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A Sermon For Pride Sunday: Draw The Circle Wide

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Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still…

                                               

They drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.

 ~Edwin Markham

Mark 7:24-30

And from there (at table in Jerusalem) Jesus arose and went away to the region of Tyre [a group of people often in conflict with or at very least strangers to the Jews]. 

And Jesus entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hidden. Immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Greek (gentile), a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her little daughter. 

And Jesus said to her, “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  

But the woman answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the little dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

And Jesus said to her, “Because of this word go, the demon has left your little daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone.

Sermon: Draw The Circle Wide

Just before where our story for this morning picks up Jesus is at table with his disciples in Jerusalem… after yet another argument with the temple elite and legal experts about what makes something holy, ordinary or unclean… this is a long held debate, in the ancient Jewish tradition and later in our own Christian tradition… what makes something we do sacred, profane or just plain ordinary… The Pharisees Jesus argued with were making a case for their tradition in which it was customary to wash ones hands in a ritual way before sitting down at a meal, they complained that Jesus’ disciples weren’t all following these rules… Jesus didn’t actually take time to argue the merit of the ritual itself… we all know rituals can either be deeply meaningful or they can become meaningless… Jesus pushes the Pharisees to remember why they even participate in these rituals… he says its not about the ritual, its about what’s behind it… is there anything behind it? Any true commitment to God or neighbor in your ritual??

He quotes Isaiah and Moses… reminding them of their common tradition, Judaism. He reminds them that it is not simply about rules that humans make, those rules are only helpful if they point to the commandments that God makes: Love God, love your family, love your neighbor…

Mark’s Jesus is not gentle or polite. He will look you in the eye and tell you what he thinks, and he thinks these folks are misguided… he tells them that God doesn’t care what they put in there bodies… clean or unclean food so much as cares what comes out of their mouths.

When he and the disciples call it a day and are sitting around the table he gets even more graphic. Realizing, with what seems like surprise, that they still don’t understand what he’s saying, he gives them a biology lesson – “Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate? That’s because it doesn’t enter into the heart but into the stomach, and it goes out into the sewer.” (Luke 7:19)

I know, gross right?!

But Jesus wants to be clear: God does not care what you consume; God cares what it is your heart creates. Its what emerges from our hearts that have the potential to lead us far from God, or near to God. What has the potential to defile or waste or destroy us is when a desire emanates from our hearts to hurt another, to do violence, to use our words or power to diminish or destroy, to be unfaithful or greedy or arrogant… this is the true waste that we are capable of, the wasting of our capacity for love and generosity and freedom. 

This feels like a draw the circle wide moment doesn’t it? Jesus insisting that some things trump the rules – or at the very least won’t be contained by them. Jesus insisting that it’s love, not rules that win.

So this the last conversation Jesus has before the encounter we read this morning. Right before he speaks these horrible words to a desperate woman begging for his help, he speaks these words, these wise and brave words to the disciples.

Don’t you find that a bit unsettling? How do we square these two encounters? One in which he seems so clear, so sure about what boundaries, what rules, are truly important (or aren’t) and in the next seems to build a fence around his compassion? You know, I love it when Jesus is bold and I can even handle crass – it gets my attention – but what’s with the cruelty? How can he be so cruel?

Jesus goes by himself to region of Tyre, he finds a friendly home and hopes to stay there for a bit without being seen. The text doesn’t tell us whether he’s come to rest, or pray, or plan. Simply that he didn’t come to do public ministry and yet Mark tells us, immediately, this woman who has heard of him comes along and throws herself at his feet, begging for his healing help.

Every time I read this story I’m brought up short by the way Jesus behaves here. What is he doing?

I’m not a parent with a lot of rules but the big one at my house is, we don’t hurt one another. Not with words or hands or fists or feet. Causing someone pain on purpose Just. Does. Not. Fly. And when Jesus calls this woman a dog I have to admit I recoil, I am angry and sad and shocked… I’m disappointed – this is the beloved child of God, this is the boundary breaking, in your face for justice version of God walking around with human skin on… And not unlike I would respond to my children I have to ask: what are you doing? What are you thinking Jesus?

This seems so out of character for him, why would Jesus harass this poor woman who simply wanted to save her tiny child. Isn’t this exactly who Jesus most often goes around standing up for, poor defenseless women? Outsiders? The powerless and the oppressed?

But here’s the thing… we don’t, any of us, fit so neatly into such categories do we? It would be so much easier if we did. This is why I think we are so quick to make assumptions about one another. It’s just easier than delving into the complexity. It’s simpler to sort ourselves than to allow ourselves to overlap, collide and impact one another.

I have to admit, in most cases I wouldn’t even stop to consider the assumptions I make about the woman in this story except if they are true then it seems Jesus is using (or not using his power) in an incredibly hurtful way, even if he is tired and just wants a break. This is the one to whom I confess… I need to understand. And so Jesus’ behavior gives me cause for pause, to stop and dig a bit deeper into this story… into the complexity of these characters.

 So, first let us understand the geography of where Jesus has arrived… the region of Tyre has an urban center almost entirely filled with gentiles (or Greeks). They are the wealthy class at the center of the region but along the rural borderlands, probably where Jesus was visiting and hoping to remain hidden, there is a large and ethnically diverse community that included Jews, these folks farmed and raised livestock, and were most likely quite poor and would often go hungry in order to supply the urban center’s population with resources. Tensions were likely high between these communities. Urban and rural, Greek and Jews, rich and poor, the power flowed from the center and rarely reached the edges. In some ways it mirrors the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine.

When we read this story, we often make some serious assumptions about the woman that Mark tells us is Greek… from Syria. He says gentile and we read outsider. He tells us she is a woman and we assume poor. He tells us she throws herself at the feet of Jesus and we think powerless.

But it’s more complicated than that. As a gentile woman she is likely from the urban center. Likely she has resources and clout in her community. She is an outsider in this Jewish household, she has crossed a boundary to come to Jesus but in the larger scheme of things it is Jesus who is an outsider in the Region of Tyre.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m trying to simply flip this story, I’m not interested in painting Jesus as a victim here any more than I liked this woman being treated as one. I’m making it complicated because it is complicated. Jesus is a Jew, and even causing trouble within his own Jewish communities.  This will put him at odds with those in political and religious power throughout his entire ministry. But Jesus is also a teacher, a Rabbi, a man deserving respect and a man who has the ability to heal the sick, sometimes, with a simple word.

The fact that Mark doesn’t even give us a name for this woman indicates her value to some extent. Women are so often left unnamed, it makes it easier to dismiss them, which Jesus has all of the power to do. And in her suffering and pain, in her driven desire to do what ever it takes to save her child she makes herself incredibly vulnerable no matter how wealthy she might or not be.

And here’s what I think happens. Jesus sees this woman, and he sees the antithesis of everything he’s preaching. He’s just come from Jerusalem where he’s trying to shift the politics and the economic powers in his community towards justice instead of being a slave to greed, he comes to Tyre to be among his own community, to take refuge in his own people, faithful and hardworking Jews, and this woman who represents yet another powerful system that crushes the folks he loves comes asking him for his help and he calls her a dog.

 A dog. This was not a term used to describe all gentiles; and Jesus has already shown kindness to other gentiles in his ministry. The word dog was used by Jews in this time period to describe those who hounded them, who scavenged from their work and resources, who used their power and strength to take what wasn’t theirs, and to benefit from their loss. Like the dogs who lived off on the edges of their farms and villages, that indiscriminately took what they could without concern about who it impacted.

Jesus called the woman a dog because this is what he saw when he looked at her; he saw a scavenger and an outsider. But in that moment she was more than the categories and assumptions and stories he knows about people from the city of Tyre. She was a fellow human in pain, she was a parent who would do anything to recover her child, she was in deep need and she knew, she knew that Jesus was her answer.

In that moment, in which many of us, if we were met with anger, whether deserved or undeserved, would turn away. In that moment, when most of us, if called names, or treated with cruelty would hide our faces, would give up and walk away, the woman insists. She stands her ground, and I imagine her looking Jesus in the eyes when she asks him to consider the plight of even the little dogsshe has the wit to take him in, to encircle his system, his beliefs, his mission with her own need, and I think Jesus sees her. He suddenly sees her, not her Gentile-ness, not her woman-ness, not her rich or poor or greediness… he sees her humanness. And he hears her pain and it changes him. He changes his mind because of her words. He tells her this himself, “because of your words your little daughter has been healed.”

What’s amazing about this story is that this woman could feel the promise pulsating off of Jesus. She could smell the new life on him and she was willing to wrestle it from him if necessary… I love that Jesus was walking around exuding a story more promising than he even realized… and so are we. We hold a promise bigger than we can imagine, we have good news that’s so big we will never be able to tell the whole story, and we have endless, endless love to spare. Wouldn’t it be amazing if folks didn’t have to throw themselves at our feet and beg to be healed? Cry out to be seen? Wait, and wait and wait to be included?

Our ideas about status and the categories we create that divide us are our own inventions, we do this sometimes to create order, to divide things up so we can attend to them effectively and appropriately… sometimes we develop identities that are a rich celebration of our particular experiences, cultures, ethnicities and familial stories but other times we create or use these categories to diminish and control people… Even Jesus did it, you are not a Jew… you are not a human… you are a dog.

Think about how race and ethnicity have been used as categories to diminish some folks while elevating others. Consider how we misuse male words or female words to describe whether something is strong or weak, whether someone is smart or dumb. And consider how narrow of a story we tell about what constitutes normal or acceptable when it comes to how we define our relationships and our families, when we know, in this community, so many beautiful variations of family?

When I was in seminary I remember reading a theologian who was discussing how we participate in conversations about pluralism and interfaith relationships. And he used an illustration that I’ve always remembered and I think can apply to so many of the ways we categorize ourselves. He suggested that most often we create spectrums… spectrums of belief, spectrums of political or social perspective, spectrums of sexual orientation and personality. Instead of locating ourselves on a long line, he says we might think instead of locating ourselves inside of circles. The smallest circle is personal, it tells your story… mine says I am a woman, a daughter, a mother, a Midwesterner, an American, queer, white etc… but eventually I move outward drawing wider circles to include communities of which I’m a part, to include ways I’m connected to others until I finally arrive at some very large circles, the circle of humanness, the circle of all that is created life…

The categories we create are only helpful if they enliven us and help us to understand one another, to draw closer together and create meaning for ourselves and for all people, just like the rules Jesus argues with the temple leaders, they are only good if used for growing closer to God, not if they are used to divide or diminish us or to exclude one another.

One of the most poignant moments in the lgbtq workshops I’ve been teaching is when one young man, a member of a youth group, listening to the story of how the categories in the lgbtqia family have continued to grow and be defined in order to make sure no one is left out, he raised his hand and said “wouldn’t it be amazing if we all just identified with the category of human being?” Yes. Wouldn’t it?

And so we live in an imperfect world, where part of our story, part of our call is trusting that we hold more promise than we can imagine, enough to continue to draw the circle, wider, and then, wider still.

Words of commissions for Pride Walkers:

Today we walk with openness and in solidarity with LGBTQ folks in particular because no one should stand alone, no one should be drawn outside our circle of love. No matter their orientation, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or straight. And its not just these few that are walking, we carry a sign that says Friendship Presbyterian Church, and this identity belongs to ALL of us. We all walk together today.

Our circle will continue to expand beyond today, we will draw it wider and wider still so that no one is excluded, so that no one stands alone, no matter how rich or poor, how brown or black or white they are, or how old or young they are, no matter what makes their family: One person or two, many children or none, grandchildren or nieces or nephews, we will draw this circle together until we can celebrate the beauty in the diversity of all of our identities and until we can recognize one another first as human beings. Amen.

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Thank You for Naming… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

I am deeply grateful for Larissa Kwong Abazia’s reflection titled: “Thank you for NOT asking.” which she guest posted this week on

grounded in three

grounded in three

Jan Edmiston’s blog, A Church For Starving Artists. She writes of her experiences in the call process, of being asked “inappropriate questions” and of wrestling with how to answer them faithfully. She raises some really good and some really hard questions for those of us who are committed to the ongoing work of justice, inclusion and education in the Church. Here is the issue it raised for me:

 Sexism and gender privilege is real and it is present in all of our interactions, even when good people of God are working to call a great pastor, if we don’t name these issues and the ways in which they manifest then things will not change and we will continue to struggle to find wholeness in the Church.

Just as is the case for those of us who are queer pastors in the Church and know that while the passage of 10A is cause for much celebration and thanksgiving it doesn’t shift the job market, many churches will only consider calling lgbtqia pastors when the hard work of education, hearts changing, and policy writing is done, and this is true for women in ministry as well. We have been training and ordaining women in the PCUSA since 1956 but only 34 percent of our currently ordained clergy folks are female and only one out of five are in what’s considered a pastor/co-pastor type of position, this includes small church solo pastors as well as head of staff position.

I believe our individual experiences with and responses to what Larissa has called “inappropriate questions” are shaped by the intersection of our experiences of privilege and oppression. I also believe that our experience of these questions and how they make us feel are a culmination of many of our experiences over time in similar settings.

When I think back on my own experience in my last search for a call in the PCUSA I am certain that I held a much more positive perspective the first time someone on a PNC asked me why I wasn’t married or how my kids would survive “at home alone while I was at work” (someone was making a lot of assumptions, weren’t they?) if they called me as their pastor. It was much more difficult many months, even a year into the search to respond to questions such as, how old are you? And, who will pick your kids up from school if you’re working? Without taking that to mean that the person asking was assuming that I might be too young or inexperienced for the job or that I am not intelligent enough to organize and make arrangements for the care and well-being of my family while I am at work.

I would suggest that it’s tricky business to say that we should respond to these questions with the assumption that the person has the best of intentions or is looking out for my best interest which is what MaryAnn McKibben Dana offered as one option in her well thought out response at her blog, The Blue Room. Overall my experience with PNC’s and APNC’s are that they are in a tough time of transition, they feel a great deal of pressure to make the right choice on behalf of the whole congregation and while they could most likely use some pastoral care they are often asking questions that revolve around the care and well-being of the congregation not the candidate in front of them. I have even experienced members of a PNC whose questions were obviously motivated by their personal needs and issues as well. Therefore, I would be more likely to assume that these “inappropriate questions” arise from unexamined assumptions about the role of women in the life of a family, internalized gender oppression if the person asking is female and sexist ignorance (however benevolent) if the asker is male. I would not assume they meant harm but that is not the same as assuming they are well-intentioned.

Let’s assume also that these questions are not asked in a mean-spirited way and therefore are an opportunity for some education, deeper understanding and personal growth which in the community where, I am in fact, the called and installed pastor it is absolutely part of my calling to help provide. However, a candidate at a job interview is not in a pastoral position of authority. The majority of the power in the relationship is held by the PNC or APNC. They are in a position to continue the process or not, the PNC has the power to recommend you as a candidate to the congregation or not, the PNC has the power to ask an array of questions ranging from faith and formation to theology to your personal life. How do we, as pastors and candidates respond so that we do not perpetuate attitudes of sexism, how do we provide the right amount of transparency without contributing to an imbalance of power and authority and yet care well for those who are asking the questions? It’s definitely a balancing act!

This raises, for me, a hard question. Why do questions about my ability to care for my children, to manage a family life and career or questions about my orientation, stature, my looks or my gender make me feel small, invisible, or powerless? I’m both funny and intelligent, two things Mary Ann McKibben suggests help her to be a strong leader but I have also had some bad experiences. I have often fielded questions that were meant exactly how I took them, meant to make me feel small and insecure. They were asked out of a place of judgment and skepticism as to my skills and abilities. These experiences leave one raw and worried about future questions and experiences and while those of us who have these experiences can and should do the work of wrestling with them and healing the wounds we should also expect the Church to hear and respond to these experiences. To work to create processes for educating PNC’s and encouraging them to tackle difficult issues of sexism, racism, privilege and oppression as well as insuring professional standards for interview processes.

So how do Church leaders, Executive Directors, Associate Execs, COM and CPM Chairs and COM liaisons take responsibility and take steps to institute education around not only sexism but racism and homophobia as well? How do we, as minister members of presbyteries understand our role in the interview processes that are unfolding in the congregations around us?

Let’s begin by naming it when it happens and then by doing some education around these issues. Let’s listen, and truly hear the stories of those who have had good experiences and those who have had hurtful ones. Let’s hear them and believe them and then take the next step of critical analysis as to how and why these scenarios happen and how the positive ones can be reproduced and the negative ones can be corrected. In the meantime, I agree it’s a good choice and it shows a commitment to having a healthy pastor to ask questions about a pastor’s spiritual care practices, about how she attends to her own spiritual and emotional health and how she will balance her professional and private life. These are questions that can be applied to any candidate, no matter their status, female, male or transgender, no matter their racial/ethnic background, whether they are a parent or non-parent, caregiver or grandparent, single or partnered, straight or queer.

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