A couple weeks in, the Sherouse family just about has our back-to-school rhythm down, including all the rituals and mantras with which we greet the day. Of course there’s the usual, “Get out of bed!” and the pandemic-specific, “Do you have a mask?” but more than the urgent or flustered, I’m referencing those meaningful words we parents try to share with our children. In this unusual school year, these words occur on the porch or in the car-rider line rather than the classroom door, but we still try to get those last words out. Some of you know the drill, sharing that echoing word for your children as they leave. I’ve always loved what my children hear from their mother. Borrowing from a dear friend and mentor of ours, Jenny has often said, “Be a good friend.”
Be someone that includes. Be someone that saves a seat at the lunch table; someone that reaches out on the playground. I recall, some years ago, seeing the good advice that we should teach our kids to stand in horseshoes instead of circles. Circles are closed, after all. And instead of closed off, backs to others or chairs turned inward, we should all leave an openness that makes space for others to join. The popular author Glennon Doyle has written of this “horseshoe principal” in her book, Untamed, “Horseshoes of friends are better than circles of friends. Life can be lonely. Stand in horseshoes.”
Of course, in our passage today, Jesus and his disciples have formed a circle. A tight circle, in fact. “He went away,” the passage starts, “And he did not want anyone to know where he was.” To be sure, there are times when we all seek the safety of the closeknit, the security of the known, and maybe especially so when the demands are urgent, and the needs are overwhelming as they always were around Jesus. So we can understand, he’s withdrawn from the crowd. He’s “not wishing to be disturbed,” the text says, after all the healing extended, power expended, compassion offered. He wants to rest.
He retires to the home of a supporter for a quiet night. I imagine they’re settling in, reclining at the table, with hands and feet washed from the road. They’ve opened wine together, and the baskets of food are being passed. Maybe there’s a story or two, or maybe there’s just the comfort of silence – that restful silence that can only be shared easily between the closest of circles.
And that’s when she enters the scene — barges through the door, in fact — this woman of Syrophoenician origin. She’s a Gentile. A Syrophoenician. A woman. The parent of a demon-possessed girl, we come to learn. She’s four-or five times the outsider. But she’s also just someone who is desperate. A mother, looking for hope. And so we peer into the scene, and we wait for Jesus to recognize her as she truly is, and see her as no one else can see her, and instead we hear these jarring words, “Let the children be fed first… it is not fair to take the children’ food and throw it to the dogs.”
This is not the sparkling-toothed Aquafresh Jesus I know, whose picture hung in my preschool Sunday School classroom at Seminole First Baptist Church. It’s not the jovial and joyful Jesus who welcomes children, and exudes an elegant understanding that we want to make our own. This is a difficult scene. Perhaps as difficult a scene as we find in the gospels. Jesus seeming to close the circle to this woman in need.
And predictably, Christian interpreters for centuries have sought to smooth away the abrasive edges of this scene.
Some will tell you that the Greek word for dogs, used here, is actually the word for a particular kind of dog – a small house dog, or a puppy, if you will, as though Jesus is actually using a term of endearment for the woman and her daughter. Some say.
The attempts to domesticate extend even to Christian art, such as the Baroque era portrayal of Christ and the woman, by Sebastiano Ricci. A smiling, fair-haired Jesus gazes at the woman, who holds an adorable little spotted dog – something like the “Pokey Little Puppy” of Golden Book fame. And Jesus seems to heal her daughter because the puppy is so cute.
Some might see it as an example of boundaries of privacy and personal space, or even saying, “I’m off the clock right now…come back during office hours.” I understand that, there’s times I do this myself.
It’s just that I’ve come to expect more from Jesus. And I wonder why that is. Why are we so startled by a reminder of his humanity? Why are we troubled by his capacity to expand his own view? Sure, there are possibilities to dismiss all that is hard and unsettling about this story, but doing so might also dismiss much of what is powerful and redemptive for any of us seeking to follow in the way of Christ.
We might need a redemptive reminder that the story of Jesus is not someone who had the whole thing figured out from the very beginning. As one interpreter quips, we act sometimes like he could have sat right up in the manger and started to spout off the whole Sermon on the Mount. We act like he could have shed his swaddling clothes and walked into Bethlehem and healed their various and sundry deaf, blind, and lame. But that’s not the story. Especially in the gospel of Mark. The whole plot finds Jesus wrestling with his identity and the scope of his mission and how public his work should be, wondering again and again, it seems, “Who am I meant for? And what am I supposed to do?”
He’s asking these questions of mission throughout, including in this moment, when his circle was tight, and the scope of the mission was clear. To that point, it was inclusive of those closest to him, the children of Israel. But this woman — five times an outsider — insists that’s not enough. “There is space for me and my daughter,” she insists. She falls to her knees so she’s in a posture where she can wedge enough space, pry the circle open if she has to, so it is clear that this blessing is for her, her daughter, her people, that the gifts of God’s love in Jesus can not be encircled, and there is bread enough for all.
Reading this passage, and imagining the scene, I recalled a story I once heard about Congressman John Lewis, the statesman, activist and public servant who died in July of last year.
He worked tirelessly for racial and economic justice for over half a century, organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speaking at the March on Washington, leading the pivotal march for voting rights in Selma on Bloody Sunday, and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was during that freedom ride that Lewis and a friend were in a bus station when four young white men came in, beat them with baseball bats, and left them lying in a pool of their own blood. When their assailants left, Lewis and his friend found shelter, tended their wounds. And then they went on with their nonviolent work. But Lewis bore the scars of the struggle for the rest of his life.
They were part of what he would reflect on in looking back on his years in the struggle. One summer, he was leading a pilgrimage trip, retracing those steps from Birmingham to Montgomery and then to Selma. On the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, they recreated the march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge with Lewis up front as he was in 1965.
One of those on the trip was Parker Palmer, the spiritual writer, who shares how as they rode on the bus, Lewis thoughtfully touched a scar on his face, and recounted the story of his attack in that bus station, and then shared about how years later, as Representative Lewis, he was in his Capitol Hill office when a man walked in — a white man about his age, who said, “Congressman Lewis, I’m one of the men who assaulted you in that bus station. I’ve come to tell you I’m sorry.”
Speaking simply and sparely, recounting the scene, John Lewis said, “I stood. We embraced. I forgave him. Then we sat and talked for over an hour.”
Parker Palmer hearing this story said that as the bus sped on through that murderous countryside, John Lewis leaned back and gazed out the window. Then he said, very softly, “People can change… People can change…”
And the remarkable thing about that story is not that the man changed. We can imagine all that could motivate that change — the shame, the regret, the embarrassment, any number of things that would lead him to want to make amends, to clear things up, to smooth things over. It’s not remarkable that he changed. The remarkable thing is that John Lewis gave him the space to change. Held the possibility of change. Still believed, even with his scars, that “People can change…people can change”
It’s not that such change comes without consequence. When Zaccheus came to know the love of Christ, he paid back everything he owed and then some. It’s not that such change should have no implications for our future. The apostle Paul knew himself as the chief of sinners because of all he’d done before his conversion, and spent his days seemingly hurried and spurred on by an effort to correct his murderous past with a redemptive future. Repentance is not easy. It’s not a simple embrace. It is not without substantive change and significant repair.
But the truth of the gospel is that it is possible. And we don’t believe that readily. Not with all we’ve seen and known in this world that scars so many. But the possibility of change is perhaps one of the greatest gifts of grace we can offer to one another, and that God in Jesus Christ offers to us. And maybe we can give ourselves more space for it, can give others more possibility for it, if we can see it first in Jesus of Nazareth.
We want a messiah stable and unwavering, but for a moment just engage in an experiment, perhaps a sacreligious experiment. But what would it mean to follow one who had the capacity to change? One who in the course of his life, in the fullness of his humanity, found that the perfect love of God that was present in him could open ever wider and wider than he even first knew and now calls us to live lives open to the same?
That’s what the love of God is always doing to us, constantly opening us wider. It’s not our most reflexive posture, and especially amidst the scars — the pain, the devastation and injustice that keep impacting our world. Perhaps you’ve been too wounded, and it’s understandable you would tighten and close things off. When your heart has been broken you’re not likely to pull it back out again. When you’ve been wronged or violated you’re not going to be vulnerable. It makes sense that we would reflexively encircle what we have, and stand securely against all that is outside of what is known and safe and trusted.
And yet the love of God keeps wedging its way in, expanding what we’ve seen and known. In doing so, it helps us remember all of those who find themselves on the outside of the goodness of our world. We can make our own list four or five or how many criteria long, from race, to status, to economic disadvantage, to physical ability. It’s so important in a world that closes so easily that we live lives that have that posture of openness, and that we seek as a church community to demonstrate that shape of openness.
One of the joys of this season, amidst the challenges, is how people have come to know about First Baptist, finding resonance with who we are and clarity in who we are becoming. I visited recently with a couple who has found us to be a home from afar, and hopes to attend here in person soon. They came to know us when their adult daughter recommended us, and among the first things they observed they said “We like that you’re inclusive.” I hope that’s what people can see. Think of what it can mean for a church to take that shape.
One of the ways that has happened in recent decades in church life, we know, is in the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of church. With LGBTQ people rendered outside so many circles, churches have increasingly been changing and growing and finding the importance of declaring full welcome and affirmation of all people.
A dear friend’s church made such a statement a few years ago. It was a healthy and growing time for the church, but not without conflict and questions. In particular, people wondered, “Why do we need to make this clear? Why do we need to declare what is already true, what has been true, what people have found true? Why make an issue of it?” people asked.
The best answer came from a middle-aged member — a father of one daughter; a daughter who as a teenager had come out to her parents. At that time, they did not give her all the support she needed. But, of course, people can change. And today they are her fiercest supporters, closest friends, even as they hold regret for those hard earlier years. Because those earlier years were deeply troubling for their daughter. She struggled in nearly every setting of her life, from home to school to friendships, and at one point she was even hospitalized amidst the hardship. The church supported the family through that time, and was with them through that hospitalization and return home. They had loved this young girl, now a young woman through the stages of her life, and she claims the to this day as her church family. And the father was appreciative of all of that. But then he said this: “You have to understand, my daughter grew up in this church, and she didn’t know. She didn’t know that she could see herself as created by God just as she was. She didn’t know that the blessing and welcome extended to her not in spite of who she was, but precisely in who she was. She didn’t know that there was space and welcome for her that no one could take away. I know you believed it was true. But she needed to know.”
People need to know, church. And they need to know from us. And we need to make it known in every possible way we can. Because you can see what happens. This kind of love, this ever-opening love of God, when it’s extended widely to all across all the barriers of our world, it heals people. It transforms people. It even saves peoples lives.
“The demon has left your daughter,” Jesus says. And Mark tells us that the woman went home, she found the girl lying on the bed, and the demon was gone. Her daughter no more writhing. Her child no more disturbed, but held fully in the ever-expanding love of God in Jesus Christ. She must have carried that love with her the rest of her life.
And in the same way, I think Jesus kept this woman and her daughter with him, too. I think he could hear those mother’s words echoing in his ears. I think he could remember her urgency and insistence. So, immediately, in the second part of our passage, do you notice what happens? From there he travels to the region of Decapolis. Jesus who had traveled in Jewish towns and neighborhoods – who had been so comfortable with a circle that included his people – Jesus travels to a Gentile region. And there he heals a Gentile man.
That means that the day the gospel of God’s ever-expanding love was extended to the woman and her daughter — the day it reached the Gentiles — was the day it came to us.
When he travels to that region, and he lays his hands on that man, do you notice what he says? He puts his hands on him and says “Ephphatha.” Which translated means, “Be opened.”
May it be so.