Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Of Dogs and Lives that Matter: Sermon for Pentecost 15 (Proper 18B) – 6 September 2015

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A sermon offered on Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B, Track 1, RCL), September 6, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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syrophenician woman icon“Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Mark’s Gospel can be infuriating at times. This introduction to the story of the Syrophoenician woman is definitely one of those times, two short sentences which leave us wanting to know so much more. We can, I think, understand why Jesus might not want anyone to know he was in the place; we frequently observe him throughout the Gospels trying to find some “down-time,” some privacy, some solitude to be with God. But why did he set out and go “to the region of Tyre?”

Tyre was a Greek commercial center in southern Lebanon. For the Jews of First Century Palestine it was just beyond the northernmost extent of their province; “the region of Tyre” was where Jews and Gentiles frequently interacted, a frankly uncomfortable situation for Jews whose religion and law forbade that, whose racial and religious prejudices informed them that they were God’s chosen and that all other persons were unclean, whose sense of self and national importance required that they separate themselves from Gentiles. It was not the sort of place one would have expected the Jewish Messiah to go. So why is he there?

“He entered a house . . . “ Whose?!? Why!?! There are just all sorts of questions that erupt from those four short words.

Mark leaves us wanting so much more information! It’s infuriating.

Of course, Mark leaves out those details that he doesn’t think important. What’s crucial for Mark is the story of the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, probably the most uncomfortable, the most disturbing story about Jesus in all of the Gospel literature.

The story is simple and brief. A non-Jewish woman who has heard of Jesus’ power as a healer comes seeking aid for her daughter. Mark specifically identifies her as a Syrophoenician, a Greek-speaking resident of what we now call Syria. She has, perhaps, come from Syria to the Mediterranean with her child seeking a better life and now she needs help. Jesus dismisses her; to be honest, he blows her off. “I’m here for the Jewish children,” he says, “not you Gentile dogs.” He’s not just dismissive; he’s rude. He’s not just rude; he’s insulting! “But even the dogs,” she replies in the face of his insult, “even the dogs get the children’s scraps.”

My friend David Henson, an Episcopal priest and journalist, writes of this story:

Jesus uttered an ethnic slur.

To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child.

In this week’s gospel text, in the Black Lives Matter era, I think we have to start with that disturbing and disorienting fact.

Our immediate response likely is, “Of course not! Jesus couldn’t possibly have uttered a slur!” But Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems to tell a different story. No matter what theological tap dance can avoid it: Jesus calls the unnamed woman a dog, an ethnic slur common at the time.

To be clear, while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism. (In Patheos “Edges of Faith” Blog.)

I believe David is right to link this story to the refrain “Black Lives Matter” which we have begun to hear with increasing fervor and increasing frequency, because that is exactly what this woman says to Jesus: “Syrophoenician Lives Matter” . . . . and Jesus responds out of his religion which forbade interaction with non-Jews, out of the racial and religious prejudices which informed his society that Jews were God’s chosen and that all other persons were unclean, out of that sense of self and national importance that required that he and all Jews separate themselves from Gentiles. When we hear “Black Lives Matter,” we are likely to do very much the same thing.

More than once I have heard members of my race and economic class respond with the comeback “All lives matter” and at first that made sense to me. Then I read an editorial in which was written:

If I say, “Black lives matter,” and you think I mean, “Black lives matter more than others,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If I say, “White privilege is real and it means white people have some unearned social advantages just because they’re white,” and you think I mean, “White privilege is real and it means white people should be ashamed of themselves just because they’re white,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If I say, “We have a problem with institutionalized racism in our legal system,” and you think I mean, “We have a problem with everyone being racist in our legal system,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If we are having these misunderstandings, where are they coming from and what can we do about them?

(Note: The source is an internet meme seen on Facebook and Pinterest; the origin of the text is unknown.)

“Sir,” said the Syrophoenician woman, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. [We are having a misunderstanding, where is it coming from and what can we do about it?]”

I came to realize “All lives matter” is a retort that dilutes and even negates the assertion that “black lives matter.”

We generally do not respond in that way when others make claim to particularity. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” we don’t rise up and insist “No, Jesus, blessed is everybody in every economic class.” When the Buddha says, “The enlightened one must delight in the forest,” we don’t dismiss him with “No, Siddhartha, one should delight in the desert and the meadow, as well” We don’t because we realize that their specificity has a point; the specific does not negate the general or the other, but it does highlight the particular. “Blessed are the poor” highlights the plight of those who lack; “Delight in the forest” draws attention to the interconnections of all life.

“Black lives matter” underscores the sad fact that, for many, black lives do NOT matter, and offering “All lives matter” as a response invalidates that specific and particular realization. Of course, all lives matter, but in our contemporary social circumstance specifically noting that black lives matter has particular currency and validity.

To respond “All lives matter” drowns the specificity of the assertion in an undifferentiated sea of sameness and unrecognizability which we know darn good and well really does not exist! The claim of the particular cannot be overwhelmed by the flood of the undefined, and we are wrong to respond in that way, just as wrong as Jesus came to know himself to have been in calling the woman a dog!

Early last week the news media and social media were flooded with pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurbi, and later with photos of his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rehan. Like the woman in our Gospel story today, a mother and her children come from Syria to the Mediterranean seeking a better life, three refugees fleeing their own war-torn and atrocity-ravaged country, trying to get to Europe and from there to Canada where Aylan’s aunt and uncle live and were preparing a new life for them. They didn’t make it. Whatever vessel they were in capsized and they drowned, Aylan’s little body washing up onto the beach of a Turkish resort.

Aylan KurbiAs photos of his lifeless body laying face down in the sand made their way instantaneously around the world, an international hew and cry was heard; in a phrase, the world said, “Refugees’ lives matter! Syrian lives matter!” In response to the death of that one, specific little boy, no one was heard to say, “All lives matter” . . . .

It is easy for us to look across the wide ocean to the Middle East and Europe, and diagnose the social ills, the evil spirits, and the political injustices that led to Aylan’s death; it is less easy for us to acknowledge and diagnose in our own country what Presiding Bishop Katharine and President Jennings called the “structures that bear witness to unjust centuries of the evils of white privilege, systemic racism, and oppression that are not yet consigned to history.” (A Letter to the Episcopal Church. Note: The letter was read in full to the congregation prior to the service.) As Jesus noted, it is much easier to see our neighbors’ problems than our own, but he advises us: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Lk 6:41-42, cf Mt 7:4-5)

Mark’s Gospel can be infuriating at times, his ending to the story of the Syrophoenician woman no less so than its introduction. Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, heard the truth of her Gentile reality, and realized the brokenness of his own Jewish milieu: “For saying that,” he tells her, “you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Going home she finds that to be so and that’s where Mark ends the tale; he gives us not a single additional detail. In the next paragraph, Jesus is forty miles away somewhere east of the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis, another place with that troublesome intermixture of Jews and Gentiles.

While he is there, another soul in need of help is brought to him, a deaf man with a speech impediment. Mark, having been so careful in the last story to make sure that his readers understand that the woman seeking help for her daughter was a Gentile, completely ignores this man’s ethnicity; but Mark leaves out details that he considers unimportant. Although this story takes place in exactly the same sort of social situation as the last – Jews and Gentiles living side-by-side in that uneasy mix, the Jews here no less bound by those laws of separation, no less steeped in those racial and religious prejudices of chosenness and uncleanness – those differences no longer matter. Jesus’ eyes and ears and heart having been opened by the Syrophoenician woman’s plea; he ministers to the deaf man without regard to whether he is Jew or Gentile. He “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.’” I wonder if he thought about how his own understanding of his messianic ministry had been opened up by the woman in Tyre.

“Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking,” our leaders quoted AME Bishop Jackson. It will require that our ears be opened, that we remove the logs from our eyes, and that we confess and repent of the sin of racism, including those times when we have simply ignored it, tolerated it, accepted it, or even unknowingly benefited from it. And lest any of us think that we have nothing in this way to confess, just ponder briefly the words we heard from James’ epistle this morning:

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

[Silence]

“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor[, Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, women and men, Syrians and Europeans, Christians and Muslims] have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”

Yes, all lives matter.

All lives matter because . . . .

Black lives matter.

Syrian lives matter.

Refugees’ lives matter.

Aylan Kurbi’s life mattered.

The Syrophoenician woman’s daughter’s life mattered.

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”

Let us understand and affirm that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation, to pray and act for an end to racism in our world and in our country, is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant. “[We] do well if [we] really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Let us pray:

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Prayer for Social Justice, BCP 1979, page 823)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

4 Comments

  1. Susan Haseltine

    Ok, I came, I saw, I read, I liked and posted on my page. ;D

  2. eric

    Thank you, Susan!

  3. Ronna Johnson

    This post is the first place I have actually seen the photo of Aylan’s body lying on the beach rather than in the arms of the man who picked up his lifeless body. I feel that was unnecessary to the story as well as disrespectful to the child’s family and loved ones.

  4. eric

    It was, Ronna, the first photograph of Aylan that I and many others saw. It wasn’t until at least 24 hours later that I saw the picture, first, of a Turkish emergency worker approaching his body and then, later, of the same worker holding the body. It was the shock of that picture of his small body on the beach that caused an uproar, which is what I made reference to in the sermon. I thought, and still think, it a necessary (and not disrespectful) point to be made.

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