Texts for Preaching: “The Greatest Grandeur” by Pattiann Rogers and Mark 7:24-37
For the video version, scroll to the bottom
The story begins with an escape.
Jesus runs away from his life, and he escapes.
Remember that as
we savor that delicious poem.
I do not know what the greatest grandeur is, do you?
It certainly could be
the reptilian dance of the purple-tongued sand goanna,
but I am more inclined to end up
where Pattiann Rogers ends up:
in wonderment above that one fathomless moment
we have yet to live.
“But the dark emptiness,” she writes,
“contained in every next moment
seems to me the most
singularly glorious gift,
that void which one is free to fill…”
Hot dog! That’s a great,
the void which we are free to fill.
I can’t ever forget watching that moment
when it was at my father’s death.
It was a moment of stunning sensation
of no more moments.
At his side,
holding his hand,
watching the pulse in his neck, when suddenly
it got markedly slower,
and smaller, and
just melted into stillness.
He had no next moment.
For all of us there will be a moment
with no next moment,
and that intuitive knowledge
makes each ‘next moment’
the most glorious grandeur there is.
Now most of us, most of the time,
simply stumble into the next moment
sleepy-eyed and half-unconscious.
We just slog through it because…
well, because it is there.
We miss the grandeur of it all.
And then something happens
and we wake up…
we wake up in the moment
and instead of something we are plowing through
the moment opens up, inside of us,
like a succulent red tulip
blooming in the morning warmth.
The moment wakes us up
and we are alive!
It is a stupendous grandeur — that next moment of ours.
But now back to Jesus
and his escape, which, as we will see,
has a double-meaning.
You may not have picked this up,
or remembered the context of this story,
but Jesus has taken off again.
He likes to do that, especially in Mark’s gospel,
and it makes his friends so angry.
One of my children,
I won’t say which one in order to protect the guilty,
used to love to run away in big stores
He was three or four, and very mobile.
The worst day
was in a huge Burlington Coat Factory
when he decided to escape
and hide in a rack of thick winter coats.
The joy of his very ‘next moment’
was the source of terror in our ‘next moment.’
Perhaps some of you remember
that special kind of terror.
Anyway, Jesus escapes.
He takes off, leaving his friends and associates
in the dust.
He runs away to Tyre, which by the way,
was a prosperous Roman port city.
I am not saying it was Cancun
but maybe it was
in relation to the pus and blood
of filthy, needy people
that was his usual scenery.
Jesus escapes and sneaks into a house,
because, as the text says,
he did not want anyone to see him.
So he is hiding out,
reading a good book,
or eating pizza with his feet on the coffee table.
Get the picture?
Then some stranger bursts in.
Stop and think about that.
He is finally alone
and taking care of himself,
and settling into the arms of the moment
like you fold into a hammock.
Then an unknown woman walks in the door
asking for help.
Okay. We got that picture.
But then there is a whole other layer
to Jesus’ consternation.
He is suddenly alone in a house
with an unknown and unrelated woman.
even in our free and open society,
a well-known public figure,
a religious figure no less,
cannot be found alone
in a home with an unrelated
person of the opposite sex.
In Jesus’ day, the taboo was more powerful
and more dangerous
than you and I can possibly understand.
It violated an untold number of religious purity laws
as well as the rigid moral caste
of a tightly stratified society.
It was bad all the way around.
Never mind that he went there to escape,
and to escape people like her.
No matter that he went there to be alone
to recover from people like her.
Never mind that he went there to get away
from people like her – and people
like you and me.
You know, needy people.
Then, on top of all of that,
she wasn’t even Jewish.
She wasn’t even Judean.
She was foreign.
She was a Gentile — a slob like you a me.
In other words, a dirty gentile.
Actually, dirty Gentile is a redundancy.
Gentiles were by nature dirty.
A Gentile was the source of ritual impurity,
and she was the source of moral impurity as well.
don’t acknowledge anyone like her.
That was the rule
and the expectation.
And Jesus, before this encounter,
seems to be mired in that thinking.
If we imagined that Jesus was free
of that sort of bigotry,
as if he somehow lived by 21st century
North American norms and values,
this story will correct that assumption.
In this story, if we listen,
we can almost hear Jesus thinking:
“Dirty, filthy, pig-eating, gentile;
interrupting my quiet time;
risking my reputation;
begging for special treatment…”
Let’s pause here and remember
that the grandeur in each of our next moments,
is not that they promise to be filled with goodies
like some fat piñata,
but that the next moment
to be opened.
What we find there may not be warm and fuzzy
but it likely can wake us up
and even save us from ourselves.
To get what is going on in this story,
I ask you to put aside your disbelief in healing miracles
if you are someone who simply can’t imagine
that kind of supernatural wonder.
When she asks Jesus to save her daughter,
Jesus calls her daughter ‘a dog’ unworthy of scraps.
Now Christians usually come to this story
with an overlay of bizarre dogma
that Jesus was perfect,
and they twist and contort the story with rationalizations
and say he was testing her faith,
or some equally unlikely proposition.
But if we come to the story without doctrine,
and really listen to it,
that is NOT what the story tells us.
The story tells us that Jesus’ knee-jerk reaction
is his own bigotry.
She has poked a hole
in the wasp nest of nastiness
that resides inside Jesus,
just like the ones that reside inside you and me.
Woe to those poor slobs
who unknowingly poke a hole
in the cyst of bigotries and prejudices
that have attached themselves to one of the chambers
in our heart.
Whoever it is, is going to get it.
So now listen to the story with that background.
There is nothing noble in this situation,
for the woman or for Jesus.
Anyone who has known danger to his or her child
knows the unnatural terror
that grips you in that moment.
You do not think or act according to any rules,
you just do what you need to do
to take care of your baby.
Puff up or slink,
beg or demand,
you do what you need to do in that horror-filled moment.
So the Syro-Phoenician woman who has no name,
probably because a privileged man wrote this story,
goes into the house
to ask a perfect stranger for help her.
Jesus is likely her last resort.
It says she ‘begs.” She begs at his feet.
Jesus, who is angry and resentful,
tells her that she and her daughter
do not deserve what he has to offer.
It is the ultimate blaming the poor
for being poor.
The only thing that could be colder
is the way he says it:
“…it’s not fair to take the children’s food
and throw it to the dogs.”
Jesus is telling her that in the scheme of things,
under the universe of God,
it would be ‘unfair’
for her daughter
to get what he has
because she is not one of the deserving children.
He does not even make the scarcity excuse
that there isn’t enough to go around.
Some people get some and some don’t –
you know, the Capitalist argument.
Instead, he says,
it would defy the laws of nature
for him to help her daughter.
Some of the people I knew in El Salvador
had a special kind of scorn they hurled
toward some rich people.
“His dog is fat,” they would say with a scowl.
What they meant
was that he cares more about his dog
than other human beings who are hungry.
Well, Jesus tells the woman
her daughter is a dog.
The woman is brilliant.
In spite of whatever bitter anger
she may have felt,
instead of spitting in his face she says,
but even the dogs get scraps.”
Now we get to see what makes Jesus Jesus.
Whatever his weariness,
whatever his prejudices,
whatever his bigotries,
whatever his dogmas and theologies,
whatever his grief,
whatever his sorrow,
whatever his own poverty,
whatever his own shadow of dark demons…
he opens himself to the grandeur of that moment.
Suddenly he sees himself reflected in her eyes.
Suddenly he hears himself echoed in her voice.
Suddenly he knows he has been deeply corrupted
he turns around
and changes direction.
And by the way, that is the original meaning
of the word, “repent.”
Repent means revolution –
to turn around
and to change direction.
Right there and then,
in that moment
and on that spot, Jesus repents.
A revolution takes place in Jesus
and he changes inside and out.
In fact, if we pay attention to the story,
it says that he leaves Tyre
and goes to the Decapolis –
which was a series of ten Gentile cities.
In opening to that moment
with the woman he had never known before,
he suddenly explodes into a whole new realm.
He suddenly goes where
no prophet has ever gone before…
and we are where we are today as a result.
Dirty, filthy, pig-eating Gentiles
that we are, each
with our own wasp nest of prejudices
forming a cyst of bigotries
upon our hearts,
because of Jesus we know there is an alternative.
Because of Jesus we know we are not condemned
by the demons
that will always inhabit us.
We can decide something different
and a revolution awaits us
if we open to it.
I think that is even greater
and more amazing
than the reptilian dance
of the purple-tongued sand goanna.
That’s all I got. Amen.