky ones who can afford it. The working poor. Labor Day is a “holiday” of painful irony for those who have no job to take a holiday from … or those who have jobs that underpay them and offer them no benefits … or those whose lack of health insurance deprives them from the medical attention they need or, if they pursue it, can easily bankrupt them.

Dan Clendenin is a minister and writer who tells about a heart-rending movie by independent film maker Kelly Reichardt:

“Reichardt’s movie, Wendy and Lucy, explores the people in America who are one sickness or accident away from personal catastrophe. Wendy and her dog Lucy are stranded in a depressing mill town in Oregon after leaving Indiana for a better life in Alaska. Wendy is frugal and resourceful. She records her expenditures in a spiral notebook. She sleeps in her car, collects cans and bottles for spare change, and freshens up in gas station bathrooms.

“After fruitless attempts to find work, Wendy observes to a security guard who's befriended her that you can't get a job without an address or a phone number. She has neither, of course. "Heck," he replies, "you can't get an address without an address, or a job without a job. It's all rigged." Minor infractions with rule-keeping bureaucrats reap major consequences for Wendy. When her twenty-year old car needs a $2,000 repair, we find her in the last scene hopping a train. Where will she go, and what will happen to her?”

Pulitzer Prize winning writer, David Shipler, shows how for people like Wendy poverty can be both a cause of problems and the result of problems. In his book, The Working Poor, Invisible in America (2004), Shipler says: “A run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, which leads to a call for an ambulance, which generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit record, which hikes the interest rate on an auto loan, which forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes a mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotions and earning capacity, which confines her to poor housing, which exacerbates a child’s asthma, which …."

It’s a nauseating downward spiral that is horrifically real to so many people today.

This morning’s scripture depicts a turning point—an opening up—in Mark’s community … turning from guarding and restricting the generous mercy of God to a new openness to sharing the generous mercy of God. It is in that turning and opening and sharing that Mark’s community receives back its own life and the full generous mercy of God for themselves.

Our own lives, our own church, our own communities, our own nation needs to hear, on this Labor Day Sunday, that Word afresh … with renewed power: that we will receive the blessings of life and the blessings of God most fully when we cease to guard and restrict our wealth and our power … lest the unwashed and unworthy poor get what was mostly gift and unearned blessing for so many of us anyway.

When we are opened to the full humanity and worthiness of all … and when, in our opening, the generous and healing mercy of God is channeled through us… it is then, and perhaps only then some might say, that we are opened to the abiding and saving presence of the God of all people. Close God’s generous grace to others and by our act we close God’s grace to ourselves. Open God’s grace to others and God will richly abide in us as God seeks to richly abide in all.

What would Jesus do?

No … it’s not quite the right question. What IS Jesus doing through you and through me … here … now.