Sunday, September 06, 2009

Proper 18B

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

“On my honor as a St. Andrew’s student, I pledge that I will neither lie, nor cheat, nor steal.”

Some seven hundred middle and upper school students recited those words on Friday during our Honor Code Chapel. Each fall, we recommit ourselves as a community - faculty and staff, too - to being honorable and trustworthy in our learning together and in our living together. Because of the Honor Code at St. Andrew’s School, faculty can allow students to take tests at home. Laptop computers can be left unattended even overnight. Everyone can be taken at their word.

We come by this Honor Code naturally. It echoes the sacred covenant our ancestors in faith received in the form of the ten commandments, in which they learned what it means to trust God and respect one another. Those commandments were summed up by Jesus like this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Our Honor Code is, then, at its core, about loving our neighbors and ourselves as much as God loves us, which is to say, with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

That’s what I shared as one of several speakers at the Middle School service. Our speaker at the Upper School service was a beloved pastor from a Baptist church attended by a number of our students. “I am honored to be here today,” he began. “But when I was asked to speak to you on this occasion, I realized that you must not know, you must not have heard about what happened forty years ago, when I was in ninth grade...”

The pastor went on to describe the time he changed a grade on his report card for fear his parents would be angry about a “C”. But he never made it home with the altered grade. A teacher discovered the ruse, and towering over him, said four words he has never forgotten: “You’re better than that.” He never excelled in that teacher’s subject, but still he credits him with being the teacher who most influenced his life.

If Jesus came today as a guest preacher here or in any church we know, and he read through the letters of Paul and James and others who urged the faithful to follow the way, and he saw our little “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets, and he listened to us talk about how we strive to live like him... I wonder if he would start his sermon, “I am honored to be here today. But when I was asked to speak to you on this occasion, I realized that you must not know, you must not have heard about what happened when I was in Tyre...”

Everything up to the end of the story of what happened in Tyre is difficult for us. For the earliest Christians, and certainly for those who traveled with Jesus, only the end would have been difficult. Only the part when Jesus actually heals the Gentile daughter of the Gentile woman who interrupted his solitude, who dared to speak to him, who stood up against him, only the part when he heals the girl would have offended them.

We, though, are offended earlier in the story, when Jesus at first refuses to cast her demon out. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. How could Jesus say such a thing? How could he call a woman, a mother desperate to save the life of her child, a dog?

Scholars ever since have tried to soften the blow of his words. Perhaps Jesus was simply testing her faith, some say. In Matthew’s version of the story, he finally commends her faith. But Mark says nothing about at all about it. Perhaps the meaning is lost in translation, others say. The word we read as “dog” really means “little dog,” “house dog,” or even “puppy”. In his painting of this scene, 18th century Italian artist Sebastiano Ricci depicts the woman holding a puppy in her arms, and Jesus is almost smiling as he looks down at her, as if, one commentary suggests, he was saying, “I was going to say no, but if that isn’t the cutest little puppy you’ve got there...”

Perhaps, still others say, it simply was not strange at all for a faithful Jewish man of Jesus’ day to consider a brazen Gentile woman to be second class, to be a little less than human, to be like a dog. Perhaps Jesus, well-versed as he was in the Law, was simply applying it as any other Jewish person would. As Gentiles, the woman and her daughter would have been considered under the Law unclean, and Jesus would have risked contaminating himself if he associated himself with them. In Matthew’s version of the story Jesus tries to ignore her before he finally condescends to speak to her at all.

But the woman is persistent. Sir, she says, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. She was kneeling at his feet, but I wonder if this was the moment Jesus experienced a teacher towering over him and uttering the words, “You’re better than that.”

Did the woman teach Jesus that day? Many believe that she did, that she opened Jesus’ eyes, his heart, his soul, his mind, his strength to something he had not considered as a faithful Jewish man. As he gazed down at her, perhaps he saw the twelve baskets of fish and loaves left over from an impossible feast on a hillside. Perhaps he heard himself telling the Pharisees not so very long before that no foods were unclean but rather that it was what came out of a person that made them unclean. Perhaps Jesus understood that here was a mother willing to humble herself, to risk her own life, to cross any boundary, to try any means, to do anything and everything it took to save her child’s life - perhaps he saw in her himself, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, crossed the boundary between heaven and earth... and being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross - in order to save the children of God

And so it was that Jesus healed the woman’s daughter, cast out the demon that tormented her, not because of the woman’s faith but because of her love, the passionate, persistent, stubborn love of one’s whole heart and soul and mind and strength that Jesus recognized as the kind of love with which God loves, the kind of love he had been sent to teach to all of God’s children. All of them.

Jesus was still in Gentile country when a deaf man with a speech impediment was brought to him. It could read as a run-of-the-mill miracle story, except that it follows the story of woman from Tyre, the woman whose love refused to give in. It could read as a run-of-the-mill healing story, with its ritual gestures and its words of power, except that I’m not sure Jesus was speaking to the deaf man alone when he uttered, ephphatha, be opened. Perhaps he was also speaking to himself, perhaps his sigh was an exhaling of a narrow vision of salvation, perhaps his eyes lifted to heaven were a silent prayer of thanksgiving for a love that was deeper and broader than the Law could tell.

If we are to follow the way of Christ, if we are to do what Jesus would do, if we would strive to live like him, then we, too, must be willing to be opened, to see and hear and embrace in new and ever broadening ways. We come about this code naturally as people baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who for love opened the way of salvation for all people. Ephphatha, Jesus sighs within our hearts, so that we might see and hear the full height and width and breadth and depth of his love for all of God’s children.

If we measure by the Law alone, then none of us deserves that love. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table, we acknowledge in the prayer of humble access. But Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of Thy dear son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. May we do what Jesus does. May we open our eyes and ears and hearts and lives to compassion that does not measure but, rather, that makes all things new. Amen.

Artwork: The Ten Commandments; "Christ and the Canaanite Woman," by Sebastiano Ricci; "The Syrophoenician Woman,", by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM; "Elemental," by the Rev. Caroline Kramer.

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