I preached this sermon yesterday, Tuesday, November 28th, at Wine Before Breakfast at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. My text was Mark 7:24-30.
I hope you like it!
Long ago, when I was very young, I used to hate middle-school dances (on P.E.I., we called that level of education “junior high”; the idea’s the same). You remember: people would crowd into a darkened gymnasium at night, in sock feet, and we guys—especially we nerdy ones—would wait with eagerness and dread for the dimming of the lights for the slow dances. As we heard Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply,” or Bon Jovi’s “Always,” or other sappy, poppy songs, we asked ourselves: would we be chosen? In particular, I wondered whether girls would even notice me, with my awkward loping gait and my emotional intensity, or whether I would be passed over. Very rarely, even in high school, did I feel chosen or included in that way.
Now that I know I can dance, row great distances in five minutes, and do fifteen or more chin-ups, of course, I see it differently. That said, back then it was about being chosen. Do I belong? Do I fit in? Will the people in the inner circles of cool accept me? Am I as cool as, say, a Simon Beairsto, or a Dave Krause, or a Deb Whalen-Blaize? Have you ever felt that way? I’m sure that sometimes you have: standing in church, longing for a touch, a word, a smile of recognition. I remember longing for affectionate touch when I was thirteen or fourteen; I remember aching for it, even within these walls at Wycliffe, as recently as a few months ago. That feeling…the yearning for welcome by people who understand us…never really goes away. Even when the sunshine has come, my friends, the shadow remains.
That’s sort of where we come to today’s text, Mark 7:24-30. This is Part I, Explanation.
In today’s passage, after disputing the Pharisees over tradition and winning yet again, Jesus is tired. He goes to what he thinks will be a quiet place for a couple days’ vacation: he goes to Tyre, where nobody knows him…and he looks forward to lying on a beach for a couple days…
And then his vacation is interrupted. This Gentile woman has heard about Jesus’ healing powers, and she follows him to the house where he stays; I imagine that she beats down the door. She’s longing to experience Jesus’ love, because she knows that he can make the pain go away. “Sir,” I can hear her moaning, “My daughter has a demon. Can you…can you help her, Jesus?” The scene paints itself vividly on our minds. The scene reminds me strongly of some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words from a sermon around Christmas 1934. Referring explicitly to people with disabilities, Bonhoeffer says, “The Christian relation between the strong and the weak is that the strong has to look up to the weak, and never to look down. Weakness is holy; therefore we devote ourselves to the weak.” Wow. That’s mind-blowing. Weakness is holy.
So we wait, with bated breath, for the Holy One to devote himself to this weak person; we hope that the Saviour will reach out with a kind word and a gesture of inclusion to this woman, and so…well, his response may surprise us. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.” Sorry, wait. Can you unpack that, Jesus?
Jesus’ words surprise me, mostly because they’re mean. A few weeks ago, I had a short chat with Joanna at and after breakfast. She was working on her sermon, the passage before this one; at that initial point, she summed it up rather well as Jesus saying, “Don’t be an asshole!” Unfortunately, I was away during Jo’s preaching last week; the way that I read that passage, the Pharisees are the legalistic ass-hats who judge people for the way they wash their hands, their cups, their food, but here…here Jesus, opponent of the Pharisees, stops this woman cold in full-on legalistic ass-hat mode. Jesus is being the kind of person he decries. He’s not being generous, as we’re asked to be this Offering Tuesday; here, I find Jesus cold, distant, and pretty selfish.
Generally, this is the image of Jesus that we stay away from: many people in mainline and evangelical churches, like the ones many of us come from, want to portray Jesus as gentle and meek. That Jesus talks softly and carries a big stick; he doesn’t upset our desire of who is in power, of who will receive healing. That Jesus doesn’t mess with our ideas of who gets God’s provision. That Jesus would want to dance with everyone in harmony and intimacy. Right?
That Jesus, God of gentleness, would never call a woman a dog—let alone a not-nice name for a female dog that I won’t put in a sermon! But this Jesus just did, so…why? Our old friend Walter Brueggemann has a couple ideas. He says that every society has purity laws…and that this Gentile woman takes Jesus to task about the narrowness of his social and religious vision of purity. Brueggemann observes that the woman has to school Jesus in the use of his healing powers, and to give him space to grow in his own liberating spirituality.
As we hear in the text, the woman does reprimand Jesus softly but soundly. “Yes, sir, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from beneath the children’s table.” She takes the insult and turns it on its head; in a way, she reclaims the term and uses it to get what she needs from Jesus. She yearns for, and asks for, healing—healing to which only the children of Israel are privy, in Jesus’ view. So, of course, he’s shocked. I imagine him thinking quietly for a moment, then taking her hand, and rewarding her faith with a few choice words of blessing. “That’s a good point. Go home. The demon has left your daughter.” It’s not, “Go in peace, for your faith has made you well,” as it was a few weeks ago for the woman with the flow of blood, but it works.
That ending makes us feel pretty good, right? Jesus grows as a person, because the foreign woman who has totally interrupted his vacation and invaded his space forces him to enlarge his concept of hospitality. She’s not a female dog; she’s a full human being, just as Jesus is. She moves from being an unclean Gentile to being part of God’s family. She’s moved into the space of being chosen. Brueggemann says that the woman forbids “old racist distinctions” from “determin[ing] who will get healing.” That’s super cool! The woman implores Jesus to dance with her intimately, and so changes his worldview. That said, our journey isn’t yet complete.
This leads us to Part II: Application. What remains for us as a community in terms of this passage? There are a number of angles: in his sermon, Brueggemann discusses racism.
For my part, I want to talk about ableism. Ableism is the systemic and personal discrimination against, and oppression of, people like me. People with disabilities exist on the periphery of Church and society. Tanya Titchkosky, a sociologist with dyslexia who teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, calls people with disabilities “unexpected participants.” Let me explain: the people who built Wycliffe College, as good and well-meaning as they were, did not expect to see people in power-wheelchairs who would be Anglican priests…because they were only used to seeing people who had completely functional legs, and could walk up a set of stone steps; and don’t even get me started on Robarts Library, with wheelchair access in the back. No, friends: ableism is alive and well at the University of Toronto. It occurs daily on the TTC; it lurks behind the beauty of Trinity’s chapel across the road; it’s everywhere…and this passage, especially this passage’s ending, cries out for it to change.
The woman in Mark 7 had a daughter with an “unclean spirit.” That can take many forms. It could have been epilepsy, or pretty much any neurological disorder; the girl’s mother cries out for her healing because the girl cannot help herself. The family background of “Syro-Phoenician”—not Jewish, and not Roman citizens, but likely Gentiles with Middle Eastern and African roots—oppresses her, because the colour of the girl’s skin will impact her access to health care. So, rather than trusting Roman surgeons, the woman tells Jesus her story.
The woman in this story is yearning for healing, the gentle and substantive healing that comes from Jesus’ touch. She feels fragile, and longs for Jesus to make her and her daughter whole again. She yearns for what I call affective access to God’s equity in my dissertation: this woman wants Jesus to dance with her, rather than to turn away coldly, as he’s almost done here. She longs for a sort of Eucharistic wholeness, the kind where people can be vulnerable and available to each other. Even with the “crumbs from the table,” a small morsel of spiritual food, she wants to feel the intimacy that Jesus can show to believers with all abilities, and to know God’s friendship…because God’s friendship offers constancy, comfort, and strength.
In the same way, we people with disabilities are longing to tell our siblings of able body our stories, to have you see us and choose us as friends! People with low visual acuity, people who use wheelchairs, friends with MS and ALS, and people with virtually any sort of mental-health issue struggle to find purchase in the Church…and long to be understood even in the simple and kind of blunt way in which Jesus understands this woman. We—people with disabilities—yearn for believers of able body to dance with us, in the slow dance of friendship.
It was hard for me to dance slowly and gently at first. I have fewer neurons on the left side of my head than most of you. That limitation knocks out my spatial reasoning, constrains the entire right side of my body, and makes it difficult for me to discern, let alone control, some of my emotions. Yes: as many of you have noted to my face, I’m an intense person. It takes so much friggin’ energy for me to focus, and to make my way towards a goal that I can often only see at a slant, that occasionally I am quite intense. My body makes me feel sad and angry most of the time. Of course, that’s not an excuse for me to loose my anger on others; I’ve done that before, and I regret it. Indeed, the thing about this community that gives me the greatest joy is that in my longing for clarity and balance, in the midst of my pain, you accompany me, and we accompany each other. You offer me far more than what the Gentile woman, and Bono, call the “crumbs from the table.” You choose me; you make my yearning worth it.
In late October, Aileen wrote to me to ask for a couple pieces of material I’d used in the community-inclusion workshop through my work at OCAD, so that she could share those materials with Brian and Marcia. She did so, and later Marcia shared the staff’s accessibility action plan with me. The chaplaincy’s nascent plan made me very excited, because it shows that people of able body are starting to acknowledge the importance of the physical and social tasks of inclusion, and to bring people with impairments into God’s family. Plus, we’re about to experience the Eucharist together; as I said before, the Eucharist binds us together as a community by reminding us of our vulnerability and availability—the same vulnerability the woman shares with Jesus, and the openness that he eventually offers her in return.
This passage shows that inclusion is difficult but worth it. It’s hard, because it involves reflecting on our prejudices; it’s worth it—oh my God, so worth it!—because, when we include each other, we become stronger and greater than we are alone. We become who God wants us to be…and, as the woman does, we may find that God is changed by our experience.
I hope that we can take these lessons into this cold Tuesday morning. In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer…