Dawn Alitz, Diaconal Minister
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace!
It is good to be back with you again after being away for a couple of Sundays. I took some vacation for the last week of August, and what I really needed was a time away from everyone – including my family. It’s not that I don’t love spending time with them, but sometimes I feel as though I’ve given all that I have and I just need some time to go off on my own to recharge.
I’m blessed to have a friend who is willing to let me hide in her cabin when I need that time away. It’s on a small remote lake in a place that is pretty isolated. There’s no internet or cable, and the cell phone service is spotty enough that I can only communicate via text messages that arrive and can be sent when the Bluetooth waves line up for brief and unpredictable times. It is a small space of heaven for someone who wants to disappear for a time.
My friend was there to greet me and give me the latest information on the space, but then she headed out and I had the cabin all to myself. To be quite honest, I usually just go sit on the comfy chair in the main room – in silence – for a good amount of time, dozing or reading, until my mind and body are relaxed enough to encounter something else. This time unfolded just this way. I found out later that my friend had stocked the freezer with my favorite ice cream as a special treat, but forgot to tell me before she left and then didn’t want to disturb me by calling with the news.
I laughed when she told me this, because typically my first response would be that I am always willing to be disturbed for ice cream. But, for me going to the cabin is different. I really prefer NOT to be disturbed for anything minor. If my phone buzzes with a message, I assume that something truly needs my attention and all of that relaxation that I had just gained goes flying out of the window.
As we read today’s text, it sounds as though Jesus needs some time away too. After his difficult conversations with the Pharisees and the disciples last week, Jesus is ready to be done for awhile and needs to get away from, well, everything. The texts today don’t even mention the disciples coming along with for company.
Jesus has headed north out of Jerusalem into non-Jewish territory – out-of-town where no one should know him for either good or bad. He stops at a house to rest, perhaps just like my friend’s cabin. I can imagine him finding his own comfortable space, maybe closing his eyes for a bit, and depending on where he is in the Tyre region, he might be looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, marveling at God’s amazing creation. And then his cell phone buzzes with a text. Ok, so Jesus didn’t have a cell phone, but there was an interruption. A woman from the area came into his space, fell at his feet, and asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus’ response is short and rude: “Stand in line and take your turn. The children get fed first. If there’s any left over, the dogs get it.”
There’s really no good way to soften that statement – Jesus has just insulted this woman by calling her a dog. He has been healing people all through the book of Mark, and he has never treated anyone in this fashion before.
Now, if I’m being totally honest, there have been times when my cell phone has gone off and caught me in a less-than-pastoral state of mind, but it’s often hard for me to imagine Jesus in this seemingly very human moment. This week, however, seeing it in light of my own experience at the cabin, I have a different vision in my head. This week, when I imagined this scene playing out in my own mind, I’m not sure that Jesus even opens his eyes or moves from his seat to respond. His words seem quite clear: he is in non-Jewish territory, he’s on vacation, and his work is meant to at least start with only those of the Jewish faith. End of story, she can move on now. It’s just not her turn to take up his time.
But the woman is an incredibly quick thinker. Without missing a beat, she takes on that identity of insult and responds:“Of course, Master. But don’t dogs under the table get scraps dropped by the children?”
This gets Jesus’ attention. He sits up, looks at her, tells her that her daughter is healed and sends her on her way. Perhaps even more amazingly, soon after he heads out from Tyre and heads into even more Gentile territory (not unlike me heading home to Apple Valley from here but stopping in Duluth along the way), and heals a man who is deaf and mute.
I am struck by these later events because they are in such contrast to the beginning of the reading. Jesus goes from being tired of people, ready for a break, and preparing himself to go back to the Jewish people, to having some energy and heading into Gentile territory where he will once again face crowds of incredible size.
What changed his mind? It must have been something about the way that woman approached him, and I think the comparison to the dog at the table is actually helpful here.
I’m not sure of how life might have been different in the 1st century, but let me ask you this question. How many of you have kids at home? How many of you have dogs? How much of the food that gets under the table during a meal is truly accidental? In my household, food tends to find its way under the table for at least three reasons: one, it does actually slip off of a fork or plate and fall to the floor; two, the dog is so persistent in her begging that someone finally gives in and feeds her; three, someone decides they don’t really want what is being offered, and sees the dog as a way to get rid of it.
Many sermon writers have compared the woman to reason two, citing her persistence. But, truth be told, she only had to ask once, and back it up with one really good rebuttal. On the persistence scale, that’s a pretty short time commitment. What it does show, however, is her belief that she belongs somewhere at the table. She might not be at the place of honor. In fact, she’s willing to entertain – at least for this conversation – that she might be underneath waiting for scraps, but she is a part of the family. She deserves to be fed, and perhaps Jesus, like my family at the table, feels guilty that he has left her out.
As I read the entire book of Mark, however, I see far more evidence of the third scenario playing out. Jesus has brought healing and the love of God to the Jewish people – a good, nutritious meal you might say – and they, frankly, aren’t always all that interested in what he has to offer. People are always asking questions about his qualifications, abilities or theological connections, wanting to find something wrong with his person or methods. Some reason to turn down what Jesus is offering. Some reason to slip it off the table to give to people who are less fortunate, less informed, who need it more.
But this woman, and others along Jesus’ path, are seeking real healing; they really don’t care who it is meant for in the first round, they want whatever they can get of it, whenever. This woman’s desire for healing and her acknowledgement of his ability to heal shows Jesus that God has set a far more abundant and overflowing table than he is currently thinking of.
There’s a part of me that wonders if this woman opened up a sense of freedom in Jesus – a freedom to not be concerned with all of the proprieties of who, how, and when to heal (all of these were issues earlier in the book of Mark), but rather to just go out and heal those who came and asked. To feed those who are hungry. And, if the people he thinks he is supposed to be healing aren’t interested, there are others who are – desperately. His ministry will no longer be to just one people, but to all – and something about this is exciting enough to Jesus that he leaves his hideout in Tyre and gets back on the road. His encounter with the woman will change his path, and is an invitation for all of us to see how God works through the people in our lives to open us up to new possibilities and energy.
I, too, left my cabin spot last week – excited to be back with all of you, to see the incredible spread of possibilities that God is offering in the place. And I look around to see who is sitting at this table on Welcome Back Sunday. Some of you have been sitting around the table all summer, some of you may feel like you are just returning to a place to you belong, and some of you may feel like you are just visiting so you try to stay low to the ground, checking out what might be left over. To all of you, I say that there is a place for you in this abundant community –Jesus is definitely here, healing and feeding, connecting and growing. Where are you at the table? Will you partake of what he is offering? I invite you to take some time to connect with the people around you and explore all of the possibilities that are on this sumptuous banquet table. May you find here a place and a people that will feed your soul and give you hope – Amen
©Dawn Alitz, September 9, 2012