Join us on this holiday weekend as we say goodbye to the “dog days” of summer. Service will include a special blessing of the backpacks for our youth and children as well as a special blessing for anyone returning to an educational setting whether they are teaching, driving a bus, working in the front office or are a member of the local school board. We also hear a story about a time when Jesus gets schooled by a woman. It is the only time Jesus loses a debate. Let’s hope this service hasn’t gone to the dogs! Special note: we will only have one tent available so please bring umbrellas, hats or lawn chairs so you can make your own shade.
“The Dog Days Are Over”
The dog days are over! So there I said it. Can you believe it’s September already! Someone recently asked me how my summer was and cocked my head to one side and said “summer?” as if they had spoken to me in some language I didn’t understand. Not only did it seem to go quickly but it seems most everyone I talked to had pretty busy summer not that sit around on the porch drinking lemonade while watching the sunset kind, the kind of summer you have during a pandemic where you want squeeze in as much connection and fun outdoors where it’s safer.
Jesus too has been a bit busy healing and teaching all over Galilee. The story begins with Jesus headed out of town perhaps for a little R & R. His attempts to get some alone time, some time for self-care have failed miserably. His last attempt ended with him feeding a crowd of 5000 or more! So he arrives in Tyre most likely feeling well – dog-tired! Yep, that’s just the first of this morning’s bad puppy puns! As I was working on some music suggestions for Peter this week, I joked with Debra that I should suggest the great modern hymnist of the 50’s Elvis Presley and do a rendition of “Hound Dog.” Think about it people the lyrics really work – “You ain’t nothin but a hound dog -cryin’ all the time. You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog – cryin’ all the time. Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Ok let’s get back to the scripture – He tries to slip into a home unnoticed, one would presume to have some well-deserved down time after healing and teaching when he is confronted by a woman begging him for just one more healing before he kicks his feet up. Let me just put it out there plain and simple Jesus doesn’t come off looking very good in this story. He looks even worse in Matthew’s telling where he says to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
A woman, in desperate need of help, throws herself at Jesus’ feet – his response to insult her? That’s right I said insult. Clearly, we didn’t hear it right! In his response to the women’s plea he essentially equates her with a dog. Biblical scholar Red. Dr. Wil Gafney tells us that Jesus was not talking about a pet dog. The Israelites did not keep pet dogs. Dogs were filthy animals to the Israelites, something like a cross between a hyena and a rat, often paired with pigs in the literature of the wider Ancient Near East, all of them scavengers. When Jesus talks about throwing food to dogs, he is not talking about feeding family pets like this adorable being you see on your bulletin cover. He’s talking about taking your good food that you have prepared for your family off the table walking it outside and throwing it in the street. And now I’m confused, perplexed, I’m stuck because this is Jesus, Jesus, Mary’s baby. I know your mother didn’t teach you to talk to women like that?
Theologian Sharon Ringe summarizes it this way – “Jesus got caught with his compassion down!” Indeed! What’s going on here? Some theologians have speculated that Jesus’ behavior toward the woman can be explained by saying that he was testing her faith. Pass the test and I’ll heal your daughter that doesn’t seem any less cruel than ignoring her in fact this notion seems troubling and drastically out of character for Jesus. Every interpreter must make at least one key decision about this story: Is the woman passing a test or winning an argument?
And what of the woman? She is part of a long list of nameless women in the Bible whose interactions with Jesus result in a deeper understanding for us of Jesus’ teachings of justice and love. She is one of only two women in the gospel of Mark whose voice we hear – who actually speaks. The other are the women at Jesus’ tomb who come to anoint his body.All we really are told about this woman is that she is a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin, which would be located in modern day Syria. She is not one of Jesus’ people. Which makes sense since we are told that Jesus has gone into the region of Tyre. This is her home, Jesus is on her turf. But she believes in her own human dignity and she insists that Jesus show her the kindness everyone should show even the least of God’s creations even a creature as “low” as a dog.
The truth is Jesus was schooled by this woman. The teacher was the one in this case who was taught by someone completely unexpected. Don’t want to see it that way because – why? Because we don’t want to believe that he has moments of weakness or exhaustion. It’s easy to say that Jesus is both human and divine but hard to swallow if Jesus shows himself to be too human. Can a Savior have a bad day?? Have you ever had a bad day? You know – the kind of day when you’ve just had it! How easy is it to be in an intimate relationship with someone you can’t relate to? God incarnate chose to manifest as a common man who experiences many of the same things, we do in order that we may be able to identify and connect with him.
Jesus might have been having a bad day, nevertheless, she persisted. This persistent woman’s clever rearrangement of Jesus’ words didn’t just reconfigure Jesus’ metaphors of crumbs and canines her words contain as much theological insight as they do wit or even humility. It appears she recognizes — somehow — a certain abundance about the things Jesus is up to. Remember in the first gospel reading of our summer worship series we heard the story of the feeding of the 5000 which started with nothing and ended with leftovers so many leftovers that perhaps they spilled off the symbolic table and right there onto the ground where even those deemed the lowliest could be fed.
She was inviting Jesus to expand his “table” to include not just the ones who were like him but ones who were different from him, to include those society had left out of the table setting or who had been relegated to be under the table or even to those who quite literally can’t have access to the table at all. This woman’s clever retort to Jesus not only shows her deep understanding of the abundance of God’s love but it creates a relationship, a connection with someone very different from herself – a relationship that Jesus would have missed. Her pushing back prompts Jesus (and all of us) to let go of that favoritism that James talks about in this writing this morning and just focus on feeding one another, body and soul.
There is another relationship at play here too. The woman is acting on behalf of her sick daughter. We are reminded of another parent earlier in Mark’s gospel that is acting on behalf of a sick daughter. Only a couple of chapters back in Mark – Jairus, a leader of the synagogue who holds great stature in the community throwing himself at Jesus’ feet and begging for his help – a grand public display at Jesus’ feet despite how Jesus was likely regarded by most of the other synagogue leaders. But this story isn’t a public gesture by a person of stature it is a private plea from a “mere woman” outside of the flock.
There have been some “mere women” in our own country and abroad who have been garnering attention; some modern day Syrophoenician women are not afraid to speak truth to power and in doing so bring to light the ways in which we choose not to serve others based on what we think we know about them. There have been some women who have used their voices to insist that they/we are not “mere” women at all! Reminds me of a favorite bumper sticker that says – “Speak your truth, even if you voice shakes.”
It would seem too that Jesus would get on board with what James is saying. Jesus who is focused on the mission he sees: to the Jews – lets his own vision be expanded. The Syrophoenician woman crosses boundaries of gender and ethnicity to expand Jesus’ boundary of mercy – why? For the sake of love. And in the course of acting out of love for her daughter, Jesus is healed of his prejudice. This week’s gospel lesson (Mark 7:24-37) is comprised of two healing stories, the first being the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the second the healing of the deaf man with a speech impediment. Jesus heals insiders and outsiders.
The woman shows him a way to spread more grace. Jesus turns around and passes on the healing he received from the Syrophoenician woman to the man who is deaf and mute. Opening his ears to hear a message that includes all. It’s as if the Syrophoenician woman turns to Jesus and says “Ephphatha” – Be opened” “immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released and he spoke more plainly.” – For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Lutheran pastor & Homiletics professor Barbara Lundblad says of this passage, “Jesus was converted that day to a larger vision of the Commonwealth of God.” If Jesus had written this sermon, it could be called “What I Learned on My Summer Vacation” or “You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks.”
So what might we learn from these dog days? Who are the ones we would overlook, ignore or perhaps even insult in our day? – immigrants, Muslims, queer folx, those who simply look different, those asking for help, yes even still – women. Jesus saw and heard a fuller revelation of God in the voice and in the face of the Syrophoenician woman – a widening circle of love. I entitled the sermon “the dog days are over” not as a comment on the end of the summer but more as statement of hope that we can help extend God’s mercy to those dog-tired of oppression, bigotry and prejudice, to a world where people are dogged by despair, violence, poverty, war and famine.
One of the inspirations for my sermon title is the title of a song by Florence and the Machine. Here are some of the words:
“The dog days are over. The dog days are done. Leave all your love and your longing behind you. Can’t carry it with you if you want to survive”
Let today’s scripture be a prayer of hope for the day when we can declare with joy that the dog days are indeed over. A day when the divisions between the 1% and the 99% are no longer and that 100% of us will work together to make sure all are feed and clothed, included and honored. Let us persist like the woman in today’s gospel in bringing about the kin-dom of God for all! Amen.
 Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.com/2012/09/tuesday-lectionary-leanings-did-he-just.html