In 1986 I was going from San Francisco to my seminary in Berkeley to report to my field education professor on some work I was doing. I felt really proud with the work, satisfied with what it said about my ability to minister, my compassion as well as competence. After so many years of getting it wrong, taking detours, goofing off, I was finally getting together.
So I was waiting in the San Francisco BART station at Civic Center; which is right at the edge of a fairly “iffy” neighborhood. There weren't too many people on the platform that stood between two train train tracks and I noticed an older black man walking slowly towards me. I turned slightly and looked into the distance, but he came right up to me.
“Which side do I go to for the train for Oakland?”
“I think you'll find it over there” I said, glancing to the right.
He raised his voice a bit, “I don't want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.”
I looked down. “The train for Oakland's on the right.” I said.
His voice was low and steady. “Look at me.”
I took a slow breath and raised my head. He was a man a bit older than I was; in working clothes and with strong eyes; I have a sense that he might've had some scars but I don't really remember. When I will never forget is that he had a sense of dignity I hadn't expected, an authority I would never have looked for. I looked at him face-to-face and said, “the train for Oakland comes on this side,” and pointed with my right arm to the tracks on the right.
He held my eyes for a second longer, and then said, “Thank you,” and i turned to watch him as he walked away.
And I saw something big about how little I saw, how little I looked for, how pitifully small I was: I was nowhere near to any kind of real confidence, compassion, completeness, either in my ministry or in my whole life. And he had broken me open so that I could see that. I was surprised to be so immediately thankful for the gift he had given me.
A few years later, in the mid- 1990s, Joan Osborn had a hit that touches this in some ways. She sang:
What if God was one of us…
just a stranger on the bus
trying to make his way home
So let’s keep all that as background music as we look at today’s Gospel.
So far in Mark, up to the section we just heard, Jesus has been having a hard time of it; but it’s been even tougher for his fans and followers. He’s pushing some boundaries, taking it lightly with traditional purity laws and cherished sacred customs. People are getting worried: his family fears for his health while some others think he thinks he's simply lost it!
Yes, he tells compelling and enlightening stories, he heals people, he exorcises demons, Mark reports he even lords it over nature; but he’s making people uneasy. Yes, when he presides over a gathering in a field, a few fishes and loaves turn into a major feast, and that’s great; but he also plucks the grain in the field during the Sabbath, which is forbidden, he eats with sinners and tax collectors, even worse, and he even forgives sins, a task that belongs to God and the ordained temple priesthood. He’s doing dangerous things!
And Jesus is saying over and over that the kingdom of God has come into the world, right here and now, and that God’s kingdom is something beyond custom, beyond etiquette, beyond the commonly accepted traditions and patterns we share with family and friends. And, as you might guess, that is not easy for most people to take: they are saying, there have to be some rules to follow, some customs to uphold, things to hold together!
So when he heads out of Gennesaret and into Tyre (which is not an neighborhood you'd want to visit late at night), He might be a bit tired from working with all the good and wholesome religious people, and just want to get away to rest and recuperate in the middle of nowhere. But I would bet there were still a few of those good and proper people around, just watching Jesus, when that foreign mother, that outsider, came in to make her very improper request.
We need to focus there, to see how surprising, how shocking it is for a Syro-Phoenician woman, with no man to speak for her, speaking up, daring to ask for something from a Jew. It is almost unspeakable; but here is this outsider making an outlandish claim: “Please heal my daughter!”
To use an old saying, “the silence must have been deafening!” And those religious people listening must have been reassured when her courageous prayer from the heart receives an appropriately heartless response from Jesus: “Let the children be fed first," he says, "for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” The good religious folks listening must have felt relief that some cultural customs were finally being upheld; that Jesus wasn’t going to go too far!
But for that single mother, who must've had incredible courage, love, dedication, to reach out to speak to this stranger: that response must have almost knocked her off her feet.
Yet she still stands there, and she still says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.”
I imagine it got even quieter then! What did people do and,more importantly, what did Jesus think? Here he has been talking about a widening understanding and participation in the open heart, the open hand of God; and suddenly there is a call for mercy that breaks all the stereotypical boundaries, coming from one of the last places any good Israelite would ever want to look.
Out of love for a lost daughter, this outlsider challenges the inside of Jesus’ heart saying, “Please be open to find, to call for God's good work, saving action, all-encompassing embrace, in people you are still willing to overlook. Be willing to look at me and see the glory of God opening, please look at me and see redemptive action ready to take place, please look at me and feel the wind of the Spirit calling you to be reconciled to your lost sister. Please look at me and announce God's mercy, God's action, God's kingdom. Please, here and now, heal my daughter!”
Just a few chapters before in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been shocked by “good” peoples unbelief: but here he is astonished at the power of a “bad” woman’s faith in him. And Jesus changes his mind. He turns to look at the outsider in a new way and, even though his response is not especially gracious, ““For saying that,” he says, “you may go—the demon has left your daughter,” and the Samaritan woman's daughter is healed.
And people started talking then, and they would talk more, and their eventual and considered response would be deadly.
Then Jesus heads back home, to more respectable regions, and on the way he is presented with yet one more broken person who needs healing; a deaf man with a speech impediment. So he takes him aside, put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touches his tongue and looking up to heaven, sighs and says to him, “Be opened.” “And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
And that ends the account of today’s Gospel: two fairly big miracles; the broken daughter of a woman marginalized by gender, ethnicity and geography is made whole, and a man unable to hear and speak can now do both clearly. But I think there is a third miracle hidden in there as well.
Jesus had said “Be opened” to the crippled man; but the foreign woman told Jesus, “Be open” - and he heard her! Maybe this is not such a shocker; the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Jesus was tested in every way as we are, yet did not sin.“ So maybe the Samaritan woman help him pass that test, maybe she opens him up to a largess of a God he could never find in that inner circle: and maybe the surprise of it stayed with him for a long time. Like the man on the subway stays with me after all those years.
So the question I live with lately, that I offer to you today, is this: “What if God’s word of mercy and compassion and justice is announced outside of our institutional norms? What if God’s kingdom comes from someone we would rather overlook? What if God in Christ is willing and ready to be found as:
a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home.
How can we come to live with that, even love that? How can we respond to that Good News, how can we make our hearts and our ministries big enough to bring that person to this community, to this table, so that we can learn and learn to love together, how can we make room to share in this hope?
In the name of Christ. Amen.