To The Dogs – September 9, 2012 – Mark 7: 24 – 37

Like we need rest from work and play, Jesus needed some R & R.  The crowds had been pursuing Him and demanding His time.  He couldn’t get a moment’s rest in Israel so he journeyed to the borders of Tyre and Sidon to get away.  He had to leave the clean, undefiled Jewish cities and travel to a pagan region that was considered unclean.[1]  We know He wasn’t going to preach or teach or heal because the Bible tells us that He entered a house and He didn’t want anyone to know He was there. 

 A rumor got around that there was a nomadic healer visiting the area.  A mother of Syro-phoenician decent whose daughter is being tormented by a demon heard the rumor.  She was desperate to end the pain of her daughter.  She can’t bear her child’s suffering one more minute, so she humbles herself to help her little girl.[2]  She would have to humble herself in order to approach Jesus; you see, she was a well to do Gentile.  She was probably used to getting her way – everything she needed and wanted. 

Let’s stop for a minute.  I need to give the Syro-phoenician woman a name.  For the sake of this sermon, I’ll call the Syro-phoenician woman Phoebe – now more about Phoebe. 

She needed someone to drive out the demon which possessed her daughter.  With her means and status, she had probably tried every physician and magician in the area.  But, nothing worked and she was desperate.  Phoebe humbles herself to go to the healer staying in town.  She approached the Jewish peasant with a desperate plea for His help.

At Phoebe’s first request, Jesus denies her.  His response seems almost callous.  It is a surprise that He would not respond to her with the same love and compassion He has shown the Jews.  There might even be a hint of hate in His response as He refers to her as a dog.  This is evidence that there was a conflict between the Gentiles and Jews.  Jews didn’t accept Gentiles and some may have called them names, like dogs.  Jesus calling Phoebe and her people “dogs” is offensive and at odds with our image of Him.[3]  Jesus has instigated the disagreement between Jews and Gentiles in this particular conversation; beyond that, there is the tension between her wealth and his low lot in life.

Seems much hasn’t changed.  There is still conflict between classes, races, or whatever makes us different from them.  The name dog quickly reminded me of the way the name dog was used during the civil rights movement to demean African-Americans by referring to them as dogs.  In class warfare, there is also name calling and mudslinging.  Resolution seems impossible in these conflicts as compromise with the adversary would be perceived to come with the cost of compromising one’s principles.  Princess Diana said about conflict and compromise: “They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?”[4]

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be happy?

In recent months, and in coming months, for sure, we have seen a great need for healing in our country.  It is the divide of our political parties.  President Obama had promised in his campaign to bridge the gap and gain bipartisan compromise.  However, I would say it has gotten worse since he took office and is getting worse.  There are millions out of work…millions of homes foreclosed on or underwater…millions who have filed bankruptcy…thousands of other problems plague American families.  We are concerned for reconciliation and relief.  We so desperately want something to be done to move our country forward, get people back to work, and see people realize their American dream.

I like the comedian Lewis Black.  He is a Jew whose comedy often blends religion and politics.  As a Jew, he recognizes that religion and politics are closely tied.  He has an act about the debate among politicians related to terrorists.  He says that politicians will argue day and night about who is better equipped for protecting the American people from terrorists.  The truth is both parties are invested in protecting Americans from terrorists so that there will be people to vote for them.  He too reminds his audience that there is important work to be done while the politicians are debating.

If this election is about the economy, and not social issues, then this election is about the haves and have-nots.  That’s what the conflict between Jesus and Phoebe was about – He has power and she does not.  The Jewish peasant has the healing power she needs and His power trumps her social power and wealth.  To her request for the healing of her daughter, Jesus tells her she will have to wait until He has brought salvation to the Jews to whom He had been sent.

The quick and clever mother lashes back.  She reminds Him that even when the adults neglect the dogs the children take care to slip scraps to them under the table.  Phoebe tests Jesus’ humanity and asks Him to have compassion on even the dogs.  She asks him to give the Gospel to the dogs.  Jesus shows us what it looks like to grow in wisdom.  His new revelation allowed Him to expand His circle of compassion beyond His own people. 

Phoebe, a Gentile woman, challenges Him to recognize that God’s “love is bigger, wider, more expansive, and more inclusive than any” one group of people.[5] “What Jesus learned  – and He modeled for His Disciples and He models for us  –  is that there is no place, no time, and no people where the Gospel is not to be shared.  This gospel is always for everyone, everywhere, all the time[6] – even to the dogs.  If his feeble humanity can be stretched to expand and include the other then we too should be challenged by the other to expand our compassion and include everyone.  We don’t need to prioritize the Gospel – Phoebe reminds us that there is enough love and compassion that flows from God for all people.

It may make some of you uncomfortable for me to talk about politics.  However, I think it is quite appropriate to talk about politics in the sanctuary.  George MacLeod, a Scottish soldier and clergyman, makes the case:

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place as well as the steeple of the church, I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in latin and in Greek…and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.  Because that is where He died, and that is what He died about and that is where Christ’s followers ought to be, and what church people ought to be about.”[7] 

 The Republicans last week and the Democrats this week laid out plans for how they plan to fix America.  Both Obama and Romney would claim to be guided by the principles of their Christian faith.  They have different plans for attaining common goals.  In this great divide, both parties recognize the need for healing.  New Jersey Governor Christ Christie says that he knows “we can fix our problems. When there are people in the room who care more about doing the job they were elected to do than they worry about winning reelection, it is possible to work together… and get results for the people who give us these jobs in the first place.”[8]

In the past few weeks, several of you have said something to me about hope for change after November and fear that nothing will get done between now and November.  As we choose the candidate we will vote for and head to the voting booths, may we recognize that we are all seeking the same healing for America…and that the conscience of our faith can and should guide our vote.

Voting for the candidate whose ideology is most like yours may not be the best vote to cast.  Placing your hope in the candidate who is willing to expand his or her views and is willing to compromise for the sake of moving our country forward is likely the more responsible vote.  Jesus didn’t compromise His values in order to come to an agreement with Phoebe – He simply opened His mind to a new possibility.  Focusing on the Savior who is willing to grow in wisdom is where we start to restore dignity to our own shortsightedness.  Remember, within the whole human story, religion or politics, a daughter’s health is at stake.

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