I’ve been practicing my talent for getting lost. Rosie the hound dog and I set off this week to visit a certain sandy bank on the far side of Rat Pond where there’s a nice spot to sit and meditate. But I got distracted by a path that branches off to the left of the known route. Impulsive I decided it might lead to another trail I’d heard about that supposedly circles the pond, so we took it. Walked for about a mile through dark woods. Passed an abandoned, lichen-and-mold encrusted refrigerator. Stopped to bang on some grisly, abandoned oil drums. Came to a clearing where there was a nice cabin, nobody around, but a sturdy walking stick leaning next to the front door. Worried about Hansel and Gretel. Walked on past. Got confused and turned around in a web of crisscrossing trails, and headed back in what I thought was the direction of the rectory. The path became a road with more cabins secluded in clearings. I was relieved to see a burly, hatless man walking towards me. Shouted a friendly hello and asked him, “If I keep walking this way will I get back to route 30?” There was no answer, just the crunch of his feet on the gravel as he passed without looking at me, and the bizarre sound of loud radio static. I started to feel like I had landed in a twilight zone episode involving aliens. Then, 50 feet from behind me, he shouted out, in not a friendly way, “It’s a PRIVATE road.” Disoriented, anxious, and a bit confused, Rosie and I picked up our pace and, 15 minutes later - which felt like an hour - found ourselves back on familiar ground.
Jesus is in a disorienting, strange territory in our gospel lesson from Mark, the region of Tyre and Sidon, north of Galilee, along the Mediterranean coast. No one knows why he was there, or where he was going. It’s gentile land. Not friendly to Jews like himself. He’s off his patch, and not comfortable. He finds a safe house and resolves to stay hidden. BUT news of his healing ministry has preceded him. A solitary women finds him, approaches, falls down at his feet, and cries out, “Sir! Please help me!” Contact between respectable men and unknown women was strictly forbidden by Jesus’ culture. The situation violates all the social rules. But she is desperate for help with nowhere else to turn. Her daughter has a severe mental illness, in ancient terminology, “an unclean spirit. A demon.” Our terminology is more sophisticated, but many forms of mental illness still disrupt and destroy lives and families, frustrating theories and healing strategies of today. Like my experience in the woods, the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman blurs social boundaries and categories. It’s highly uncomfortable.
I remember 14th street in DC when I first came to my former church, Luther Place. Before regentrification, It was still the red light district. One night, walking home, I saw a Pennsylvania Dutch man, garbed in black, bearded, rustic, being solicited by one of the transvestite prostitutes that plied the block at certain hours. Very disoriented gent. Or I picture a family of upper midwestern Lutherans encountering brightly costumed but bedraggled beggars among crumbling tombs in rural Myanmar. Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman is something like that. Categories and customs are criss-crossed.
And yet - the woman’s love for her daughter compels her to approach the rabbi. Male - female conversation was forbidden, let alone, physical closeness, yet, here she is at Jesus’ feet, mother love pushing through the barriers and taboos, daring to go where all the cultural signposts say “Private Road - No Trespassing.”
“Please, Mister, my daughter is being tortured! Please Sir, I know you can help! Please, please, please drive the demon from her. Please restore my daughter’s mind!”
I know many mothers and fathers who would fall down at a stranger’s feet if they thought it would relieve their child’s suffering from bipolar disorder, opiate addiction, gang violence, generational poverty. So many ways young lives can be disordered and destroyed, and so much damage has been done to our social safety net by decades of defunding. Somebody posted a picture of a female grizzly on my facebook page recently, with a caption that says, “I’m a momma bear. Hurt my kid and I will tear you open and eat your insides!” The language is different, but that’s the intensity of concern the woman in the story with Jesus displays. Like mothers setting out from Honduras with a thousand mile walk to get their child to a chance in the U.S. Like mothers and fathers in leaky life rafts trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. “Please” they are asking, climate refugee parents all over the world, “Please help us help our children!”
Jesus was disoriented at the beginning of the lesson. Now he seems to get really lost.
“It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” JeSUS! This is shocking. Outrageously cruel and inhumane. Brutal. “Healing and salvation are restricted to MY tribe. Your child need not apply.” Imagine carrying your sick child into a hospital where you see a sign that says “white people only.” “Black people only.” “Christians only.” “Jews only.” That’s the impact of Jesus words.
And I see a big, red warning sign here for the human family today. The healing our broken human family desperately needs today can only happen when we are willing, like this woman, to challenge and dismantle the barriers of race and religion and class and gender and ableism and nationality that the demons are using to divide and conquer us.
“Get away!” Jesus says to the desperate mother. “My healing word and tender touch are only for my own kind!” But - thank God, not the end of the story. Because
“Yes, sir!” The momma bear says, tearing open Jesus’ tribal male defensiveness, “yes, Sir! But even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.”
God’s grace cannot be limited by human barriers, customs or conventions.
“Shema Yisrael, adonai elohenu, adonai Ehud!” We prayed during our lesson from Creation last week, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God is one!” One God for Jews and Gentiles, one God for Honduras and at the southern border. One God for Black children. One God for White children. One God for vaxxers. One God for Anti-vaxxers. As we said in that lesson from Creation, the fungi and the algae and the yeast and the cyanobacteria TOGETHER make up the lichen that turns hard rock into fertile, nurturing soil, and brown, black, red, yellow and pink peopleTOGETHER form the human rainbow that can save our planet, drive out the demons and heal all the children.
“Oh, woman! Great is your faith! Because of your answer you can go. The demon has left your daughter.” And Momma Bear went home and found her daughter, lying in bed. Sleeping peacefully, restored to her right mind.
I seem to have a talent for getting lost. Maybe you do too. I feel a little lost right now when I look at these dear walls and your dear faces and think of leaving the woods and the lake and the sky, packing up and heading down the long, lonesome road to face all the confusion and upheaval that’s waiting for us when we return to “the real world.” But God’s grace, as Jesus learned in the region of Tyre and Sidon, is unlimited, persistent and pervasive. And so often it is when we feel most outside our safety zone that we are able to do the most good. Be fearless! Explore difference! God’s love is taking barriers down wherever you go. And take this prayer with you. A beautiful hymn written by Charlotte Elliot in 1835 called “Just as I am, Without One Plea.” Charlotte was a long-term invalid who felt unworthy and imperfect until a minister she trusted told her, “Charlotte, God loves you just as you are!” And, in the third verse, she wrote the words the Canaanite woman might have sung during her journey home to see her daughter:
“Just as I am, thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down.
Now to be thine, yea thine alone
O lamb of God, I come. I come.
The Rev. Robert M Holum
September 5, 2021