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Pentecost 15 September 6, 2015 - The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell
PENTECOST 15  Proper 18  Year B
Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday September 6, 2015
The Rev. Canon Janet Campbell
The healing miracles of Jesus
in today’s Gospel
reveal not just another itinerant
1st century wonder-worker,
(of which there were many)
but the paradox
of what we call
the Incarnation:
Jesus was both man and God,
both God and man.
In him,
“all the fullness of God
was pleased to dwell”
as Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians,                  [Gal. 1.19]
and through him,
the power of God
was uniquely present and active in the world.
And yet,
and also,
he was completely a human being.
As we affirm
when we say the Nicene Creed,
he was
“God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father . . .
“[who] for us and for our salvation
came down from heaven:
[and] by the power of the Holy Spirit
became incarnate from the Virgin Mary
and was made man.”
As the miracles and the teachings
accumulate across the gospels,
sometimes it’s hard to imagine Jesus
as other than a perfect and somewhat ethereal figure
whose feet don’t quite touch the ground . . .
But if we ever doubted
his full humanity,
his initial response
          to the Syrophoenician woman
                   puts it on embarrassing display:

“Let the children be fed first,
for it is not fair to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.”
Grumpy, dismissive, rude, narrow-minded . . .
So like those he came to save . . .
He must have been having
a bad-divinity day.
For some unknown reason,
he had gone away from Galilee
to the region of Tyre,
Gentile territory,
where, Mark oddly reports,
“He entered a house
and did not want anyone
          to know he was there.”
We are not told
whose house it was,
or why he was so intent
on disappearing into it.

Maybe he was exhausted
by the crowds that followed him everywhere
with their incessant clamor and demands . . .
And maybe he was frustrated
          with his disciples,
who were proving to be
          unexpectedly dense . . .
Maybe he had had it up to here
with everyone and everything.
He was not at his divine best that day,
dealing with the reality
of his en-fleshment.
And then arrived that urgent woman,
bursting into his refuge,
begging him to cast a demon
          out of her daughter.
And she was a Gentile,
not one of the children of Israel,
the ones who must be “fed first.”

He rejected her plea
in a careless reaction
that rose up unbidden
from his own cultural
          and religious background . . .
likening her (and her daughter)
to “dogs,”
the mangy, unclean scavenger dogs
          of the streets . . .
“dog” being a common slur
for anyone not a Jew.
He sounds
just like the Pharisees and scribes
of last week’s Gospel,
who had accused his disciples  
of ignoring the purity laws
by “eating with defiled hands.”                                           [Mark 7:2]
“What hypocrites you are,” he had said,
“teaching human precepts as doctrine” –                       [Mark 7:7]
confusing religious custom
(in this case the ritual washing of hands)
          with the genuine practice of religion –
Rigorously observing
          outward forms
while ignoring the commandments
          that lead to true holiness.

Pretty much what he was doing,
turning his back
          on the Syrophoenician woman
                   because she was not a Jew.
Where was the mercy,
where the love of neighbor,
where the impartiality,
where the ministry to the poor and helpless?
Could this possibly be
the same Jesus who said,
“Come to me, all you that are weary
and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.”                                                     [Mt.  11:28]
“. . . anyone who comes to me
I will never drive away.”                                                    [Jn 6:37b]
The Syrophoenician woman, however,
would not be easily dismissed.
She was quick and clever
with her pointed come-back:
“Sir, even the dogs under the table
eat the children’s crumbs.”

What courage,
what determination,
what chutzpah!
A woman standing up to a man,
a Gentile facing down a Jew . . .
breaking through barriers
of culture and custom.
She did for Jesus
what he was always doing for others . . .
opened his eyes that he might see,
unstopped his ears that he might hear.
She pushed him to a place of deeper,
broader realization.
She required him
to practice what he preached –
God’s love for all God’s children.
“For saying that, you may go – ”
he said,
“the demon has left your daughter.”

Still abrupt . . .
perhaps smarting from the sting,  
and maybe ashamed of himself.
Fully human.
But apparently healed
of his malaise.
For he returned from the region of Tyre,
and resumed his own ministry
of healing,
restoring the hearing and speech
of a deaf man.
“He took him aside in private,
away from the crowd,
put his fingers into his ears,
and he spat and touched his tongue.
Then looking up to heaven, he sighed
and said to him “Ephphathah,” that is, “be opened.”
But that sigh . . .
does it tell of a world-weariness
he would carry all the way to the cross?
He was fallible like us,
had to be stretched
          beyond himself,
had to have preconceptions challenged,
          assumptions overturned . . .

Like us,
he needed
          eyes opened, ears unstopped,
mind and heart expanded.
He perfectly shared
our imperfection.
In speaking of the Incarnation,
the Letter to the Hebrews says
that in Jesus
“we have a great high priest
who has passed through the heavens . . .
the Son of God,
who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses
because in every respect
he has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”    
                                                                             [Hebrews 4.14-15 paraphrase]
“Without sin” . . . how can that be?
Could Jesus,
God incarnate,
have been truly human
if he had not had to live
all the complexity we live,
all that makes us who we are:

culture, tradition, upbringing,
the life experiences
          that pull and push us to maturity,
a full range of emotion,
many temptations,
mistakes, failure,
our gladness, our sadness,
the shame of our sin,
the relief and joy of forgiveness . . . all of it.
Jesus’ feet did touch the ground.
In him God chose to experience
all the fullness of
life in the flesh.
The Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges
captures the down-to-earthness
of the Incarnation
in his poem entitled
John 1:14
In the poem,
God speaks:

Wanting once to play with My children,
I stood among them with awe and tenderness.
I was born of a womb
by an act of magic.
I lived under a spell, imprisoned in a body,
in the humbleness of a soul.
I knew memory,
that coin that’s never twice the same.
I knew hope and fear,
those twin faces of the uncertain future.
I knew wakefulness, sleep, dreams,
ignorance, the flesh,
reason’s roundabout labyrinths,
the friendship of men,
the blind devotion of dogs.
I was loved, understood, praised, and hung from a cross.
I drank my cup to the dregs.
My eyes saw what they had never seen—
night and its many stars.
I knew things smooth and gritty, uneven and rough,
the taste of honey and apple,
water in the throat of thirst,
the weight of metal in the hand,
the human voice, the sound of footsteps on the grass,
the smell of rain in Galilee,
the cry of birds on high.
I knew bitterness as well.
I have entrusted the writing of these words to a common man;
they will never be what I want to say
but only their shadow . . .
Sometimes homesick, I think back
on the smell of the carpenter’s shop.
                                          John 1:14 (1969) Jorge Luis Borges, translated from the Spanish
                                                                                             by Norman Thomas di Giovanni,
                                                         in The Gospels in our Image, David Curzon, ed., p. 254
John 1:14:
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.”