That Time Jesus Had a Bad Hair Day

That Time Jesus Had a Bad Hair Day (A Sermon for Proper 18B)
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church (Keller, Texas)
The Rev. Paula Jefferson
Mark 7:24-37
August 29, 2021

Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear,
Things I would ask him to tell me if he were here.
Scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea,
Stories of Jesus, tell them to me.

Oh, let me hear how the children stood round his knee.
I shall imagine his blessings resting on me;
Words full of kindness, deeds full of grace,
All in the love-light of Jesus’ face.

As a Baptist child, my Sunday mornings began with the worship service, then an hour of Christian Formation, and then 20 minutes of singing children’s hymns, like this one, with all the children gathered in the church. 

Tell me the stories of Jesus was a favorite song of mine.  It captures a vision of Jesus… One who loved being with children….who was known for his kindness, grace-fullness, and power.

It is an image that many of us share.

So, when we read a story about Jesus rejecting a woman whose child is ill, the message sounds nothing like our image of him.  It certainly isn’t one of the stories about Jesus “I love to hear”…especially on a Sunday that I’m preaching.

It’s tempting to think, well, maybe Mark got this one wrong.  But, no…this same story is remembered by Matthew.  Both Gospel writers remember a time when Jesus was clearly having a bad hair day.

We have to dig deeply into the text to find the fullness of this story. 

The person who approaches Jesus is unnamed.  Instead, she is described.  She’s a woman, a gentile, and of SyroPhoenician origin.  There is a lot information packed into those adjectives.  At the time of this story, women were second-class citizens.  She is gentile—not Jewish.  And, she is Greek…she is not from Judah. 

The author is going out of his way to say, “She’s from not from around here, folks.”

And, yet, she is… 

Jesus is not in his homeland.  The text tells us that he and the disciples have left Judah and traveled to Tyre.  He is in this woman’s nation—in her capital city.  It is Jesus who is the foreigner.  Yet, the author, and Jesus, identify her as the outsider.

Some years ago, I was in the elevator of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  As we were riding upwards, people were chatting.  All of the folks in the car were Americans.  One person asked the elevator attendant what time the last elevator departed from the observation deck.  The attendant didn’t flinch…or respond…or make any eye contact with anyone. 

I said to the attendant, “Je suis désolé j’ne parle pas Français. What time does the last elevator depart?”  He said, “11pm.”  And then he looked at the other American and said, “You just assume I speak English.  Why?”

It’s an interesting trait of human nature.  Wherever we go, we see the world through our own cultural lens, our life experiences. 

In the Gospel reading, the woman asks Jesus to heal her child.  We learn a lot about her, and about Jesus, from this exchange.  She approaches a foreigner, a male.  She knows he is something more than just another guy.  He is a Healer…someone quite extraordinary.  Her action tells us that Jesus is known beyond the border of Judah.  Even here, in her land, he is known.  And, as a woman, she knows her voice carries little weight in this world.  She believes that he will heal her child.

The woman begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  Jesus’ response is rude.  He doesn’t just say ‘no, I won’t do it’.  He says to her, “You must let the children [Israel] have all they want first.  It is not right, you know, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[1]   Jesus refers to her and her child as dogs…unfit and unworthy of his time.

The message of scarcity implicit in this story is shocking.….as if there isn’t enough of Jesus for all of us.  Scarcity is a human conflict.   How does Jesus get caught up in scarcity?

We tend to focus on Jesus as ‘the Word become flesh who dwells among us’, the miracle worker; it’s easy to forget that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.  Mark is revealing to us a much fuller image of Jesus.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, an author in St. Martin’s Human Flourishing curriculum, offers this insight:  “…the most radical of monotheism’s truths: is that God may choose, but God does not reject.  The logic of scarcity … has no place in a world made by a God whose ‘tender mercies are on all his works.’”[2]

God does not reject.  The woman seems to know this…she pushes back at Jesus. Notice how she starts her response: “Yes, Lord, but….”.  She addresses Jesus by a Divine name.  She’s absorbed the human unkindness…and, still, she believes that Jesus, the Healer, will save her child.  

Jesus hears her…He says, “If you can answer like that, you can go home! The evil spirit has left your daughter.”[3]  I don’t think he’s praising her diplomacy skills.  I do think Jesus realizes that she saw both his humanness and his divinity.

And her faith is appropriately placed in his Divine nature.

The Healings performed by Jesus are signs to us of God’s presence among us.  Word of these signs traveled hundreds of miles over the 3 years of his ministry.  There were no planes, trains, or automobiles.  There were no iphones, faxes, or even the US Postal Service.  People heard about these signs by word of mouth…from one person to another…across borders, cultures, and beyond the privileged class.  Life by life, the witness of these signs changed the world.

2000 years later, word of these Signs still passes from one person to another.  After the Peace, today, we will bless prayer shawls, hats, and gloves made by the hands of our St. Martin’s prayer shawl ministry.  As each garment is made, the person who is making it prays for the one who will wear it. 

Garments are blessed, and given to those who suffer…pain, sorrow, burdens.  Each time a prayer shawl drapes around your shoulders, you are aware that you are not alone.  You know that you are loved. 

Each of these garments is a Sign.  They are Signs of the divine in our midst.  Signs that we are connected to the Body of Christ through yarn, prayer, and Love.  May those who receive them see the human love that made each garment and the divine Love embedded in them.   

[1] The New Testament in Modern English; J.B. Phillips Mark 7:27

[2] Not in God’s Name: confronting religious violence; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks p124

[3] The New Testament in Modern English; J.B. Phillips Mark 7:29