First Congregational United Church of Christ
September 6, 2015
Mark 7:24-37 “Border Crossings”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
I remember a long ago interview on MPR. Terry Gross was interviewing Jhumpa Lahiri who wrote The Namesake—which is one of my favorite books. Terry Gross invited Jhumpa to read a passage. The character in her book spoke of the pain of not having witnesses to her life. Jhumpa talked about living life between India and New England. She had grown up without community. And she talked about how witnesses provide us with reality checks when life seems overwhelming. Witnesses remind us of truths about ourselves that we have forgotten, because they were part of our lives and remember events and places and times.
Friday was my brother David’s birthday. He died three years ago in Honduras and was buried at sea. Part of my deep lament is the loss of him as a witness to our growing up. He provided a reality check on family memories. We could laugh and lament over shared history—shared stories.
On August 29th, we were all plunged back into the memories of the chaos of ten years ago when we watched the horrifying pictures of what was taking place in the aftermath of Katrina. We became the witnesses to the failed systems and failed structures as we were dumbfounded by the lack of food, water, medical care in the convention center and Superdome that appeared more like a prison for refugees that a place of safety and care. Yes, on this 10 year anniversary, we can celebrate many stories of renewal and new life. And, we lament the reality that the remarkable recovery has left behind so many African Americans who still make up a majority of the population. Black household incomes adjusted for inflation have fallen. And, the earning gap between black and white residents has grown.
This past week, we have been the media witnesses to the heart wrenching footage of thousands of migrants in a day long standoff in Budapest. We again witnessed the horror as hundreds of desperate homeless families slammed into train cars that they believed would take them to Austria and Germany only to find themselves being herded into camps.
It was the picture of a three year old in a red shirt and dark shorts face down on a beach in Turkey that has galvanized the public witnesses. That scene broke through a border barrier for Great Britain as David Cameron announced a change in policy. Their border has been wedged open.
Our text is about a woman who came to Jesus without any witnesses. She crossed over invisible but o’h so powerful boundaries. It took enormous courage to find a way to reach Jesus. And, I can appreciate the fact that he was seeking a place of rest and renewal from the weariness of his work, and yet his response is rather disconcerting, isn’t it? Jesus refused to respond to her request. Certainly there are scholars who attempt to soften the response by saying he was testing her faith. Certainly there are those in Louisiana who saw no reason to celebrate on the 10 year anniversary of Katrina. The scar tissue is still so very tender for many.
Remember the long ago movie “Nickel and Dimed.” It’s the story of a writer who spent a year living on minimum wage working two jobs in order to write a book that had integrity. She wrote about how this country deals with its working poor, I remember There is a wonderful line in the film about certain women who become shrill. I suspect that in our congregation, we have some women, who, at some point in their lives, became shrill because they were advocating for a child and they were not being heard. When one is up against economic, racial and class barriers, one often has to become very shrill in order to be heard—in order to get the help that is needed for one’s child. But even the term is loaded isn’t it…I suspect that shrill is a cover-up word for firm truth telling spoken with authority. I suspect that this Gentile woman born in Syrian Phoenicia, represented the people that have been ancient enemies of the Jews. And, perhaps worst of all, she breaks the rules: she is a woman, and she dares to come alone and speak to a man.
We do not know the kind of demons that were in her child’s life, but we know this mother dared to move out of the safety and rules of her own neighborhood in order to find help. She took an enormous leap of faith, and her encounter with Jesus did not start off well. In fact every time I read this text, I feel a bit squirmy, don’t you? I suspect that if we were interviewing Jesus and asked him what he would have done differently in his ministry, he might have used this story as one he regretted.
Mark’s Gospel lesson helps us realize that it’s easy to overlook how challenging change can be. And, we’re given insight as to the kind of resistance that there was over becoming a diverse worshipping community of faith.
Jesus uses the cultural language of the day of dogs and children within the context of a village with all of its racial prejudices. He explains to the unnamed woman that his call is first to the people of Israel. “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.” Yikes! As messy as this text is, we could also look at it as a reality check on his humanness. We’re given an example of his willingness to continue to grow and become all that he was called by God to be. It is the uninvited voice of the woman who confronts Jesus that becomes a wakeup call—his aha moment. She refused to accept Jesus’ lack of mercy using the “in your face” words, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Throughout all of scripture—throughout all of life—the active work of God so often comes from where it is least expected. It is the powerless who break the rules and often cross the boundaries and shift the lenses so that we see a way for liberation to break through.
The Gentile woman does what no other woman does in scripture: she wins the argument. And, in so doing, she saves the soul of her daughter. The woman’s over the bounds behavior brought about freedom for her child. It was a wake-up call—a reality check for both Jesus and his disciples as they experienced the deeply profound desire by this woman who was crying out for hope… for new life.
The challenge for all of us is being pushed to continually broaden our circles. We’re called to be the witnesses and storytellers. The ones who stand with those who have no voice. Last Sunday afternoon as I sat in Randy Ellison’s workshop on “Stewards of Children”, watching the folks on film speak of their childhood sexual abuse, I became so painfully aware of the reality that those courageous storytellers did not have witnesses. I felt the isolation of those who lived with adults who sometimes knew abuse was taking place, but chose not to raise their voices and speak their truth. Instead, family secrets kept denial as the norm, and children’s lives were sacrificed. I give thanks for each survivor that dared to tell their story so that others might be saved from the trauma that they endured.
It is the voice of the woman who confronts Jesus that becomes a wake-up call. As dis-empowered folks are often treated, she is seen as “out of control” by the disciples. What no one seems to understand is that she is her daughter’s only hope. She is on a mission that is motivated by a desperation that can only be known by a parent who has tried every angle and avenue for help. She had determined that Jesus was her only answer.
I’m not sure that mental health issues are much more welcomed in our society today than they were in Jesus’ day. We wrestle and wince at the words “demon possessed”—but what does that really mean? Could it be that this young girl was struggling with a dissociative disorder that was the result of having endured some form of abuse? Was this the consequence of what we today would call Post Traumatic Syndrome? We don’t know. But any of us, who have advocated for someone with a mental health issue can appreciate this woman’s plight.
We’re confronted with Jesus who is forced to wrestle with his own blindness. And, we’re offered the shift…the aha moment. We’re given the outcome of the power of the Spirit within him that realigns his heart and mind and enables his compassion to slip back into place.
As always, we’re invited into the story. What does this Syrophoenician woman mirror for us? Who is it that has, or longs to break into our lives? Who are we being invited to “see” with new eyes, and to hear? Perhaps it could be that there is a bothersome part of ourselves that longs to be heard.
We are the witnesses and we are the storytellers. We worship a God who enters into our own abandonment and graces us with presence in our grief. Freedom comes when we can step out in faith and offer that gift to others.
May God grant us the courage to do so again and again and again. Amen;
“The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
“Katrina Washed Away New Orleans Black Middle Class.” By Ben Casselman.
Rita Nakashima Brock, “Reflections on Mirrors, Motherroot, and Memory”, November, 1993, Re-imagining” Conference, Mpls, MN)