Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 7. 24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

How was your summer?

It’s curious that people seldom ask, “how was your winter?” I guess because the answer would be sharply negative or accompanied with bad words we just don’t ask. But the summer question, that one comes with great regularity.

I often wonder if people from other cultures find it strange that Canada shuts down for July and August. Some continue to go to work, but it is a different kind of work in both quantity and quality. “Summer hours” and a relaxed pace, vacation absences and long weekends make it difficult to sustain the seriousness of the rest of the year.

And of course, you have to give people something: even if the only response involves sitting on your porch and trying to find a breeze, we feel compelled to come up with some summer story. Let me give it a shot, for those who were poised to ask. This was the summer of my first broach. To broach, according to, is a verb that means, “to veer to windward.” So much for a great summer story. Let me try again, this time using Merrian-Webster Online: broach, verb, “to veer or yaw dangerously so as to lie broadside to the waves.”

Sailing is a sport for learning. Every other evening we race we have newcomers onboard who are somewhere on a steep leaning curve. We get the same questions: Is it safe when the boat leans over like this? Can the boat tip over? Will we die tonight? The answers: Yes, no, and not likely. Heeling, with two “E’s”, moving forward at a slight angle is the most effective way to achieve boat speed. When the boat is on it’s side, and crewmembers are either hanging in air or in the water, you have failed the boat speed test.

The line between sailor and non-sailor is in the way this story is recounted. One says “it was amazing” and the other says something less effusive. Danger is part of the fun, and one learns quickly if they prefer a “tippy” boat to solid ground. I suppose you could say sailing is not for everyone, along with all other recreational activities. The most important this is that we each get a chance to do the summer activities we love, even laying broadside to the waves.

I made the mistake a few years ago of using the phrase “the National, the club where I belong.” Friends Ted and Caroline, good United Church folks that they are, have never let me forget. “What is the name of that club where you belong, Michael?” they will ask. Or, “where do you belong, I’ve forgotten?” There are some who believe sailing is elitist, (I know, shocking) and in some ways they are likely correct. In others, they are wrong. Wrong, first of all, because sailing is free. Boats need crew (eight for my brother’s boat) and so anyone with a willingness to work hard and learn is welcome on board. I don’t think golf or curling can make the same claim.

They are somewhat correct in the sense that sailing seems to attract a particular crowd. Despite being free for the interested, it seems to attract a professional crowd, university educated, often higher income, divided between those who own boats and those who dream of owning them, likely when the time is right. Sounds like a working definition of elitist, I suppose. It may, however, simply be an unfair stereotype, in a society that seems to relish in them.


Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

It seems we are not the first society to relish stereotypes. Preachers have always has some difficulty with this passage, because it seems to portray Jesus as one more person perpetuating the stereotype that gentiles in his time are little better than dogs and therefore do not deserve a seat at the table. Watch the preacher do all sorts of leaps and jumps to avoid the notion that Jesus has a bias. He was just testing her is one, which still doesn’t explain how he could be so rude to the poor woman. It was a lesson for the disciples some claim, that he was repeating the normal point-of-view to then show the disciples the true way. However you try to avoid the suggestion that Jesus had limitations, it doesn’t ring true.

One of the rules of thumb with regard to biblical interpretation is that if it sounds irregular or inconsistent with traditional understanding, it is likely true. If something problematic is left in the story, it is because the writer was struggling with it as we struggle but did not have the heart to edit the material out of the story. They story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is a case in point. It is more likely a true story because it is hard to explain and may make Jesus look bad.

If we set aside our desire to make Jesus perfect (he was human and divine) then suddenly there is room to grow. It fits better our theology, I think, that we too can be filled with the indwelling of God and make mistakes, live out prejudice, and need to grow. Only God is perfect, I continue to remind the little perfectionists that happen to be my children. Jesus belongs to a time and a place too, and in his culture the most important activity was deciding who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was unclean, who was Israel and who was not, and so on.

Jesus, of course, was ninety-nine percent Kingdom-certified, and the passage we read is the one percent of growth required to be consistent with the parables and lessons that constituted Jesus near-complete understanding of God’s realm. We already know from the passage that he wanted to be alone, to have a little rest, and this alone may explain the lapse. “Don’t psychologize Jesus” was one of the lessons of preaching class, but in this instance I think it is fair to suggest that an exhausted teacher may well forget his lesson, even if the lesson is the Kingdom extends to all people: male, female, slave, free, Jew, Greek, clean, unclean, sinful, and even those who claim to be without sin.


The human constant is trying to decide who is in and who is out. The Syrophoenician woman reminds us that she’s in, even when everyone else says she is not. The human constant didn’t end with this wonderful passage and the reminder that Jesus embraces. The human constant of in and out persists.

Case in point: I want to introduce you to the latest controversy that will soon befall the church. But before I do, I want to declare my conflict-of-interest in this controversy, as someone who will be involved in training congregations to prepare for the national advertising campaign called Emerging Spirit. In a nutshell, the church intends to spend ten million dollars over three years to reach people between the ages of 30 and 45. This will happen through magazine ads, direct mailing, and something called internet-based “viral videos.” There will be training for congregations on how to welcome potential newcomers from this demographic, with nearly 40 percent of the money spend helping congregations get ready.

The immediate controversy comes whenever you use the phrase “the church intends to spend ten million dollars.” It is a lot of money. It is a lot of money for something may or may not work. Some argue that we have to try, while others say that the money would be better spend on mission and things that will reflect our commitment to social justice. Some argue that we should do both, but remain anxious about the amount of money.

The real controversy, however, will come when the first ads are rolled out in the next few months. I won’t spoil it for you, but I guarantee that some of them will make the newspaper and be described as cheeky, inappropriate, or even rude. The ads, of course, are meant for an audience between the ages of 30 and 45, the single most missing group of people across the church. People within the church may be alarmed or bewildered, but that is precisely because we are here and they are not.

The other critique is that the money for direct to home advertising is going to target mostly middle-class suburban and exurban neighborhoods, the very places that researchers have told us we will have the best chance to succeed.

Do people here know about the exurbs? If I say the name “Wisteria Lane,” what am I talking about? I can honestly say I have never watched Desperate Housewives, but most of the sources I consulted as I was looking at this idea of the exurbs mentioned the show. The exurbs are the regions beyond the suburbs where new development surrounds existing towns in an attempt to live beyond the city while still having access to jobs and culture. Here is what the critics say:

Many environmentalists, architects, and urban planners consider exurbs to be manifestations of poor or distorted planning. Extremely low densities - often featuring large lots and "McMansions" - create heavy car dependency (a very deliberate design choice). This also makes the construction of municipal infrastructure and deployment of services unusually costly and inefficient. Such communities typically include big box stores and large shopping malls, but lack amenities such as parks and cultural institutions. Nevertheless, relatively cheap land and low taxes fuel rapid economic and population growth in many exurbs. Middle class families with children are attracted to the ample space and low costs found in these areas.

The growth of the United Church in Scarborough in the 1950’s and 60’s happened because of a high concentration of middle class families with children seeking a place to gather and worship God. We made mistakes (we built too many churches, we largely ignored the are north of the 401) but for a generation we effectively lived out the call to make disciples. Families found us, children received religious instruction, mission projects were undertaken, and we baptised, married and buried people from the surrounding streets in a way that was open and welcoming almost without exception.

Now the church is struggling to connect with the children of this earlier boom. Most have no experience of church. Some came as children has long ago lapsed. But when asked about trying out a church like the United Church, 77 percent indicated that they were interested or somewhat interested in knowing more. Hence Emerging Spirit.

I think much of the critique comes from those (myself included) who do not understand or condone the desire to live in the exurbs. I don’t understand monster homes and big box stores, let alone desire to live in the place where they are found. But they exist and they are filled with people who need God.

In an arrogant moment, I might say to the critics of Emerging Spirit “I have it on good authority that God loves 30 to 45 year olds too, and God even love people in McMansions. But that would likely be less than helpful. What I would say instead is that the Syrophoenician woman was the original “desperate housewife.” She was desperate to have her child healed. She was desperate to make a connection to God through God’s son. She was desperate to claim her place at the table, even if it was to claim only a crumb. And she was desperate to know God, to know God cared, and to know that the life of her child was precious in God’s sight, and it was.

Call it the mission to the desperate housewives, and their families, precisely the people who are looking for meaning, looking for certainly, looking for a connection, looking for a way forward in a confusing and challenging time of life. May God bless our effort to reach out. Amen.


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