15 Pentecost, Proper 18 – September 6, 2015
A tired and exhausted Jesus seeks solitude. A woman hears about him and asks that he might cast a demon out of her daughter. The details are sparse. Whose house? How did the woman hear about him? Mark seems uninterested in these questions. Some details, though, are intentionally emphasized. He writes: “Now, the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by descent”. And this introduces a twist to the story, making clear its key tension. Because Jesus was in Gentile territory. He intentionally left Jewish territory to seek solitude, to get away from the crowds. Up until now, it was understood that Jesus had come for the Jewish people, not for Gentiles. Up until now.
Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman is less than charitable. He dismisses and insults. Jesus seems unsure of the relationship between the Gentiles and the Kingdom of God. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He says. In the absence of hearing Jesus’ inflection and seeing his face, it’s difficult to discern how he intends these words. Is he weary by this point and short of temper? Is his human side feeling overwhelmed by the work that yet remains for him within the house of Israel, let alone the world beyond this house? Or does he know full well what this mother is made of, and chooses to use this as a teaching moment and an opportunity to match wits with a worthy opponent?
Whatever Jesus’ intent, it’s hard to avoid hearing the insult that lurks within his words. The woman, however, refuses to be dissuaded. Rather than hearing Jesus’ response as a barrier, she uses it as a doorway.
The woman is kneeling before Jesus, but she is not merely a beggar. She is poised to wrestle a blessing from him. She is in a stance designed to disarm Jesus, to sweep him from his feet. She is in a posture from which she can look for crumbs and, from them, make a feast. She knows there’s one here somewhere for her and for her daughter.
She knows that Jesus knows this, too. She knows that Jesus carries abundance with him. It hasn’t been so long since he presided at the feeding of more than five thousand women, children, and men. She can smell the feast on him, the scent of the crumbs that cling to him.
“Yes, Lord,” the woman responds to Jesus, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
This woman knows there is a whole other world beneath the table. She recognizes that beyond the tabletop of privilege, there is yet a place for her and the daughter whom she is desperate to save. Taking what lies beneath the table, the woman makes a feast. And in that place, the unnamed woman becomes a celebrant. She leaves with the blessing she has wrestled from Jesus; she leaves with a healing for her daughter. She came to Jesus with hope.
After this encounter Jesus went to the region of the Decapolis. It is significant that Jesus chooses to stay in Gentile territory rather than to return to the more familiar nearby cities of Galilee. And we see Jesus face–to–face with a man whose life could be summed up in six words: no sound, no voice, no hope. “They brought to him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech. They begged him to lay his hand on him”
Jesus did, and “immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released and he spoke plainly”. And the people were “astounded beyond measure” When was the last time that you were astounded beyond measure? We are not easily astounded, or astonished, anymore. We see wondrous things so often that they fail to move us. Put a man on the moon–did that! Bring down the Berlin wall–did that too! Have lunch while jetting seven miles above the ocean—we do that every day! But it is wonderful to be astounded! It would be wonderful if we could recover our ability to be astounded at the wonderful things that God does for us, here, now, today. An artist, Tim Lefens, wrote a book entitled Flying Colors. It is thestory–the true story–of his work with severely disabled people –peopleconfined to wheelchairs–many of whom cannot even talk. Lefens tells about JR, a young man who could communicate only with his eyes and his left knee. To say “Yes” he would look up and raise his left knee. To say “No” he would look sideways. Just imagine. To be able to give the right answer, he had to wait for someone to ask the right question, because he could signal only “Yes” or “No.” He could want something desperately, but often nobody would ask the right question for days–or weeks–or months–or ever! One day, JR showed up for Lefens’ class. Someone had finally thought to ask if he wanted to go to the painting class, and he looked up–and jerked his knee up. He signaled, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” JR came to the class and Lefens taught him to paint. He strappeda laser pointer to JR’s head so that JR could point to the place where he wanted the paint applied. Then he offered JR various colors of paint until JR signaled, “Yes, that is the color!” Then JR started painting. He flashed the laser with furious intensity at the canvas as an assistant applied paint where the laser pointed. An abstract painting emerged–a black, electric cloud jammed into the corner of the canvas. It was Powerful! Emotional! At some point, JR stopped–spent–exhausted. Lefens comments:”This is the first time in his life he has affected the physical world outside his body. The first time he has directed it to reflect his will.” One of the other patients said, “I think I know what he’s saying.” (Pause) He’s saying, “Get me the heck out of here.” Lefens asked JR, “Is that what you were saying?” And then he looked at JR’s face: “His eyes, once so frantic, glint: jazzed out of his mind,elfin warmth radiating in a rich beam from him to me.” Astonished! Astonished beyond measure! Astonished to be able to communicate–astonished to speak through his painting–astonished to make himself known! Just like the deaf/mute man was astonished when Jesus healed him! Hope. Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when beloved lives have left us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, where Christ waits for us to work with him toward a more whole world now.
What are you hoping for these days? Who helps you hope when it is hard to hope? How does your hope call you to see what is here and now?
Blessing of Hope (from Jan Richardson)
So may we know the hope
that is not just for someday
but for this day
here, now, in this moment
that opens to us
hope not made of wishes
but of substance
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart
hope that will not keep quiet
and be polite
hope that knows how to holler
when it is called for
hope that knows how to sing
when there seems little cause
hope that raises us from the dead
but this day,