Pentecost 16 September 9, 2018

The Rev. Janet Campbell

PENTECOST 16  Proper 18  Year B

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

 

Christ Episcopal Church

Tacoma, Washington

Sunday September 9, 2018

The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell

 

 

 

The healing stories

in today’s Gospel

reveal the paradox

of what we call

the Incarnation:

 

Jesus was both divine and human.

 

In Jesus,

“all the fullness of God

was pleased to dwell”

as Paul wrote in the Letter to the Galatians,                  [Gal. 1.19]

 

and through Jesus,

the power of God

was uniquely present and active in the world.

 

And yet,

or,

and also,

Jesus was completely a human being,

as we affirm when we say the Nicene Creed.

 

Divine:

“God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father . . .

 

Human:

“[who] for us and for our salvation

came down from heaven:

[and] by the power of the Holy Spirit

became incarnate from the Virgin Mary

and was made man.”

 

 

As the miracles and the teachings

accumulate across the gospels,

it may be hard to imagine Jesus

as other than a perfect and all-knowing figure

whose feet don’t quite touch the ground . . .

 

But in his terse response

          to the urgent request

of the Syrophoenician woman

 

we can see

his participation

in all our being . . .

including failings and flaws . . .

 

 “Let the children be fed first,

for it is not fair to take the children’s food

and throw it to the dogs.”

 

She was a Gentile,

not one of the children of Israel,

the ones who must be “fed first.”

 

The ones to whom Jesus had come

to call back to the way of life

offered by the loving God

who had chosen them for God’s own.

 

the loving God of the psalmist,

who gives justice to the oppressed,

          food to those who younger,

who sets the prisoners free,

lifts up those who are bowed down,

loves the righteous and cares for the stranger,

sustains the orphan and widow . . .

 

Did Jesus’ uncaring reaction

rise up unbidden

from his own cultural

          and religious background . . .

 

likening the woman (and so, her daughter)

to “dogs,”

the unclean scavenger dogs

          of the streets . . .

 

“dog” being a common Jewish slur

for anyone not a Jew.

 

(We should note that the Gentiles

surely had their own

derogatory words for Jews . . .

 

as various groups of people

have always had derogatory words

for other groups of people

who are not “our people:”

 

          who don’t belong,

          whom we fear,

          or don’t understand,

          who are too different,

          or too difficult,

          or beneath us.)                        

 

 

Suddenly Jesus sounds unfortunately

like the Pharisees and scribes

          of last week’s Gospel,

who had accused his disciples 

of ignoring the purity laws

by “eating with defiled hands.”                                      [Mark 7:2]

 

 

“What hypocrites you are,” he had said then,

“teaching human precepts as doctrine” –                       [Mark 7:7]

 

confusing human religious customs

(in this case the ritual washing of hands)

          with the genuine practice of religion –

 

Rigorously observing

          outward forms

                   in an attempt either to please or bribe God

                             with ritual correctness,

while failing to practice the messiness of holiness:

          the acceptance,

          the compassion,

          the mercy,

          the open response to human need.

                                     

And yet,

here was Jesus himself,

stumbling over one of those precepts:

rejecting the Syrophoenician woman

                   because she was not a Jew.

 

Engaging, himself,

in an act of favoritism,

making distinctions,

showing partiality,

failing to love his neighbor . . .

 

those very things

later enumerated in the Letter of James

as counter to how Jesus’ followers

should be.

 

Could this possibly be

the same Jesus who said,

“Come to me, all you that are weary

and are carrying heavy burdens,

and I will give you rest.”                   [Mt.  11:28]

 

and

 

“. . . anyone who comes to me

I will never drive away.”                   [Jn 6:37b]

 

Fully human,

and having

a bad-divinity day.

 

 

He had left Galilee

and turned up in the region of Tyre,

Gentile territory,

where, Mark reports,

“He entered a house

and did not want anyone

          to know he was there.”

 

We are not told

whose house it was,

or why Jesus was so intent

on disappearing into it.

 

Maybe he was exhausted

by the crowds that had followed him

          throughout Galilee

with their incessant clamor and demands . . .

 

Maybe he was frustrated

          with his disciples,

who were proving to be

          unexpectedly dense . . .

 

Maybe he was aware

of the increased and hostile attention

his radical teaching and dangerous popularity

          were stirring up in high places

and wanted to tone it down a bit  . .  .

 

          not yet ready to bring things

                   to a head.

 

 

Whatever the reason,

whatever the stressor,

Jesus was not at his godly best that day,

dealing with the reality

of his incarnate life.

                            

The Syrophoenician woman,

not so easily dismissed,

was quick and clever (and daring)

with her come-back:

 

“Sir, even the dogs under the table

eat the children’s crumbs.”

 

(Anyone who has

dined with young children

knows there will be plenty of those –

          enough for all.)

 

Isn’t her reply

very like

Jesus’ own technique

of using familiar daily things

          and moments

to push a listener

          into new territory.

 

What chutzpah!

 

A woman standing up to a man,

a Gentile facing down a Jew . . .

 

breaking through barriers

of culture and custom.

 

She did for Jesus

what he was always doing for others . . .

opened his eyes that he might see,

unstopped his ears that he might hear,

         

challenging him

to practice what he preached –

God’s love for all God’s children.

 

“For saying that, you may go – ”

he said to her,

“the demon has left your daughter.”

 

Still abrupt . . .

perhaps smarting from the sting, 

          and maybe even ashamed of himself.

 

Fully human.

 

But apparently, himself

having experienced a certain healing,

a moment of truth.

 

For he returned to Galilee

from the region of Tyre,

by the way of the Decapolis,

and still in largely Gentile territory,

restored the hearing and speech

of a deaf man.

 

“He took him aside in private,

away from the crowd,

put his fingers into his ears,

and he spat and touched his tongue.

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed

and said to him “Ephphathah,”

that is, “be opened.”

 

It’s a story that follows Jesus’ own opening,

and prepares the reader

for the next chapters in Mark,

where we see his disciples themselves

slowly opening to,

          oh so slowly beginning to realize,

                    just who Jesus was. 

 

 

But that sigh . . .

“he looked up to heaven and sighed” . . .

that sigh . . .

does it tell of a world-weariness

Jesus would carry all the way to the cross?

 

For he was fallible like us,

had to be stretched

          beyond himself,

had to have preconceptions challenged,

          assumptions overturned . . .

 

and, fully aware

of the pain and suffering

          in the world of his own creation,

learning in his human self

          what it is like to be

not only a healer

                   but a cause.

 

Like us,

like his disciples,

he needed

          eyes opened, ears unstopped,

mind and heart expanded.

 

We could say

he perfectly shared

our imperfection.

 

perfectly shared

our imperfection.

 

 

In speaking of the Incarnation,

the Letter to the Hebrews says

that in Jesus

“we have a great high priest

who has passed through the heavens . . .

the Son of God,

who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses

because in every respect

he has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”    

                                                                             [Hebrews 4.14-15 paraphrase]

 

“Without sin” . . . how can that be?

 

Could Jesus,

God incarnate,

have been truly human

if he had not had to live

all the complexity we live,

all that makes us who we are:

 

culture, tradition, upbringing,

life experiences

          that pull and push us to maturity

          (or not),

 

a full range of emotions,

many temptations,

mistakes, failures,

our gladness, our sadness,

the shame of our sin,

the relief and joy of forgiveness,

death . . . and dying . . . all of it.

 

Could he have been truly human

if his feet did not touch the ground?

 

In Jesus God chose to experience

all the fullness of

life in the flesh.

 

The Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges

captures the down-to-earthness

of the Incarnation

in his poem entitled

John 1:14

 

(John 1:14:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,

and we have seen his glory,

the glory as of a father’s only son,

full of grace and truth.”)

 

In the poem,

God speaks:

 

Wanting once to play with My children,

I stood among them with awe and tenderness.

 

I was born of a womb

by an act of magic.

 

I lived under a spell, imprisoned in a body,

in the humbleness of a soul.

 

I knew memory,

that coin that’s never twice the same.

 

I knew hope and fear,

those twin faces of the uncertain future.

 

I knew wakefulness, sleep, dreams,

ignorance, the flesh,

reason’s roundabout labyrinths,

the friendship of men,

the blind devotion of dogs.

 

I was loved, understood, praised, and hung from a cross.

I drank my cup to the dregs.

 

My eyes saw what they had never seen—

night and its many stars.

 

I knew things smooth and gritty, uneven and rough,

the taste of honey and apple,

water in the throat of thirst,

the weight of metal in the hand,

the human voice, the sound of footsteps on the grass,

the smell of rain in Galilee,

the cry of birds on high.

 

I knew bitterness as well.

 

I have entrusted the writing of these words to a common man;

they will never be what I want to say

but only their shadow . . .

 

 

Sometimes homesick, I think back

on the smell of the carpenter’s shop.

 

                                          John 1:14 (1969) Jorge Luis Borges, translated from the Spanish

                                                                             by Norman Thomas di Giovanni,

                                                       in The Gospels in our Image, David Curzon, ed., p. 254

 

Fully divine, fully human.

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