The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18B, September 6, 2015; The Rev. Pamela L. Werntz
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
James 2:1-10 (11-13) 14-17 Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Mark 7:24-37 They were astounded beyond measure.
O God of mercy, grant us the strength, the wisdom and the courage to seek always and everywhere after truth, come when it may, and cost what it will.
The lessons we just heard from Proverbs and James make it abundantly clear that the blessing of God is upon those who are generous, who share their bread with people who do not have enough. The evidence of blessing is not simply prosperity. I often hear people who are experiencing abundance expressing gratitude, giving thanks to God and saying, “I am so blessed.” But according to Proverbs, it’s not the fact of abundance that is a blessing from God; it’s the distribution of abundance so that everyone gets enough. The evidence of blessing of God is in the sharing. And James says that mercy triumphs over judgment – mercy trumps judgment — every time in the realm of God. Whenever there’s a conflict of biblical values or teachings, ask yourself, which approach is more merciful and go with that.
Our Gospel lesson is one of my all-time favorites (do I say that a lot?). Just to bring you up to date because it’s been a while since we focused on Mark, the context is that Jesus and his disciples have had an exhausting time traveling all around the Galilee, teaching and healing and casting out demons. Jesus recognized their exhaustion and said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” but it never happened. They’ve had no rest. This is a story of yet another of their attempts to get away for a break.
Jesus heads up to the city of Tyre – out of Israel, up to the coast of Syria. He didn’t want anyone to know he was there. And yet a woman, whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him right away and she found him. What follows might be the most extraordinary encounter in the whole Gospel of Mark. She was a Gentile woman. A Syrophoenecian, from a people traditionally condemned in scripture for their violence, injustice, and desecration of places deemed holy by Israel. In this story, she is alone. She comes to beg Jesus to heal her little daughter. I think of how desperate she must have been to do that. What she represents – this ethnically, racially, culturally, foreign female with a gravely ill daughter – is feared, forbidden and chaotic.  Jesus isn’t interested.
You might have seen that this past Tuesday, our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Gay Jennings wrote to the whole Episcopal Church, asking every congregation to join today in prayer for racial justice and reconciliation. Their call to us came in swift response to a request from AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Bishop Reginald Jackson, who said, “Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation…the sin and evil of racism…includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and [we must] make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.” In their reply, Jefferts Schori and Jennings wrote, “our history as a church includes atrocities for which we must repent, saints who show us the way toward the realm of God, and structures that bear witness to unjust centuries of the evils of white privilege, systematic racism, and oppression that are not yet consigned to history.”
The immediate griping of white clergy in response to this request was embarrassing to me and indicative of the difficulty we have engaging historically white congregations in the feared, forbidden, and chaotic territory of confessing, repenting and committing to end the sin of racism. One complaint was about this being too short notice to tackle an issue so weighty and important. Yes, but, really, how much notice does any of us need? Wasn’t the Trevon Martin killing in Sanford, Florida enough notice? Or Michael Brown in Ferguson; or Freddie Gray in Baltimore; or Tamir Rice in Cleveland? What about the nine martyred in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June? I think we’ve had plenty of notice. The lines from our confession come into my mind: “we repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.” Certainly the sin of racism is included, but white people might not consciously think racism when we pray – and this is a part of the problem.
Writer John Metta recently wrote a beautiful essay about how difficult it is for people of color to talk to white people about racism, in a piece called, “I, Racist.” He wrote, “white people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.” (I’d add that we also frequently cite examples of what we call “reverse discrimination.”) Metta says, “The result is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says, ‘racism still exists. It is real.’ And a white person argues, ‘you’re wrong, I’m not racist at all. I don’t even see any racism.’…rather than ‘that is wrong, we should do better.”  Do we (white people) hear what to say in response? Racism is wrong. We must do better. Say that with me. Racism is wrong. We must do better.
Racism is not just slavery or housing, employment, educational discrimination or economic exploitation. It’s not just about people who are disproportionately incarcerated or disproportionately killed in encounters with police. It surely is about all of those things, and it’s also about how, in our society, “white” means “normal” and “expected,” and “newsworthy,” “so white people don’t have to think about living in [our society].”  Consider what “flesh” or “nude” mean when it comes to colors of bandages or stockings or crayons. Perhaps the most important thing that John Metta says in his article is, “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of white feelings.” A great example of this is the white response to the Black Lives Matter campaign – with the rather tone-deaf and defensive “All Lives Matter.” Traditionally or predominantly white churches like Emmanuel, Boston must go out of our way to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter. Rather than wringing our hands asking why more people of color don’t come to us, I want us to spend more time and energy reaching out in generative collaborations with traditionally or predominantly Black churches like the seven historically Black Episcopal Churches in Boston and Cambridge.
Back to our Gospel lesson, some of you will remember that not long before this in the Gospel of Mark, Jairus, a leader in a synagogue had come to Jesus imploring him to heal his little girl. Jesus dropped everything to go with Jairus. But what did he say to the Syrophoenician woman, begging him to heal her little daughter? What he said is crass, rude, extremely insulting. He doesn’t just say no. He says that he’s not going to give sustenance to a little dog. He calls her little daughter a little dog. In scripture, Gentiles are often referred to as dogs: unclean pests, gross scavengers. For ancient Israelites, dogs were not cute pets. The term is only used pejoratively in the Bible. He’s calling the little girl a dog and that means the little girl’s mother is a dog and you know what the word for a female dog is. It’s a horrible thing for Jesus to say.
I’ve heard people say that Jesus was just testing her. But I don’t agree and I admire her persistence. She didn’t walk away weeping, she didn’t go away in silence, ashamed that her request had been rebuked, sorry that she had even asked. Mark says, “But she said, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’” She insisted that Jesus share what he had. Her swift retort accomplishes the only miraculous healing from a distance in all of the Gospels. Indeed, it is her retort that heals her daughter. It is her willingness to respond directly, clearly, forcefully, that makes her daughter well. Jesus says so. “For that retort,” Jesus says, “the demon has come out of your daughter.” Although she is not named in the Gospel, in church tradition, the mother in this story is called Justa, meaning just or righteous one. Jesus was changed by his encounter with Justa. Justa was insisting that Black Lives Matter, and Jesus had a change of heart and thinking.
What happens next is baffling for anyone who knows the geography of Syria. Mark writes, “Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” Jesus left Tyre and went 25 miles in the exact opposite direction from the Decapolis. Sidon is 25 miles north and the Decapolis area is about 90 miles southeast. Some commentaries assume that this is a mistake of Mark’s, but since most biblical scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was written in Antioch, which is also in Syria, I don’t think that’s it.
Possibly Jesus was so disoriented by the encounter with this uppity woman, that he temporarily lost his bearings. Or perhaps, he intended to continue heading north, got as far as Sidon and realized that he just had to revisit the Decapolis, where he had done an exorcism, putting a legion of demons into a herd of swine and driving them off of a cliff. The frightened people had begged him to leave their region. That’s what happened just before the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter. I wonder if Jesus got 25 miles into his continued journey north and realized that he had to turn around  and go back to the people who were so scared of being freed from a legion of demons that they wanted him to leave. Maybe it was like people who now are so scared of being freed from the inherent benefits of white supremacy.
When Mark moves on to tell the story of a man whose ears were blocked and whose tongue was tied, he reports that Jesus said, “Ephphatha,” be opened. I think that the Syrian woman, Justa, had opened Jesus to the possibility that bread – justice – was for everyone. Jesus had been opened and he returned to the Decapolis to pay it forward, to give the people there another try. When he arrived in the wilderness area of the Decapolis, he fed a great crowd of 4,000 with seven loaves and a few fish, with seven baskets left over. (Mark’s earlier story of the feeding in Israel was 5,000 with five loaves and two fish and twelve baskets left over.) Following so close to the retort of the Syrophoenician woman, it’s clear that the crumbs of bread are going to be quite filling! It’s a banquet where their hunger is more than satisfied.  It’s funny that we never refer to the feeding of the 4,000. Is the number somehow less impressive than 5000? You won’t hear it in church next week because our lectionary is going to skip right over it.
So I wonder, if we might be opened to Justa, to justice, the way Jesus was, the way countless others were. I wonder if, with regard to racism in particular, we might suddenly, or even gradually hear more deeply and speak more clearly than before? It might be disorienting. It might mean needing to revisit some territory we thought we’d left behind. We surely are taking the long way to get there, but we’ll get there. We know something about being filled with a just morsel of bread. We know about mercy triumphing over judgment. We know about being astounded at the healing and feeding that is possible when we are fully participating in the merciful and just realm of God. This is what we must remember as we confess, repent, and commit to ending the sin and evil of racism, trusting in the never ending love of God.
Do join me in this prayer for racial justice and reconciliation from our Book of Common Prayer: Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.