Scriptures for today are here.
Just this week was the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. Three years after the storm, in 2008, I went to New Orleans for some church conference or other. One of the offerings of the conference was a bus tour of the neighborhoods that had been ruined by the storm.
So I joined the bus tour, and rode slowly through these neighborhoods, where you could still see water lines on the outside of houses that showed how high the water had risen. On most of the houses were spray-painted markings, and guides explained the markings to us. Rescuers would go into a house and spray-paint a big “X” on the houses, and in each quadrant they would write markings that told other people who had been there, when they had been there, and what they had found – how many people and animals, dead or alive. Through the windows, we stared, fascinated, at those x-codes that told snippets of the stories of what had happened in each house.
And then, as our bus approached the Lower Ninth Ward, it stopped and a young African-American man got on. The Lower Ninth Ward, of course, was below sea level, and as is the case in so many places, the least desirable real estate is where the poorest people live. So the Lower Ninth Ward was overwhelmingly African-American, and very poor.
But this young man who got on the bus grew up there, and for him it was a community, a neighborhood. He told us how he had grown up, how he had known every person on his street, from the children he played with to the women who kept an eye on them from their kitchen windows and front porches, and scolded them if their play got too rowdy.
By the time of Katrina, he had moved to another part of the city to go to school. But he came home the night before the storm to try to convince his mother to leave. She refused, she insisted on staying with her house to protect it, so he went back to his apartment. And as he left, he walked down the street where he grew up, toward the corner where he would catch the bus to take him away. And as he walked he said hello to people: young people he had played with as children; women who helped raise him, who he called “Auntie;” the elderly gentleman across the street who taught him how to change the oil in his first car; the pastor’s wife on the corner who taught him in Sunday school and directed him in the church choir – all out on their front porches, all waving at him and saying hello, and goodbye, to a friend.
And it was only a week later, as he was grieving the death of his mother, that it hit him that every single person he talked to that afternoon was gone.
He couldn’t tell the story without weeping for the people he had lost, for the community he had lost, and we couldn’t listen without weeping too.
Because although we are all very different people, the human heart is universal.
And part of what struck me, an educated, comfortable, white person staring out of a bus window three years later at an incomprehensible scene of not disaster, but desolation, emptiness – blocks and blocks of empty yards with weeds and concrete foundations, the houses that had been built on them simply gone – was that although the hurricane itself was a natural disaster, the human suffering that followed was an economic and social disaster. It was made worse by the barriers that arise between human beings as a result of history and race and money, and some of those barriers are truly life-threatening to the poor.
And I knew that surely God’s heart broke just as this young man’s did, surely God wants to see dangerous, heartbreaking barriers that separate people and keep them in desperate situations, fall, so we all can live in security and safety.
God’s love for the human race, and God’s hope for barriers to fall and for all people to live and thrive, is woven throughout the scriptures. Over and over, God tells us to care for the poor, to care for the widows and orphans, to love those who are different from ourselves. Our Proverbs lesson and James lesson both say we are to help the poor. And James says flatly, Faith without works is dead – you can’t just believe – you have to act. In other words, if our faith is alive, our love for others will be alive, and we will reach out in compassion to others because our God loves them.
And then our gospel lesson today presents us with a startling story of Jesus being confronted by an outsider, responding the way his society expects him to – maintaining barriers of class and nationality – and being brought up short by a woman who helps him discover his true mission.
So what is it Jesus does here that is so startling? He calls a woman a “dog.” He goes to a foreign country – if it’s not clear from the story, Tyre is outside Israel, in what is now south Lebanon, on the shore of the Mediterranean. So you can imagine Jesus wanting a little rest and recreation at the beach, and going there secretly to rest. But his presence doesn’t stay a secret: a non-Jewish woman, a Syrian woman, comes to him, desperate because her daughter is terribly ill, and what mother wouldn’t do the same?
Jesus looks at this suffering woman and says, you don’t take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs – basically saying Jews are the children, Gentiles are dogs, and Gentiles don’t deserve what he has to offer. (And remember, most of us in this room are Gentiles – that’s us he’s talking about.)
In other words, though Jesus was both human and divine, his human side was brought up to respect the barriers that divide people, and those barriers are strong, so strong that even the Son of God has a moment when he seems subject to them.
The woman persists, and he changes his mind, and heals the child. But the problem for us is – how could Jesus have said this? The perfectly nice, all-knowing, compassionate Jesus we know and love? I have read and heard lots of commentaries that say Jesus didn’t mean it. Lots of people say, oh, Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith, and she passed. Others say, oh, Jesus was actually testing the disciples’ faith to see if they would give the right answer, and when they failed, he turned to the woman who said the right thing. Maybe – I guess it’s possible – but our story doesn’t say that’s what happened. That doesn’t seem to be what Mark is saying. I think we should take this story at face value, realize that it is difficult, and wrestle with it as it is – and when we do, new things appear.
First of all, the reason we have a problem with this story is, we think Jesus should have known all the time that Gentiles like us were included in his mission. But what’s wrong with Jesus not knowing this from the beginning? What’s wrong with Jesus having a human veil that partially concealed God’s will from him? What’s wrong with Jesus learning over time, through prayer and interaction with the world, what his true mission was, just like we have to do? What’s wrong with him being able to open his ears, listen to what someone new was telling him, across an age-old human barrier, and learning from it? Learning from it something so momentous that it changes his whole mission?
We see in this story Jesus himself, his human side, being trapped by all the same barriers we humans are trapped by, assuming that someone different should be shunned – and then we see those barriers between human beings falling, as Jesus realizes his mission is not just to people like him, but to the whole world. Mark seems to show this moment very clearly as a turning point for Jesus. Where before, Mark shows him only healing and preaching to Jews, afterwards we see Jesus opening up his mission to all kinds of people.
So what’s wrong with seeing this story as Mark saw it, that this was a turning point for Jesus, that one lowly, suffering, desperate, foreign woman could come to him and open his ears and his eyes to a whole new aspect of God’s plan?
I love it that Jesus listened to this woman and changed his mind. Because you know what that means? It means that God listens to you and me too. It means that God hears us when we pray. It means that God is in true relationship with us, and that we matter to God. It means that we are not puppets who perform a little drama that God has scripted in advance, and God just sits back to enjoy the play. It means that God respects us, listens to us, and is willing to truly respond to us.
Jesus opened his ears, listened to a woman, and changed his mission.
And if we have any doubt about whether that’s what Mark wants us to understand, I think the next story seals the deal: Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man and that man begins to speak clearly.
This is a story about listening. This is a story about understanding. This is a story about transformation and mission. If Jesus can open his ears and listen, then so can we. We can listen to each other across barriers of race and class and wealth, we can listen to each other across barriers of political disagreement.
And we can learn that God loves the least of those in this world, that God aches for every struggling single mother and every person who doesn’t have enough food or education or a place to live and every Syrian refugee we see in heartbreaking photographs.
Because although we are all very different people, the human heart is universal. And God loves us, each one of us – and God calls us to reach out in love.
As I rode in that bus that hot day in 2008, looking at scenes of emptiness that used to be the Lower Ninth Ward, the bus pulled up to one of the few buildings left standing. It was a brick building that used to be a Walgreen’s, and unlike the wooden houses around it, it survived the storm. And because Walgreen’s didn’t see any hope for business in that empty neighborhood, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana bought it and opened a church there.
On this weekday, church volunteers were setting up toys and books and shelves and rugs for a children’s after-school program. They were providing children with a safe place to stay while their parents tried to rebuild their lives – giving them food and water and the assurance they were cared for. And person after person in the city told me that the only people who were truly helping were the churches – where official programs failed, Christian people were coming in, rebuilding, caring for children, and making a difference.
And that, I think, is the meaning of our gospel today. That God doesn’t see, doesn’t want to see, our barriers of race and class and wealth. That our call is to open our ears, to listen to each other, to love each other, to reach out to others in compassion, to make a difference in this world.
Because although we are different, the human heart is universal, and God loves us all.