Be Opened

 

Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 9, 2012
Mark 7:24-30, Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Proper 14, year B

 

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the
barriers within yourself that you have built up against it. –Rumi

 

Do you all know what hipsters are? Have you all heard that term? Hipsters are sensitive, progressive, culturally aware individuals with a disdain for mainstream consumer culture, a fondness for tight fitting jeans, thick rimmed glasses, the music of Bon Iver, and apparently – at least according to a recent ad campaign - the sort of people who deserve to die.

How about crazy cat ladies? You all know what crazy cat ladies are right? They are women who drive around in cars with bumper stickers that say things like: “one cat away from being a crazy cat lady.” They also, typically, have a lot of cats. And they too, at least according to this ad campaign… deserve to die.

Now before you get too upset, please know that hipsters and cat ladies are not alone. The tattooed, the genetically privileged, and crazy old aunts are on this hit-list as well. In fact, in cities across America - on billboards, bus station terminals and old phone booths  (you all remember phone booths right?) – posters portraying these types of people have sprung up with nothing more than those awful words:  Hipsters Deserve to Die, Cat Ladies Deserve to Die.

It’s the sort of gimmick that could drive you to anger, drive you to indignation, or drive you to distraction, but what the creators of this campaign are really hoping for, is that it will drive you to google, where you’ll find the website www.NoOneDeservesToDie.org. It’s a site put up by none other than the American Lung Cancer Association. They’ve done this, because they want to raise awareness around the fact that over 160,000 lives are lost every year to lung cancer.

“They didn't ask for it,” the site says, “but many people seem to think they deserved it.”

And I think you all know why… I mean breast cancer, bone cancer, cancer of the liver or pancreas; they could strike anyone, right? But lung cancer… we all know what sorts of people get lung cancer.

At least we think we do.

Only it turns out that the truth, as is so often the case, the truth is a little more complicated. The truth is that not everyone who gets lung cancer smoked.

But even if many of these people who have lung cancer did –think about this for a moment - does that really, at the end of the day, mean that they deserve to die? It may make it more likely, sure. It may increase the odds. But does the fact that they smoked make it somehow more fitting; make it somehow all right?

The American Lung Association doesn’t think so, and I’m pretty sure that if anyone with even an ounce of compassion really thinks about it, they probably don’t think so either. After all smokers, like cat ladies and hipsters, are people too.

I have great respect for whoever created this campaign, as disturbing as it is, because it reveals a truth about us that is all too easy to overlook, the truth that there is something in us – in all of us - that can’t help but search for answers in the face of tragedy, an inclination within us to impose some logic on the unruly nature of fate, a drive in the human psyche to make some sense of the senselessness that so often accompanies suffering…  because there is some part in all of us that believes that if we can just figure out why…why something as awful as lung cancer happened to that person then maybe, just maybe, we can figure out some way to keep something as awful as lung cancer from happening to us.

In a beautiful essay she wrote for Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams – herself a cancer survivor, puts it this way: “… there’s a deep-rooted human impulse to look for reasons why bad things happen,” she says. That way, they can only happen to other people. People who are, in their own reckless ways, somehow asking for it. It’s a defensive coping mechanism, and an incredibly effective way of shutting down compassion and empathy and outright help. Because, you know, what did you expect, wearing that hoodie or letting that guy in your room,” being born in a country like Haiti, living on the coast of Japan or smoking three packs a day (http://www.salon.com/2012/06/29/who_deserves_to_die/)?

It’s not pretty, this impulse to judge and explain away, rank and relegate, recognize and then distance ourselves from those who suffer; but it exists in all of us. In fact, it is an impulse that runs so deep that I believe even Jesus himself struggled with it.

To be fair, when we catch up with him today in our scripture reading, he is not at his best. He is exhausted, absolutely exhausted. He has been working so hard to open the eyes of his own people, working so hard to help them understand that they need to stop judging one another. He is sick and tired of the way the rich look down on the poor, the way the healthy despise the crippled, the way the righteous dismiss those they perceive as sinners.

He’s just gone off on a bunch of Pharisees for asking why his disciples don’t wash their hands properly before they eat, dismissed them as hypocrites, and told them that they are way too hung up on technicalities. He’s been trying to get them to understand that it is not our ability to keep ourselves pure but our desire to treat others well that sets us apart as holy, which makes sense to me, but not even his disciples seem to understand what he is trying to say.

In short, things just aren’t going well. Jesus has had it, he knows it, and he takes off. He leaves his own people behind and heads up to the region of Tyre, a predominantly gentile territory, where nobody knows him and no self-respecting scribe or Pharisee is going to follow him.

He finds a house up there, lets himself into a room, and for a moment everything is quiet, when all of a sudden into the room comes this person, and it’s not even a man, it’s a woman (which could cause problems), and of course she’s not a Jewish woman this being Tyre, she’s a Syrophoenician... ie: a Gentile (which will definitely cause problems) and the only reason a gentile woman from Syrophoenicia would follow Jesus into a house in the first place would be if she had a problem, so, well, this is going to be a problem.

And Jesus, honestly, at this point in his day, his week, his life, doesn’t want to deal with it. He’s got too much on his plate already trying to help his own people and as far as he is concerned, he has nothing left over for the likes of her. But she comes in, anyway.  She bows down at his feet, begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter, and Jesus, our Jesus - our unfailingly kind, all loving, endlessly compassionate Jesus - is breathtakingly cruel.

He looks at this woman, this mother suffering the second most devastating agony a parent can suffer, the agony of not being able to help your sick child, and he says no.

Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take
the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Yeah. In case you missed it, Jesus called this woman, all her people, and her sick little girl, dogs. It is a racial slur, no two ways about it, a moment in Jesus’ ministry that has dismayed his followers ever since. I mean, talk about compassion fatigue.  Jesus is so wrapped up in his desire to save his own people that he doesn’t even have the wherewithal left over to see that this woman and her daughter are people too.

They are gentiles, after all, Syrophoenicians, for God’s sake, what do they have to do with him. Of course the child’s got a demon. They probably all have demons.  What do you expect living in Tyre, worshipping idols, carrying on the way your kind carries on. Now go on, his words imply. Get out of here. Scram.

LEAVE ME ALONE!

But she doesn’t. Thanks be to God, she doesn’t. Rather than storm out or slink away, this woman looks up at Jesus and says, “Sir,” – He has just denigrated her so completely but she chooses to respond with dignity, and respect – “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

 

And with those words, something miraculous happens. It is a moment as profound as any in scripture, so profound that not only is this woman’s daughter healed but so… so is Jesus: healed of his racism, his narrow perspective, healed of his “anxiety and self involvement,” (thanks to Carl Gregg for this insight and his reflection at http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/).

Her ability to re-purpose his insult disables the trip wire on Jesus’ inner defense mechanism, that mechanism in all of us that causes us to shut down in the face of another’s suffering, rationalize their pain away, relegate them to some other category that has nothing to do with people like us, and scurry home lest we catch what they have.

Thanks to her words, all at once Jesus’ ears are opened to her pleas, his heart is opened to her cause, his eyes are opened, and for the first time Jesus sees her, truly sees her - not as a Gentile, as someone other, as someone who deserves her plight, or even as someone else’s problem, but as a woman, a mother, a fellow human being who needs him as much as he needs her.  He sees her as someone deserving of his compassion, in spite of the fact that all these two very different people have ever been taught to offer one another is scorn.

Jesus heals this woman’s daughter, but the true miracle of this story, if you ask me, is that Jesus himself is healed…healed by her.  In his fear and fatigue and anger he was in danger of becoming that which he most despised in others, the sort of person who would judge and dismiss another based on what they are rather than who they are.

But the beauty of this story is that the Canaanite woman doesn’t let him stay there. With her gentle humility and steadfast determination she calls him back from that dark place and reminds him of who he truly is. Her words open his heart back up to the expansiveness of his true ministry and our highest humanity.

For she reminds him that love, not just a mother’s love but Divine Love, that same love that brought us into being and dwells within us even now, is a love that knows no limits, a love that knows no bounds.

I think it is no coincidence that the very next miracle Jesus preformed involved opening the ears of a deaf man and releasing his tongue, for she had opened his heart and released him to love not just his own people, but all people, whether they deserved it or not. I think that is what gave him the strength to go home again, and the courage to keep loving and forgiving and including all those who came his way, from that day on, no matter what.

My prayer is that that same love would be ours, because you see life doesn’t play fair. Be it good or bad, you know as well as I do that people don’t always get what they deserve. That’s just not how it works.

But that doesn’t change the fact that what they all need is love, our love and God’s love: a love that is “larger and more compassionate and more inclusive” than any we could ever hope to understand or imagine, and yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying (thanks to Carl Gregg again).

So may we be opened to that love. May we be opened to receive it that we might become as open to giving it as Jesus became that day in Tyre, thanks to a woman’s courage, thanks to a mother’s love. Let us pray:

O Lord, although we know it isn’t better, it is so often easier to look away from the needs and wants and hurts of those who are suffering then it is to enter into the fray and do what we can to help. Grant us the courage, the strength, and the grace, we pray, to go anyhow. May your love and your light flow through us that we might be healed even as we strive to do what we can to heal those around us.  Open our hearts that we might be open to all. All this we pray in your name Lord Jesus, our guide, our stay, our savior.  Amen.