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Sermon: Unfamiliar Voices

September 4, 2009

Mark 7:24-37

After I have had my coffee and have settled myself into my daily routine in the office, I am ready for just about anything.  But along about three or four o’clock—especially by five o’clock—I’m burned down so my wick is only about this tall.  By that time in the afternoon, I have very little patience.

It is that time of day that I hear the gate to the courtyard open up, and I pray it is a preschool parent coming to pick up a child, because I don’t want to see anybody.  But wouldn’t you know it, it is a man pulling a broken down cart spilling over with bags and old clothes and bottles, or it is a woman with two bedraggled children in tow, or just someone with “that look,” the look that says “I want something, and I’m heading straight to your office.”

I think to myself, “Not now.”

I am sure that the man sees my face when I open the door and doesn’t feel particularly welcome when I invite him into my office.  He sits down, and his story pours out of him like a rushing river, as if he knows that the moment he stops talking I will invite him to leave my office.  He hopes that there is something in his tale of woe that will trigger an ounce of compassion in me.  But I just look at him with dead eyes because I’m tired.

It may be that I don’t believe him when he tries to explain how his current predicament is the fault of the government and his ex-wife.  It may be that he is asking for something that the church simply can’t provide.  It may also be that I don’t want to be bothered.  But I tell him that there is nothing I can do for him.  Maybe, if I am feeling particularly generous, I’ll point him down the road to Toberman or to Harbor Interfaith Services.

I recognize the look on his face.  It is hurt and frustration and anger.  And he says with no small measure of sarcasm, “Well this is a church, isn’t it?”  The implication, of course, is that the business of the church is to help people, and I have done a poor job of helping him.

Most of the time, my defenses are heightened even more, and I say “I’m sorry” and usher him out the door as quickly as I can.  Every once in a while, however, after he has dragged his rusty cart back out the courtyard gate, I get it.  No matter what the motive of his words, he has spoken the truth.  This is a church; I am the church.  I have done a poor job of representing the head of the church, Jesus Christ.  A surly man who hasn’t bathed in weeks, who carries his clothes around in plastic grocery bags, has spoken to me with the voice of a prophet.

At the beginning of our Gospel lesson today, Jesus was in hiding.  At least, he tried to be in hiding.  He may have been tired and needed a break.  Even the Messiah needs a little rest now and again.  But Jesus’ ministry had been so spectacular, so fresh and full of hope, that he couldn’t hide, not even in this busy town so far north of his usual stomping grounds.

A woman found him, and she had good reason to hunt him down.  Her little girl was possessed by an unclean spirit.  That could have meant many things—mental illness or seizures or a number of other conditions.  What mattered to the woman was that her daughter was not well, and she needed to get help.  So the mother sought Jesus out, found where he was hiding.

Jesus knew she was a Gentile, that is, she wasn’t Jewish.  Maybe it was the way she dressed or the way she spoke.  Jesus had a clear sense of his mission, and it was to his own people, not to the Gentiles.  And so he told her so.  Harshly.  If he had been feeling more rested or had prepared himself to meet with people he might have reacted differently.  Instead, he snapped at her.  He referred to her and her people as dogs.  “Let the children be fed first.”  That means, let the children of Abraham, God’s Chosen People receive my ministry.  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What is remarkable to me is the way this woman kept her poise.  She could have snapped back at Jesus or simply stormed off, but she kept her desired outcome in mind—her daughter’s well being.  So she did what Jesus often did in verbal sparring with his opponents.  She turned Jesus’ own words around on him.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Any of you who have owned dogs know the truth of this statement.  When food hits the floor, the dog is going to get it.  People who own dogs have the cleanest floors around.

Despite his apparent irritability, Jesus heard what she was saying.  This outsider, this intrusion into his life and ministry spoke a word of truth, and Jesus was able to hear it.  In this case, she was the teacher, she was the prophet, and to Jesus’ credit, he got it.

“You may go,” he said.  “The demon has left your daughter.”  She went home, and her daughter was fully recovered.  Chalk one up for a persistent woman, an outsider who refused to be dismissed.

If you are Roman Catholic, you pay attention when the Pope speaks.  If you’re United Methodist, you pay attention when the Council of Bishops speaks.  When the Lay Leader or any other respected and well loved member of the congregation has something to say, you listen.  This text reminds us that it isn’t always the insiders, the members of the family, who speak a prophetic word.  Sometimes it is the outsiders who remind us who we are called to be, who call us back to our true selves as children of God and servants of the world.  “This is a church, isn’t it?”  “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

To us, these might be the voices of outsiders, people who don’t “belong” to us.  To God, there are no outsiders, and God might use any one of God’s children to call us back to our true selves.  The only question is will we listen?

Fred Craddock tells a story about a time that he preached at a big church in Atlanta for four nights straight.

There was a moment in the service in which the pastor said, “We’ll now have our moments of fellowship.  Greet each other in Christian love,” and you never saw such hugging and kissing and carrying on in your life—people going across the room, and up and down the aisles, and grabbing and hugging.  Somebody came up to me—I was down behind the pulpit—and gave me a big smack.  It was just really something.  Finally he said, “All right, hold it, hold it.  We have to get on with the worship.”  Four nights of that.

The last night, he and his wife took me and my wife out to coffee.  He said, “Did you ever see such a family church?  Did you ever see such love in your life in a church?”

My wife said, “Yeah, well, yeah, I have.”

He said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “I was there for all four services, and nobody ever spoke to me.”

And do you know what he said?  He said, “Well, that was because they didn’t know who you were.”  (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories [St. Louis: Chalice, 2001], 45.)

Yes, we are a church, and our true calling is to love the outsiders just as much as we love the insiders.  We love the ones we know and the ones we don’t know yet.  Our call is to hear what the others say just as clearly as we listen to what our own say, because in God’s kingdom, there are not those who are in and those who are out, because all are welcome.  That is why we United Methodist’s practice open communion.  All are welcome at this table to share the bread and the wine.  All of you.  If everybody in San Pedro wanted to come in and eat this meal with us, they would all be welcome here.  This is not my table.  It doesn’t belong to the Trustees.  This is the table of Jesus Christ.  You are welcome here.  There are no dogs here, only children.

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