[A sermon delivered on Sept. 9, 2018, at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, Henrietta NY, based on Mark 7:24-37 and James 2:1-9.]
Who would be on your spaceship? An exercise has been used by some middle schools to provoke the students to think about their views of diversity. They are given a list of people, not named, but described by their race, gender, ethnicity, skills, etc. The students are told that they can take, say, eight of them on a spaceship away from earth, because life on earth is about to end. The spaceship will take them to another planet, where it will be safe to settle and start the human race again. Whom would we take on our spaceship? Would there be much diversity or would they look pretty much like ourselves?
When it comes to admitting to racist tendencies, almost no one wants to admit guilt. Yet white supremacism is on the rise in our country. Incidents of racial violence are on the rise. One of the ways we resist admitting to racism is by framing it only on the individual level. As an individual, I can easily say that I am not racist. Yet, when I admit that I am white, middle-class man, I also admit that I benefit where minorities do not and sometimes at the expense of minorities. As a white, middle-class adult, I am privileged. If I am driving a newer model car, police do not pull me over and ask to see my ID and registration. Black people driving newer model cars are routinely pulled over and asked to show their ID and registration. How do I know that? Not first-hand, because I don’t look suspect. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a black Republican, was pulled over by police seven times in one year, though he was not speeding or breaking any laws. He was a black man driving a newer model car. That made him look suspicious.
One of my students at Northeastern Seminary a few years ago is a distinguished black pastor in Rochester. He told me, and the class I was teaching, that he schooled his teenaged children never to leave home without at least two forms of ID and never do to anything in public that would call attention to themselves. My parents never told me those things. They didn’t need to; I was a privileged white kid.
Am I a racist? I believe that I am not, at the individual level. But there is no question in my mind that as a white-privilege person I have benefitted by being in majority status in a society in which racism still exists is systemic ways.
That helps you understand why today’s lectionary passages grab my attention. I trust that they grab yours too, whatever you skin color and ethnic identity. That was a time of racism too. Jews didn’t like or trust Gentiles and Gentiles didn’t like or trust Jews. Jesus is doing some serious breakthrough ministry as he heads north for a respite. “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice….” That opening to our Mark passage says a whole lot. Much of Jesus’ ministry is happening in the Galilee region, north of Jerusalem. It is demanding ministry. He gets tired, just as we do when working hard, especially in public. He sneaks off for a few days to the north, where the weather is more temperate and crowds aren’t likely to find him. He leaves the border of Israel for the only time we know in his earthly life. He goes into hiding, probably for a needed few days. “Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.” He could not escape notice. His message of good news could not be hidden.
Who is this bold woman? Can’t she tell that he is getting away for a needed break? Can’t she wait and give him a break? Aren’t a couple disciples guarding the door, so Jesus can rest? “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” We know well, we church folk, that Jesus often reaches out to women and to the outcasts of his society. She has two strikes against her before she speaks: she is a woman and a Gentile. Add strike three when she approaches Jesus so boldly. “She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” There is a desperation in her voice as she senses that this is her one and only opportunity and she will not let it go by because of social niceties. Jesus seems unable to resist moments like this. But what he says is puzzling, at the least. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
As a white-privilege, middle-class, old American man, I struggle with what he says. Is he merely quoting a proverb that most people back then knew? Or is he trying to get rid of her, at least today, so he can get some rest? Have here come back on Wednesday! Or is he testing her resolve, to see if she really means it? We don’t know. Because of what we do know about Jesus, I want to believe the third option, that he is testing her resolve and really wants to do what she asks. But I don’t know. What I do know is that she is undeterred. She is not put off and will not go away gently. Because she loves her daughter and wants her daughter well, she fires right back: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Now we know the rest of the story. He listens to her. He hears her. He listens to her and he hears her. There is often a gap between listening and hearing. I think men like me are often guilty of listening without really hearing. I can listen to someone, while my mind is a thousand miles away. Jesus listens to her and he hears her. He is present for her. She wins the day. “’For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” She gets his attention. She puts his vacation on hold. He listens to her and hears her. He hears her heart for her daughter. Connection is made. Her daughter is healed. Her world changes, because Jesus listens to her and hears her.
I don’t know if he gets the rest he seeks up north of the border, but it is time to return to Galilee, which takes him through a Gentile-dominated region. A deaf and speech-impaired (here is another “two-strikes-against-him” person) is brought to Jesus. We don’t know if this is the deaf man’s idea or whether his friends simply do it. There he is, face-to-face with Jesus. “Be opened,” Jesus says, and the man is healed. “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” We don’t know with certainty why Jesus says not to tell others, but I am persuaded that his intent on not becoming known as a side-show magical healer. There were plenty of those around then, as there are now. Jesus was not and is not one of them. When he does a miracle, it is a sign pointing to a greater reality. The reality in these two healing stories seems clear: Jesus, the Lord of glory, the heaven-sent Savior of the world, has time to listen to and hear people, even a Gentile woman with no sense of propriety, a woman so intent on getting her daughter healed that she will be not be silenced by traditional order. Even if it interrupts his needed vacation. He has time to listen to and hear the friends of a deaf-mute man in Gentile territory. The circle of grace is widening every day. The borders are being extended to new territory every day. The walls that have long stood between people groups are falling every day. The kingdom of God is advancing every day.
We live in a day in which there has been so much progress. Yet, we also live in a day when too many people are not listened to and heard. The #MeToo movement is giving voice to women that have been abused and violated by men in power and have not found the justice system just. The church that bears the name of Jesus must be listening to and hearing these too-long muffled voices.
By most projections, in 20-25 years the United States will be a minority-majority country. That means that no one skin-color or ethnic group will be a majority. My group, white-privilege, will no longer be in the majority. Many that are now in the majority are frightened by this demographic wave. I welcome it. I take my marching orders from Jesus, who ever listens and hears the voices of the voiceless. I take heart from these words from James:
“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” Jesus ever shows us the way of grace that listens and hears, that welcomes and includes the other, that shows no partiality.