Having just heard two miracle stories from Mark’s gospel, here’s my question for you: How many of you have done in the past—or are able to do now—what you just heard Jesus do?
No one? By the time we leave worship I’ll ask the question again and I predict—at least I hope!—that every hand will go up!
As we’ve seen so many times in the four gospels, Jesus is on the road, making minds and bodies well. As the people in today’s reading proclaim, He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.
It’s these acts that you had in mind when you answered my question. Are you able to make deaf people hear? Are you able to make the mute speak? Are you able to cast out demons (whatever that might mean!)?
And you answer no! And yet, we are called to follow Jesus. If we can’t perform the kinds of miracles that we find him doing, we wonder what we can do, and often end up setting the bar pretty low. If we can’t do miracles, if we can’t preach and teach we guess that following Jesus means going to church, being a good citizen, believing the right doctrines, and hoping for a spot in line at the pearly gates.
But is this what our faith is about? Is that what these stories are about? We are followers of Christ.
One day during his travels a woman approaches Jesus, desperate for help with her young daughter. This is a woman who has nothing in her favor.
First, she’s the wrong gender.
Second, she’s the wrong marital status.
Third, she’s from the wrong country.
(That’s three strikes, but there’s more…)
Fourth, she has the wrong customs; no woman with any sense of dignity would speak to a man in public.
Fifth, she practices the wrong religion; she’s not Jewish.
And sixth, she must have done something wrong; her daughter has an unclean spirit, which everyone believed meant that God was punishing her. So—at least six strikes against this woman.
The most troubling detail of the story, however, is not the woman’s
life situation but Jesus’ response. When she musters the courage to ask for help he essentially says, “We look out for our own first.” But what he actually says is shocking and crude: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Doesn’t sound like something we expect of Jesus. But have you ever done that? Maybe inside you’re struggling with new ideas that seem to go against everything you’ve been taught. But caught off guard, you end up blurting out something that represents not the struggle, not the new idea that may be forming; instead, out comes something that represents years and decades of habits of heart and mind and tongue.
“Jews are God’s chosen people. Non-Jews—are dogs.” I wonder if he was simply spouting stuff he’d always heard, first as a child, then as a teenager, then as a young man, from friends and relatives and maybe even religious leaders: Jews are God’s chosen people. Non-Jews are dogs.
Having heard this saying over and over during his life Jesus nevertheless knows that it’s wrong. And yet, in the moment he gives voice not to the struggle inside but to the same old thing he’s always been taught and tempted to believe.
But if he’s caught off guard by the woman’s request, he’s really caught off guard by her quick response. Jews are good; others not so much. Jesus had no doubt heard the same thing from others all his life. The woman, too, had heard this message all her life. Maybe, having heard the “children and dogs” comment countless times in her life, she expected Jesus’ response. Maybe she’d rehearsed her answer. Whatever–she was quick to respond: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
He is blown away, and not for the first time, by the presence and power of God in an outsider. And because of her response he remembers his mission. He remembers his purpose. He remembers the love of God for all people. Gratefully, he replies, “For saying that you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
He couldn’t change the woman’s gender. He couldn’t change the rules of society that said she was unacceptable. But he could give her a few crumbs. He could perform a miracle. The great miracles of today’s readings are not physical healing or mental healing. The great miracles in today’s stories, as always, are about the miracle of inclusion.
The miracle of inclusion sometimes happens in the human heart! In spite of years of teaching and indoctrination that serve self-interest, in spite of society’s rules that exclude rather than include, sometimes transformation happens in the human heart, moving a person to new ways of thinking and living. Such transformation seldom happens quickly. It often takes time.
Think of people in our own day who are most like the woman in today’s story, people who have one or two or three or more strikes against them: some of the categories we recognize from today’s story: people who are the wrong gender, the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong immigration status—and to that list we can add others: the wrong sexual orientation, the wrong age, the wrong size. We’re too politically correct to call people dogs (at least publicly) but they know the feeling of being judged and excluded just as painfully as the woman in the story.
A few minutes ago I asked how many of you have done or are doing the work Jesus does in today’s stories. Not many raised your hands! But the work of Christians is saving the world. Not for the life to come—that’s God’s work—but for this life: welcoming and including those who might otherwise be ignored, forgotten, persecuted or cast aside.
The “crumbs” that Jesus gave to the woman were enough for her to have hope and dignity. He couldn’t fix all her troubles, but he could give her that. What do you think? Are we able to do at least that much?
Think about your own life. Is there a struggle in your own heart between what you’ve always believed and something new that turns those ideas upside down, about who is welcome in the sight of God and who is not? Maybe for now the question is too big and you’re not yet able to embrace what’s new. But what can you do?
Well, you offer precious “crumbs” all the time: Baptizing a baby and welcoming a new member last week. Offering prayers and love for a family living with cancer. Celebrating an adoption. Welcoming a music minister. Making space for other cultures and worshiping communities. In each case, the message is the same as that of Jesus to those he met: You are included. You are welcome. You are loved.
So now I ask you again: having heard today’s miracle stories have you, and can you, do the work of Jesus that we hear about in today’s readings? Yes, you can! And are doing. And will do! AMEN