by Rev. Ellen Jennings
1 Corinthians 12:14-26
Hine Ma Tov Uma Nyim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad
Hine Ma Tov Uma Nyim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad
Hine Ma Tov Shevet Achim Gam Yachad
Hine Ma Tov Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.
In the Hebrew words of this morning’s Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is, when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.” But how hard it is, actually, to do so in practice!
As the choir memorialized in today’s anthem, this is the week when we honor all those who perished on September 11, 2001, and, by extension, all those who, everywhere and in every time, have been the victims of violence and human hatred.
We humans, of all creatures, have the peculiar ability both to love deeply and hate violently. We love those whom we call our own, those whom, for whatever manufactured reasons, we consider “one of us.” And, too often, we hate those who are “other” than our own, those whom, again, for whatever manufactured reasons, we have determined to be different from us.
And, while it would be wonderful to think that our own tradition has escaped this perplexing paradox, it hasn’t. The history of Christianity is fraught with a multitude of ways to vilify a multitude of “others.” At various times and places, we have hated the pagans, the Jews, the Protestants, the Catholics, the Muslims, the Mormons, and anyone else we have chosen to identify as an infidel, blasphemer or heretic. It’s what people tend to do, or, as a clergy friend once explained (in an attempt to understand this disheartening tendency), “we’re tribal.”
Yes, tribal; it’s true. We are! And while this may have been a good thing 100,000 years ago, it has become increasingly problematic over the past several thousand years. And now, in this era of the global village, it has become a concern of immense proportion.
But what can we do about it? Surely we can’t control the teenage boy who blew himself up in Afghanistan yesterday! Surely we can’t do anything about the hatred between the Serbs and the Croats, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Sunnis and the Alawites…
Perhaps. But what about the factions within our own country? What about the suspicion, misunderstanding and intolerance right here at home? What about the hatred leading to violence in these United States? The recent shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin has, according to the Washington Post blog, “Guest Voices,” been labeled “the largest racially motivated massacre in recent U.S. History.” Six people were killed and three critically wounded, including a police officer who tried to help. And by whom? Well, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the gunman was a “frustrated neo-Nazi” who was part of the white power movement and played in a variety of “hate rock bands.” Hate rock bands? What are we coming to?
And where does this come from? Where do we get the idea that we’re special, better, chosen, saved? I mean, we’d like to believe that these ideas come from outside our own culture, our own tradition. But, the truth is, they’re alive and well within it! Sadly, they’re alive and well within any culture or faith tradition, because human beings have a great deal to do with the creation of both, and, as I’ve already noted, we have the unique ability both to deeply love and violently hate.
So, how do we address this issue? Well, there are a couple of ways to go about it. We could either examine the parts of our faith that teach us to accept and love our neighbor or we could take a long hard look at those parts that teach us to judge and hate the “other.” And, while it might be useful at some point to preach a sermon about the latter—Christian triumphalism, American exceptionalism, Protestant fundamentalism—today I’d like to focus on the ways in which I think, when push comes to shove, our tradition pivots toward love.
Let’s start with this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, a passage that, from my perspective, is often misunderstood. I think that, too often, we overlook the fact that Jesus was human and, therefore, made mistakes. We fail to acknowledge that, like us, he must have had to learn and grow. And we forget that many of his experiences, as he wandered and taught and argued and healed, must have changed him as a man.
This, I believe, is what Mark is trying to tell us in the story of the Syrophoenician woman. Unfortunately, as with all our lectionary readings, this small segment has been removed from its much larger context. But I think it becomes much more interesting, and infinitely clearer in its meaning, when read as part of Mark’s overall inclusion narrative, which stretches from one large feeding miracle to another (yes, there are two stories of multiplying loaves and fishes in Mark!).
Why? Because, within this greater narrative context, the overall trajectory is from an exclusive focus on “insiders” to an inclusive focus on everyone. In Mark’s Gospel, the first miracle of the loaves and fishes takes place in Galilee, a specifically Jewish location. And Jesus is a Jew! So Jesus preaches to his people, feeds his people, and then continues on across the lake (with the walking on water miracle in the middle) to heal his people. It’s at this point that the scribes and Pharisees, i.e. the strict interpreters of the Jewish tradition, challenge Jesus. And the reason is quite interesting, given the unfolding narrative of “who’s in and who’s out.” They’re upset because some of the disciples are eating with unwashed hands, which in traditional Judaism, is forbidden.
In other words, the keepers of the religious tradition had decided that the disciples were unclean! They were “out.” They were “other.” Who knows why some of the disciples had chosen to dispense with the ritual washing. Perhaps they felt part of something new and different, perhaps they had a difficult time accessing water as they traveled, perhaps Mark is just trying to make a point. But, whatever the reason, the narrative tells us that Jesus was chastised by the elders of his tradition for not following the protocol which defines who is “in” and who is “out.” And, rather than chastising his disciples, Jesus challenges the religious conservatives and responds with the beginnings of a more inclusive interpretation of God’s law. In short, he says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” In other words, it is not the rituals we do or do not do that define us as a human being. What is important is that which resides within us and how it compels us to live in the world.
And yet, having uttered such a brave and radical statement, Jesus still has some growing to do. Mark’s gospel tells us that he next went to Tyre, a non-Jewish region known for its wealthy Gentiles or pagans. And here, Jesus is accosted (I use this word intentionally, since not only was Jesus trying to get some rest at this point in the story, but also he was most definitely not interested in being approached by a Gentile woman). As I said, he still had some growing to do! Anyway, Jesus was accosted by a pagan woman whose daughter was very ill. And she begged him, in the nomenclature of the time, to “cast out the demon” from her child. She was, as any mother would be, desperate for someone, anyone, to help.
So—quick Bible quiz. At this point in the story, did Jesus:
a) gaze upon the woman with compassion, go quickly to the side of her ill daughter, and heal the child?
b) tell the woman he was extremely tired and truly needed a break but would come see her in the morning?
c) Say, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Well, if you listened to Justin’s earlier reading of this passage, you know that, unfortunately, the answer is “c.” Yes, Jesus actually compared this woman’s daughter to a dog! And, while some have argued that the Greek word in the story means “house dog,” implying that it was, perhaps, a kindly comparison, I have to contend that in the ancient world one did not usually contrast humans with dogs in such a way that the dogs came out on top. Quite the contrary.
So, as Professor Karen A. Keely has written in Witness Magazine:
Who is this Jesus who is scornful of other nationalities and religions? What kind of savior doesn’t want to heal a young girl simply because of who her family is?
And, as Kathryn Matthew Huey writes in the UCC’s Sermon Seeds:
…could this be a great turning point in the Gospel of Mark? Could the early church which produced this narrative be evident in the tension it expresses and resolves?
Well… yes. I think it could, and I think it is—a turning point, that is. A great turning point. An important turning point. Perhaps, the turning point: the transformation of Jesus from one whose very human nature thought in terms of “us” and “them” to one whose growing connection with the divine included all people in the “us.”
For, in response to Jesus’ truly callous reply (remember, “the dogs!”), the Gentile mother (who must have been truly desperate to have sought help from an itinerant Jewish rabbi…) says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And, Jesus, who has just fed thousands of the “children” of Israel, with the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and with many baskets of crumbs leftover, has his own eyes opened, his own ears unplugged, and says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” Or, in Matthew’s version, “You have great faith. Your request has been granted!”
But, I have to wonder—what sort of faith did she have? So often, it has been assumed that this passage meant the woman had great faith in Jesus. And yet, I sincerely doubt this is true. For I agree with Kathryn Matthews Huey, who writes:
How could a pagan woman have faith in an itinerant preacher from a foreign religion? Hope, perhaps, but faith? What does she really know of his teachings, of his person, beyond the rumors of healings and other wonders? Perhaps, in seeking a motivating force, we’re closer to the truth if we focus on her passionate love for her child, a love that would not be discouraged or deterred even by insult or rejection.
And, honestly, I think it is this love that swayed Jesus, that opened his eyes, that transformed him. Yes, this mother love that would not be discouraged or deterred even by insult or rejection. Because in the Gospel of Mark, from this moment on, never again does Jesus refuse to heal anyone or question their worthiness to be healed. In fact, at the end of this morning’s reading, Jesus heals a deaf man in Sidon, another pagan area, immediately after healing the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter. And this time, Gentile or not, Jesus asks no questions. He simply heals the man. “Be opened,” he says, and the man’s ears are opened. “Be opened,” he says, and the man’s tongue is unplugged.
So I have to think that Jesus, too, has been opened. That he has had the loving inclination of his heart unplugged. That he has been freed from the conventional bondage of “us” and “them” and moved into a new place of radical welcome for all.
And Mark’s narrative affirms this. For, immediately following the healing of the deaf man in Sidon, Mark recounts the second feeding miracle, this time in the region of Decapolis, a decidedly pagan or Gentile location. This time it is not just the insiders, or Jesus’ own people, who are fed. No, it is the outsiders, the “other,” the ones who do not belong.
And there is enough for everybody! Enough love, enough forgiveness, enough compassion, enough bread. For God’s love is abundant. Even after the miracles of the loaves and fishes (both of them!), even after these miracles took place, and everyone was sated, there were many baskets of crumbs leftover. There was plenty for everybody. There is plenty for everybody. Jews, Gentiles, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists, et cetera. There is enough.
And perhaps this is the faith we can all share, the faith that is most important for us all to share—a faith which embraces abundance. A faith which accepts a reality that has enough for all and includes us all, every single part of God’s body. For in the words of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body… As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Of course, Paul was referring specifically to the Body of Christ. But, following Jesus’ example, shouldn’t we extend this metaphor to include not just the people in our own tradition, but those from others? Oughtn’t we to broaden this metaphor to encompass the Body of God?
Yes! For, aren’t we all so connected in this global village of humanity that the suffering of one almost always leads to the suffering of others? And doesn’t the honoring of one so often lead to a greater understanding of and acceptance of others? Thus, as the Body of God, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
And when we suffer, it is so often predicated on the belief that we are not One Body, that we are not connected, that there is simply not enough—love, forgiveness, compassion, or bread to go around. Whereas, when we rejoice it is so often because we have managed to honor the many gifts we each have to share—including all the wonderful external differences of ritual and dress and diet and belief that make up our specific faith traditions. When we embrace the many parts of God’s body, we embrace abundance; we choose to have faith in a God or a universe or a life force that offers enough of everything to go around.
As Kathryn Matthews Huey writes:
[I’m reminded] of the Roman centurion of the mighty imperial army coming to Jesus and humbly asking for his help in Luke 7 – remember how Jesus said then that he saw more faith in this foreigner than in anyone he had met in Israel? In that case, Jesus himself is talking about faith, which inspires us, perhaps, to explore more deeply what “faith” is. Certainly it isn’t simply an intellectual acceptance of doctrinal truths, but a radical and humble dependence on a God who loves us and will provide what we need.
“A radical and humble dependence on a God who loves us and will provide what we need.” Might we all be willing to agree on that one point?
I don’t know. Time will tell. But I’d like to suggest that, as followers of the Jesus who experienced his own radical awakening in the narrative of “us” versus “them,” we have been called to do the same—to open our hearts and minds to all those who have been deemed “other” than our own, different from ourselves.
Today, two days before the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is the 9/11 Unity Walk, conceived in the aftermath of that great tragedy and summarized by its slogan, “From different paths, we walk as one.” An eight year old boy, teacher to us all, stated it this way, after having visited many of the faith communities along Massachusetts Avenue during last year’s walk: “Daddy, God has many houses!”
Yes, God does. And they all look different. As do the many parts of God’s body. In the words of the Unity walk website:
[We come together as] people of all ages, backgrounds and faiths to learn to respect each other through a framework of experiential education, compassionate leadership and intentional service. Unity Walk seeks to create a world where we are united, rather than divided, by our many faiths.
May it be so.
In Jesus’ name.