Christ Episcopal Church

Hear the Word. Eat the Bread. Change the World.

September 9, 2018

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Whenever September 9th falls on a Sunday, I am reminded that my very first Sunday as the clergyperson-in-charge was the 9th of September. It happened to also be the year 2001, and I’m sure you all remember what happened two days later. The events of that day shaped my ministry as a pastor in ways I couldn’t have expected. I realized how very committed I am to seeking non-violent solutions to conflict. In the 17 years since, whenever tragedy struck—be it gun violence, war, or natural disaster—I found myself going back to the core teaching, what the letter of James is called the “royal law”: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

To love your neighbor, you first need to see your neighbor. Really see him or her. See past the surface, see past your own assumptions. See them for who they really are, not just who you assume them to be.

Today’s Gospel reading begins with a really disturbing encounter between Jesus and a Syrophoenician woman. When we discussed this in the Bible study during Wednesday’s Eucharist this week, and I asked what they wanted to talk about, one participant said she couldn’t make sense of what was going on there. She struggled to articulate what was bothering her, but we finally clarified that yes, this woman is correcting Jesus.

Because yes, Jesus was really quite rude here.

A quick reminder that Mark is the earliest Gospel, written down as tensions were mounting in Jerusalem—eventually leading to the destruction of the Temple by Rome in AD 70—and the earliest generation of Christ followers were dying. The purpose of this Gospel was to get the Good News of Jesus Christ written down, so it’s not as polished as the later Gospels, either in language or in theology. Jesus as represented in the Gospel of Mark is considerably more human than, say, the Gospel of John. Jesus gets hungry, tired, frustrated and…yes…rude.

Jesus calls this woman a dog. While we might attribute very positive characteristics to dogs—loyalty, protection, unconditional love—in that culture, to be called a dog is not a compliment (not any more than it is in our own). Jesus may have been referring to a rabbinic saying of the time: “he who eats with an idolator is like one who eats with a dog.” I have always read this story as a tale of a desperate woman crossing boundaries and breaking taboos to help her daughter, but something I read this week suggested something else. The woman is identified as a Gentile of Syro-phoenician origion. She was not Jewish. The rules for women in her culture may not have been the same. Approaching and talking to a non-related male may not have been as scandalous and taboo as it would have been for a Jewish woman.

One commentary also pointed out that in the Jewish narrative, Syro-phoenicians were people who exploited others for personal gain. Historically, they got rich at the expense of Jews. I’m not making excuses for Jesus’ behavior, by any means—but it does take on a different tone if you hear it in that context. Jesus perceives his own people as having already lost so much, and now she comes along with her entitled attitude and expects him to just jump up and give her what she wants.

Jesus jumps to conclusions, he makes assumptions and doesn’t really see her. You might even say he’s showing partiality.

Partiality is not as easy to get our heads around as we would like. In the context of this passage from the letter of James, it’s about the community treating wealthy people with greater respect and deference than they do poor people. But if we think partiality is limited to economic status, we miss the point. Any time we make an assumption about a person based on one aspect of them, and treat them differently, we are showing partiality. Sometimes, because those assumptions have such deep roots in our society, we respond from our prejudices and biases without even being aware we’re doing it. Sometimes we do realize, but rationalize it, saying I’m going to treat with suspicion or dislike this one person standing in front of me because of things a group of similar people did someplace else at another time.

Any time we show deference to a person because he or she is “like us” but keep the person not “like us” out, we are guilty of partiality. In the political realm, we call it partisanship, and we all do it. Rabid partisanship among our elected representatives—on both sides of the aisle—is keeping any of them from being effective leaders.

I know I’m treading on dangerous ground here for many of you. You don’t like “politics” in the pulpit. But sometimes the Gospel is irritatingly political, and it can’t be avoided. So to allow all of us to take a deep breath and let our ears be opened (ephphatha!), I’m going to offer a more light-hearted example.

Imagine I put in the paper an invitation to everyone in the community to come to church next Sunday wearing something that represents your favorite baseball team. It would be no surprise that there would be a good many Red Sox jerseys out there—we are in the heart of Red Sox Nation and hey, they have the best record in baseball this year! Now imagine that as people walked in, I met them at the door and said, “Hey, Red Sox! You get first choice of seating!”

(I’d say, “You get to sit up front!” but I know that is not actually seen as a benefit…)

Then someone wearing a New York Yankees t-shirt walks in, and I tell them they have to sit in a blind corner in a rickety chaired covered with dirt and old chewing gum.

That’s being partisan. I have made a decision about that person’s inherent worth and worthiness to be among us by the shirt they’re wearing, rather than seeing them as a child of God.

In this encounter between Jesus and the Syro-phoenician woman, Jesus only sees the “shirt she’s wearing” and responds accordingly. The miracle—or at least the first one—in this story is that she doesn’t walk away defeated, or lash out in anger, but instead chooses to stay there, in the conversation. She disarms the insult by refusing to be insulted. In so doing, she interrupts the usual trajectory those conversations go, and gets to the heart of things. She believes that Jesus can help her—believes in ways that even his own followers don’t. She sees the goodness in Jesus, and continues to engage that goodness, even when Jesus insults her. She sees him, and it allows him to see her.

During the Episcopal Church’s General Convention this summer, the people present were taught a Zulu form of greeting, and were urged to remember and use it through the course of the day. I spoke a bit about this back in July, but I have decided this is the day to teach it to you and encourage you to think about the deeper implications of such a greeting.

The first person says “Sawubona” (SAH wuh BO nuh). Let’s all practice that. Sawubona, I see you.

The response is “Yebo, sawubona” (YEH-bo…)  Say it with me. Yebo, sawubona. Yes, I see you, too.

As I was doing my research to make sure I was pronouncing it fairly accurately, I discovered one wonderful video of a speaker explaining that it’s actually “We see you”—even if you are one person saying it. And the ‘we’ includes yourself, your ancestors, your community, and even God. It’s a way of not only acknowledging the reality of now, but seeking to redeem the past. It’s an invitation into communion and community.

Sawubona. Yebo, sawubona.

Even if you don’t remember the Zulu words, even if you don’t say “I see you” when you greet a person, I hope that in your head you are saying it yourself. And really think about what you’re saying.

See this person. See this person. See this person.

Then remember that this person you are seeing is your neighbor. The one you are supposed to love as yourself.

Amen.

Christ Episcopal Church, Norway, Maine | A member of The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, The Episcopal Church, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion