Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Place at the Table

A Place at the Table
Mark 7:24-30
January 18, 2015
William G. Carter

From there (Jesus) 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, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him 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 to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Two weeks ago, my daughter and I took the 7:20 bus to New York City. It was the morning yawn with a handful of other tourists. There was just one stop on the way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. We rolled into Marshalls Creek, and the bus filled up. From the fourth row, we watched as the United Nations got on.

The newcomers were nicely dressed. They were commuters with jobs, not tourists. I recall somebody telling me there are over forty commuter buses every day from Stroudsburg to New York. Many of us have also seen how the city, in all its diversity, has moved out into the hills. It was certainly obvious on the bus. We saw people whose roots come from Ghana, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and a lot of other places that I can’t identify. Clearly Katie and I were the minority on that bus, just as we white folks from Europe are a minority in the world.

The population keeps shifting in our nation. The pale-skinned people like me have been on the continent for only a few hundred years. These days, people are nudged to make room for those who don’t look like them. Some will say, “We were here first.”  The Native Americans will respond, “Not so fast.” The United States census bureau predicts that white folks will be a minority in 2043, that we will be a nation of minorities where no race vastly outnumbers the others.[1]  

The signs are already around us. When our church housed a homeless man in a hotel in December, I settled up the bill with a delightful Indian lady. I gave her the church credit card. She looked at the name and said, “What’s a Presbyterian?” I replied, “They are Christians who believe everybody should have a warm place to stay the night.” She smiled, looked back at the card, saw the church name, and said, “Do Presbyterians believe they are first?” I said, “They used to, but hopefully not anymore.”

America is changing. Evolving, as it has since the beginning. If this is hard for you, I can understand how you might grumble, kick, or scream. The world is knocking at our door. Some will lock their door and install a security system. But see it for what it is: other people want a place at the table.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead.[2]

This morning we heard an awkward, unlikeable text from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus resists the healing of a young girl. The reason seems to be that her mother was a Gentile. These days, we would call her a Syrian. In ancient days, she would have been labeled a Phoenician. She lived up near the Mediterranean coast, across the border of Jesus’ homeland. Why he went there, we will never know. Maybe he wanted to slip away for a couple of days of rest. The text says he wanted to keep his visit quiet, to maintain a low profile – something that never works out in the Gospel of Mark. Everybody hears about Jesus. Everybody seeks him out.

Mark portrays Jesus as the Strong Man of God. He has the power to cast out destructive spirits. He should have expected that word about his power would spread to those in need, even in a foreign land. And if you travel to somebody else’s country, it is inevitable that you will have to interact with them.

So this mother approaches him. Obviously she wasn’t a Jew; Jewish women of that time did not approach men, especially men they had never met. And she comes and bows by his feet, in a posture of worship, an odd thing for a Gentile to do.  And then she begins to make her request: “My daughter has a demon. Please cast it out.”

He responds with something that sounds like an insult. He alludes to her and her people as “dogs.” It is something that a Jew of the first century might have said regularly to the Gentiles, provided they bothered to speak to one another. “It’s not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. But this mother pushes back, “Yes sir, but even the dogs get the crumbs that fall to the table.”

She pushes back, and Jesus the Jew is pushed past Jewish boundaries. He was already there geographically, now he extends his power. So he heals the daughter of a SyroPhoenecian mother. She pushed him to do it, and do you know why? Because she wanted a place at the table.

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding the share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that's fair.

Wendell Berry is a farmer and poet in Kentucky. Some years ago, he wrote that the hidden wound of American life is racism. The European settlers came and pushed away the people who were living here. Workers were imported and enslaved from Africa. Berry says he can trace both branches of his family tree back to slave owners. It has shaped who he is, even 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, or 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. Here is what he says:

If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.[3]

And what is he talking about? I believe he is talking about the wound of believing you are superior. It’s the belief that the color of skin makes you better than somebody else. And this same notion of superiority is extended to anybody who claims the upper hand: men against women, rich against poor, one group of people against another group. Should we believe that some are inherently better than others, we have ceased to regard one another as neighbors. That is a denial from the primal words of Genesis, that every person is created in the image of God.

And if we deny our equality, we create ways to put others down, to deny them of the same opportunities, to degrade them as something less than what God created them to be. And the wound never heals, even when the only thing our neighbors want is a place at the table.

For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live.

Fifty-one years ago, Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Monument. And in his rich baritone voice, he intoned the words that guided him as a Christian and as a preacher:  

  • I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
  • I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
  • I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.[4]
Dr. King received that dream from his Lord, Jesus Christ, the same Lord who did not restrict his healing work to those who looked like him. Jesus comes with the healing power of God – readily to release those who are afflicted in body or soul, ready to heal those who believe they are better or worse than their neighbors.

When the Bible speaks of justice, we are directed to connect our love of God to active love of neighbor. They cannot be separated, for the neighbor – the stranger – the other person – is made in the image of God, just like us. She or he is worthy of the same respect as any of us. Justice is the practice of living that out.

I began by telling you about my bus trip. That took place on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, the day when the Christian church the coming of the Wise Men. It is likely they came from the land we now call Iran. Yet they were drawn to the light of God when they saw it. And they believed God was doing a new thing by sending a new king upon the earth. This new thing, this fresh work of justice, was to invite every child of God to a place at the table.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free,
            and God will delight when we are creators
            of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
            yes, God will delight when we are creators
            of justice, justice and joy!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] Shirley Erena Murray, “For Everyone Born,” in Glory to God (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing, 2013). Copied for convenience.
[3] Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound (San Francisco: Counterpoint Press, 2010) 4.
[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” A Testament of Hope (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) 219.

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