Sunday, September 27, 2009

Proper 21

Mark 9
38 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off
And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off
And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out

I don’t know about you, but Mark is sounding more like Quentin Tarantino here that the author of a Gospel. It almost seems the reading should come with some sort of warning:

Warning: These are religious professionals on a closed path. Do not attempt. Serious harm may result, including infection and loss of life.

One of my professors, Dr. Hospital (yes, that was his real name) introduced us to the idea of Jesus’ “hard sayings,” sayings that they were never meant to be taken literally. In an ancient environment where every little scratch was life-threatening and the threat of infection always loomed, people were not advised to lob off offending parts of their anatomy to safeguard their spiritual well-being.

You can trust me, I’m a doctor.

I’ve taken to saying that at home, like “here, lemme see that—I’m a doctor you know.” And Carmen, very generously, will remind me that I’m a doctor of preaching and not medicine. Even so, I can tell you that Mark’s “menu of mutilation” will not work, and will only compound your problems.

So this is a collection of “hard sayings,” never meant to be put into practice. So what was the point, then, if not to give a blueprint to the otherwise not-so-bright disciples of Jesus?

I don’t know about you, but I can remember several occasions when I have looked to the sky and said, “you can go ahead, Lord, and kill me now.” This is an odd prayer, I know, and one that I only seem to make when red with embarrassment. It’s extreme, but it seems to sum up how I feel in the moment. Here’s another example:

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Now you’re smiling and nodding and thinking “hard saying—not to be taken literally.” And you would be right. At no time did we practice “mill-stoning” except, of course, during he middle ages when the church came up with all sorts of ways to do away with adversaries. And while this is not the topic for today’s sermon, it points to the importance of taking the Bible seriously rather than literally.

In fact, the heart of the passage this morning may or may not be a “hard saying,” and we are left to decide. It follows the thick-headed disciples trying to prevent some non-authorized healer from casting out demons. They report this to Jesus, and he offers more correction, the third time this month. We might as well go ahead and call September “Foolish Disciple Month,” because they seemed determined to never learn.

Jesus immediately corrects them, and does it for the very practical reason that anyone who is busy casting out demons in the name of Jesus will have a hard time speaking ill of him. And so, Jesus has initiated the idea of a “fellow-traveler,” someone who aligns themselves with Jesus and his message without being part of the inner circle. And to reinforce this idea, he gives an important summary:

Whoever is not against us is for us.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself ‘where have I heard that before—that sounds awfully familiar.’ And it does. Simply reverse it and then try:

Whoever is not for us, is against us.

That’s called the “Bush Doctrine,” the political philosophy that dominated his eight years in the White House and gave us the Iraq War and Guantanimo Bay and all the other excesses of the so-called “War on Terror.”

Whoever is not for us, is against us.

This is what I could call a harmful aphorism, one of those tiny sayings that enters the popular consciousness and fills the imagination with bad things. And, of course, George Bush didn’t think up what came to be called the “Bush Doctrine” (not clever enough) but rather someone in the very distant past who first wanted to create a very small ‘us’ and a very large ‘them.’

Jesus had another plan. He wanted to create a very large ‘us’ and a very small ‘them.’ He wanted to cast his net on both sides of the boat and catch ALL the fish, and not just a few. He said “Whoever is not against us is for us” because he imagined at the end of the day that pretty well everyone (with the odd holdout) would want to be on the side of the angels. He imagined that goodness and decency were in the heart of most, and that if we could only tap into that, we could overcome the other human tendency to label and divide.


We are surrounded by metaphor. We are continually invited to see one thing in terms of something else, which is the centre of metaphor. And the people who study this stuff tell us that there are lots of varieties: live metaphors, still teasing our imagination; dead metaphors, lost the power to delight; good metaphors, add to human potential; and bad metaphors, used in malevolent ways.

I used what some call a bad metaphor a moment ago: the metaphor “war on terror.” Now “war on terror” is real, in that there is fighting going on here and there, but the real metaphor “war on terror” comes into play when someone takes away your bottle of “Head and Shoulders” and says “sorry, it’s the war on terror.” Or the Canadian government imprisons someone for 6 years on a so-called “security certificate” but never charges them with a crime (Mahmoud Jaballah).

And “war on terror” is only one example. Remember the “war on drugs.” Ronald Reagan started a “war on drugs” that meant more punishment and less rehabilitation, and why wouldn’t it? When you can convince people that it is a “war on drugs,” you hardly have to pay for rehab: you are better to lock them away. In war, you have “enemies” and “sides” and “battles” and you hardly stop to look at the circumstances of an individual. Since we know that truth is usually the first casualty of war, the use of the war metaphor can lead in all sorts of troubling directions.

So what about a good metaphor, now that I’m feeling all tense for having mentioned Bush and Reagan. How about a metaphor that opens us to new potential, or new constructive meaning? How about the metaphor “you should cut it off?” We decided that it’s not literal, for a whole host of reasons, so therefore it must be metaphor. If we are willing to cut things off in a non-literal way, there may be some freedom to be gained.

Should we cut off our hands, if we fail to reach out?
Should we cut off our feet, if we neglect to walk the extra mile?
Should we cast out an eye, if our vision for change is blurry, or limited?

You see, as metaphor, cutting off and cutting out suddenly becomes very helpful to our spiritual well being. And Jesus is here too, saying:

“You can cut off my life,
I will gladly surrender it,
when the life I lose,
is the life you will gain.”

We have, each of us, much to give up and much to cast off, much to cut out and much to surrender. And God will help us, and God will show the way. God will tease our imagination and strengthen our resolve and clear the path of everything that may cause us to stumble, now and always, amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Proper 20

Mark 9.30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Mark’s Gospel is the scriptural equivalent of a beef cube. Not only is it the shortest Gospel, it is also the most dense. It takes the narrative and strips it down to the most essential parts, with an almost breathless pace and an economy of language.

Today’s reading is a case in point. There are eight verses and more-or-less three sermons. The verses interconnect, and there is a sense of flow, but each section of the reading really deserves its own treatment. The lessons drawn from Mark are already among the shortest we use in worship, and most often can be broken down further.

So, three sermons from Mark 9.30-37: Ignorant disciples don’t understand the passion of Jesus; a foolish argument about greatness prompts Jesus to remind the disciples that the last shall be first; and welcoming the most humble (a child) means welcoming Jesus and the Most High.

So, taken together, it’s a reading about self-sacrifice and humility and understanding God’s unique concern for the powerless and the invisible in our midst. Maybe it is one sermon. But it’s a tough sermon to preach considering that all of these ideas run counter to the zeitgeist of 21st century Canada.

Great word, zeitgeist. It means “spirit of the age” in German, one of those words that does the same ‘beef cube’ thing with language that Mark does with story. Like our old friend schadenfreude (“taking pleasure in the misfortune of others”) using the word zeitgeist will dazzle your conversational partners every time.

Some say the pulpit is not a place to dismiss and to judge, but I say that any look at the ‘spirit of the times’ (zeitgeist) will point to a society that is sadly diminished:

Parliament resembles a schoolyard at recess.
The most popular shows on television are “reality-based” drivel.
Some bureaucrat thought sending body bags would be helpful.
People used to take to the streets for meaningful things: now people protest taxes.
Public officials used to apologize and resign: now they sue.

And that’s just from the past week. If you really want to see how we’re going to hell in a handbasket, look south to the person who paid $63,500 on Ebay to have a meal with Sarah Palin.

On the topic of zeitgeist, then, the words petulant, vacuous, thoughtless, self-serving and arrogant come to mind. Maybe the pulpit is place of judgement after all. But before we reach for the speck in society’s eye, we need to go after the Douglas Fir in our own. The words most often used to describe the church are outdated, irrelevant, self-interested, greedy and hypocritical. Are we in a position to judge?

To recap: Society is petulant, vacuous, thoughtless, self-serving and lacking humility. Church is outdated, irrelevant, self-interested, greedy and hypocritical. It almost sounds like the basis for a great reality-based television show: church people and non-church people form two “tribes” compete in a variety of “challenges” to see who can stop judging the other first.

‘But wait,’ United Church people will say, ‘we belong to neither tribe.’ We don’t suffer from the worst excesses of society. We pay our taxes happily and we care for the most vulnerable and we would never have dinner with Sarah Palin. And we represent the enlightened part of the Christian church: we Twitter, we only think of others and we rarely ask for money.

Okay, back at the beginning, we were talking about Mark 9. We decided it’s a reading about self-sacrifice and humility and understanding God’s unique concern for the powerless and the invisible in our midst. And it appears, at least from our imaginary game of “Survivor: Weston” that we are neither society nor church. We have found some ‘third way’ where we actually care for the vulnerable, practice self-giving, and do it all in a spirit of humility. In other words, we follow the Gospel imperative and tell no one.

And this, of course, is good for us and lousy for Weston. It is good for us because I truly think we have moved beyond the stereotype of the church in the eyes of many. The harsh words I used to describe the church a minute ago came from actual research, sponsored by the Emerging Spirit programme, where people where drawn from outside the church and asked what they thought of church and church people. “Self-interested, greedy and hypocritical” were among the kinder things said. The overall learning was that when we described ourselves to Canadians between the age of 30 and 45, an astonishing 77% said they would be interested in knowing more about this church if such a church really existed.

77% said they would be interested in knowing more about this church if such a church really existed. This seems to highlight two problems. The first is making sure that the church as described can actually be found on a street, in a neighbourhood, with doors open ready to receive newcomers. The researchers described a church that encourages questions, remains open to change and respects other religious traditions. I like to think we embody these traits, in the United Church generally and certainly here at Central.

The second problem is telling somebody. Mark also recorded these words from Jesus, words that may speak to us more than reminding us to be humble and serve others. Jesus said, "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."

Ouch. Someone says why ‘do you do these things?’ We say, ‘because it’s the right thing to do.’ Someone says ‘what’s your motivation? We say ‘human decency and building community.’ Someone says ‘what does your church do?’ We say ‘help others.’ Rarely, if every, do we say ‘live out the Good Samaritan parable’ or ‘follow the model Jesus gave in Matthew 25.’ We don’t say ‘to glorify God’ or ‘to bring about God’s Kingdom’ or even something simply like ‘the Bible tells me so.’ (You could sing that one)

Why did Tommy Douglas invent medicare? Because the Bible (he cited Matthew 25 and the parable of the Good Samaritan) told him too. He helped define “practical Christianity” and embodied a United Church-style commitment to social justice. And he was a Baptist! He never hid his motivation on the long path to becoming the greatest Canadian.

So, we don’t have a humility problem. We’re so humble about our life as faithful followers of Jesus Christ that it’s the best kept secret in town. And here lies the paradox: it seems that when you become the kind of church that Jesus wants you suddenly become very quiet about it. Which, of course, is not the kind of church Jesus wants at all. We are to be leaven (transforming society) but we are also a light in the darkness. We are supposed to pray quietly but “make disciples of all nations.” We are humble and we are proud. No wonder we settle for silence.

So, homework. This week, I want you to look for a sign of something God is doing in Weston. You can look at the whole city if you are stumped. Look for something God is doing in our midst and come prepared to report. It might be a word or a sentence, or just a quiet thought, but we need to practice. We need to spend more time giving God the glory or we risk forgetting why we are here at all. If you are particularly keen, you can do next weeks homework too, which is telling someone what you have discovered God is doing in Weston. But let’s not get too far ahead.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Proper 19

Mark 8
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’* 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? – Mark 8:36

Is it possible that sermons during the film festival can simply write themselves? If we were part of a tradition that opposed modern culture we could have a field day with TIFF. Surely the red carpet is Satan’s own pathway. Surely someone in a sheer dress gets the label “whore of Babylon.” Surely someone as handsome and talented as George Clooney has exchanged his soul for fame and perpetual good looks?

And just when our conservative brothers and sisters are set to condemn the glitterati to the outer darkness where there is weeping through Chanel mascara and gnashing of perfectly whitened teeth – they go and do socially useful things like rebuild New Orleans (Brad Pitt), promote peace (Clooney), and create a global network of angels (Oprah). How can you condemn someone with a global network of angels?

So we can love the stars after all. But love them, of course, in an appropriate, non-obsessive, Angelina-can-I-give-you-my-baby kind of way. I actually think that it’s good to have all the stars here in town all at once: it brings them down to earth. Instead of being distant stars from a far off place called “Planet Hollywood” they are just people, stuck in a shabby room at the Four Seasons, calling home to their kids, and worried where they are going to find maple syrup before they head home.

What surprises me about the question, “what will it profit them?” is the distance between the idea of gaining the whole and the actual lives of Jesus and the disciples. The twelve were mostly peasant labourers, part of a subsistence-class that would have some difficulty visualizing a really good meal let alone “gaining the whole world.” Even Jesus, a peasant with some woodworking skill, and half a rung up the social latter, had little in the way of first hand knowledge when it came to wealth.

No, this is Hollywood worthy time-travel, ancient near-eastern style. Jesus is speaking past the disciples, through the writer-evangelists, over the centuries and directly to us. He knew that this religion of the “least and the last” would be domesticated, made acceptable, and become the refuge of those who could at least visualize gaining the whole world. So maybe we are the original audience, and Jesus travels through the ages like the hero of some sci-fi flick to offer us advice and guidance.

Jesus, however, being post-modern in outlook, would want us first to look at the context. Mark 8 is the culmination of miracles and deeds of power. The early part of Mark’s Gospel has been some character development but mostly action. And like all good films, the audience needs a slower moment to relax a bit and regroup before the action starts again. So they have a conversation.

‘Who do people say that I am?’ is one of the most famous questions in scripture, allowing the readers to feel a little smug (we’re the ones shouting “son of the Most High!”) while the disciples try to piece all of this together. Jesus allows Peter the correct answer—you are the Messiah—and then goes on to describe a Messiah Peter has never imagined, let alone ever wanted. Peter wants violent political change, and all Jesus can talk about is his own suffering.

So Jesus gathers his disciples to himself (the Bible’s equivalent of “Now listen carefully”) and says:

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’

In other words, we are to walk in the way of Jesus, the way of suffering and loss.

Now before I explain what that means, I’m going to begin by explaining what it does not mean. Following in the way of Jesus does not mean looking for your own version of crucifixion or willfully seeking out suffering. It does not mean accepting suffering when you have a choice not to. For too long people (mostly women) were told that “take up your cross” meant accepting your situation in life. It does not.

So in order to understand how to “take up his cross” we need to understand the way of Jesus, as explained by Jesus. First, he is clear to Peter that there is no easy shortcut around the difficult life we live. For Peter and his friends, it was poverty and oppression caused by foreign occupation. And while Jesus was giving them tools to overcome the might of Rome, he wasn’t going to make it go away in an instant.

Suffering and loss. I will get to the uplifting part in a moment, but at the very root, the way of Jesus is suffering and loss. Let me explain. Jesus knew, and we should too, that everything about human life is about loss and the suffering we experience in the face of loss. The sun rises in the east and we enjoy a new day and then the sun sets in the west and we experience a sense of loss.

Maybe a more concrete example: This week my son started university and everyone is excited and pleased. The boy who perfected the “C minus” pulled up his socks and got into university. But his Dad (allow me to speak in the third person for a moment) experienced only mixed emotions, somewhat excited but feeling mostly loss that the boy commonly called “the wee lad” isn’t so wee anymore. So we enter new territory, things change, and some suffer the sting of loss.

And I’m not alone. Last night I watched 30 minutes of Weston’s finest young people on CKVR, circa 1975, singing and moving to the beat. I saw entirely too much hair on many, clothing that is now sold as vintage, and faces of people that I will tease for weeks to come (mostly Terry). And while the video played, through the laughter and the clapping, there was a real sense of loss. Loss not just for the Chancellors now sadly departed, but for the loss of youth and the dreams altered, relationships broken and an era come to an end.

Joy mixed with sorrow, laughter with longing, all the things Jesus tried to explain to his friends that day on the way. He tried to explain to them that there is not a straight path from the best plan to the best outcome, there is no “Messiah moment” where everything works out quickly and painlessly, but only the Way of Jesus.

The Way of Jesus involves walking the human path of loss and suffering with companions on the journey. The Way of Jesus is looking around us to see who is burdened by the weight of injustice and hardship and lightening their load. The Way of Jesus involves shouldering a cross beside the one who first shouldered a cross so that we might know new life in him.

So the uplifting part is not the end of loss but having companions in the way. It is not that suffering will cease, but the knowledge that God suffers too and sent a son to walk beside us. It is not arriving suddenly at some destination but knowing that God will guide us on every journey we take. Thanks be to God, amen.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Proper 18

Mark 7
24 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, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He 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.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir,* even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said “did you see the Star this morning,” I would be a wealthy man. Not only are Torontonians loyal to their local paper, but I seem to hang with people who like to quote it.

It seems, however, to be imprinted on my DNA to avoid the Star. My late grandfather was a Telegraph man who never really got over its demise. “The Star is nothing but a Grit rag,” he would say, and somehow we all took note. For me, I find the tone of the paper too “preachy,” something I get enough of when I hang out with my minister friends: so I read the Globe.

The downside of the Globe is a diminished local section. They pick up local stories, but they are often the ones related to business or development. Christie Blatchford (stole from the Sun) does her level best to highlight local stories, but most often it is the same old Christie but on a national scale.

This week proved an exception. The tragic encounter between Michael Bryant and Darcy Allan Sheppard dominated the Globe, a local story that seemed to interest people across the country. The circumstances that led to the death of Mr. Sheppard remain unclear, a situation that seems only to add to the public interest. Theories abound, and everyone, driver or cyclist or pedestrian, seems somehow invested in this story.

What I want to highlight, for our time together this morning, is the extent to which the story was translated into contest between competing interests. What began as a story about a famous person charged with a criminal offence became a story about drivers versus cyclists. Suddenly we were talking about bike lanes and the so-called “war on the car” rather than the matter at hand. The story was translated (or reduced) to two sides—both busy claiming the position of being more vulnerable in the face of the other.

The story will continue to be both local and national for many months to come. Already comparisons are being made between Michael Bryant and Teddy Kennedy, and I don’t think interest will die down. Concerning the tension between car and bicycle, snow will soon arrive, and the immediate tension will decrease. But the tendency to draw and take sides: that seems eternal.


The story of the Syrophoenician woman begins with Jesus on holiday. He has slipped away from an ongoing conflict with the religious leaders and goes to a place where he wants to go unrecognized. It was not to be. It seems the power of the Most High is too hard to hide, and before he has time to sit down a local woman needs his help.

Her daughter is sick, possessed with an unclean spirit, and she comes to Jesus in the very real hope that he can save the girl. Word got around, and the humble who seek out healing have been known to receive it from this miracle maker. She is on her knees. She begs that her daughter be released from the demons that have her.

In one of the most jarring moments in the Gospels he answers her this way: ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ In other words, he has come for the children of Israel, and not Gentiles such as the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter. That’s what he means to say, but the actual delivery is something else altogether. Somewhere between playful and rude, Jesus is setting out a viewpoint that would seem as natural to a first century Jew as breathing.

Faced with obvious refusal, or at least a religious and cultural response that would seem pretty fixed, she persists. She understands that this famous healer and Rabbi would only make miracles for the chosen people, but she cannot help herself. Putting her child ahead of the reasoned argument of a far-off teacher, she says ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’

Notice what she didn’t do: she didn’t curse him, she didn’t label him any number of potential labels, she didn’t continue to beg. No, her dignity remained intact. She made her clever counter-argument, a clever counter-argument that Rabbi Jesus couldn’t resist. Jesus “rewards” her for her cleverness, even saying that because she made such a fine comeback, her daughter is made well.

I’m not sure how I feel about the vacationing Jesus. He’s a little too edgy, too quick to dismiss. And when he does relent, since God always relents, he does it in such a way that you might think being clever will get you what you need, rather than the justice of the situation. No, I’m not sure about the vacationing Jesus at all.

A few years ago I wrote a children’s hymn that was inspired by this passage, with the first verse:

If Jesus grew then I can too,
And be like him in all I do.
If Jesus taught me how to pray,
Then I would speak to him each day.

Forgive me for quoting me, but I think it illustrates an important point from this passage. Jesus clearly grew from his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, and this is one of those rare places in scripture where we can realistically put ourselves in Jesus’ shoes (sandals) and take permission to grow. We can understand that even Jesus was conditioned by religious and cultural norms to the extent that he gave a standard response to the Syrophoenician woman: before she was able to draw from him the Christian response.

Let me tackle this from another direction, this time using the work of philosopher Ram Dass. Dass argues that all humans view the world through various levels of reality or “planes of consciousness” if you want to get all fancy. To get at the idea of people seeing the world through levels of reality, he uses the simple metaphor of television. He describes the channels we receive, and begins with the one or two that all of us get:

We all receive channel one. It is the view we begin with as babies, seeing the physical make-up of the people around us (young, old, light, dark, male, and female). As adults we still possess this channel and still view it with comfort.

On channel two we view the social world around us. We begin by placing our family of origin into the categories of father, mother, sibling and what these titles mean in terms of social interaction. Later we see other categories like teacher or doctor, blue collar/white collar and so on. Finally, this channel allows us to view psychological attributes like happy, sad, angry or afraid. Add to the list affiliations such as conservative/liberal, and we begin to see why this is the most watched channel and why so many people are stuck on two channels. (It also explains the popularity of trash TV)

Channel three is little known and seldom watched. It is about the myths and roles we place on ourselves and who we understand others. If you are aware that someone is struggling because they are trying to live up to ideal they have placed on themselves then you are watching channel three. This channel asks the "why" question and tries to understand behavior as part of a larger pattern.

The fourth channel is the place where we view the people around us and we no longer see differences but similarities. We embrace our common humanity ("we are all God’s children") and the connection between all people through the Spirit. We only get glimpses of this channel and some have never seen it. (Sharp, p.74)

It’s a helpful map of human understanding, one that can be applied to a variety of situations. The fascination with the Michael Bryant situation is on channel two, where the story is quickly reduced to drivers versus cyclists. It is the ordering channel where we try to reduce things to simple categories and quickly assess blame. The former premier who scapegoated the poor and exaggerated cheating amount people who receive social assistance never left channel two.

Jesus on vacation is watching somewhere between channel two and three. He understands the woman’s situation, but like a well learned reflecx he responses with channel two, highlighting differences and giving the standard response of his people.

But the Syrophoenician woman, she’s been watching channel four, the channel where the differences between peoples disappear and the only theme is our common humanity. She reaches this place in a moment of crisis, where the Holy Spirit gives her the strength and the insight to claim this common humanity and take it to the Son of the Most High. The Rabbi listens, and responds, drawn back to the channel where we know Jesus lives and moves and has his being.

The Syrophoenician woman she didn’t ask for symbolic crumbs from the children’s table. She reminded Jesus that the crumbs fell anyway, and anyone with a need will find them. The healing power of God, the power to heal people and make them whole belongs to anyone with a need. Even the people who claim the original portion acknowledge, as Jesus did, that the power of God is stronger and the love of God is broader than the human categories we are so eager to create and maintain.