Proper 18 / Ordinary 23/ Pentecost 14
I will call him Brad. He was my spiritual guide as a teenager. He was the kind of pastor who radiated the Holy Spirit when he talked about God, who handled the Bible, not as truncheon, but as a guidepost along the pilgrim’s way. He had one of those made-for-Kodak families: the handsome husband, the gorgeous wife, the precious little children, all smiles, innocence and joy.
So when he left his wife for another man, and announced to everyone that he was sorry for the deception, but he was gay and always had been, I was not very receptive. I made the sorts of predictable, bigoted judgments that all were the fashion in that time of southern culture on the skids. I didn’t feel bad about it for many years, in fact I didn’t feel at all about it. I grew up, went to college, started my own family, began to seriously wrestle with who I was in Christ, and what sort of life Jesus was calling me to live.
By the time I began attending an Episcopal congregation, I had grown a great deal spiritually. I was wrestling, not only with my own call, but with the very nature of God, the Bible, the Church and salvation. I was, in other words, doing what you do when you begin to take Jesus seriously. Your life demands change. You can no longer just wonder who God is, you have to get down on the mat and grab him until he pins you down for the count.
Around that time, I heard that Brad and his partner were living in a community not far from where my family and I lived. I called information and got his number. I stared at it for several weeks before I worked up the courage to call him.
We spent a long time on the phone together, reminiscing about old times, about where we both were spiritually and about how we missed each other. Before I could stop myself, I was inviting him and his partner over to dinner.
When the evening arrived, I was ready; I was going to restore a broken relationship with an old friend based, not on the prejudice handed down to me, but on the Jesus who bound us both together. I was fairly giddy with the thought. This was going to be a Full-Gospel, Holy Ghost revival.
Brad and his partner were two ordinary looking middle-aged men, dressed in khakis and polo shirts. As they got seated on our couch and we were just beginning our visit, the back door crashed open. My two boys, then about twelve and seven, came running through the house. The youngest screamed and twisted, his arms flailing at the air. The eldest laughed cruelly, and held a ball glove over his head.
“You are pitiful. You embarrass me. You can’t even catch.”
I stood up. “Boys, pipe down. Our company is here.”
They looked at me for an instant and then fixed a gaze of fratricidal hatred on each other. The youngest lunged. The eldest held the glove higher.
“Excuse me,” I said to our guests. I grabbed the tussling duo by the arms and marched them down the hall. “Can’t you see that we have guests? Now, be quiet, or you going to your rooms and you will be on restriction the entire weekend.”
“He started it,” said one.
“Did not,” said the other, swinging a fist at his sibling.
“Fine,” I said, the monosyllable that’s the surest sign of things not being fine. “Rooms.”
They turned away from each other, as if marking off paces for a duel, and entered the radioactive waste piles that passed for their rooms. I caught a faint glimmer of satisfaction in the eldest’s eyes as he closed the door. The youngest’s door shut just a little too hard. And from behind it came an insult that struck me as if I had been kicked full-on in the gut, a nasty slur for a homosexual man hurled by a seven-year old at his brother as naturally as if he had heard his father say it a hundred times. The word hung in the air, and wrapped itself around my neck. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. The sins of the father visited upon the son.
If any of the adults in the rest of the house had heard it over the jazz playing on the cassette deck, they never let on. Dinner was pleasant, uneventful, except for the silent glowering of two boys across a DMZ of pasta, salad and bread. Brad and I talked a few times after that, but somehow we eventually lost touch. I always had the feeling that he had heard the insult. I should have just confronted the discomfort that hung over us like a dark shadow. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. It made me feel dirty. Like all the words that had been used against my immigrant forbears: Dago, Wop, Kike. They made me feel dirty, somehow less than human. Growing up in the South, in a family of suspect religious heritage, I had felt the sting of bigotry on many occasions. But instead of being transformed, I conformed to the culture. I had used other words to insult people at one time or another and I had taught them to my children, wittingly or not. I still feel shame today, when I think of that unresolved sin against a kind and loving brother in Christ.
One of the problems with uncritically accepting cultural norms is that they make it hard for us to stand up to the culture, but that is what followers of Jesus are called to do. Prejudice and hatred may be in the very air we breathe, but it is our call as Kingdom people to bring an oxygen cocktail to the party.
That’s why this week’s lesson is so hard for me. Not the Isaiah passage, with its promise of the Saving God who opens the eyes of the blind, unstops the ears of the deaf and builds a highway to holiness that even fools can walk upon. No, fools like me who rush into life madly, we need a highway like that. Not the Psalm, which promises a God who cares for immigrants (legal or not), widows and orphans. Not the Epistle of Jesus’ brother James, whose condemnation of the rich and those who favor them over the poor could come straight from any populist’s poison pen. No, as usual, it’s Jesus who wrestles me to the ground, even though this time, it’s because I am forced to see him in his raw humanity.
We’re back in Mark’s version of the story again, taking up the journey with Jesus and his friends as they try in vain to find a little spot for quiet and renewal. They set out for Gentile territory, crossing over into Lebanon, where people are less likely to come sniffing around for some free bread and smoked filets. They’ve taken refuge in someone’s house, perhaps just beginning to relax a bit, and talking quietly with Jesus, whose pain from losing his cousin John to Herod’s evil sword still burns. Into the room comes a Syrian woman, a Phoenician, a worshipper of Ba’al, the traditional enemy of Yahweh.
The house goes silent as she falls down at Jesus’ feet. “Help me, please. I know you are a healer. My little girl is terribly tormented by a demon. Please, you can heal her.”
She’s a Gentile, a pagan, and worse, a woman. She has violated every known social convention to get herself this audience: women did not speak to men in public, except for prostitutes, that is. A man did not speak to unrelated women in public, except for prostitutes, that is. She has risked her reputation to see the healer, but she has done it for her little girl, she has done it because it’s worth risking everything for love.
Now, what I want is for Jesus to be the Savior of this woman, like St. John paints him, at a well in Sychar with a Samaritan woman. What I want is for Jesus to reach down, take her by the hand and say, “Ma’am, your faith is amazing. Your daughter is healed.” What I want Jesus to be is what he has asked us to be: salt and light and purifying fire. But Jesus is tired. Jesus is human. Jesus is male and Jewish and lives in a culture that did not value this woman or her daughter. So he responds like one of us, full of prejudice and bile, with a slur designed to hurt.
“It is not right to take the food of children and give it to the dogs.” In his culture, dogs were unclean wild beasts, rummaging the garbage piles outside the village gates.
She has been afraid to look at him, but the insult from his lips is so startling that she looks up, disbelief and shock spreading across her dark face. In her culture, people had tamed the wild dogs and even made them pets, welcoming them as part of their families. She remembers her little girl, and her tiny body, convulsed with pain. She has to convince this rude miracle worker to help. She has risked everything to come here and her desire to see her little girl healed outweighs anything that this man could possibly say to her.
She stands up, and shakes out her robe, and looks him square in the eye. She has heard about his power. She believes in him in spite of him, in spite of herself. “Yes, sir, but even the little dogs eat the scraps from under their master’s table.”
This brave woman has faced down the prejudice and held high her human dignity. Jesus is reminded who he is again and what his mission is. His mission is not to leave in place the prejudices that exclude people like her from God’s blessings. His mission is to all God’s people, even those that worship a god like Ba’al. He nods, chastened.
““For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Mark doesn’t say how long they stayed there. He doesn’t tell us whether or not Jesus and his friends discussed the idea of racial prejudice or God’s universal salvation. He just leaves Dog floating in the air. Dog.
Then, Jesus and his friends are on their way again, to the north, along Galilee’s Gentile shore, through the Ten Cities. There he meets another Gentile, this one a deaf man with a speech impediment. And this time, Jesus heals him, like it’s the most natural thing in the world: a little spit, a little Aramaic saying, and off goes a laughing, talking, singing Gentile, telling the world that Jesus does everything well.
I wish this story was not in the Bible. But it is. Along with stories of God’s people committing genocide, raping, burning and pillaging their way through the promised land. Even fools, says Isaiah, will find a place on God’s highway. But this story, because it is about Jesus, makes me want to hide under the altar, trembling at the notion of a God so human. It makes me want to crawl away and hide my face from you. It embarrasses me. Still it takes this uncomfortable story of Jesus rediscovering the impartiality of God, for salvation to go to the dogs. It’s one of the stories in the Great Book of Stories that convinces me that this is the Word of God for us—nothing so truly human could be solely human.
Our human nature is to create In Groups and Out groups. And we always want to be in the In Group, the Saved Group, the Group that God loves more than anyone else. Even if it means that group is the one on the wrong side of the argument. James is shocked that his fellow believers are so smitten with the rich, even though they are the ones with the power to crush the poor. The people to whom James wrote were hoping that some of that rich magic would rub off on them. They wanted In.
They were willing to foolishly mouth the empty blessings of the rich to the poor: “Be warm and well-fed. Get a job, stop being so lazy, take responsibility for yourself. After all, we don’t expect a hand-out and neither should you.” They were saved by faith, they thought. Only that kind of faith, expressed in empty words, cannot save anyone. Faith without works is dead. And to James, it meant that the way we care for the poor is the way we show our faith.
Sometimes it takes seeing ourselves at our least flattering to see ourselves with divine eyes. Only when we acknowledge that we are the ones who have divided the world up can we seek to unite it. Only when we see that we are aiding and abetting oppression can we seek liberty and justice. Only when we are willing to see that even the dogs are created and loved by God can we begin to love them ourselves.
Currently our nation is convulsed by demons of hate and prejudice that threaten to unravel a great and noble experiment in governing. I attended one of those Town Hall meetings the other night, and watched as people, ordinary people, people who looked like me and you, shout hateful things at one another. They called each other names. Terrorist, communist, Nazi. They clapped and jeered at opposite things. Each group thought the other to be the Out Group. What were they fighting over?
On my way home, I couldn’t help but think that this is not a fight over the arcane regulations that govern how insurance companies do business. I doubt that more than a handful of the people who were spewing hate at each other actually had an inkling of actuarial tables or insurance law. No, there was something else at work here, something that is not about insurance or health care or soaring deficits or unraveling wars in distant deserts.
This is fight about fear. Fear of a nation whose demographics are changing. Fear of people whose skin is another color, who speak another language, who worship another way. Fear that divides, fear that colors the air red. Fear that someone else will get what’s coming to us. I wish I could have taken each of the people I visited with that night and blessed them with Isaiah’s promise, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.”
The people of God are not called to fear, but to love. The people of God are called not to worldly power but to Godly power. The people of God are called to see every Out Group as the In Group. The people of God are called to love, and to act unselfishly in faith. Faith that works on behalf of orphans and widows and foreigners is faith without fear. It is the only kind of faith that saves.
When I got home, there were two big white dogs with wagging tails at the door, nuzzling me with unconditional love. Salvation has gone to the dogs. Praise the Lord, O my soul.