Going the Distance 09/09/18 (Proper 18B)

GOING THE DISTANCE
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
TEXT: MARK 7:24-30
SEPTEMBER 9, 2018: 23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (PROPER 18B)

“I can’t do any more people-ing,” my friend texted me one evening. She’d been back on the college campus after a semester break and had run from faculty meetings to classes to student advising to more meetings to a meet-and-greet reception to a departmental dinner. “I just can’t with all the people,” she sighed. “I’m going to have a glass of wine and watch mindless TV and not talk to anyone for 8 hours. Not even my husband.”

I totally get that. Although I’m outgoing and talkative and certainly not shy, I am an introvert. I enjoy being with people, but I can only take so much “people-ing” before my nervous system goes into overdrive and then shuts down without warning. I can only recharge, refuel, re-energize, by being alone. Solitary. Quiet. Just me and maybe a glass of wine and stupid television. But certainly the alone part.

I wonder if Jesus is feeling that way in today’s story. He has been running around, feeding the “five thousand men plus women and children,” healing people, verbally sparring with the Pharisees and scribes, crossing the Sea of Galilee a few times, and basically never getting a moment’s rest. Mark’s Gospel says, “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak” (Mk. 6:56). If it isn’t the crowds of people, it’s the disciples themselves with all their questions and confusion and noise. It hasn’t stopped even for a moment. I wonder if his nervous system has gone into overdrive like my friend’s did, like mine does.

So, Mark tells us, Jesus sets out and goes away to the region of Tyre, where he enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. (7:24)

Why Tyre? It seems an odd choice. I understand the need to get away from the crowds. But this is a little more extreme than, say, me going down into the basement and turning off the lights and watching TV in the dark, alone, refusing to talk to anyone, even my husband. No, Jesus has just walked 38 miles from Genessaret to Tyre. That’s a really long way to walk in search of some solitude. And it’s not just far from the last place Jesus has been; it’s far from Galilee. This is Gentile territory, up to the north, along the Mediterranean Sea. Tyre is a region known for its outbreaks of violence against Jews during the first century CE – not a friendly place for a bunch of wandering Jews and their itinerant healer-rabbi.

But Tyre is where Jesus goes.

And when he gets there, he doesn’t actually find peace and quiet. Somehow his reputation has preceded him even this far north, because a woman “immediately” hears about him and rushes to the house to beg him to heal her daughter. Her daughter, you see, has an unclean spirit. We’ve encountered these unclean spirits before in the Gospel of Mark. In fact, the very first act of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel is to exorcise an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue in Capernaum. We don’t know exactly what was wrong with this woman’s daughter, but it’s apparently something with which Jesus is quite familiar.

We might expect Jesus to promptly consent to heal the woman’s daughter. After all, that’s what he’s been doing for the last 6 chapters – taking care of people in need! But no. Maybe he’s tired from that long walk. Or he’s grumpy from not getting enough to eat. Or he’s still worn out from all of the ministry he’d been doing before he got to Tyre and is frustrated that he still hasn’t had a moment of quiet all to himself. Maybe the disciples wouldn’t stop talking or arguing or singing as they walked all those miles and he has a headache. Or maybe he is, like Alexander in the children’s story, just having a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” We don’t know why, we just know what: he says 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.”

Did our Lord and Savior just call a worried mama a dog?

That’s not my Jesus! Right? Maybe. We’ll come back to that.

For now: about this woman. Who is she? The Greek literally says that she is Greek of Syrophoenician ethnicity. In other words, her culture is Greek – the region she lives in and the people with whom she associates have been deeply Hellenized (read: most definitely not Jewish). Her ethnicity is Syrophoenician, which is to say her people come from the areas of Syria and Phoenicia, which have had complicated and often violent relationships with the Jewish people.

And there’s the fact that she’s a woman. And that her daughter is unclean due to some kind of “spirit” possession.

For these reason, many people have called her a superb example of the “outsider.” And from the Jewish perspective, she was an outsider. She would have had absolutely no business asking Jesus for anything – she shouldn’t even have the audacity to approach him, let alone ask him for favors and then proceed to argue with him!

But the thing is, she’s in her own territory. Jesus and his disciples are the outsiders. They are way, way outside their turf. This is her hometown. From her perspective, it must seem obvious that he must have come here, to her hometown, in order to continue his ministry – a ministry she has heard so much about, even living so far away from him. “If he’s here,” she must have thought, “he surely intends to interact with the people who live here.” And so why should she not ask him to heal her daughter? It seems a completely reasonable request to me.

And yet Jesus refers to the Jewish people as the children who must be fed first, and her people as dogs who aren’t getting any food right now. No. He’s not going to heal her daughter.

Maybe it’s because she’s in her own territory. Maybe it’s because she’s just a tenacious and relentless person. Maybe it’s because she’s fierce and fearless in her motherhood. We don’t know why, exactly, but we do know that the woman isn’t cowed by Jesus’ dismissive remark. She isn’t even offended – at least, she doesn’t act as though she is. With great calm and without histrionics, she simply says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Can you see the wry smile tugging at the corner of Jesus’ mouth? She got him. Yes. Of course there’s enough for the children and the dogs and anyone else who’s hungry. His table is big and wide. “You may go,” Jesus tells her. “The demon has left your daughter.”

That’s more than crumbs under the table. The woman’s daughter isn’t just “a little better.” She is thoroughly healed; the demon has completely left her. She has had a full meal sitting at the table beside Jesus in a place of honor.

As for Jesus: one of the reasons I love this story is because he’s so human. We talk about the two natures of Christ, human and divine, but sometimes we tip too far in one direction or another. But if we read the gospels, we see how those two natures are always there, sometimes working together and sometimes wrestling with each other within Jesus. As someone who can be irritable, short-tempered, cranky, and sick of being around other people and I just want to be left alone!! – I am comforted by this imperfect Jesus. After all, if my Savior can have a bad day, then it’s probably ok when I do too.

Of course, I also love that there’s a pushy broad who gets Jesus back on track when he forgets what he’s supposed to be doing. She’s a good model of faith, this unnamed mother. Sometimes it’s good to argue with God, to plead and question and test and nudge. We may not always get the answer we want, but sometimes we just might! That kind of tangling with God is a healthy part of a living and active faith – even though it rarely feels good in the moment. The Bible is replete with stories of people arguing with God, often changing God’s mind but certainly growing in their faith when they do, whether their wishes are granted or not.

And I love that Jesus does come back to himself. He doesn’t stay cranky, arms crossed and refusing to do anything for this woman. He can be convinced; he can change his mind; he comes through with what is needed. In other words, he isn’t only human; by the end of the story, he remembers, and we are reminded, that he is also divine.

As we start off the church year, I think this text offers us a word of hope and reassurance. Jesus walked 38 miles to heal this woman’s daughter – even if he didn’t know when he set out on that journey that this would be his mission. He walked 38 miles to begin a new ministry with a whole new group of people – the Gentiles, the outsiders, the ones his own people wanted to avoid.

If he could walk 38 miles, if he could reach out to people so different from his own, if he could have his mind changed by the love and faith and argument of the mama of a sick kid, certainly he can find you, find me, wherever we are. If he could feed five thousand on a hillside, if he could feed the children at the table and the dogs beneath it, then surely he can feed us. In a moment we’ll be reminded of that once again as we gather at this Table to share bread and cup.

No matter how far, no matter how sick, no matter how lost, no matter how hungry we are: Jesus is reaching out to us with healing hands, offering us loaves of bread and cups of joyous promise.

Thanks be to God.

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