Sunday’s sermon: Claiming the Crumbs

crumbs

Texts used – Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-9, 13-17

  • Superheroes seem to be taking over the world nowadays.
    • Movies
    • Books
    • Clothing
    • School supplies
    • Action figures
    • The marketing possibilities surely seem to be endless. Even my 5-yr-old boys could spend hours telling you all about Captain America, the Flash, the Hulk, Ironman, and so on … and they’ve never even seen the movies!
    • One all-time favorite superhero seemingly forgotten in the shuffle
      • Made his animated debut in 1964
      • Series ran new episodes for 3 yrs., then ran syndicated reruns for another few decades
      • This beloved but largely forgotten superhero is … Underdog![1]
        • One of the more humble superheroes out there
          • Didn’t wear a tight costume that showed off his non-existent muscles but instead wore a baggy shirt tucked poofily into his pants
          • Frequently messed up the finer points of his rescues in one way or another – crashing into buildings or causing collateral damage of some kind or another – but he always managed to save Sweet Polly Purebred just the same
          • Tag line: “There’s no need to fear! Underdog is here!”
    • Okay … so in reality, Underdog was a bit of a goofy superhero. But he was fun because in truth, very often, we like to root for the underdog, don’t we?
      • Cartoons aren’t your thing? → sports illustration: If I turn on a football game (and it’s someone other than the Packers or the Vikings playing), I have a tendency to root for whoever’s losing. I like to root for the underdog.
        • Same goes for college basketball during March Madness → I’ve long since given up on filling out March Madness brackets. Mine always end up busted in the first round because I always pick the underdog … the long-shot … the Cinderella story.
      • Innate tendency to want to throw our hats in with those who need help – to boost up the little guy
  • This morning’s gospel reading is an underdog story – a David-versus-Goliath kind of story … but it’s probably not the underdog story that we expect.
    • Lots of stories throughout the gospels in which Jesus and his disciples play the part of the underdog
      • Jesus going head-to-head with the Pharisees
      • Jesus confronted by an angry and misunderstanding mob in his hometown
      • Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness
      • Jesus’ arrest and trial before both Pilate and Herod
      • We’re used to the deck being stacked against Jesus. We’re used to feeling like we need to cheer Jesus on in the midst of the hurdles that he faces throughout his ministry – healing on the Sabbath, being cornered by the tricky questions thrown at him by the legal experts, catching flack time and time again for traveling and eating and praying with and generally being around the wrong kind of people (tax collectors … sinners … unclean people … women). We’re used to all of this. We’re used to Jesus as the underdog.
    • Today’s gospel story, though, turns everything on its head – text: Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”[2] → Okay … we need to unpack this all a little bit.
      • Approached by this woman who wants Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter → Let’s talk about this woman for a minute.
        • Scholar points out that in fact this is only one of two times in the whole of Mk’s gospel when women actually speak[3]
          • Once at the tomb after Jesus’ crucifixion
          • Other time = today
          • So strike one: she’s a woman. She doesn’t even warrant Mark recording her name or anything about her other than she’s Greek, Syrophoenician by birth … and that’s strike two. She’s a woman and she’s a local – a Gentile.
            • “Syrophoenician” = a woman from the territory of Phoenicia in the province of Syria → roughly the area on the border between current-day Israel and Lebanon to the north on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea
      • Context/placement wise in the grand arch of Mk’s gospel → comes directly after Jesus rebukes Pharisees for being hypocrites – talking about what defiles a person as being what comes out, not what goes in
        • Speaking of food at the time
        • But his words will hit a little closer to home than he might like in our story this morning because of what Jesus says – what comes out of his mouth – when he responds to this Syrophoenician woman: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” → Gr. “dogs” = far from a good or pleasant term
          • Jesus isn’t referring to the cute and adorable puppies we keep in our homes as pets today à Dogs in Jesus’ day were mongrels and scavengers – creatures to be chased away from your flocks, your children, and your village. No one needed them. No one wanted them. So by calling the Syrophoenician woman a dog, Jesus is being dismissive at best, and insulting at worst.
    • Underdog in this story is not Jesus but is, in fact, the woman begging Jesus for help
      • She is the David → Jesus is the Goliath
      • Not the role that we’re used to seeing Jesus in → But that is exactly why this is such a powerful story from the gospel. Very often, we focus on the more divine aspects of Jesus – matching wits and prevailing against the devil in the wilderness, miraculous healings, Jesus as God’s Son … God Incarnate … Emmanuel God-With-Us. And I think that in focusing on these important elements of who Jesus was, we forget that he was fully divine, yes, but also fully human. Today’s Scripture reading offers us a glimpse of that more human side of Jesus.
        • Side that gets frustrated, that gets tired, that in this moment gets so blinded by his desire to help his people – the people of Israel – that he dismisses this woman and her request … this woman who is the wrong sort
  • And it is in the woman’s comeback that we see incredible learning and grace and faith, both on her part and on Jesus’ part.
    • Text: [Jesus] responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.[4] → This woman – this unnamed, Gentile woman – witnesses to Jesus. Turning his own insult back on him, she makes it clear that even the smallest kernel – the most seemingly-insignificant crumb of faith can move mountains … or demons, as the case may be. She opens Jesus’ eyes and heart to new possibilities. She boldly and faithfully claims even the crumbs – the castoff mercy and grace that Jesus may still be willing to give.
      • Critical turning point in Jesus’ ministry → almost everything before it happens in Jewish territory to Jewish people BUT after this encounter, Jesus’ message of grace is open to all – Jews and Gentiles alike
        • Scholar addresses both the shocking nature of Jesus’ insult and the shocking nature of the woman’s response: She accepts his priority of ministering first to the people of Israel, yet she is not satisfied with this. Her faith calls forth a larger vision of God’s mission to the Gentiles. Jesus immediately recognizes the God-given wisdom of her words, changes his mind, and commends her outspokenness. In light of her words, Jesus does not simply have second thoughts: his vision and vocation are radically reoriented. … However unsettling this exchange may be, its resolution reveals that God is not unchanging or unresponsive but compassionate and merciful.[5]
      • Harkens to the words from Jas that we read this morning – text: My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothing, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? … You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker.[6]
    • So often, we read in Scripture that Jesus is asking us to change our hearts and our ways – to let go of previous assumptions and expectations and be open to the Spirit. And we say, “Yeah, Jesus, we know … but change is hard.” And in this gospel story, we see Jesus struggling with this as well. But the rest of the gospel reading illustrates that change in Jesus.
      • Jesus goes on to heal man born both deaf and blind → Jesus’ word choice in this healing is the key – text: Jesus took [the man] away from the crowd by himself and put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said, “Ephphatha,” which means “Open up.” At once, his ears opened, his twisted tongue was released, and he began to speak clearly.[7]
        • Jesus doesn’t say, “Be healed” or “Be well” as he does on many other occasions. He doesn’t command the man, “Hear!” or “Speak!” as he does when he heals a few people who cannot walk. Jesus says, “Be opened!” And before he does so, he looks up to heaven and sighs deeply. Is the sigh for the man … or is the sigh for himself? For his own journey? For his own growth and change and the expansion of his own ministry?
          • Scholar: For Mark the woman is more than simply rhetorically gifted: she is prophetic. She is an embodiment of Isaiah, there to rebuke Jesus, straightening him out and opening him up. The story of the deaf mute that follows would then serve as an example of how being opened up empowers one to open up others.
  • Friends, I know we want to see ourselves in the Syrophoenician woman in this story. We want to be the one bringing the light and the understanding. We want to be the one pointing out the place of growth. We want to be the one doing the opening because it’s a lot more comfortable than being the one who needs to be opened – the one who needs a bit of a reality check, the one who needs to change. And maybe sometimes we are. But think about the world around us today.
    • Ways that we separate ourselves from one another
      • By education level
      • By career path
      • By zip code
      • By income level
      • By political affiliation
      • By so many means and in so many ways. Time and time again, we think we have the right to choose who gets to sit at the table – who gets to enjoy the feast – and who gets relegated to the place of dishonor and destitution, begging for whatever crumbs we think we can spare. We are human. We are imperfect. So yes, it’s going to happen. But we are also followers of a Savior who showed us that it’s okay to recognize when we’ve been wrong … when we’ve been stingy … when we need to be opened … when we need to change. We follow a Savior who shows us that it’s possible, and that it’s okay to not only be the one claiming the crumbs, but to also be the one who sees that sometimes, instead of simply doling out those crumbs, we need to move over and make more room at the table. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underdog_(TV_series).

[2] Mk 7:24-27.

[3] Barbara K. Lundblad. “Proper 18 [23] – Mark 7:24-37” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 382.

[4] Mk 7:27-30.

[5] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm. “Proper 18 (Sunday between September 4 and September 10 inclusive) – Mark 7:24-37, Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 49.

[6] Jas 2:1-4, 8-9.

[7] Mk 7:33-35.

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