Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Ministry, Plans, and Changes of Plans

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, September 6, 2009

Mark 7:24-37

A novel I began reading this week opens with a scene of a Swiss professor walking across a bridge. He sees a rather distraught looking woman who suddenly appears to be on the verge of jumping off the bridge. He is ready to intervene when suddenly she stops, turns, and writes on his forehead a telephone number that, lacking paper, she wants to remember. She follows him to class. He only has the briefest conversation with her, but it is enough to impel him to leave his teaching post and travel halfway across Europe to Portugal, where she had come from.

I can’t tell you more because I have barely read more. But I don’t need to. It is a weird beginning, in a way. And yet it is thoroughly believable. Not because it happens every day: it does not. Yet there occurs in nearly all our lives an occasional incident whose effect on us is out of all proportion to its content or circumstances. It contains the power completely to rewrite our scripts, to alter the ways we look at the universe, or at the very least thoroughly to shake up our plans.

Such an incident forms the gospel for today. If you are tracking Jesus in Mark’s gospel, you can tell an enormous amount about the meaning of the story simply from knowing the geography of Jesus’ travels. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee a second time. They have gone to a deserted place, presumably on the eastern bank. People have followed on foot the several miles around the northern shore of the sea. It is there that he feeds them by multiplying the loaves and fish. The group comes back across the sea, and lands at Genessaret, where immediately a throng besieges him, begging for his healing power. After going around the farms and villages and cities to the north and west of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus encounters a deputation of religious leaders who upbraid him for his and his disciples’ being careless about matters of ritual purity. Then he does something that, up till now in the story, he has not tried. He heads into Gentile territory. He moves away from his native stomping ground in Galilee, and heads towards the Mediterranean coast. Mark’s readers are aware that Tyre and Sidon are largely non-Jewish centers. The notion seems to be that Jesus is on retreat. He enters a house—we don’t know whose—and he specifically does not want anyone to know that he is there.

We cannot say what Jesus’ plans really were, even in the context of Mark’s narrative. But we do know that this is not the first time in this gospel that Jesus has encountered a Gentile. The first incident happened a few chapters back on the first trip he and his disciples took across the Sea. Now that is significant in itself, because the land to the east of the Sea of Galilee was also Gentile territory. We know that it was because it was near Gerasa that Jesus encountered the demon-possessed man out of whom he drove the demons into a herd of swine. Jews don’t raise hogs; Gentiles do. The pigs promptly ran down the bank and into the sea and drowned. It is a terrifying story, and does not do much to show deep sensitivity to a Gentile farm economy, this exorcism. Nonetheless, after only this one incident, in which the demoniac is healed and ordered to stay on his side of the lake, Jesus and his disciples cross back over to Jewish territory.

So, while he is visiting in this home somewhere near the coast, comes this woman who is identified as a Syrophoenician, a Gentile. Her little daughter has an unclean spirit. The woman bows down at Jesus’ feet, a gesture of obvious humility and supplication. She begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Then Jesus says something that to many ears sounds utterly incomprehensible, given the usual suppositions about Jesus’ universal inclusiveness. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Choke! Might it not be that Jesus, good Jew that he was, actually saw the world in these terms? What we can say with some assurance is that at this point, Jesus’ ministry takes a decidedly different turn. He does not in fact, return to the familiar towns of Galilee, but instead heads through Sidon to that eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the Region of the Decapolis, more Gentile territory.

Assuming that Jesus was not playing games with the Syrophoenician woman (some commentators have suggested as much), she clearly had an impact on his ministry, and quite likely on his self-understanding. Certainly, her persistence that he heal her daughter caused him to change his mind and attitude towards her. And it was not just her persistence, but her willingness, as a foreigner and outsider, to state her claim on Jesus’ power and attention. Matthew tells the story a bit more elaborately. There the woman is like the importunate widow elsewhere in the gospels, clamoring for attention, bugging the disciples, annoying them beyond their patience. In that account it is clearer that the woman is outside her rights to insist on a healing when she is not even a member of the household of Israel. Mark simply says that Jesus tells her, “For saying this you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

As the story continues, it seems clear that this encounter has changed the nature of Jesus’ mission. For when he goes to the Decapolis, the Gentiles bring one of their own, a deaf man with a speech impediment, to be healed. He does not respond by arguing that the man has no claim on healing or other blessings because he is not a Jew. No, this time Jesus has not entered Gentile territory fundamentally to get away from it all, but specifically for the purpose of ministering. Now the interesting thing about this deaf man is that he embodies exactly what Israel thought of Gentiles. One of Israel’s poets, contrasting his faith with that of the Gentiles, wrote,

Our God is in heaven; Whatever he wills to do he does. Their idols are silver and gold, The work of human hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; Eyes have they, but they cannot see; They have ears, but they cannot hear; Noses, but they cannot smell; They have hands, but they cannot feel; Feet, but they cannot walk; They make no sound with their throat. Those who make them are like them, And so are all who put their trust in them. [Psalm 115:3-8]

In almost no other healing account in the gospels do we get so graphic a description of Jesus’ healing as we do in this one. He takes the man privately, places his fingers in his ears, spits and touches his tongue. We have come a long way from Tyre when Gentiles were accorded the status of dogs.

There is no doubt that the most significant achievement of early Christianity is that, instead of remaining a sect within Judaism, it consciously, if at first hesitantly, embraced the Gentile mission. If we think that the Church is wrestling with explosive issues today in the realm of human sexuality, we should remember that these issues hardly compare with the gigantic breakthrough of the Early Church in smashng down the wall between Jew and Gentile. The way Mark tells the story, it is clear that Jesus himself is the origin of that movement. And how did that come to be? The key incident is that one day a Syrophoenician woman implored him to heal her little girl, resolved not to take “No” for an answer, and argued that, if she were a Gentile dog, she could still gather up the crumbs that fell from Israel’s table.

Ministry, yours as well as mine, is frequently about revising our plans and notions, even those we are completely committed to. That itself is something that a great many people have trouble seeing. Humans hold on to the past with a vengeance, whether it is a personal past or a social or religious or political past. Often the impulse to preserve what has worked well serves to protect and to extend important learnings. But all the great breakthroughs in any sphere of life are by their very nature events that blast open the confines of previously accepted wisdom. They are breakthroughs precisely because they break through barriers and ceilings and take us to new places. Yet those new places are always scary to a great many of us. We don’t know how to think or how to behave without familiar charts and conventions. Our pattern is usually to resist, and ultimately to fall back into the more familiar patterns, at least for awhile. Thus, the Early Church had its Judaizers, seeking to undo at least the thrust of the Gentile mission’s insight that the center of our freedom is in a Risen Christ and not in keeping kosher. The Reformation on both sides did not take long to devolve into a new orthodoxy, in some ways and places as rigid as the old. Vatican II, which many of us remember as shaking loose the ossified establishment of Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has been followed by decades of retrenchment.

Nor is religion the only place we see the dynamic at work. Scientists are notoriously slow to revise their mindset when an Einstein or a Heisenberg comes along with an unorthodox notion that challenges established theory. Much of what we have been seeing this summer in the way of political overreaction in the health care debate is the clash of undeniably new thinking with people’s patterned responses which they employ and defend despite all reason.

Jesus could certainly have made a case—indeed we see him making one—in Tyre which would have left the Gentile woman with a mentally ill daughter indefinitely, a case based on his own plans and the received mindset of his people. Instead he allowed himself to be changed.

Yes. Even Jesus learned what it meant to take a deep breath and look into space and say to himself, “Ephphatha! Be opened!”