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Sermon for September 9, 2012

Partners

Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?” So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be . . . just rocks.” Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will become clouds, and some of the water will be...just water.” Then the angels said, “Well, God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?”

And God answered: “NOPE!”

On some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?”

 And God answered: “NOPE!”

God made a man and a woman from some of the water and dust and said to them, “I am tired now. Please finish up the world for me — really it’s almost done.” But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans, and we are too little.”

“You are big enough,” God answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.” The man and the woman asked, “What’s a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That ’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.

Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” and God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”
From Does God Have a Big Toe by Rabbi Marc Gellman
In the first century, the great question was one of boundaries. Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not. It is a question the church has not yet answered. Marcus Borg writes about this in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time. "The struggle between compassion and purity goes on in the churches today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity."

Perhaps this is what’s happening in our Scripture reading from Mark 7:25-30.
A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about [Jesus], and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds. Jesus calls this woman a dog. He knows what any Jew of his day would know; that this woman does not belong at the table with God’s chosen people. She shouldn’t be asking for Jesus’ help. She has her own people, her own healers, her own teachers. Why trouble Jesus? He doesn’t belong to her. She isn’t one of his people. She is an outsider. She’s a dog, and Jesus tells her so. This insult may get lost on us because most of us like dogs. Dogs are cute Dogs are fun. We have them as pets and companions. Dogs become part of the family. I once read that Leona Helmsley left $12 million in her will for her dog. What’s so bad about being a dog, especially if are Leona Helmsley’s dog? Well, in 1st century Palestine, there was no such thing as a domestic dog. The only dogs were wild dogs, scavengers, eating unclean animals and even human carcasses. For Jesus to call this Gentile woman a dog meant that she was unclean and shouldn’t be hanging around Jews. She comes from an unclean people and an unclean spirit possesses her daughter. And Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the one who came to clean up Israel, to redeem the Jews from impurity. Jesus comes to heal the children of Israel and Jesus will not waste what he has to give on people like this woman and her daughter. As far as Jesus is concerned, they are not part of God’s plan.

At least that’s what I used to think is happening in the beginning of this story. Lately, I’ve approached this text differently. What if Jesus does get it? In fact, what if Mark tells this story to confront some people who are not even mentioned in the text? Let me explain.

In Jesus’ day, Jewish people operated around a strict set of purity codes. Scripture declares, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation" (Acts 10:28). The Apocrypha confirms this. One text says, "Separate yourselves from the nations, and eat not with them . . . For all their works are unclean, and all their ways are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness" (Jubilees 22:16). So, a purity map developed – like an organizational flowchart that showed where everyone fit in. Everyone knew their place on the chart. Gentiles and Samaritans were out. Morally unclean Jews, like tax collectors, were on the bottom of the chart. Lepers, the poor, widows and those with disabilities were just a step above public sinners on the unclean side of the list. Observant Jews were somewhere in the middle. Religious officials were on the super-pure side of the chart. Everyone knew their purity rating. And everyone knew the rules: those of lesser purity rank should ever intrude on the space of those with higher purity status. And those with high status must always protect their purity by staying away with those who are lower on the map.

According to Jewish religion and culture, Jesus would was expected to avoid all contact with impurity. He was expected to honor the lines and boundaries. But in Mark's gospel, we meet a holy man who seems to trample on all the boundaries of his day. Jesus comes in contact with unclean people: he voluntarily touches a leper, he is touched by a ritually unclean woman and he calls an unclean tax collector and known public sinner to be an disciple. Jesus travels regularly in Samaritan and Gentile territory, crossing boundaries he ought not to cross and exposing himself to pollution on every side. And, while in unclean territory, he speaks with unclean people like the Syrophoenician woman in today’s text.

I think Mark is using Jesus as a way to criticize and re-write the religious purity codes that are still marginalizing desperate people. At first, when Jesus calls the woman a dog, Mark puts the theology of the Pharisees in Jesus’ mouth. It’s a set up. It looks like Jesus is going to tow the party line and reject her. The woman represents all who are excluded by an unjust system. She speaks up for herself. She confronts the oppressive theology. That’s when Jesus turns the system upside down. He offers covenant blessing to outsiders. Mark wants us to know that people and their needs come before rules. Those obsessed with purity emphasize God’s holiness. Jesus emphasizes God’s mercy. Those focused on purity build walls to protect themselves from defilement. Jesus goes out and touches human need. They are working from two radically different sets of assumptions. In Mark’s gospel, the Pharisees symbolize order and regulation. Jesus symbolizes mercy and mission.

And the woman who gets called a dog -- it turns out she is no dog at all. Like I said, it’s a set up. Kind of a reverse psychology. She’s not a dog. No, she is a partner. She and Jesus work to eliminate exclusion and show that anyone can have a right relationship with God. Before all else, before God seeks us out as a lover, a servant or a worshiper, God makes us partners. That is our fundamental, primitive relationship with God. Partners. In the very beginning of creation, God has no brother, sister, friend, spouse, servant or even a pet. Yet, God becomes hopelessly entangled with us. As Rabbi Gellman says in our first reading, a partner is someone to work with God on a big thing that neither God nor we can do alone.

That’s what we are all about here at CCC. We realize that healthy churches learn to expand their boundaries in order to include more people in what God is doing. One way to do this is to tell people the simple truth that God loves everyone. This doesn’t mean that God just loves those who are rich, or super spiritual, or good looking, or the ones who have it all together. God’s love doesn’t stop with those who look or act the same way. God also loves those whom the world labels as ugly or incompetent. The early church gave us Jesus stories to show us how God’s love was extended to those who were seen as outsiders; the poor and oppressed, the lame, and even the Gentiles. The church is not supposed to be a club for people who have it all together. The church is for “rejects.” It is a place where people who have been isolated from God can come and hear life-changing news. The church is a place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope. An inclusive vision of the church means that even when we are at our lowest, beaten, bruised and battered, we are God’s partners. We preach and teach and demonstrate the message of God’s love restlessly. We don’t do it out of pride. We don’t do it to swell our membership rolls or bank accounts. We do it because God partners with us and entrusts us to be the change God wants to see in the world.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Amy gave words to who we can be as God’s partners. I want to repeat her powerful vision. She asked us to imagine how CCC’s history would be written, looking back on this decade. Imagine this:
 In the 2010’s the parishioners of Christ Congregational Church boldly did the unexpected in their time. Churches were declining in membership, concepts of inclusion and grace were heatedly debated in religion and the public square and this body of Christ, this church, proclaimed that God is still speaking! They opened their hearts, their doors, their imaginations, their conversations, and they prayed without ceasing and they practiced listening.With God as their guide, they worked for just laws for all, they ministered to the captives, cared for the sick and dying, made room for the displaced and lonely and offered shelter and food to those who were hungry and without a place to call home. They were a conscientious people. They knew they were privileged and often blind to themselves. They put systems in place to challenge their biases and they were serious about their lifelong commitment to grow and learn into more whole people. They got to know people who were on the margins well. So well, that in time, the people on the margins were coming to their aid at the ends of their lives, and they each served the other with a true sense of love and respect for one another. They experienced the kingdom of God on earth! They joined hands with people of all races, sexual orientations, ages, religious traditions, political beliefs, socioeconomic places, education status, family structures . . . and they came together to bring equality and justice to their community. And the world at that time was different and better because they listened to God’s [wisdom] -- a voice that speaks up for good!
Our holy one, Jesus, is revealed as the physician who brings newness, forgiveness of sins, and wholeness all people. He only draws one line, one boundry. Either you believe in what he is doing, or you don’t. Today we declare, we believe. We believe that a world of compassion, healing, inclusion, and spirit is possible. We believe that we can be partners with God in making it happen. We believe and we must not stop trying to finish the world.

Sources:
The Idea of Purity in Mark’s Gospel by Jerome H. Neyre http://nd.edu/~jneyrey1/Purity-Mark.html
http://www.rustyparts.com/wp/2009/09/07/desperate-a-sermon-on-the-syrophoenician-woman/
Rev. Amy Lewis. “Wisdom Lines,” a sermon preached August 19, 2012 at CCC.
Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman.


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