09/06/15 Sermon (September 6, 2015) “An Open Table”

posted Jul 5, 2016, 2:55 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: Mark 7:24-37 

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 
Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He 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." 
Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 
Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak." 

Sermon: "An Open Table" Rev. David Hawkins 
Last week in the park, I said that we were about to start a sermon series on the book of James, which I know many of you are really excited about, in the same way that you might be if I had said that we were all about to move to Oklahoma, or that we were about to sit down and do an extended review of quadratic equations. 

I am so sorry for those of you who were looking forward to James, but who saw that we were today in the book of Mark instead. The problem is, I preached the lectionary passage for James a couple of years ago, so we needed to jump out of sequence for today. I apologize to all those who feel let down. We will be in James next week. 

Today’s scripture passage may not look like it at first glance, but I believe it to be one of the top ten pivotal scriptures in the Bible. Mark is trying to tell us an important thing today, and he chooses an unusual way of doing it. He puts some pretty harsh words in the mouth of Jesus, words that I’m not sure we’re ready to hear, words that paint Jesus as insensitive at best, and a racist pig at worst. 

We’re not used to seeing Jesus -- meek and mild, healer, teacher, savior, Lamb of God -- standing over someone, calling them a dog. Especially not someone who has come to him for help. Especially not a mother pleading for the soul of her daughter. 

But here we are, and here Jesus is, and here are the words he has spoken, hanging in the air, and we need to do something with them: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 

Ouch. Ouch, ouch, ouch. 

Can you hear the arrogance in his words? The sarcasm? Can you hear the dismissive tone? Is this the Jesus we know? Is this the Jesus we want to know? 

It’s understandable that throughout the years, Bible scholars and interpreters have struggled to find ways to make these words more, palatable to our ears, that we might find some crumb of comfort in them. 

Some have looked at Jesus’ refusal to help through a cultural lens, assuming that what he was said was common in those times, not necessarily the insulting dismissal that we hear now. And maybe we can understand that. Maybe Jesus was just saying the 1st century version of, “Hey, charity begins at home.” or, “God helps those who helps themselves.” It could be. 

Other scholars have looked at the linguistic context, and have noted that the word for dogs that Jesus uses, or rather, the word that Mark uses in the Greek, is the diminutive form, sort of like, ‘puppies’, as though perhaps that reading of the text might soften the harshness of what Jesus says. And maybe it does. It sure makes it cuter. In a weird way. 

Others have looked at the text through an economic/historical lens, pointing out the radical disparity of wealth between the rich gentile city dwellers in the region of Tyre and the poor Jewish farmers that supplied their food. As farmers here in West Texas, we understand all too well the vagaries of markets that are set and manipulated by wealthy strangers who live in cities far away. We understand what it means to have the fruit of our labor taken from us at unfair prices. Maybe Jesus is giving voice to the historical tension that exists between these two peoples. Jesus isn’t insulting the woman. He’s just naming an economic reality. 

Or, maybe Jesus really is simply a bigot, a human, like too many of us, blinded by ethnic and religious identity, unable, or unwilling to see past the social barriers that lay between him and this women, unable, or unwilling to see her basic humanity behind the surface of her skin color, her religion, her language, or her immigration status. 

Maybe Jesus doesn’t see a mother pleading for her child. Maybe all he sees is someone trying to game the system, a parasite, a waste of everyone’s time and money. Maybe this is who Jesus really is, at least, at this moment in time. If this is the case, thank goodness for the syrophoenician woman, who saves him from this way of thinking. 

All of these ways of looking at this scripture have been put forth as valid attempts to come to terms with these words. I’m not here to argue against any of them. Smarter, more faithful people than me came up with them, and they’ve got some pretty good reasons for thinking this way. 

And so, I want you to know that you can think however you want to about this passage. As one one of my psychology professors used to counsel us in hard times, “whatever floats your boat.” You have my permission to deal with this difficult scripture in whatever way works best for you. Not that you need my permission, of course. 

But, I would like to offer one more possible interpretation, one that has come to me as I’ve thought about these words. 

All of the attempts to explain what was going on with Jesus when he says these things assume that he means them -- that he believes what he is saying, that these are his words, that these are his thoughts, that he really is trying to say that, to him, this woman is equivalent to a dog (or a puppy), and that, as such, she should be excluded from receiving help from him. 

But, what if Jesus doesn’t mean what he’s saying? What if he isn’t saying what he thinks, but rather is articulating, ironically, the unspoken thoughts of those around him? What if Jesus is naming the unsaid, but all too well-known ways of thinking that are a part of our human experience? 

Jesus has done this sort of thing at other times, you know. He famously replies to Pilate, when asked if he is the king of the Jews, “that’s what you say.” Jesus is always throwing the words of his accusers back at them. His parables are full of twists and turns that require a certain amount of thought to untangle. He is a master at turning our first impulses on our heads. And so this wouldn’t be the first or last time that Jesus said something that causes us to take a moment and gather our wits about us. 

Jesus is our God, that much is given, but he is also a man, and he is a very, very smart man. Let’s not forget that. He knows his situation, he knows what’s going on around him politically, and in front of him is a teachable moment. Here is an religiously unclean, foreign, gentile stranger, representative of all that we fear and loathe, who needs help, and so he puts voice to all of the rank bigotry and suspicion that lies in our hearts. “We need to feed ourselves first, puppy woman.” he says. “Charity begins at home.” 

And then he looks around at us, and waits for one of us to rebuke him. But we don’t. Jesus waits for one of us to remind him that his mission is, and always has been, to the weak, the marginalized, the hurting, whoever they are, wherever they are -- but he waits, and he waits, and he waits. And his friends say nothing. 

But not the woman on the floor before him. Amongst this dedicated group of followers, this original group of twelve disciples, the ones he has called and taught now for years, she is the only one who seems to have grasped what Jesus is all about. She is the only one who seems to understand why Jesus has come. Not for one kind of people, but for all people. Not for one kind of color, but for all colors. Not for one kind of religion, but for all religions. Jesus has come, not for one part of humanity, but for all humanity. 

Jesus is all about opening doors. In this watershed scripture, Jesus pivots from being the Messiah of a small Middle-Eastern religious sect to being the Lord and Savior of all mankind. Jesus opens the doors between peoples of different countries, different languages, different socio-economic conditions, even different religions. In fact, Jesus is not just opening doors. He’s throwing them off their hinges, especially those doors we are not ready to be opened. 

The curious thing is, his disciples don’t see it. Those closest to him don’t see what’s happening. But the syrophoenician woman sees it. And she claims it. The deaf man in the Decapolis hears it. And he shouts it. They know an open door when they see it, and they run right through it. “Ephphatha”, Jesus says. “Be opened.” And whatever door it might be, poverty, disability, ethnic suspicion, religious hatred, or simple apathy, that door is shattered, blasted open, open for all time, open for all people. 

Today we stand at that same table that the syrophoenician woman stood at so many years ago. We come with no more cause for welcome than she did, other than we trust Jesus for food. Regardless of what the crowds might say, regardless of what even his closest followers might think, regardless of we ourselves might fear, all of us, all of you, all of them, are worthy of his love, not because of who we are, or what we’ve done, but because of who Jesus is, and why he has come to us. 

On this table, Jesus proves, once and for all, that every barrier that stands between us and God has been permanently removed. The table is set, the door is open, and all are invited to come in. 

Now to the Holy One 
who is at work within us, 
accomplishing far more 
than we could ever ask or imagine, 
be all glory 
in the church and in Christ Jesus, 
now and forever. Amen.