Perfect Potential - Seeking Excellence in Ministry
The following sermon was preached by Pastor Heidi Neumark, Guest, LSTC Leadership Conference Leader, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, February 11, 2008.
I was having breakfast with Jesus recently. When I mispronounced his name as Jesus, Jesus corrected me. Jesus has quite a few Latin Kings tattoos. Which made sense when he told me his story. His mother died when he was born and he was put with foster parents who were Latin King gang members who preyed on his vulnurablity in multiple ways. One night at dinner, when Jesus was 13, he told his foster mother that he was gay and she stabbed him with her fork. Hard. He has a row of scar bumps on his arm and another on his side from the fork attack. Jesus ran away and survived one way or another until he found his way to Trinity Place, the shelter my congregation opened a year and a half ago for homeless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. Some like Jesus have lived a lifetime of trauma. Others are kicked out of previously stable homes after coming out.
We offer transitional housing for 10 young adults and the biggest drama often centers around the kitchen. Whose dirty dishes are those in the sink? Who cleaned the dishes but left food scraps in the sink? Who cleaned the dishes but left food scraps all over the stove? Who hid the dirty pot in the back of the fridge? Who plugged up the sink by pouring grease down the drain? Who left the crumbs and bits of jelly on the counter? Who left the stinky garbage open? Who put the regular garbage in the recycling container? This is why we have roaches. This is an open invitation to the rat population more evident than ever due to the construction site next door. Not to mention mice. If that kitchen is not cleaned, no one is going to get their metrocards, the free subway passes we give out once a week like prizes to those who follow the purity laws. It seems counterproductive to withhold laundry money. Ah, the joys of ministry! Perfect potential indeed!
This kitchen drama is an old story. Jesus faced a lot of conflict over the issue of purity rules around food. Jesus was frequently criticized for defiling the kitchen and dining areas. In fact, in the first half of chapter 7 in Mark's gospel, the chapter from which our reading comes, Jesus is criticized because his disciples have not washed their hands properly (ah, there's another issue, but now we have installed new soap dispensers). Another concern brought before Jesus is, and I quote, -- the proper washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles. (verse 4).
This is all in the first half of chapter 7. Our text follows, in the second half. To get there, Jesus travels a good 100 miles out of his way into the region of Tyre–into the heart of unclean territory. All the Lysol in the world couldn't sanitize Tyre. When Jesus arrives, he enters a house and wants to be left in peace. Maybe he wanted a little recovery time after dealing with so many kitchen nightmares. But we're told that Jesus could not escape notice. So much for peace. Before he's even had time for a nap, in comes a woman who bows down at his feet. Mark wants to make it very clear just what sort of woman she is. Now the woman was a Gentile, we are told and if that's not enough, there's more. She's a Gentile of Syrophoenican origin.
So. A pagan. Unclean by birth, a foreigner female, and untouchable because her little daughter had an unclean spirit. Her bowing down is intended as a gesture of respect, but, it would have been seen as a shameful act. This woman should never have approached Jesus in the first place. She knows it, but she doesn't accept it. She imagines what for others is unimaginable. Mark magnifies the obstacles. All that would make the woman's efforts futile. But like Mary, this woman magnifies the Lord. Like Mary who envisioned the seismic shifting of alliances in her womb, this mother envisions a transformation those around her cannot see, that her voice will be heard and taken seriously, that her daughter will be made well.
She bends down before Jesus because she loves her daughter and because she believes that Jesus has the potential to do what none other can. It is a posture of hope and of risk at the same time. A posture familiar to many. She bent down as Lilia bent down, lifting her children through the barbed wire, over the border to reach a place with potential for her young children's future. She showed me the dark scars on her thigh and said that in Mexico she could earn 250 pesos a week. Diapers cost seventy. Shampoo costs thirty. "You can wash or you can eat," she said. And so they pushed themselves through the barbed wire fence. She said that she didn't even feel it cutting her at the time. The scars came later. And other barbs. My daughter once came home from high school and told me that some girls were talking disparagingly about DM's. DM's? She was told it meant "Dirty Mexicans."
Dirty Mexicans. Shemales. Unclean syrophenisnas. A mother enters the house where Jesus was, crossing a threshold as forbidding as any frontera. And once there, she begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, Let the children be fed first for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it the dogs.
What happened to Jesus the beautiful Savior, Jesus and his sweet, sweet spirit? Some say, Jesus didn't mean what he said, but was just quoting a proverb and testing the woman to see her reaction. Other commentators say, well Jesus doesn't really call her a dog. The Greek word should really be translated as puppy. In fact, the Spanish translation of Bible I have does that, instead of dog. Perro, the translation reads perrito, puppy.
Frankly, whether she's referred to as a big dog or a little dog, a street dog or a house pet, it's degrading, like being called a DM or one of the insulting names hurled at the youth in our shelter. Dog was an insult used to put down gentiles, a dehumanizing term and as we know still today, the violence, on all sides in the middle east and elsewhere, violence against immigrants and queer youth, is often made possible precisely by the prior act of dehumanization and demonization. How could Jesus have been part of this?
Was he over-tired? That certainly lowers my excellence quotient. After all, the woman interrupted him right after he'd had an exhausting trip which came after dealing with non-stop conflict and non-stop needs with a number of encounters with the demonic thrown in. It's only been seven chapters, not seven years, but maybe it was time for Jesus to take a sabbatical.
Or maybe there's another explanation.
After his first response, Jesus shows that he respects the woman's boldness in talking back to him and standing her ground. In the end Jesus hears her cry and takes it to heart and heals her child. It appears that Jesus allowed this woman to open his mind to further potential for mission and ministry. That Jesus changed his mind, but Jesus chose to go to Tyre. Wasn't his mind already open? Yes, already, but maybe also, not yet.
Is that a heretical thought? Well, we confess that Jesus was human that he had to learn to talk and walk like all babies. Martin Luther liked to remind folks that even Jesus' diapers were smelly and needed changing. The gospel of Luke tells us that the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. In other words, Jesus grew stronger in body and in mind. From the very beginning, many people found this offensive and could not imagine that God could be subject to these kinds of human limitations, but that indeed is the scandal and miracle of incarnation, we confess God become flesh.
In doing so, Jesus set aside equality with God as a thing to be grasped. Jesus emptied himself. Jesus abandoned the perfections of glory for the imperfections and limitations of flesh and blood. Jesus let go of perfect clarity for the struggles of seeing through a glass darkly. Is it possible? That Jesus wasn't born with everything perfectly figured out? That Jesus didn't have all the answers, He couldn't even ask WWJD. Well, the Word says that he grew in strength and wisdom. The wisdom of the world needed to grow in wisdom? But that's the paradox we embrace, bread, yet body of Christ, Human, yet Divine scarred, yet whole. The gospels give us a number of examples where Jesus struggles. We had one on Sunday, Jesus wresting with the devil's various temptations. Before long, we'll come to Jesus in the garden, anguishing over his ministry, and Jesus on the cross, where every ounce of perfect potential drains out of him. Like a dog left to die on a garbage dump. His crown of thorns sharp as barbed wire.
Perhaps the encounter with the woman in today's gospel is another such instance. Perhaps Jesus had hesitations in his own mind about crossing the boundaries he was crossing, worrying as we do at times, if all hell will break loose if we break with certain long held practices and policies.
Perhaps Jesus was struggling with a ministry and mission that led him into uncharted territory, another form of wilderness where even Jesus was tempted with second thoughts. After all, his previous encounter with gentiles was not all that encouraging. He healed the Geresene demoniac and folks responded by asking Jesus to please leave the neighborhood. Plenty of fodder for second thoughts.
Like we might get… Diversity is not easy. Maybe it wasn't easy for Jesus either! Isn't that a comfort… It wasn't easy for Jesus either! Jesus knows all about our troubles and struggles and our second thoughts.
But if the story ended there, it would just be business as usual. The thing is, it doesn't end there. I have come to believe that we can thank the Syrophenician woman for the diverse, universal nature of the church. Because she crossed the border, bowing down in risk and hope, speaking a bold prophetic word, it appears to be enough to clear up any lingering doubts in Jesus mind about the direction of his ministry. Of course, Jesus had to give up equality with God, omniscient to empty himself and listen to her, a perfect model for us.
Did this make Jesus more successful? I suppose it depends on who you'd ask. A brilliant success according to the syrophen woman and her little girl.
But not everyone saw it that way. Instead of transfiguration, many saw defilement. Instead of triumph, they focused on, well, dirty dishes. They just didn't really see the wonders right before their eyes.
What about us? In spite of our own kitchen nightmares, we do see glimpses of perfect potential shining through. There is Robin who just went back to college after her winter break. When the dorm closes, home is back at the church. Robin is four months away from completing her first year of college, a transgender young woman living in a college dorm who reports that her biggest struggle this year has been calculus. Her potential is incalcuable. Cristy voluntarily washed the dishes for Nanci last week, that was a wonder. Peaches and Jesus almost came to blows over precious minutes in the only shower, but they restrained themselves, showing some excellent self-control. Some of the Mexican women of the church, mostly undocumented, cooked chicken in mole for the young people. Undocumented Mexicans and gays, now there's a winning ticket. After dinner, Kenny, Kenny who needed reconstructive facial surgery after a hate attack, said: This is the only place I feel human.
There's a glimpse of perfect potential. You have your own list of glimpses too. Of church as it should be. Our better selves. The world charged with the grandeur of God. Then there's the other list. The crumbs on the counter, the clogged toilet, the youth who must be discharged if he refuses to attend anger management classes, the space use conflicts, the cracked boiler, a new unwelcome addition to my list, a reminder of deeper fissures. You have that list too. It's the list of our potential for failure. Which frequently looms larger than our potential for perfection. We just confessed it on Ash Wednesday. And yet, like the heroine in our gospel, we hope and take risks for healing, and not only for our blood kin. The mark of ash on our foreheads is transformed in the bright mark of baptismal oil.
On the baptism of Jesus, Jesus was baptized. Yes he was. He couldn't control the tears ahead of time. Tears because there was no mother, no father, no sibling, no partner at his side. Lydie, our council president stood with him. I poured the water and said the words of baptism and prayed that Jesus would hear another voice as well: You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. I marked his forehead with oil. Jesus, you are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. I prayed that no matter what happened Jesus would hold on to the promise of his namesake.
You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.
You are beloved of God and with you God is well pleased.
That promise will see us through a lot of failure. Before the perfection. Right now.
As we are. Perfectly Pleasing to God beyond any calculus.
Perfectly loved. By God who sees in us what we cannot.
Glory. Glory be. Thanks be to God.