Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sermon - 16th Sunday of Pentecost - Year B

Mark 7:24-37
                                                                 All Dogs Go to Heaven

Finally, we have an answer to the age-old question which has bedeviled every parent and pet-owner from the dawn of time.  Yes, it is true, dogs do go to heaven!  Or at least one dog made it, so others have reason to think they might, too.

A “dog” is what Jesus calls this woman.  There is no way to pretend this isn’t what he said.  When she asks (when she begs) that Jesus cast out the demon from her daughter, Jesus says to her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  For all we know, he might have preferred to refer to her using the less-than-socially-acceptable slang for a female dog!  Maybe he shows some restraint; but he still goes at her rather direct.  “Get away from me, you mother of dogs!”

This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to reading about.  It is difficult to image what Jesus is thinking at this point. 

You and I might not understand the geographic references which make this encounter inevitable.  Mark is clear in stating the name of the region in which Jesus says these things.  He is in “the region of Tyre”.  Does anyone know where Tyre is?  Well, it is way up north – further north than any other recorded event in the Gospel narratives.  He is no longer in the heart of Jewish country.  And, maybe for good reason. 

Do you remember where Jesus was in last week’s reading?  He wasn’t in the heart of Jewish territories, but he was closer.  He is in Bethsaida, which just a bit north of the Sea of Galilee.  There, in Jewish country, Jesus is verbally challenged by Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem.  Jesus has to tell them it isn’t the traditions of their elders nor the convictions of their teachers which will save them.

Perhaps frustrated by these encounters with the Jewish insiders, he decides to “set out and went away.”  And where he goes to is a place where he is unlikely to meet many Pharisees or scribes or high priests or priests of any ilk.  He goes to Tyre.  He goes to the territory of Gentiles (non-believers).

He enters a house, and “did not want anyone to know he was there.”

Here is another strange thing: “He entered a house”?  Did he go to the home of someone he knew?  Or was he invited into a house by the brother of a sister to a cousin who was among his group of twelve?  Or was this house listed as the perfect Air B&B for someone looking to avoid attention while retreating to the region of Tyre?  Is this yet another hint that Jesus as to why Jesus is so insulting to this woman?  His attempts to retreat to a mountain top for solitude had failed – that is how the 5,000 came to a lonely place with no food to eat.  Maybe Jesus is looking for a break, a time away.

And this woman enters the picture.  Maybe that is why he calls her a dog. 

In trying to recast this encounter in a positive light, some biblical scholars say that Jesus was testing her.  That he didn’t mean it when he referred to her in this way, that he was making sure she was all in before he did as she asked.  That may be an acceptable explanation to those who read about the encounter from a distance of a few centuries, but I am not sure it meets my standard for acceptable behavior in the moment. 

If you have ever been present when a mother begged for the welling being of her child you know that such mothers have already been tested and are very close to the breaking point.  There is no ambiguity with regard to what they believe and what is in their hearts.  It doesn’t get Jesus off the hook to say he knew how this would turn out and just wanted the rest of us to learn from her persistence.

Others have suggested this is an expression of Jesus’ humanity.  You know, the divine-human divide.  Two natures; one person.  There are other such stories.  Like the reference to Jesus as a young lad using his divine power to win at a game of marbles.

Where I begin to draw a significant learning from this story is when it begins to teach me something about the very nature of God.  This is a notion upsetting to some – in fact speaking of this in this sanctuary a few years ago got more than a few riled up.  So let me speak more carefully this time, and ask that any part which is upsetting be discussed further when I am not the only one talking.

What if this encounter in the region of Tyre reveals to us a Jesus who is himself willing to schooled as to what his witness and his message will mean to the world?  What if this encounter allows us to see “repentance” not merely as something God seeks from us but something which is the very nature of God?

Jesus’ witness and his message are going to change the world and change the way we live in the world.  It is a simple thing to say that God loves everyone, but it is quite another thing to live out what it means to love those who do not speak the name of God or follow the traditions of God’s chosen people.  It sounds wonderful to say that everyone cares for and looks out for the wellbeing of our neighbors; it is quite another thing to give up our Saturday moving furniture into a new home for one of our Family Promise Neighbors.  The region of Tyre continues to be a region of insults.  And because some of the residents of that region speak poorly about the US, our government is about to cut off United Nations funding for the refugees living in that part of the world.

If dogs go to heaven, there are going to be more than a few unhappy cats.

The invitation to follow Jesus is gentle and calming.  What Jesus wants most for us is a happy and joy-filled life.  Following Jesus puts us on that trajectory.  But the path is fraught with the need to examine and readjust our prior assumptions.

In Tyre, Jesus himself comes face to face with this.

In reading Mark 7, we are brought face to face with it, too. 

It is not the traditions of our elders nor the convictions of our teachers which align us with the will and way of Jesus.  It is the simple decision to follow.  To follow where he will lead us.  And be forewarned - where we are lead is not always where we thought we would go.


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