Monday, September 11, 2006

Of Dogs and Children

“Of Dogs and Children”
The Rev. Zachary S. Sasser
First Presbyterian Church (USA)
Dalton, Georgia
9/10/06
23rd Sunday – Year B
Mark 7:24-30
24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

By now many of you know that I grew up in Kennesaw, GA. What you may not know is that I spent many a summer week at my grandparent’s lake house on Lake Burton in Tiger, GA. So I have a bit of North Georgia Mountain blood in me as well. In other words there is a lot of red clay in my soul. As a child, one of my favorite memories of the lake and my grandparent’s house was their dog, Maggie. I think it was as much a joy to see my grandparents smiling when they saw us play together as it was to play. I will always remember my grandmother saying, “Every dog needs a boy.” And it was often hard to tell where boy left off and dog began.

I think is one in which God plays with us as well. It is a difficult portrayal of Jesus. He seems dismissive and judgmental, though gracious in the end. Personally I think it is a text that shows us how Jesus’ humanity is real and identifiable and his divinity is tangible and accessible.

His humanity is almost too real in the way that he goes to an area on the outskirts of those he’s been called to serve and tries to go unnoticed. I imagine all of us have tried to do that at some point. There have certainly been times in my life in which I have wanted to come to church and leave without being noticed and without getting involved. Sometimes in our public lives it may even seem like it’s easier to go unnoticed than to be known as a Christian. Jesus did not want anyone to know he was there. In a fashion that is all too human, he even seems somewhat unwilling to let go of his own, or what he perceives to be God’s own, vision of whom it is he came to serve. A traditional approach to this problem is to say that he knew what he was doing the whole time and was using this as a chance to teach the disciples not to limit God’s grace (1). Others have said that he was waiting for her to claim her place, and that the noun form for the word he used to call her a dog was more of a “pet name” (2), even though Jews did not have dogs as indoor pets (3). It may even be that this was the point in which Jesus, in his own ministry, was acknowledging the future inclusion of Gentiles. This was the furthest from Jerusalem he traveled, and he started his return almost immediately after this.

My favorite take on this story comes from a friend of mine who says that this story is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of what it means to be without sin. Scripture says Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” And we are told to “go and sin no more.” What then do we do with this story? Jesus makes a decision based on his understanding of who he is and what he is here to do. In doing so he also functions within the cultural boundaries of his time and place. These cultural boundaries are racial boundaries. But before we get too carried away with the idea that Jesus is simply being racially biased, we have to take the whole story into account. Even though he uses language that is demeaning and offensive, he is yet open to God’s will. That is why Jesus, the man, is also Emanuel, God with us. In all things he is not simply stuck in his own desires. Instead he demonstrates who God is and how God works.

Jesus, by example and by offering of opportunity, asks us through this text to consider our relationship with him and with others. Are we the disciples who seek to protect him from children and dogs alike? Are we his children and the ones who receive the first fruits of salvation? Are we the dogs begging for scraps of forgiveness? I think it is safe to say that there is a little of all three in each of us, and thanks be to God for that!

As disciples we are constantly made aware that the more protective we are over our understanding of Jesus, the more likely we are to exclude others. As children of God we get the benefit of living as forgiven, redeemed, and purpose driven people. We get to live as a people who are driven by God’s desire for all to be included at Christ’s table instead of being individuals driven only by our own desires and appetites. And as dogs we know that God takes all of our failures and natural limitations and says, “Welcome! You are welcome here, my beloved child.”

While in seminary, Treva and I had the wonderful opportunity of taking a travel seminar with a group of 12 students and faculty for three weeks in Ghana. Make no mistake; this was not a mission trip. This was the Ghanaian people preparing me to come and share the gospel with you. Everywhere we went they would say, “Akwaba!” or “Ya Wezo!” which meant, “Welcome!” One village we worshiped in had some amazing traditions. First, they danced their offering down the aisle and the men put there offering in one bowl and the women in another. This was not as ostentatious, or even as sexist, as it may sound. Giving was a joyful act they threw themselves into fully. If the offering turned out to be more from the women, they would have another offering to allow the men to catch up. You see the men where the ones who worked for pay, often in other cities far from their village. The women managed the house; cooking, cleaning, raising children, and tending to any crops they may have. The women only had money if they were given it or if they, in their spare time, could make some beads or pick some fruit to sell.

After the service they held an auction to raise more money, as they were trying to build a new building for their overflowing congregation. A basket of oranges worth three days labor, between harvest and sales, was offered and a bidding war broke out between the men and the women. It came down to one man and one woman. The man finally shrugged and looked at the woman like she was crazy. She had paid four times their value, and he knew that was just plain ridiculous! After the service Treva and I were escorted to an elder’s home for lunch. When we got back to the pastor’s house, where we were staying, there were the oranges! I didn’t realize they were the same ones until I was told that they were. We ate them immediately, and they were so good! I felt so unworthy for having sat there with my wad of tourist money while this woman made this sacrifice just to have the opportunity to be hospitable to us, their guests. And that’s what grace is all about, folks. God’s love for us is almost ridiculously silly. It’s overwhelming. It’s sacrificial, and it is abundant.

Now, realizing that the context is completely different here than it was there, I think today’s text still begs the question of us, “How do we deal with our cultural boundaries?” How do we show hospitality to the alien in our midst? This passage assures us that the racial question is as old as humanity and yet far from resolved. Here, in Dalton, there are language and cultural boundaries on more than one side of the issue. As a largely affluent congregation we know that there is always the danger of creating dependant subjects when trying to help others through our generosity. And if we bank on affluence as our identity we will naturally exclude those who already think you have to be wealthy to worship here. So, the only thing I know to do is to turn to the model of Christ and to open ourselves up to God’s will. Is it God’s will that we wait for others to beg like dogs for scraps so that all know their place in the greater kingdom? Of course not! I believe God’s will to be that we see the needs of others in such a way that we cannot deny or delay a response of grace and mercy.

As we look to the future and consider how to extend God’s grace, let’s go easy on ourselves. It is easy to throw stones at what we should do, but I don’t think that will be productive or healthy. Likewise I do not think that we can legitimately talk about the church’s use of funds without examining our own spiritual capacity for and discipline of generosity. And by the same token, if you have a vision for how the facility might be used or what programs could be offered, share it with others and get a group of folks together who can see it through, supporting and maintaining it. And go through the appropriate committee so that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.

A wise educator once said to me, “You have to bless what is and create what is not.” That’s why the mission study is so very important! It’s a chance to say, “This is who we are in Christ Jesus, and this is what we will do through Christ’s leadership!” That’s why the “Town Hall Meeting” this Wednesday is so important.

As you go into the new facility today, I want you to marvel at God’s grace. Think of it as a truck load of those Ghanaian oranges I mentioned. I want you to think about the bounty of God’s grace that has been offered to each of us as children of the most Holy God! I want you to think about the dogs of our society and how we might play together in such a way that it’s hard to say where dog ends and child begins. And may God be praised for allowing us the opportunity to extend God’s grace into the world and to receive it in eternity. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] One Family Outreach : http://onefamilyoutreach.com/bible/Mark/mk_07_24-37.html

[2] Husted, Heidi (2000) When the Gospel Goes to The Dogs, The Christian Century, August 16-23. The Christian Century Foundation (p. 829).

[3] Turton, Michael (2004) On Line Commentary on the Gospel of Mark: http://users2.ev1.net/~turton/GMark/GMark07.html#7.p.24.30