Crossing the Line
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 9/6/2015
Based on Mark 7:24-30
As we come before Christ’s table this morning, in light of this morning’s text as well as the recent events focused around professing Christian Kim Davis, county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky and her refusal to issue wedding licenses to same-sex couples based on her alleged Christian based values, I have to ask, “Who is truly invited to this table” and “what does this table truly represent?” As much as Mrs. Davis’ actions disturb my sensibilities, I must admit that she brings another voice to the conversation of “inclusion”. The question of: “where does one draw the line between acting within the law verses personal convictions?” I think with the Supreme Court’s latest interpretation on the inalienable right to marry, our national conversation around moral values has not been so intense since questions on “conscientious objectors” during WWII and about abortion in the 1960’s; all based in religious conscienceness.
Where do we draw the line on behaviors and laws that seem to violate our moral sensibilities? How do we define the acts of crossing the line? Are acts of civil disobedience actions that lead towards change for the better or are they simply obstructions of the law based on prejudices? I realize that in Mrs. Davis’ particular case, she is an elected official who has sworn to uphold and abide by the laws of County, State and Federal, which differs in rights from that of a private citizen, yet as an individual, questions around moral values still exist.
I remember in my first parish, there was one person whose understanding around how one does and who doesn’t interpret scripture differed greatly from my understanding. I understand that when I read scripture I am reading it through the eyes of past sermons, from the variety of theological concepts that I studied in seminary, from my education in the public school system, from my family and local community value systems, and from my personal life experiences. All of these and more influence how I understand what I read in the Bible. The person that I would discuss this with maintained that she never interpreted scripture; she just read what was there. To her, the words on the written page were not influenced by any of those areas of discipline. The meaning of scripture means what the words say, period! When Genesis reads, “And God created the heavens and the earth in seven days”, she understood the word “day” to mean 24 hrs. She never understood that she had interpreted “day” to mean a value of 24 hrs. We never came to a mutual understanding on the issue that we all interpret scripture, just as we interpret events that happen to us day in and day out.
I believe Mrs. Davis falls into the camp that I was just describing. She doesn’t comprehend that the way she understands scripture is based on multiple aspects of what she has been taught and has experienced. It is through our individual experiences in life that creates the need for conversation, which can explain why conversation between two people can easily become over heated, because it is personal.
How one interprets, is essential in how one answers my original questions of, “Who is truly invited to this table” and “what does this table truly represent?” I first want to address the question, “what does this table truly represent?” We say that this is Christ’s table, but what is the deeper implication in that statement? The best way to answer that question is to observe what Jesus did and didn’t do during his life. We know through this morning’s text that Jesus did not spend all of his time in Jewish settlements. In today’s reading we see that Jesus has gone to the city of Tyre, which is a predominately Gentile city, where he encounters a Syrophoenician woman. This is one of the most offensive stories in the New Testament, both to the first audiences who heard it as well as to modern-day ear.
The encounter between the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus comes on the heels of Jesus teaching and feeding the Five thousand, the arrest and beheading of his mentor John the Baptizer, encountering hostile Pharisees in his home town and his accusation of them, “You have stopped following the commands of God, and you follow only human teachings.” Jesus then goes on to elaborate that it is what is in your heart that either makes you clean or unclean. Jesus uses the dietary rituals as the example of restrictiveness and not of God’s doing. After all this, Jesus decides he needs to find some alone time and journeys up to Tyre and Sidon, which is outside of Herod’s jurisdiction.
It is in this setting that we see a side of Jesus not seen previously. Now surrounded by Gentiles, Jesus is faced with much of his teachings. Most of us hearing this story would find ourselves offended by the way Jesus uses racist language and the refusal to help this woman. The language is racist because the word “dog” implies the lowest form of existence in the Hebrew mind and he was telling this woman to leave him alone because she was not worthy of his attention. Ultimately because of her persistence Jesus decides to heal her daughter.
To the first audiences of this story, there are other levels of offenses going on. First off, Jesus is staying in Gentile territory, secondly, a woman dares to approach Jesus, thirdly, this woman touches Jesus, all three of these bringing into question “purity” issues. It is in this story that we see two people, Jesus and a woman, crossing over the lines of cultural prejudices and moral values, showing that the boundaries of God are larger than what society often acknowledges. Coming to the table of Christ implies that there are no boarders, no boundaries, that God see’s this table as the table of inclusion. This table represents the abundance of God’s love, it represents the existence of what is, the physical world that we live in.
So, who then is invited to the table? When reading scripture, we see that Jesus is the first in the New Testament stories to use the dietary laws as a way of explaining inclusion. By telling the Pharisees that it wasn’t what you put into your mouth that makes you impure but rather it is what is in your heart, Jesus was expanding the circle of inclusion. It is in the story of Jesus and this woman of Tyre that challenges cultural bigotry by showing that impurity doesn’t come from cultural differences but rather in the prejudices and bigotry within your heart that makes one impure. Later in the book of Acts, Peter has a vision of a sheet of all animals dropping down from heaven and God telling him to eat anything from it that he wants. When Peter argues about the dietary laws, God basically tells Peter, that all things are acceptable, again showing it isn’t the stuff from the outside but the stuff in the heart that makes one pure or impure.
I think that when we enter into discussions such as immigration, issues around poverty, or around mental health, we would do well to think about the encounter that Jesus had with the Syrophoencian woman. It is important to note that it wasn’t her faith that prompted Jesus to action, but rather her passion for her daughter, for her need, that crossing over the line that got Jesus to act. It not only changed the lives of this woman and her child but more importantly it changed the life of Jesus. I think it is in this story that Jesus comes to the full realization that the gift of God, even the crumbs are there for all to partake. This communion table represents the world of God and this food is the gift from God to all. It is my prayer that people such as Mrs Davis, and we are all Mrs. Davis on some level, will learn the broader meanings of what Jesus was trying to tell us. Moral purity comes from the heart, not from the outside. Amen