The following is a sermon by Martha Schwehn-Bardwell, a former pastoral intern at Redeemer Lutheran from this past Sunday, reflecting on last week’s gospel message as well as on the documentary, “I Do Mind Dying.”
“I do mind dying.” I do mind dying. This is the title of a powerful documentary that I recently watched with others in this room, actually—about the water crisis happening right now in Detroit. A year or two ago, in the midst of a financial crisis, the city of Detroit started shutting off water to homes where people got behind on paying their water bills. The city has now shut off water to tens of thousands of homes full of people—and as you peel back the layers of this crisis—as the documentary does—you start to see just how horrible it all is. You learn how these water shut offs are the result of years of systemic disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color in Detroit. You see that corporate greed, and racism, and classism have all given rise to this mess that has left many people desperate and literally thirsting for justice.
There is one moment in the documentary that really captures this crisis for me. There’s a woman who’s leading a bunch of protesters in front of the city administration building as city officials stand outside kind of rigid against the building looking on. She looks tired, and desperate; her voice is hoarse and there are tears in her eyes and you can tell she’s been at this for a while. She cries out, “There’s a woman who lives down the street from me; she’s pregnant, and she has a two year old, and her water has been shut off for weeks!” The camera pans over and focuses in on the face of one of the city officials outside. His face looks totally unmoved, just blank and detached. He actually picks up a camcorder and starts filming the picketers, treating them like they’re just this spectacle. The documentary filmmaker, who is filming him now, asks him, “So, what is the city’s response to all of this?” And he kind of puffs out his lower lip, shakes his head, and says, “Status Quo, business as usual.”
This episode really captures the water crisis for me because you can see why these shut offs are happening. They’re happening because people like this man, this white city official, people with power, are shut off to the humanity right before him, shut off to their suffering and desperation, shut off to their desire for some crumbs, for some assistance, for some water; because deep structural sins like racism, classism, and greed have made their way into his mind and heart.
And it also captures the water crisis for me because there are people like this desperate picketing woman, who are incredible leaders in the midst of these shut-offs; who are organizing their neighbors to share the water they have with one another and to work to change the system and make water affordable for all. These leaders are mostly African American women, and they are fierce, and tenacious, and resourceful and brilliant; they are determined, and persistent, and they won’t give up!
These women remind me of the Syrophonecian woman in our Mark text for today. She is desperate. She comes to Jesus thirsting for mercy. I’m guessing she’s maybe a little hoarse and has tears in her eyes as she kneels before Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon.
And then—and then, Jesus says something that doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love and worship and follow at all. In fact it sounds more than a little like Donald Trump than the Jesus we are familiar with. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yes, Jesus compares this woman, this desperate mother pleading on behalf of her child, to a dog. How totally offensive. Now, many biblical scholars when they read this offensive text try to get Jesus off the hook. Maybe he was joking, they say. Yes, he was probably laughing and said it with a wink, and really he compared her to a cute puppy which is kind of sweet. Others say, maybe he was testing her, to see how much faith she really has. But these arguments don’t really hold up. In his ministry, Jesus didn’t test other desperate people in this way, nor was a “dog” something that was seen to be cute and cuddly in first century Palestine. They were dirty and much less than human.
So what’s really going on here? Here’s what I think of this offensive story.
We in the church confess that Jesus was truly human and truly divine. To be fully human, you have to have culture, and culture isn’t always pretty. One scholar I read noted that it was very common for Jews in Jesus’ time to use the word, “dog” as a slur, as an insult, to describe Gentiles. So I’m guessing that Jesus, growing up, heard his parents and his friends and adults he respected—all of them, use this word and it became normal for him to think this way. What’s more, the Syrophonecians and the Jews didn’t really get along; in fact, the people in Tyre where they are in this story had recently oppressed local Jews.
Jesus also grew up in a religious tradition that described the messiah as someone who came to save Israel. As Jesus grew into his identity as the messiah he was shaped by these Scriptures—and so he probably would have felt that he was called first and foremost to the Jews—hence him saying that the children have to be fed first.
Yep, I think we have a truly human Jesus, here, folks—truly brought up with some prejudice and partiality, with a view that some people were God’s priority and other people’s desperation could wait; truly brought up a little shut-off to the humanity of Gentiles and their claim on the mercy of God’s kingdom.
This desperate Syrophonecian woman—well, she persists with this truly human, truly divine one. She protests before the shut-off Jesus. And she does it with resourcefulness and brilliance despite the fact that she’s insulted and debased. She says to him, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” It’s as if she says—sure, go ahead, call me a dog. OK. But look, Jesus, the kingdom of God is so abundant that there is more than enough for everyone, for the people who seem to have priority and for the people who seem second-class.
Upon hearing this woman, Jesus—much unlike Donald Trump, or that city official in Detroit with the video camera—Jesus breaks open. He is changed. He sees her humanity and her faith and it rocks his world. The narrower view that he’d had before, that view of what’s really fair, of who is worthy, is just opened up and a wider vision of the kingdom of God sharpens into focus for him. Here Jesus is much like the man he heals in the next story—it’s as if Jesus is the one here whose ears don’t quite work, and whose tongue isn’t quite right, and this woman says to him in her fierce, persistent way, “Ephphatha, Be Opened!” The true abundance of the kingdom is opened to him, is revealed, scandalizing to a good Jewish messiah-in-the-making. Gone is prejudice and partiality. The healing waters flow freely to all and Jesus goes on with a new itinerary–to do ministry in Gentile territory like never before.
Where do you see this same kind of opening up of God’s true abundance happening in our world today? Where do you see God working to open hearts and minds that were shut-off to the humanity of others? I see it now—glimmers of it, at least—amid Europe’s refugee crisis. Since the beginning of the year, over 300,000 refugees fleeing conflict and deprivation have made their way from Syria and other countries to Europe. For the most part, European leaders have seemed pretty callous, leaving borders and routes of access pretty shut-off to these human beings who are so so desperate for just some crumbs—for mercy, for mere survival. They seem to see these people as dogs, unworthy of their countries’ supposedly scarce resources.
But hearts and minds are changing thanks to people of great faith and persistence whose eyes are open and who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. In Iceland, the government said they could accept only 50 Syrian refugees. 50. Then, last week, author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir put out a call on Facebook asking for Icelanders to speak out and urge the government to do more. More than 12,000 people have responded and have signed an open letter to the government that calls for the government to “open the gates.”
She writes in the letter these powerful humanizing words: “Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, or soulmates, the drummer for the band of our children, our next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finished the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, the fireman, the computer genius, or the television host.”
Many of the people who have signed the letter don’t simply have their heart and minds opened to the humanity of Syrians—they are opening their very homes to take them in. Let us pray that the opening continues—not only in Europe but also here in the US, not only for Syrians but for all immigrants seeking safety from desperate circumstances.
We don’t have to look around the world to find desperate people, to find people who are searching for crumbs of mercy and justice. I know there are people in this room, desperate for hope in the wake of a suicide. I know there are people in this room, desperate for love in the wake of a broken relationships. I know there are people in this room, desperate for justice and truth in our culture of racism and lies. Well, friends, let us take courage from this Syrophonecian woman, from these activists in Detroit, from these Icelandic people. Let us persist, and not give up, and keep asking for crumbs of mercy from our God until we and all are fed!
Indeed, we don’t have to wait long to get some of this, my friends. We are about to share some crumbs of bread and sips of wine at communion. It’s a meal where all are welcome, where nobody is shut-off or shut-out, but where everyone, yes everyone, gets the same amount no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, no matter how much money you make. May we come to this meal, bringing our desperation, yes, but also our deep-seated prejudice and sin, all of the way we are shut-off to God, and let us be fed and broken open, to witness the abundance of the kingdom of God for us here and now. As we taste these crumbs, we are promised abundant life, abundant love, and abundant forgiveness that is forever. May we chew on this and find ourselves so caught up in this abundance of God that we may leave here today ready to be opened in ways that surprise us and change us forever for the sake of a desperate world. Amen.