Monday, September 11, 2006

Sept. 10 Sermon, When the Gospel Goes to the Dogs

Sermon Texts:
James 2: 1-17
Mark 7: 24-37

“When the Gospel Goes to the Dogs”
I’m sure many of you own dogs. If they are inside dogs, they no doubt know where to go when it is dinner time. There may be a “rule” not to feed Ginger during dinner, but somehow or other, these animals seem to know how to get a good scrap or two out of us. Our family dog in Little Rock would just as soon eat the napkins that we use at dinner as actual scraps. I don’t know if she has lost a few marbles, or what, but she LOVES eating napkins. It doesn’t matter if it’s been used or not. In fact, my parents have to put trash cans in strategic locations so that she doesn’t eat every paper product that finds its way into the trash. “Crazy Ginger” loves begging for food at the table, and to my mother’s chagrin, Dad, Haley, and I usually indulge her.
Our cats on the other hand, aren’t content to sit under the table. They believe their rightful spot is in a chair sitting at the table, eyeing we who sit and eat there, or better yet, getting up onto the table and sniffing at our plates, deciding if they would like to have any of what we have. This behavior usually gets a good swat or squirt of the water bottle, and a “Get down, you stupid cat!”
I wonder what Jesus would have thought of this kind of behavior out of my cats. He certainly had some ideas about the placement of children and dogs at the dinner table—but he might’ve just not been familiar with cats.
I must admit that today’s gospel reading is probably my least favorite presentation of Jesus in all the Gospels. This same story is presented in Matthew, except Matthew tells that the woman shows a little more persistence, following Jesus and the disciples, calling out in desperation—which Jesus carefully ignores, until finally he spins around and says, “It is not right to take the food from the children at the table and throw it to the dogs.” Mark allows for a little bit of wiggle room for the woman at least. He phrases Jesus’ words as “First the children must eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Either way, it seems kind of harsh. It also seems like Jesus is ignorant of the direction his movement will take. Perhaps he is changed by this encounter with this particular woman. Not only does Jesus seem unknowing of the future of his church, He seems to reveal a racism, a prejudice, that is not befitting an incarnation of the one and only God—the creator of all people and Nations.

Sometimes, it is important to pay attention to what bothers us.

It is not right to take what is given to the children and throw it to the dogs. Here, Jesus is echoing the prevailing attitude among Jews of this era to the surrounding people.
As in most cases of intense nationalistic and racial pride, the Jewish understanding of superiority was born out of centuries of experiencing the brunt and humiliation of oppression and defeat. The Egyptians could point to the pyramids and their mark on science and religion. The Greeks needed only to survey a map to note the range of their influence. The Romans poured concrete, built roads, maintained order, perfected war and trade. The Jews had no earthly cause to celebrate their culture, so they turned to a Divine reason to gird themselves up. No one really cared about the Jews. They meant nothing to anyone. They had as much influence in the Roman world as western Kansas has on the American world. They were only known as being fiercely obstinate about their religion and their God.
Jesus was formed in this culture. He probably heard jokes as a teenager about the Syro-Phonecians or the Samaritans. He knew what it meant to socialize with these kinds of folk.
Yet Mark tells us that he went 100 miles out of his way to visit the very despised region that was populated by these kinds of folks: Tyre and Sidon.
Mark tells us it is because he doesn’t want to be noticed. He wants a little Rand R. He wants a Labor Day weekend. But, it is not to be. Mark tells us that even here his fame has been spread far and wide. The woman who comes to the house to visit him knows of his power to heal—and she wants a bit of it for her daughter.
The woman is identified as a Syro-Phonecian. She is Gentile by race and she is Greek in culture. She is probably wealthy—as the Greek culture held its greatest influence over those of privilege. Tyre was known among Jews, especially Galilean Jews, as a region that oppressed the Jewish farmers of Galilee. They would buy up all the grains that were produced in Galilee, and then in times of need, would not distribute any back to the people in Galilee. Tyre was a city with a hungry appetite, and not just for the food of Galilee. Tyre’s politics and military also spread its influence far beyond its “city limits.” It was a “city state” that fed off the sweat and labor of the farming communities around it, and as most of us who live in rural settings know, that relationship benefits the cities much more than the country.

Have you ever been desperate? You have to understand that it was not like the Syro-Phoneacians thought of themselves as inferior and undeserving. They were inheritors of the great Greek culture. The Jews who were so proud and so narrow minded to worship only ONE God were considered to be about on par with the reverence and awe that we hold for hillbillies! What is evident in this text is Jesus’ hesitance to heal the woman’s daughter because of her race—but we must also assume that it took a great bridge in the cultural divide for the woman to approach Jesus in the first place. It would be akin to one of us going up into the hills in search of a hillbilly medicine woman to cure a disease that we had no other hope for.

Sometimes it is desperation that drives us to Jesus—and I hope it is broadcast loud and clear that that particular motivation to seek the healing of Christ is written of and honored in our oldest stories of our Savior. We look with shame on desperation because it flies in the face of our national and cultural religion—individualism. Desperation means we have run out of resources to do it on our own. Desperation is the ultimate foil to the ideal of Rugged Individualism. Some people die in desperation because they are too proud to reach out their hands and cry out for a Savior. We tend to honor those heroes who die for the national and cultural religion of the Holy Individual.

We are told by James that it is a holy act, a saving act, to stand up for those who are in desperate situations. James lifts up the people who are poor and naked and hungry, and points to our very real response—someone else will deal with it. I’m too busy, I’m too important, I’m too……But James says this is our encounter with God. When mercy is shown, we are judged with mercy. When no mercy is shown, no mercy is shown us in the end. James says quite succinctly, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” What good news for us! James is saying that if we live mercifully, we will be shown mercy! It is really kind of easy to show mercy. I think it is actually quite a bit easier than judging. Judgment requires us to have all our ducks in a row so that we can be efficient judges. Sometimes, being merciful is simply an outgrowth of my failure to have my life straightened out in the first place! How can I act with judgment against someone else if I am lacking in the same area?
And yet we are tempted to act with judgment anyway aren’t we? It feels good in the short term to show judgment. Self-righteous indignation is intoxicating, no matter how ill-founded it actually is. It gives so much pleasure to have the ability to step on someone else’s neck, even when someone may have their boot on ours! It seems to take our attention away from all that and our own troubles if we can focus on someone else’s for a while—point out their wrongs and their problems. It is even more gratifying to know exactly what someone else needs to do to get things straitened out, and to tell them, or anyone else who will listen, about it. It is gratifying because it tends to get my mind off of how I don’t have things straitened out myself. But who cares about that when someone else’s problems are so glaring and obvious!
The encounter we are told of in Mark’s gospel is an encounter of mercy overcoming judgment. Jesus had judged the woman unworthy to receive his healing power. He had met her request with denigration—referring to her and her people as “dogs.” However, the woman took his own words and emptied them out—filling them instead with another meaning. She wins the argument, and because of her persistence she is awarded her request. Jesus says, “Because you have said this, your daughter is healed.” Jesus acknowledges being bested at his own style of debate. He had made a career thus far out of taking the commonly held and understood interpretation of law and custom and turning them around to broaden them to be more inclusive.
It is after this encounter with the Syro-Phonecian woman that Jesus again displays a miraculous feeding. And whereas the feeding of the 5000 was to a Jewish audience, the feeding of the 4000 is in a region that is majority non-Jewish. It is as if he is convinced that not only do the Gentiles deserve to lick up the scraps of bread under the table of Israel, but they deserve a place at the Table as well. And they deserve a space at the table because God doesn’t give scraps. God gives feasts! There is no need for anyone to stoop down below the feet of some privileged “children,” because God has enough bread for everyone in the whole world.
Perhaps Jesus was simply run down and in need of a break. We are clearly told in the scripture that he went to Tyre so he wouldn’t be noticed. After leaving Tyre, the text tells us he returned to Galilee by way of Sidon, which is north of Tyre! He went north to go south. So—perhaps he got the rest he needed there. In any case, in the very next chapter, the invigorated Jesus isn’t squabbling over the bread that should be on the children’s plate going to the dogs. He now is clear that he doesn’t need to take any bread away from the children because there is simply more bread to give! His mission and ministry expand from a cultural or regional frame of reference to a limitless frame of reference. He breaks bread again and feeds the multitudes—this time Gentiles and Jews alike.
When the Gospel went to the dogs, the Gospel expanded. Good news reached across the boundaries that we still recognize today. God broke out of the box called “Israel.” Or perhaps “Israel” simply grew that day. It grew out of the confines of a nation beset by mountains and deserts and ocean and emerged as a spiritual reality that is as broad and deep as a woman’s anguish for her suffering daughter. Mercy truly trumped judgment. And through our acts of mercy as the embodiment of Christ on earth—Israel still grows!

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