Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dog Days

Jesus answered, “Woman you have great faith! Your request is granted.” (Matthew 15.28)

A Message We Should Hear

Serendipity can be a lovely thing. While working on the Great of Women in Scripture series, at Rev. Anthony Venn-Brown’s urging, I reengaged with our Australian family at freedom2be, a lively discussion forum for GLBT believers. In conversation there I referred to Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder and pastor of San Francisco’s radically inclusive City of Refuge. That triggered a search for video of her, which turned up an amazing—and highly provocative—sermon (see below) about the Phoenician woman, whose story unfolds in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. As I watched Bishop Flunder, a “Eureka!” moment occurred. The Phoenician woman was the perfect closer for the series, because if there were a patron saint for rejected and disenfranchised Christians, she would be it.

We’ve discussed her before, in an October 2009 post, Crumbs. But Bishop Flunder's take challenges us to look at Jesus’s response to her in harshly realistic, perhaps even unflattering light in order to comprehend the dynamic that exists between traditional Christians and marginalized believers today. This will be difficult for some of us. Yet it drives home a message we should hear. And setting the stage is most important, as what happens just prior to the Phoenician woman’s encounter with Christ indubitably contributes to His response.

Clean and Unclean

Her story begins with Jesus coming off another confrontation with Jewish legalists, who condemn His disciples for not practicing traditional hygiene. It seems they don’t wash up before dinner. Clearly, the legalists are splitting hairs here to trap Jesus in a web of controversy. Instead of answering their charges, He counters with another example of how they misuse Scripture to criticize. If someone decided money he’d ordinarily give to his mother and father should go to God’s work, you’d say he disobeyed the commandment to honor his parents, He says. “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15.7) Jesus indicts this mentality by quoting Isaiah 29.13: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” He tells the crowd: “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” (v10) This offends Jesus’s critics, which exasperates Him. He more or less says to the disciples, “Let’s get away from all this.” They head into pagan country, far from the legalist rabble. No sooner do they arrive than the Phoenician woman shows up and essentially forces Jesus to eat His own words.

Scraping, but Scrappy

It’s not one of Jesus’s finer hours. He’s tired of arguing. His defenses are up. He’s not in a good mood, and He knows it. Taking a break where He’s not widely known among people who aren’t that interested in Him is a smart move. Then the mother of a deeply disturbed daughter hears the famous Healer is in town and rushes to Him. Jesus ignores her, but the woman persists. The disciples urge Him to send her away. Jesus can’t be bothered. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” He says. (v24) The woman throws herself in front of Jesus and pleads, “Lord, help me!” She knows she’s scraping—begging for favor and getting on His nerves. She scrapes because she’s scrappy. She’s like a mongrel that won’t stop scratching at the door until his master feeds him.

Jesus is annoyed. He says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it their dogs.” (v26) Did Jesus just call a fiercely devoted mother asking Him to help her daughter a dog? Yes. Did He declare her unworthy of His attention? Yes. After comparing Israel to “sheep” and “children,” can we dismiss the racism in the epithet? No. And since He just blasted legalists for taking simplistic traditional stances in ethically fraught situations, can we overlook His reply is “unclean”? No. We can spin His comment every which way: He’s testing the woman’s faith; He’s impersonating hypocrisy for the disciples’ (and our) sake; He’s just tired after a bad day. Yet there’s a nagging aspect to the story we can’t bypass. Jesus is less shocked by His insult than the woman's insistence. Being called a dog—by a visitor, in the presence of her neighbors—is her least concern. She needs Jesus. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (v27) Now Jesus is stunned, as if a light goes off in His head. She’s no better or worse than anyone else. And why? Her needs are no different than anyone else’s. “Woman you have great faith! Your request is granted,” He says. With this pronouncement, her daughter is cured instantly and we understand. The Phoenician woman is a dog. She’s relentless in her quest to be heard, regardless how she’s seen. Rather than lick her wounds of rejection, she persists. She makes noise and risks her pride, and her dog-like tenacity makes her legitimate.

Sheep are lovely, but mindless. Dogs protect sheep, not the other way around. To fulfill their purpose in the fold, they bark and scratch to alert shepherds their needs are no different than a sheep’s. If the woman had waited to be recognized, she would never have caused a scene that ultimately confirms Christ’s doctrine of inclusion. Untold millions would have been lost as a result. In the spirit of the Phoenician woman, we must embrace our responsibility to the sheep and Shepherd by owning the “dog” tag. We live in dog days. People of faith are being ignored and vilified because they don’t fit the traditional mold. For reasons no one can explain, shepherds have pushed the dogs aside and let sheep run amok. For their sake—and for all the abandoned dogs who need care and feeding—we need to make noise. We’re foolish to hang by in the case the sheep invite us to join them. That’s never going to happen because we intimidate them. They’re blind to dangers we see; that’s why we belong in the fold. And if we have to scrape a few nerves and beg for scraps to get there, we should. We have great faith. Our request will be granted.

The Church needs dogs. They protect the sheep from danger and prove Christ’s doctrine of inclusion.

(Next: Made Whole)

Postscript: Bishop Yvette Flunder

There are few ministers I admire as much as Bishop Yvette Flunder. Her work for Christian inclusion has raised her to the forefront of the Christian and GLBT communities. And her accomplishment in the Word is second to none. On top of these attributes, she’s just a sharp lady with a lot of class! For those of you who might be interested in her sermon on the Phoenician woman, here is Part One. (Links to Parts Two and Three can be found in the "related videos.") If you take the time to listen to her message, you’ll never hear anyone say “Bow Wow Wow” again without smiling quietly to yourself!


claire said...

The Syro-Phenician is, as you can guess, one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I have not listened to Bishop Yvette Flunder, but I certainly will.
Thank you for a great post, Tim. Yes, for many of us, this woman is our patron saint. This is just a GREAT idea!

Tim said...

Claire, the great irony of the Church right now is its ministry of inclusion has been placed on the shoulders of the excluded. Those of us who would be turned away--whether from fellowship altogether or priesthood or any other area where equality is not honored--must make our presence felt. The Church needs us "dogs" more than ever.

I trust you'll enjoy Bishop Flunder. I personally warm to her anecdotal style and "street-wise" manner. I'm sure some of it resonates more strongly with me than others, given she and I share a Pentecostal heritage, which comes with a social culture all its own.

I first got to know Yvette nearly 30 years ago, when she was the associate pastor at Walter Hawkins's Love Center in Oakland. Back then, she was better known as a gospel singer. (She was and still is one of the best.) But even back then, she had a gift for breaking down tough topics by drawing you in with everyday examples, like she does here. She made the abstract very real and reasonable.

Have a splendid week!

Blessings always,