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, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 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.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Woolaroc is this throwback, magical kind of place grounded in Okie soil about an hour north of here. It was land claimed by Frank Phillips, an oilman and financial tycoon. He had an office in New York and this respite ground
near Bartlesville where he could escape the suit and enjoy the thrills of the Wild West. The land touted great woods, lakes and rocks and so those three elements were thrown together to name the place, Woolaroc [Woods, lakes, rocks]. It’s worth a little drive north if you have some time some day. Before Phillips made his millions, he was a barber in Creston, Iowa. My mom’s family farm is still just a few miles outside of Creston. I can almost bet the farm that my great-grandpa Birt got his haircut by Frank Phillips. Phillips was destined to succeed. He said, “Barbering was a good trade for a young chap who wanted to see the country. I put my tools in my pocket and wandered all over the West – Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. I finally came back to Creston, Iowa and bought out a shop, then all the shops in town. I became a Monopolist.” He married into a banking family and his career skyrocketed from there, all before establishing this haven in northeastern Oklahoma. In the late 1920’s, Phillips launched an annual reunion at Woolaroc called “Cow Thieves and Outlaws.” Everyone was invited. Everyone. Cowboys, Indians, law enforcement, outlaws, everyone. Prominent bankers, politicians and industrialists rubbed shoulders with real cowboys and a few desperadoes as well. Phillips would invite his business associates from out east to come soak in the beauty and excitement of this culture totally foreign to their own. They would barbeque all day and celebrate the diversity of humanity. A freeze was put on any criminal warrants during the reunion. The legend grew that any outlaw who was still wanted by the law was to be given a 24-hour head start at the end of the festivities. One of the famous pictures of the event includes one particular outlaw and one particular officer of the law. That very outlaw had been on the run from that very officer for the last three months. Here they were in the same picture, enjoying the reunion. But after the 24-hour freeze for the reunion and the outlaw’s traditional head start when the reunion finished, the chase resumed.
I was totally fascinated and amused by this idea that anyone would agree to suspend their differences and battles for a day to simply be humans at peace, even humans on one single team enjoying each other’s company. Can you imagine? I wondered how that must feel. I wondered if we might be able to give it a try… even this morning – suspending our disputes, disagreements, opposing views or beliefs, football college allegiances – to simply be human together for an hour. We’re at the mid-point of our Love (An)other sermon series where we’re trying to take seriously the demands of Jesus that we must love one another as he loved us. There are some days, my friends; some days where this struggle of Love, for Love… is tough. But if we’re not willing to do it, nobody else will… and Jesus seems pretty clear about the prominence of the practice when it comes to the kingdom of God. So my friends, consider this day a suspension of all conflicts, a reunion of cowboys and outlaws, sinners and saints, privileged and oppressed… a simple call to be humans walking together.
We crack open Mark’s gospel again today, as we did last week, to catch a glimpse of how this might work. It’s a crazy text. I’ll just say that from the onset. Jesus has gotten the heck out of Dodge for a moment. His public ministry was taxing and tiring and so he bolted out of the thick of all of that to the vicinity of Tyre, a Gentile territory. He popped into a house there where he didn’t think anyone could find and bother him but before he could even set down his overnight bag, a woman had followed him in the house asking for him to do his healing thing for her daughter who was sick. “Get in line, lady!” Jesus snaps back. “The kids eat first and if there’s anything left, then, and only then, the dogs eat.” Did Jesus just call the woman a dog? Uh, yeah, he did. And every commentary you read offers some explanation, most of whom try to give Jesus an out on this one. Some have said, “The Greek word for dog that Jesus uses means puppies so really he was just being playful with her.” Others say, “He was just testing her resolve to see if she’d back away or if her faith would persist.” But could it be that Jesus was just caught in a human moment? I mean, he’s preached out, prayed out, and peopled out. Could he just have snapped at her because he was tired and reacted out of his exhaustion? I know he’s God made flesh but he’s also taken on the human experience. If he was fully God, yet also fully human, his fully human-side has to come out sometimes. I mean, do you think he could ring the horseshoe stake every time? If you never had a chance to beat him at a game of horse, eventually nobody would ever play with him; and that’s no human experience to write home about. When he missed hitting the nail in the carpentry shop and smashed his thumb instead, do you think he shook it off or do you have grace enough, even for Jesus that he might have spouted out a word he once heard while riding in the back of the school bus as a kid? He was burned out and burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long. I don’t personally feel the need to manipulate his words to try to make him look good when the words seem, well, unChristlike. I leave room enough that Jesus maybe didn’t say the most compassionate thing here.
Who among us has never reacted in the best way to someone needing you for something; especially when you’re exhausted? You’re trying to work from home and your kids are tapping your shoulder every two minutes, “Dad, I’m hungry. Dad, can you get me a new battery? Dad, I got the homemade slime stuck in my brother’s hair again [Slime after slime].” Constant, constant, constant. And maybe you’ve responded well the first four thousand times but you’re not getting anything done and you’re getting frustrated and finally that next shoulder tap comes and you say without even looking at them: “Are you kidding me! No! Figure it out yourself! Give me a break!” But then you turn around and there is your child, a Hersey’s kiss in one hand, a handmade colored picture in the other – arms extended as a love offering to you. “Dad, I just wanted you to know I love you.” Oh, for the love. Humans. I’m a human, raised by humans. And dads, our children need us to apologize to them when we’ve not done our best. As Richard Rohr notes, “Only mutual apology, healing, and forgiveness offer a sustainable future for humanity. Otherwise, we are controlled by the past, individually and corporately.” Don’t be too proud to apologize. Don’t be too stubborn that when you get it wrong, you can’t turn around and make it right.
By the ordinary standards of the day, the Jewish Jesus should ignore this woman completely. She’s a Gentile and Taylor Swift’s song, “Bad Blood” immediately begins playing whenever Jews and Gentiles were about to have an interaction. It was considered improper on her part to approach a man to whom she was not related. Jesus is tired and he’s got a vision for the direction of the ministry and in this moment, for whatever reason, he’s not ready to walk forward with her so he calls her a dog. Dogs were not coveted, cute, Yorkies that were considered full members of the family. Dogs were scavengers, unclean, expendable. But the woman responds quickly and with sharp wit to turn his own phrase on him: “Sir, even the dogs get the crumbs that the kids sweep from the table.” “Throw me a bone, Jesus, I’m just a broken mom whose daughter is sick.” And Jesus must have come to himself in that moment. “You’re absolutely right,” Jesus implies. In Matthew’s version, he says to her, “What great faith!” And he surely thought back to what he just experienced before skipping town. He had just come down the mountainside where he had fed 5,000 men plus women and children – he fed them all and was now momentarily withholding from a single person who is just as hungry to be seen and fed as the crowds he just served. “Our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” (Bryan Stevenson). When we can share our vulnerabilities and shortcomings with each other, we build our capacity for compassion. And in this moment, Jesus realizes, “She’s right. We’re all in this together.” And so he honors her even as he’s gleaned something important from this encounter. In so doing, everyone gets better. Everyone finds healing. They walk together.
We all need these experiences to grow and learn. Sometimes we have to suspend our biases or anger or privilege long enough to learn from the Other. Humans need concrete and personal experiences to learn the ways of love. As much as we’d like, we don’t learn to love through abstract philosophy or theology. I can say it from this pulpit all day long but until I’m face to face with the Other, someone like the Syrophoenician woman, I’m never going to make love real to anyone, myself included… it’s just lifeless theory. This is why Jesus came to show God in human form – to reveal a face we could recognize and relate to. If we really see someone in the fullness of their being, as one created in the image of God, we cannot help but treat them with kindness and compassion. And Jesus sees her, comes to himself, and says, “Yes. I see you. I’ll be part of your healing.” That’s so hard to do. It’s easier for us to keep to ourselves. We’ve got plenty of our own problems, right? And it doesn’t take a whole lot of life to be tossed in our face before our idealism fades and bitterness prevails (which just gives way to our inclination to be judgmental, pointing fingers and calling any news piece that causes us to have even a brief moment of reflection on whether or not our worldview can accommodate the information being presented, 100%, fake news). Has your commitment to such an ideal faded? I saw someone present this reality in a simple scenario. She said, “In my 20’s I often said, “I will strive for goodness and peace in this troubled world.” High ideals. Then she said, “In my 40’s I mostly say, “Every single chair is terrible.” And her back always hurts. We lose heart which is quickly followed by the loss of will to attempt helping build the kingdom life at all. And so we point fingers, cast blame, and reject the Other. But when all we’re willing to offer are excuses, God keeps offering a Eucharist.
Reflect with me very personally for just a moment. I won’t ask you to raise a hand or answer out loud or anything like that. I only ask that you be completely honest with yourself. How are you living right now? Are you ‘living’ more excuses or eucharist right now? Do you find more reason to keep those different from you at arm’s length than you do to extend the eucharist to them? A friend told me after worship last week something she had heard a pastor say forty years ago that has remained as clear to her as anything else. The pastor said, “You have never locked eyes with someone who does not matter to God.” Jesus locks eyes with this woman… and in so doing… he sees to her heart as God always sees. A human, made in God’s image, beautiful and uniquely gifted, longing for connection, hoping someone might be willing to walk with her through the pain.
Don’t you want to be seen this way too? I don’t think it’s a foreign request or experience. I just want to be seen… not as a label… not by my clothing or my job title, or my marital status or my sins or my virtues – just seen and loved as a valuable soul. Author, professor, pastor, fellow-human, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote a book called Leaving Church, in part a description of her journey leaving the church as a pastor and becoming a parishioner herself. She was at a pool party hosted by a member of the church of which she was the pastor. She felt the ache of being apart from the people there in ways she could not bear. She was the pastor; not a human, not a friend, not simply Barbara. She tells of sitting down with a couple in adjacent rocking chairs, an experience she was never able to enjoy because her [ministerial] priority was always to be with people who were in crisis. She tells about laughing with them with corn stuck in her teeth. And then she writes this: “After my supper had settled I wandered down to the pool, where I watched swimming children splitting beams of underwater light with their bodies. I had baptized many of them, and I loved seeing them all shrieking and paddling around together in one big pool. Suddenly to my right there was a deeper yell, the sound of scrambling feet on cement, and then a large plop as a fully clothed adult landed in the water.
I stood back and watched the mayhem that ensued. All around me, people were grabbing people and wrestling them toward the water. The dark night air was full of pool spray and laughter. The kids were going crazy. Several people hunting for potential victims turned toward me, their faces lit with smiles. When they saw who I was they turned away again so that I felt sad instead of glad. Whatever changes were occurring inside of me, I still looked waterproof to them. Like the sick man in John’s gospel, who lay by the pool of Beth-zatha for thirty-eight years because he had no one to put him in when the water stirred up, I watched others plunging in ahead of me. Then two strong hands grabbed my upper arms from behind, and before I knew it I was in the water, fully immersed and swimming in light.
I never found out who my savior was, but when I broke the surface [of the water], I looked around at all of those shining people with makeup running down their cheeks, with hair plastered to their heads, and I was so happy to be one of them. If being ordained meant being set apart from them, then I did not want to be ordained anymore. I wanted to be human. I wanted to spit food and let snot run down my chin. I wanted to confess being as lost and found as anyone else without caring that [I looked so undignified; so un-ministerial] in my wet clothes. Bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light, I looked around and saw them as I had never seen them before, while some of them looked at me the same way. The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.” That’s Baptism. She was human.
While it may have taken a second look, Jesus sees the Syrophoenician woman, human to human. To me, that’s why Mark and Matthew tell this story. Not to tell another healing story, which is worthy of celebrating of course. But this story is about his second take, his locking eyes with someone whom the culture said he didn’t have to give the time of day but whom God loved as much as anyone possibly could. Who do you need to give a second look? Maybe it’s your child whom you’ve written off as lost. Maybe it’s your spouse or your co-worker or your neighbor or your friend who doesn’t vote for the right people. I think of Julia Roberts character in the movie Notting Hill – an uber famous actress who meets an everyday, average Joe, falls in love with him and yet he has great difficulty seeing beyond her fame and the lime light. She stands before the man she loves, played by Hugh Grant, and says with utter vulnerability, “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” This is the theme of so many biblical characters and, I’m guessing, it is played out in your life in some way on a daily basis. Young or old, male or female, and every other possible descriptive qualifier – wondering if someone will see you as human; as a partner, born in this time just as you, created to walk together and bring healing to the world.
This will require some effort, some discomfort, some suspension of our quest to differentiate. Maybe it would help for you to wake up each day approaching the next 24-hours as a reunion of Cow Thieves and Outlaws – your very life a walking reunion where no matter where you go, everyone is welcome. Everyone is fed. Everyone walks together.
 Exegetical commentary influencing this sermon found in William Barclay’s “The Gospel According to Mark”. Westminster Press. 1975. And “Mark for Everyone” by Tom Wright. The University Press. Cambridge. 2002.
 Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperOne. 2007.