View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
Sunday, September 9, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Hearing Her Voice
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
In the story of another, may we meet You.
By the life of another, may You shape us.
With the companionship of another, may You guide us.
Living Stones: Pray Now Weekly Devotions
Did you know that there are only two times in the Gospel of Mark when you hear a woman speak? Out of all the conversations recorded in this Gospel, only two lines are attributed to women. One is at the end when the one of the grieving women headed to the tomb asks, “Who will roll away the stone?” And the other occasion is in this story today, this story about a mother fighting for her daughter. Just as I have always wanted to know what else the women said to each other as they ran away from the empty tomb, I also want to know what else this woman, this Gentile mother, had to say. What happened to her in this conversation? How did her life change after this encounter?
I believe it is important for us to hear her because, as one of my preaching heroes Barbara Lundblad has said, this woman is not past tense. Rather, she comes to us again in every generation. She is a woman in West Virginia who cannot get treatment for her opioid addicted daughter. She is Botham Shem Jean’s mother in St Lucia who hoped his PriceWaterhouse job would keep him safe in Dallas. She is a mother who chose to lift a picket sign today and to make a purposeful fuss for what she believes in. She is a woman in Idlib, Syria, who clings to her children exhausted from constant war. This Syrophoenician woman is not past tense. She walks amongst us. She might even be in some of us. So don’t we want to hear her story, to give her a chance to tell us what happened?
Before we do that, though, as a professor of mine once put it, let’s be clear about what this is: I am not going to put on a shawl or carry a prop to indicate I am moving into some kind of theatrical performance. A first-person sermon is not acting. Rather, it is an act of imaginative listening. If we were Jewish, we might call it a midrash—a way to fill in the gaps of the story. Regardless, though, of whatever we want to call this moment, we are now going to give the Syrophoenician woman a chance to speak, to teach us, maybe to inspire us, to tell us something true about God:
“I have always wondered why Mark included my story in his Gospel. It has long been a difficult one for Christians. But we can get into that a little later, because it is important to me that you first understand just why I did what I did. Some of you know this already, but when you are feeling desperate for help, in particular when you are feeling desperate for help for your child, you will do just about anything. You are no longer concerned with paying attention to social mores or following proper etiquette or customs. After a while you stop caring what other people might think or how they could react; when you are desperate for help, in particular help for your child, you will do whatever it takes.
“That is what I was doing on the day I met Jesus. I had heard about him—heard the stories about how he had healed other people, including that daughter of the Jewish leader named Jairus. And I had heard how he could feed thousands of people with hardly anything and still have food left over. I had heard tales of his compassion and his kindness, his wisdom and his humor. All of those stories had made it to my hometown of Tyre, located in what you now know as Lebanon, a place that was pretty far away from where Jesus usually spent his time. So I was both surprised and excited when I heard he was coming into town.
“Now it wasn’t all that difficult to figure out where he was staying, even though he tried to be incognito. Tyre is primarily full of my people, other Gentiles, so there were only so many Jewish families who might host him. I asked around, and eventually I found him. But as you could tell, Jesus was not happy to be found, at least not by me. Honestly, though, his reaction did not surprise me. I knew that I was not one of his people.
“As Mark put it, I was a Gentile. Mark even wanted to make that point in bold so he also attached Syrophoenician to my identity. I have always found that a little odd, because of course that was my ethnicity. I lived in Tyre. It is where we Syrophoenician people had lived for generations. My guess is that Mark made such an effort to point that out because he wanted to make my ethnicity as obvious as possible since it definitely affected the way Jesus saw me and the way he initially reacted to me.
Look, I’m sure Jesus had been raised to think of me as one of ‘those people,’ as in, you just don’t associate with those people. You don’t share a meal with those people. You don’t share worship with those people. You don’t share life or friendship or home with those people. Our two ethnic groups—Jews and Gentiles—had felt that strain and, often, animosity towards each other for generations. The Jewish prophet Ezekiel himself spent three chapters railing against us: “I am against you, Tyre,” he proclaimed again and again. Jesus had probably heard awful stories about my people his whole growing up, stories full of stereotypes that undoubtedly shaped his vision of me, of my daughter even. That is how stereotypes work, right? You hear something about another kind of person so many times that eventually it sinks in and affects the way you see that kind of person, even when you don’t want it to. We have all experienced that, even if we don’t want to say it in church.
“If that hadn’t happened, why else would Jesus not think twice about calling me a dog? And trust me-- for him, a Jewish man of that time, there was nothing kind about that designation. Think deplorable in your vernacular. It indicates Jesus did not really see me as someone worthwhile, certainly not as an equal. And this is exactly why I have always been surprised that Mark even included my story in his Gospel without fixing it up, smoothing out its rough edges, or explaining it.
“Now I have heard through the years the way preachers have explained what happened to me. I don’t mean to imply any of the preachers here have ever done this, but I have listened as preachers have twisted themselves into pretzels, looking for a way around Jesus’ act of insulting me. He was just testing my faith, they say, wanting to see how deeply I believed. By the way, the word faith does not appear in my story. Jesus never uses it, nor do I. Another explanation I’ve heard is that he healed my daughter because I was submissive. I have all kinds of reactions to that interpretation. Or some preachers will go back to the Greek and say the word Jesus used literally meant little dog, a puppy. Jesus was not calling me a dog, they say, he was just calling me a puppy. Honestly, I have never really understood that one or why that would even make a difference.
“Here are the facts: During that time period Jewish people were not big fans of dogs—regardless of size. Dogs were considered unclean, probably because they ate unclean things, dead things. Now I do have to remind you: that was a long time ago. That is not how Jewish folks feel today. But that is how many of them felt back then. Dogs were not a part of the household or the family. They were not wanted. So when Jesus called me a dog, he was calling me unclean, telling me I was not a part of that household, making sure I knew I was not a part of that family.
“Again, none of that was a surprise. A disappointment, perhaps, given what I had heard about him, but not a surprise. I had absorbed those insults my entire life, anytime I left the safety of my neighborhood in Tyre. I knew before I went in there that was probably how he would feel, for even though Christians sometimes struggle with it, you do believe Jesus was fully human and not only fully God. And his humanity was on full display that day. But remember, I was desperate and was not about to let something like that stop me. So I entered the room, bowed down to show respect, and then asked him to do what I had heard he could do—heal my daughter. In response to my plea, though, he told me he had only been sent to the children of Israel and that he could not waste his healing power on people like me. ‘Let the children be fed first for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
“But when he threw me that insult, I threw caution to the wind and immediately responded. ‘Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,’ I said. And you may not believe me, but I really was not trying to be clever. I was merely stating a reality in my life. Unlike the Jewish people of that day, Gentiles like me brought dogs into our homes and made them a part of the household. It was just what we did. And before my daughter became so sick, I cannot tell you the number of times I watched as she purposefully dropped the food that I had meant for her onto the floor for the dog to eat. So fine, Jesus, I thought when I heard his response, call me a dog. but I have seen even the dogs get to eat eventually. My daughter deserves to be healed too. It is her turn.
“And in that moment—in between my response and his final words back to me—I am telling you, something happened. First, something happened in me. For the first time in what felt like forever I suddenly felt full of energy and this courage I did not know I even had. I felt like I had this power, this divinely fueled power, to make myself be seen. I had this renewed determination to claim out loud that my daughter and I mattered. I guess I just felt more deeply loved and more fully known than I could ever remember feeling before. But that is not all.
“As soon as I saw those words land in Jesus’ mind and heart, something happened to him, too. His face softened. His tone changed. I felt like I finally saw in him all that I had heard about him. And he immediately spoke the words that healed my baby girl, the words that made her whole again. Words that also allowed for all that desperation and fear I had carried around for years to begin to dissipate and fade away.
“Now, I am not trying to brag, but over the years I have come to understand that God used me that day. You know how Luke said that Jesus grew in stature and in wisdom? I think this was one of those times. God used me to help Jesus expand his own understanding of what it meant to be Savior; to help Jesus widen his own comprehension of just who the family was going to be; to help Jesus broaden his own assumptions of who would be included as a part of the household, God’s household. He might have looked at me as a dog in the beginning, but after our encounter, he looked at me as a person, a mother, desperate for her daughter to be made well—just like Jairus was. I believe God used me to help Jesus see more clearly that God also wanted people like me, people like some of you, too—people always shoved to the side, people always looked past, people never taken seriously or given a fair shake—God wanted people like me to also be fed by Jesus’ healing, by his salvation, by his compassion.
“I say all of that knowing that some of you might think that God using me to teach Jesus is one step too far, but just pay attention to the way Mark wrote his Gospel, for when you do, you will realize Mark felt the same way as I did about what happened in that encounter between me and Jesus.
“Remember how I told you that even before we met, I had heard stories about him? One of those was a story that Mark included just a few chapters before telling mine. It is the feeding of the 5,000 that narrates how Jesus fed 5,000 men with just five loaves of bread and two fish but ended up with twelve baskets of leftovers! Twelve! That is no accident. That is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it points out how Jesus had been feeding the children, fulfilling that first part of his mission, all along.
“But then, after my encounter with Jesus, if you keep reading in the Gospel of Mark, you will see a second feeding story, one that happened with a crowd of Gentiles, people like you and me. In that story, Jesus feeds 4,000 women and men. And he does it with seven loaves and a few fish and ends up with seven baskets of leftovers. And just as twelve is symbolic of the tribes of Israel, seven is symbolic of the nations, meaning the world. It is the number of completeness, of wholeness. It connects back to the creation poetry in Genesis. That shows the change in Jesus.
“It shows that he left our encounter determined to make sure that even people like me would now be fed—not just with crumbs or with whatever was left over but fed with the whole full meal of the Gospel: nourished by God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s promise that death would not have the last word, God’s truth that Jesus was God’s Love Made Flesh for All and not just for some.
“But here is what I really want you to hear through my story: That is true for you, too. Even if you do not see the contours of your own story in mine, even if the lives we lead are completely different, God’s desire for you is to also feel nourished by God’s mercy and fed by God’s grace. God’s desire for you is to also know just how deeply and completely you are loved, regardless of all the ways you can mess things up: welcome to being human. God’s desire for you is to have courage, and God’s desire is also for you to discover, or rediscover, the determination to not only look out for yourself but to always keep your eyes open for people like me, people like my daughter, to discover the spiritual resolve to not let what the world tells you about us shape your understanding of who we truly are. Because my story, just like your story, is not past tense. It continues to unfold. So the world will need your voice, just as Jesus needed mine.”
I am extremely indebted to Dr. Barbara Lundblad for both the inspiration for this sermon as well as giving me verbal permission to follow a similar format as she followed when she preached this text in 2015.