I had never encountered homeless people before. Sleeping on the streets; carrying all their belongings. Locked in, or acting out, from severe, untreated mental illness. In Center City Philadelphia, it was cold. I brought blankets, thermoses of hot liquid, to people sleeping under cardboard, on subway grates. It was 1986. I was a Junior in college, in an urban immersion internship, following Sister Mary Scullion, in her jeans and sneakers around the streets; volunteering at her Catholic shelter, Women of Hope.
I had never encountered people in such desperate circumstances, and it changed me. I had never encountered this Catholic-worker Dorothy Day vision of Jesus, either. Jesus who intentionally seeks out the poor, who shows up to be present on the margins, who deliberately accompanies those on the ragged edge. A liberation theology Jesus; God incarnate and compassionate especially with the suffering, the oppressed.
Can it be that a fundamental aspect of our Christian faith is our willingness to be changed by encountering those who are different from us? Is it really about believing the right things, worshiping the right way, being in the right social club on Sunday morning? Or is it about getting out there, and finding God in the space between, with someone whose story, experience, face is not ours?
You may have heard that I am just starting a new job! And I will tell you today that it’s the last thing I expected, in about the last place I expected! I’m running around on the streets down in New Bedford, and hanging out in a very large and beautiful place called Grace Church, with some very cool people. They do an amazing amount of outreach and ministry to their neighbors. They feed people almost daily, have after-school and all-summer programs for children. There are layers of history in that city, from Moby Dick and Herman Melville to Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad. There are layers of immigration, too. And some serious challenges; of poverty and drugs and violence.
So one of my job interviews took place in a Laundromat! A humid, steamy Laundromat on a muggy summer day. Nothing like meeting parishioners for the first time with sweat pouring down your face and legs! There were formal interviews in the Parlor, too. But I was invited to their monthly “Laundry Love” event, a new ministry begun by a Life Together intern. The Church pays for the washers and dryers, and the detergent, and people and hefty bags come pouring in!
There is an organized check-in process, and all these lovely volunteers hang around while the machines chug and spin, talking with people, trying to break out of the traditional ‘service’ model of giver and recipient. I saw people in great need, of all nationalities, speaking all different languages. I sat and read a Dr. Seuss book with a little girl with long brown curls. That was it, for me. Discernment done. They had me at the Laundromat.
Can it be that we encounter God in the space between? That fertile, chaotic space between us and those who are “other” in some way? I’m not saying this is an easy space to be in. It’s not easy for Jesus, if we recall the story from Mark, today. Oh, Jesus! He’s not exactly gracious to that Syrophoenecian woman he meets today. He’s probably exhausted, overwhelmed by human need, trying to catch some down time.
And this persistent woman will not leave him alone! Jesus, I hate to say it, is downright rude. Some scholars try to explain it away, say he was testing her. But no, he is horrible. He tries to dismiss her, uses a racial slur, even. Feminist Biblical scholar Letty Russell, writes about this encounter in The Church in the Round. She says “Jesus gets caught with his compassion down!”
There is a part of me that is relieved to see Jesus so utterly human. Grumpy, frazzled, at the end of his rope. We can identify with this state of being, yes?? But Jesus is human here in ways that go deeper than being peevish or inconsiderate. He actually calls her a dog. Our feisty unnamed woman is of a different tribe. A different religion, culture, ethnicity. She is ritually unclean; the other.
Jesus, by virtue of being human, has soaked up all the cultural supremacy and systemic oppression of his social worldview. Just like us, he has internalized the innate prejudices, the racism of his inherited environment. Maybe Jesus is still sorting out who his ministry is FOR. Is he serving only his fellow Jews? What about Gentiles, pagans?
The Presiding Bishop of our Episcopal Church Katherine Jefferts Schori has proclaimed today, September 6, “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism” Sunday. I wonder if she chose the date reading the Gospel for today.
We see Jesus caught in this moment of challenge. We also see this ferocious lion of a Mother, demanding healing for her child. We see Jesus LISTEN to her. And we see Jesus CHANGE. Because in that moment of transformation, the limitless power of God blows through Jesus and says, “no, Beloved, there are no borders or tribes or boundaries to this ministry.”
God yanks Jesus right out of his comfort zone! This healing is for ALL! This love is for everyone. If Jesus can change, can’t we?? There is a dynamic quality to Jesus that I love! We see him wrestle with the demands of his call from God. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he says “Really? Is THIS what I need to do?” Then, like his Mother Mary: ”Let It Be.”
I wonder about the precise geographic location of our Syrophoenician woman. She’s from the ancient Roman province of Syria, probably a Greek speaking Canaanite. A gentile pagan. Trying to compare ancient and contemporary maps, I think it’s safe to say that she comes from an area near to present-day Syria. Perhaps what is now a war zone. Perhaps territory now occupied by ISIS. If we put our ancestral woman pleading for her child in this contemporary context, do we see her plight differently? Do we see Jesus differently?
Can it be that we encounter God in the space between? That fertile, chaotic space between us and those who are “other”? This is not an easy space to be in. It’s not easy for Jesus; it’s very hard for us today. Every day, we see people struggling when we encounter difference. Different cultures, ethnicities, religions. In the news, we see racially charged encounters between citizens and law enforcement. Last week, we re-lived the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which exposed painful realities of segregation and race and systemic oppression in a major US city.
Every day, European leaders are struggling to cope with waves of migrants, refugees fleeing war zones, particularly Iraq and Syria. I’m sure this day there are Syrian mothers just as insistent as our Syrophoenician ancestor; frantic to find healing and sustenance and resources for their children. In boats, overheated vans, trains across the Channel, desperate people are crossing Europe, fleeing bombs and hunger and ISIS.
The European Union’s Asylum policy is being severely tested. 10,000 Icelanders offered their homes on a Facebook page, when their government said they’d take 50. The Budapest train station is a mob scene. A fence is going up on the border between Hungary and Serbia, a crossing point for those traveling overland through the Balkans. A photo of a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on a Turkish beach shocked the world.
All summer, I’ve been reading stories of a new Underground Railroad springing up. There are networks of good people rescuing Yazidi women and girls captured by ISIS, sold for ritualized slavery, brutal systematic rape. There was a Frontline documentary in July about this new incarnation of an underground railroad, called “Escaping ISIS.”
How do we live in this world with such suffering? Seems to me we have to be willing to put ourselves out there. Are we willing to be changed by others’ suffering? I believe we can and do encounter God in the space between. The chaotic space between us and those who are “other.” That space between is the possibility of transformation, for all.
A woman came and bowed down at Jesus’ feet. And begged him to heal her child. Blessed be the space between. Where transformation happens. Amen.