Sermon for Year B, Proper 17
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
September 9, 2012 (8 a.m.)
It’s easy to remember that Jesus was a Jew.
For some odd reason, though, it’s also easy to forget that he was a Jew
Who regularly and intentionally crossed boundary lines
In order to touch and teach, heal and feed.
There’s no getting past this.
He was well acquainted with the laws and restrictions of his culture and his religion –
The things that set him, as a Jew, apart, from the rest of his society –
And he openly, freely disobeyed them.
Rules and laws and guidelines are made to be observed
Because they help keep order: they keep us alive, keep society going forward,
Keep things from breaking down or getting out of hand.
But in another sense – a larger sense – rules and laws and guidelines
Can often become the object of their own worship.
Those who make them can forget why they’re making them
Because sometimes our noses get too close to the page,
And we see the letter of the law, but we risk forgetting why it exists in the first place.
In Jesus Christ, God reaches out to us:
God reaches out to us, beyond the body of law, with a word of undeniable grace.
That word is simple and plain: I love you, God says, I will never abandon you,
And I want you to be just as merciful to others as I have been to you.
Mark points out that the woman in the first episode is Gentile,
Which is simply a word that means “Greek,”
Or in other words, not a Jew. This is a cause for caution.
It’s supposed to be outside Jesus’ orbit to really even have a conversation with her,
Because doing so risks making him “unclean,”
Which by itself presents all kinds of problems for him,
Not the least of which is that he won’t be able to participate in religious life.
That’s bad enough.
But the Gentile woman has a Gentile daughter who, we’re told,
Is possessed by a spirit that is “unclean”!
Added to that, all this is happening in the thoroughly Gentile town of Tyre,
Which was despised by Jews.
Healing an unclean spirit from a Gentile girl with a Gentile mother in a Gentile town.
How far outside the law can Jesus go to show mercy?
How far outside our established norms and rules are we supposed to go to show mercy?
God, in Jesus, takes it to the absolute extreme.
Before consenting to heal the woman’s daughter,
Jesus has a conversation that reveals a common expression from that time.
Jews of his day, apparently, referred to Gentiles as dogs;
It was simply a term of slander – thoughtless, racist language.
Yet remarkably she seizes on the term because despite what our translation says,
He never uses the word “dogs”:
He says “puppies,” which softens the idea.
“Why give food to puppies?” he asks playfully.
Well, she responds, giving as good as she gets,
Puppies do eat the crumbs that fall from kids’ plates.
And the mercy of God is extended to her without regard for her station in life.
If this weren’t enough, Jesus leaves that place,
Taking a circuitous route still deeper into Gentile territory, and ends up in the Decapolis,
A group of ten cities on the eastern edge of the Roman frontier
Known for their distinctly, thoroughly Greek culture.
It was well known that they had birthed
Greek scholars, Greek poets, Greek jurists over the years.
It’s not hard to imagine some fairly sharp hostility between the cities of the Decapolis
And their Jewish neighbors in the west, and their nomadic neighbors to the north.
Everywhere Jesus wandered in these loosely affiliated cities,
He must have seen evidence of Greek culture:
Architecture, sculpture, Roman tombs, monuments, avenues, fountains, theaters,
And temple after temple where sacrifices were offered to the pantheon of gods.
The non-Jewishness of it all must have been completely visible –
A finger in the eye of Jesus and his followers.
I’ll bet they must have tread pretty lightly,
Yet, at least in some of them, with a feeling of disgust.
Who in this place would possibly deserve to be healed?
Well, as it turns out, a man with no hearing makes a good candidate.
Obviously another Gentile – another threat of becoming unclean.
You might imagine that touching the man, as Jesus does, was forbidden,
And everything after that was just beyond the pale.
Just beyond the pale.
Scholars tell us that the spit applied to the tonuge,
And Jesus touching the man in this way,
Would have been considered just as defiling as touching bodily excrement.
Wow. By now the people in the crowds following Jesus must be asking themselves,
Is there any law remaining we can think of that he hasn’t violated?
Any rule left in the books he hasn’t broken?
I doubt most of us hearing this today are terribly shocked by this news.
We already know Jesus to have been something of a rebel.
It simply remains to us to think about how we might respond.
First of all, Jesus is on a mission of showing mercy to people:
The blessing and joy and life of God, wrapped up in acts of mercy and kindness.
Those of us who call ourselves Christians had better be prepared to lose the label
Unless we too can learn to go out of our own way and be called out of ourselves
In order to show mercy and kindness to others.
Second, this mission of mercy is specifically extended and given to people
Who are very much unlike Jesus:
They aren’t Jews, they live in places he’s not supposed to go,
In conditions that create major discomfort,
And they have problems he isn’t necessarily even required to care about.
He could live his whole life in their absence and be just fine,
Yet he cares enough about them,
Although he hasn’t even met them, to go to wherever they are:
To show the power of God, yes,
But to show it people who themselves had every right to pass him by.
He crosses boundaries left and right; he crosses them and crosses them,
Taking their residue to the next place and to the next place,
Enfolding them in a message of mercy and healing
That isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky scenario,
But is real, and Godly, and very much in simple human terms, on a human scale:
A daughter restored to sanity and a deaf man who can hear.
Third, when they are healed, they praise God!
They may return to their appointed daily rounds,
But it is with words of thanksgiving on their lips – doxology and love
To a God who does all things well,
Or, as the Greek text tells us, Makes all things beautiful.
It is not the pantheon of gods in the cities –
Gods who demand selfish sacrifices of wine and grain and oil –
But it is a God who demands a harvest of mercy,
A God who shows us, through Jesus, that rules about who is unclean
Ultimately pale in comparison to rules about who receives mercy and kindness.
See! Whoever they are, whatever they’ve been through, whatever situation they’re in,
They rise and walk and are whole.
Long before Jesus, the prophet Hosea wrote in the voice of God,
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
And it is in following these words of advice from scripture
That Jesus shows his followers what true worship really looks like.