The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

We’re on a roll by this point in the book of Proverbs — it is interesting to me that the Hebrew canon’s list of “one liners,” nearly 3,500 years in the making by now, is so relevant to our short attention spans. God’s wisdom has always been pretty contrary to our own. For example, most people would be hard pressed to choose a good name over a pile of gold. In our view of things, gold wins pretty much every time!

Psalm 125

I’ve always loved heading for the mountains. There’s something so solid and serene about them, whether the softly rolling Smoky Mountains of my beloved Tennessee, the verdant Catskills in upstate New York, or the towering Rockies in Colorado. It really hit me when I read v.2 this time around — “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.” Yeah. That. That’s why I like the mountains, and why I’m thankful for the ever-surrounding presence of God.

Isaiah 35:4-7a

How comfortable are we with the “terrible God?” Being strong and casting out fear are generally desirable characteristics of the faith-filled life. But at what cost? The results given by Isaiah sound so worth it — blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped, Bambi and his friends leaping about with joy (and a resonant Disney soundtrack?)

But must it be the terrible God, coming with vengeance, who delivers these startling accomplishments? It’s a rough world, and sometimes the ways of God may seem a bit rough. Pay attention to today’s gospel text and Dr. Chilton’s sermon below for further insight.

Psalm 146

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” We feel the painful truth of that line quite often, don’t we? The “princes” of modern-day life are our politicians and government officials. In America, only about 15% of the population approves of the job done by our politicians, so we don’t have much trouble following the psalmist’s advice. Trusting — actually relying on and depending on — God is another matter, however!

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

It’s true — what goes around eventually comes around! James reminds us that decency and mutual respect should be characteristic of the Christ life. I am particularly moved, given the current climate of our culture, by v.13 — “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” I would like to add, “Every time.”

Mark 7:24-37

I’m not sure that we think much of how our gentle Jesus, meek and mild, got tired and irritable, too. A reminder, I guess, that he was “only human.” (Well, not “only” human, but you know what I mean!) His treatment of the Syrophoenician woman is shocking by our standards, perhaps; but faith is faith, and she’s got it. And she gets what her heart desires.

The poor deaf man gets his ears popped and his tongue spat upon — what kind of weird healing ritual is this? Doesn’t matter, I don’t suppose; when God works, God works. And which of us can contest the ways that God chooses to work?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

(The bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have called upon the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to join in observing September 6 as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” This sermon is offered in response to that request.)

(Jesus) 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.”  Mark 7:27-28

For over fifty years, Atticus Finch, the lawyer/father in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has occupied a position of “secular saint” in American culture.  He is shown to us, both in the book and in Gregory Peck’s screen portrayal, as a man of rare courage, great moral integrity, and most of all, as a man untainted by the systemic racism of his community.

Then Harper Lee published, “Go Set a Watchman,” a different book written before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but set in a time 20 years later.  She has the same characters, but they are different than they were.  In particular, the sainted Atticus is different.  He is no longer so perfect and so pure.  This later Atticus is still an educated and somewhat enlightened man for his time and place, but he is also a bigot and a racist who participates in organizations designed to keep Black people in their place.  The reaction to this new Atticus was a combination of disbelief and dismay.  This is not the man who so sat on the jail porch, unarmed, facing down the Klan to defend Jim Robinson, nor is it the man who so ably defended him in court.  We do not recognize this new/old Atticus Finch.

Most of us have the same reaction to the Jesus we see in this story from Mark’s Gospel.  We do not recognize this careless bigot as the same man who eats with “tax collectors and sinners,” who healed the Roman Centurion’s daughter, who consistently reaches out to the despised, the ignored, and the left-behind.  “Who is this?” we wonder, “Who is this man who not only rejects the woman’s plea for healing, but who crudely insults her in the process? This is a Jesus we do not know.”

Over the years, Biblical scholars and preachers have tried to mitigate the distress we feel when we are confronted by this different and somewhat unlikeable Jesus.  Some have made much of the fact that in the Greek the word used for dogs could be translated puppies or household pets, but that really doesn’t help much.  Jews did not see dogs as pets, they were seen as wild scavengers, more like our attitude toward coyotes or wolves, and the word was used by Jews to refer to heretics and false teachers.  And even if he did mean puppies, it’s still an insult. Others have pointed out that Jesus doesn’t say the dogs won’t eat, just that the children get to eat first. I don’t think this helps very much. Any way you look at what Jesus said to the woman, he insulted her.

Now others say things like, “Jesus is being intentionally provocative, seeking to draw out a response of persistent faith from the woman.  He wants her to claim what is rightfully hers . . . While Jesus “loses” the debate, he is delighted to do so, since his purpose is to provoke even greater faith.”

(Mark L. Strauss, “Mark” Volume 2 in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p.313)   I really doubt this notion, mainly because there is nothing to base it on other than our desire for Jesus to always look good. Just like we resist a racist Atticus Finch, we push back against the notion of a Jesus who was somehow less than the perfect person we believe him to be.

What would happen if we were to take the text just as it appears upon the page, without trying to read into it or read behind it or read between its lines?  In that case we are confronted with the possibility that Jesus genuinely had his mind changed by his encounter with the Gentile woman.  We see Jesus coming into this debate with an attitude of Jews first.  We see him as being, like most Galileans, somewhat contemptuous of a person from Tyre.  It was an ancient dislike based on ethnicity, on race and racial conflict. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Tyre and Israel were long time “bitter enemies.”  Jesus perhaps thinks himself generous in even mentioning the possibility that Phoenicians will be fed at all.

What the woman does here is fascinating.  Instead of bristling at the insult, she turns it in her favor.  She picks up on Jesus’ reference to children and paints a different picture, one any of us with dogs as household pets will instantly recognize.  She says, “True enough, but the dogs don’t have to wait to eat until later.  They just sit under the table and pick up what the children spill.”  And I might add, what the children slip to the dogs because they love the dog or because they don’t want to eat liver.  Jesus hears her and changes his mind about her request and heals her daughter.  I also think he changes his mind about the nature of his mission; about the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the new Kingdom of God.

Think about this for a minute.  In Mark’s story about Jesus, this is his first recorded encounter with someone who is not Jewish, someone who is not a member of his own race and own religion. Jesus grew up in a multi-cultural context, with Greeks and Romans and others all around, but then as now, ethnic groups tend to spend most of their time together, especially in matters of religion and politics. So, this is, perhaps, the first time Jesus has had to articulate his understanding of his mission as the Messiah to someone who did not share his ethnic and cultural background.  And he stumbles and says some things that maybe should not have been said.  And the woman made him think.  Indeed, it appears she made him change his mind, which resulted in his changing his actions.  In a very important sense, Jesus “got converted” by his encounter with the bold, truth-telling, Syrophoenician woman.

This has been a year of heightened race awareness in the United States.  From Ferguson and “Black Lives Matter,” to Baltimore, to a traffic stop in Texas, to the horrific events at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, to pick-up trucks driving our streets with rebel flags flying off the back – we have been confronted with an issue most of us would rather not think about or talk about.  But we must.  We must not only talk about it; we must act, we must do something about it.

We thought we were past it, we thought we were like the Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But the events of the last year have told us a different story, have held a mirror up to our lives and let us know that we are, as a people, more like the Atticus in “Go Set a Watchman;” most of us tone-deaf to the realities of life in America for minority persons.

Today, we are called to be like Christ in his conversation with the Gentile woman. We are called to listen to the voices of those who will tell us the truth about themselves, the truth about what it’s like to be a person of color in this country.  We are called to listen, and then we are called take action, first changing those things about ourselves that can change and should be changed.  Then we are called to speak out without fear, calling our nation to listen to the voices of those amongst us who have been ignored and silenced too long.

Amen and amen.

4 thoughts on “The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 6, 2015)

  1. Thank you, so much, John and Delmer! And, thanks be to God for the Gospel According to Mark, who reveals the human Jesus and all the humans who will share the Table of the Lord every time we eat!

  2. It will take some time, if ever, to get my head around Jesus responding out of irritability or changing his mind but thank you for the sermon, Delmer, and the reflections, John. While reading the Proverbs (sharing one’s bread with the poor, not crushing the afflicted at the gate) and James readings for today, my mind was drawn to the plight of the Syrian refugees. After reading your sermon, I went back to William Barclay’s comments on the gospel reading (The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Mark, 1954). I had not remembered that this woman of Syrophoenician origin was Syrian, that Tyre was in Syria! There is much to be done for the afflicted in our own countries as well as the afflicted overseas.

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