Monday, September 7, 2015

Sermon: "Feeding the Dogs"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 6, 2015 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

“Feeding the Dogs”

How many of you own a dog?
How many of you have a cat? 
(notice I didn’t say “own” a cat…we all know that cats own us)
How many of you have fish, birds, hamsters, or some other pet?

We’re in good company.
46 million American households are home to at least one dog.
38 million households have at least one cat.
20 million households have at least one fish, bird, reptile, or other small animal.
Interestingly, families that have both cats AND fish are much more likely to own two or more of those pets-- perhaps because one is occasionally consuming the other.

Since most of us know the joys - and the costs - of owning animals, it may not surprise us to learn that this year we Americans will spend a record 60 billion dollars on our pets.
That includes vet bills, grooming, boarding, pet accessories, and of course, food.

The amount of money Americans spend on pets has tripled in just 20 years.
As pets have come to be seen as beloved members of our families, manufacturers have introduced products that have helped them transition from outdoor animals to indoor companions.

Flea and tick medications, pet furniture and toys, gourmet meals and treats are congruent with our belief that our pets are part of the family and should be treated as such.
Pet food trends tend to follow human diet trends, which means if you are on a health kick, chances are your pet is as well.

Which is why Americans will spend over 22 billion dollars on pet food alone this year.
To put that number in perspective, it’s estimated that it would cost about 30 billion dollars per year to eradicate human hunger worldwide.

I make that comparison not to shame us by implying that we Americans care more about our pets than eradicating world hunger.  Spending less on our pets would give us more money to give to other humanitarian causes, but shifting our collective focus and funds from one need to another is not an easy thing to do logistically, and it fails to take into account all the good that comes from pet ownership and our heightened concern for animal welfare.

But in light of today’s gospel text, I thought it was important for us to acknowledge the elevated status that animals have in our culture because it could affect the way we hear the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

When Jesus called the woman a dog, he wasn’t talking about the well-fed and well-loved canine family member that sits at our feet begging for scraps from our dinner table.

He was referring to the wild dogs that roamed the foreign and “God-less” lands of the region of Tyre. 
These dogs were believed to be wicked and dangerous, much like the people who resided there. 
This was the land of the Syrophoenicians – the gentiles and pagans – who had wealth and power and who used it to draw resources away from Galilee while exploiting the Jewish peasants who resided there.
In effect, when Jesus called the Syrophoenician woman a “dog” he was using a racial slur.  A slur that was likely commonly used on the Galilee side of the border to refer to people who lived in the region of Tyre.

Jesus doesn’t come off very well in this story.
Where is the compassion? Where is the mercy?
Where is the gentle teacher who models how we’re meant to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, and love our neighbor as ourselves?  

Was Jesus just having a bad day, or this is one of those stories that lost something in translation when it transitioned from an oral story to a written story?
Like many email conversations that go awry, perhaps we’re focusing too much on the literal meaning of Jesus’ words and not hearing the tone in which it they were spoken.

As we know, Jesus was a shrewd teacher, who knew how to take a figure of speech, a social expectation, or a racial slur, and turn it on its head -
by using it to get people’s attention and then shocking them further by offering a NEW way to interpret old, ingrained ideas and beliefs.

In Mark’s gospel, we’re told that Jesus had fled to Tyre seeking solitude.
When we look at the text in context, we see that Jesus has just had two exhausting encounters with his followers and his challengers.
First, he fed 5000 people with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish,
challenging his followers claims that there “wasn’t enough” to go around and demonstrating the abundant generosity of God.
Second, he defied the Pharisees who criticized his disciples for not washing their hands before eating -  declaring that it is not what we put in our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out of our mouths.

Read one after the other, these stories – both of which are about food -would have challenged Mark’s readers to broaden their understanding of God.
Which is exactly what they were intended to do.

So it is in this context that Mark gives us this third story.
This story of a very tired Jesus encountering a very forthright Syrophoenician woman, who didn’t care that he had hidden himself away in a house to rest, and who didn’t care that she was stomping all over the standard behavioral expectations for her gender, her race, and her social standing.  
Her daughter was ill….and she had heard that this Galilean man named Jesus could make her well.

We might imagine Jesus at first being frustrated at this invasion of his privacy – he was fully human after all.  
He had just fed 5000 people and been shouted at by a group of angry Pharisees.  He left his homeland and crossed the border to get away.
And now here was this woman reaching into the den of solitude he had sought for himself and requesting that he give more.

If we’ve ever had a long awaited vacation interrupted by work-related calls and emails, then we may understand how Jesus might have felt.
It’s hard to be pulled back in when we’ve tried so hard to leave it all behind.

Given all this, it’s tempting to say that Jesus’ initial reaction to the woman’s request came from the part of him that was fully-human rather than the part that was fully divine.
He called her a dog, and told her it is not fair for her to receive what was meant for the children of Israel.

But how likely is it that Jesus truly believed that this Syrophoenician woman was not as worthy of his time as the people of his own nation? 
This man who encountered the Samaritan woman at the well – a woman who had been married five times - and quenched her thirst with living water.
This man who encountered the hemorrhaging woman who pushed through the crowd in her unclean state just to touch his cloak, and with one glance he said her faith had made her well.
This man who encountered the woman accused of adultery who was about to have rocks heaved at her head…and saved her life by saying,
“You who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

Is it more likely that Jesus recognized the resourcefulness and faith of this Syrophoenician woman and saw her intrusion as yet another opportunity to turn people’s expectations and their prejudices on their heads?

I imagine a wry smile appearing on Jesus’ face, as he used a phrase this pagan woman had probably heard in public squares, in whispered comments, and out of the mouths of the religious and the righteous over and over again...
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

And recognizing the spirit of this teasing banter, the woman replied to Jesus’ use of the slur with a pointed retort of her own.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In other words, even those born outside the lineage of Abraham value and cherish what has been offered to the children of God...even when it has been tossed aside, because it was thought to be insignificant or worth-less.

Jesus response to this woman’s bold assertion that she too was worthy of the love of God, perhaps reflected what was in his heart all along:  He said,
“For saying this, you may go – your daughter has been healed.”

The shocking message behind this story is that the Good News that Jesus shared about the unconditional love and grace of God was meant not just for some people, but for all people – all who were willing to listen and believe.
It’s one of the ironies of our Christian faith that a huge part of the Good News of Jesus Christ is aimed at the very people who are traditionally thought to be unworthy to receive it.

As we wrestle with these stories from the gospels, we may ask ourselves,
“In what ways are we challenged to broaden our understanding of God?”

This week, our news networks and social media feeds have been filled with two very striking images:

One is the image of Kim Davis, the Kentucky town clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses on religious grounds in protest of the lifting of the ban on same sex marriages.
The other is the image of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach after he slipped out of the arms of a group of fleeing refugees and drowned in the sea.

Voices have been raised in anger in response to both of these images and the fully human, fully complex stories they represent.

Some are angry at Kim Davis for using the power of her position and her faith to deny loving couples the right to marry.
Others are angry at the justice system for using its power to deny Kim Davis the freedom to honor her religious beliefs.

Some are angry at the Syrian government and the Islamic militants for perpetuating the violence and prejudice that’s driving the refugee crisis.
And others have expressed anger at the refugees who risk the lives of their children and strain the resources of neighboring countries, rather than stay in their own land and seek change from within.

Anger and judgment abounds from all sides but in the end, none of it is particularly helpful.
When we look at these images in the news – of Kim Davis or Aylan Kurdi or any victim or perpetrator of injustice or brokenness – what if we asked ourselves,  “How does this person’s story broaden our understanding of God?”

How big is our God, if our God requires us to close doors to others rather than open them?
How big is our God, if our God tells us to reserve our compassion and our resources for those who look like us, worship like us, or have our permission to reside on this side of the line that separates us?
How big is our God, if our God calls us to act out of fear and distrust rather than love and mercy?

How big is our God, if our God has a limited amount of space to hold ALL of us.
A space that just happens to be as small as the confines of our own heart?

The answer to the question, “How big is our God?” is found in Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman.
Even the “dogs” are worthy of God’s love and grace.

And that second healing that Jesus did?
Where it was said he “caused the deaf to hear and the mute speak?”
The words Jesus spoke there in Aramaic are meant for all of us:
“Ephphatha!” – Be opened.
Allow something new to grow in your heart.

Thanks be to God. Amen.