Sermon: Sunday, September 6, 2009: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7a  •  Psalm 146  •  James 2:1-17  •  Mark 7:24-37


At the Venice Film Festival this evening, American film director Michael Moore will be premiering his new move, Capitalism: A Love Story. Any of you who have followed Mr. Moore’s career know that he’s a documentarian with an agenda. His first movie, Roger & Me, came out twenty years ago and examined the effect of globalization on workers in his hometown of Flint, Michigan after General Motors decided to close its factories there and move them to Mexico, where the labor costs are cheaper. His subsequent films have all contained both heavy criticism of American culture and unabashed love for hardworking American people. He has frequently been attacked in the press by people who find his criticisms of American industry unpatriotic – which doesn’t bother him a bit. He seems to think the way American industry treats American people is a more pressing concern, and I’d have to agree.

But naming a movie Capitalism: A Love Story, that’s really pushing it. The title alone suggests that Mr. Moore intends to go after one of America’s bedrock philosophies. Children in the U.S. are raised on the notion that capitalism and democracy are inseparable (though they’re not), and that both are responsible for making the United States the best country in the world (though I don’t understand how you evaluate that kind of claim). Of the film, Michael Moore says, “It’s a crime story. But it’s also a war story about class warfare. And a vampire movie, with the upper one percent feeding off the rest of us. And, of course, it’s also a love story…”

You see what I mean, he’s a provocateur. He’s got a mouth on him, that one. No respect for authority. He reminds me a little bit of the Syrophoenician woman.

The Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorite characters in all of biblical literature. Like far too many women in the Bible, we don’t know her name. This, as an aside, always irritates me. Men of weak character, men who are minor characters in other stories, still somehow seem to get named a far greater proportion of the time than the women. We know that the synagogue official who came to Jesus two chapters ago begging for his daughter to be healed was named Jairus – but when the Syrophoenician woman comes to do the same thing, she remains nameless. Something’s just not right with that.

Scripture may not have remembered her name, but it’s never been able to forget her words. This woman comes before Jesus, a man with the power to give life to her child, and he tells her, “let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

This is one of the more confusing and offensive of Jesus’ sayings. Biblical scholars are never quite sure what to make of it. Some have suggested that what sounds horribly offensive to us (did he just call that woman a dog, a female dog?), may have been a common saying – like the Proverbs we’ve begun to study this month during the adult education hour. We say things like “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” all the time and people understand that we’re not really arguing against self-mutilation. So, it’s hard to say just what these words of Jesus meant to the people who heard him two thousand years ago. Maybe people were shocked by his insulting metaphor, or maybe they all nodded their heads at the wisdom of this commonplace saying.

Either way, he was speaking metaphorically. He was saying “charity begins at home” or “take care of your own people before tending to the needs of others.” That’s harder to argue with. It seems like practical advice, like the flight attendants who remind us in the event of an emergency to secure the oxygen masks over our own heads before attempting to help those around us.

But, practical as it may be, it wasn’t going to help the Syrophoenician woman get what her daughter needed. So, like a certain filmmaker of our time, she attacks conventional wisdom and the societal structures behind it with humor and wit. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” The woman matches Jesus, pulling his words apart to reveal the violence hidden within them.

“Sir, even the dogs…” she begins. “Even the dogs. Am I really a dog to you,” she asks. “Do you hear how insulting your little bit of wisdom is to me? But, even if I am, as a woman, as a Gentile, even if I am – well, even the dogs…

“under the table…” she continues. “Under the table. This is how your society has ordered itself, so that some people get to eat at the table, and some people have to eat under it. You’ve compared me to the dog who sits at your feet under the table, waiting for whatever happens to fall to the ground. If that’s the way your culture treats people, human beings, then maybe I’m not so impressed with the cute little sayings that come out of your wisdom tradition. Maybe you’re not as wise as you think.”

“eat the children’s crumbs,” she finishes. “Eat the children’s crumbs. I came here to you because my child has an unclean spirit, a demon that needs to be cast out of her, and you want to talk to me about the castaway crumbs your children don’t need? The leftovers from your family meal? I’m fighting for my child’s life, and you’re talking about your children’s full bellies? Now I have to wonder, Jesus of Nazareth, just whose children are in more trouble. Mine, because her body is sick; or yours, because their whole way of looking at people is sick?”

And the words hang there between the two, Jesus and this woman with no name for us to remember.

Is it possible that our whole way of looking at people is sick? Do we assume that because our culture is a certain way that this is the best way? Do we think the way things are today are the way things have always been, or that we belong to a society where things are always somehow always getting better? Naturally improving on our way to perfection without struggle or conflict?

The General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan were products of the industrial revolution – a true revolution, not only in production but also in human labor. Prior to the advent of mass productio
n and the conveyor belt it brought to workers around the world, people had to know a trade. They didn’t make and assemble parts, they made a thing from beginning to end. Cabinet makers, watch makers, and so on. They could take pride in their craft and they could build a name for themselves based on how skilled they were in producing things of usefulness and beauty.

After the dawn of the assembly line, human beings became “labor.” They didn’t have a craft to offer, a gift to give, other than the time they could be persuaded to sell to their employers as labor. In Germantown, Pennsylvania – now a neighborhood of Philadelphia just down the street from the Lutheran seminary – an industrialist name Frederick Taylor developed a system of “scientific management” of labor that broke work down into concretely measurable units that could be used to “maximize output.” He was respected by the leaders of industry because he helped them make money. He considered any rest during the workday, beyond whatever bare minimum the human body require to keep working at maximum efficiency, to be a waste. He helped industry figure out how to wring the most work out of human beings for the least amount of money for the maximum output for the sake of profits those workers would not share in. A far cry from the laborer who knew a craft backwards and forwards, who could take pride in their work.

And this mode of production rapidly became the standard. Once one industry adopted it, others had to follow or be left behind. It was a new world, one that exploded onto our culture with no time to ask if this was ultimately going to lift people up, or crush them to the ground. Under the table.

As the new reality took hold and workers saw how different their lives were from those of their parents, they began to organize. They banded together to demand a day off for rest, a living wage, and – in our time – we hear the workers of our nation demanding access to affordable, quality health insurance. Each time they have organized they have had to face the voice of the culture’s “conventional wisdom” telling them that their very human concerns were secondary to the needs of the owning class. That shareholder profits were more important than workers’ basic needs. But the labor movement, which is what we celebrate on Labor Day weekend (not simply a day off work), has fought back – arguing from the weaker position, from under the table, that the terms and categories we use for thinking about our work, our labor, are insufficient at best and insulting at worst. Working people are not dogs who should be content to accept whatever scraps fall off the table after the privileged class has eaten their fill.

Is it possible that our whole way of looking at people is sick? How have we ended up in a place where we’re actually debating whether or not people should have access to quality, affordable healthcare? How is it that we continue to watch the gap between the highest paid person in a company and the lowest paid person in a company widens year after year, so that it is now actually the case that Illinois congresswoman Rep. Jan Shakowsky is supporting legislation that would limit federal tax breaks for companies whose CEO make more than one hundred times what their lowest paid worker – which is counted as progress since the average CEO, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, now makes more than three hundred times what their lowest paid worker does. Is it possible that our whole way of looking at people is sick?

Jesus is shaken, is awakened, by the Syrophoenician woman’s arguments. She, a Gentile, has engaged in a great wrestling with God – not unlike Jacob wrestling with the angel at the banks of the river Jabbok – refusing to let go until she is blessed. God is moved by her passionate love for her daughter and Jesus realizes that his mission of healing and reconciliation is, indeed, for God’s children – but, that all people are God’s children.

And here’s the point I think Christians miss too often. We are the spiritual descendents of this Syrophoenician woman. We are the Gentiles who have been brought into God’s family, the body of Christ, through baptism. If it had not been for the wit and alternative wisdom of that nameless woman, who knows where we would be? But praise God for the voice that rose up in her, that rises up in movements for human dignity like the labor movement, that rises up in me and in you when we look at the world and wonder if, in fact, our whole way of looking at people is sick, and demands that things must change! Praise God for voices that refuse to be silent in the face of power, even when that power looks divinely ordered, as Jesus must have appeared to the Syrophoenician woman, as the invisible market forces and ingrained cultural deference to capitalism, consumerism and personal profit appear to so many of us.

Norma Rae All of which reminds me of another movie. A movie about a woman regarded by most of the men around her as a nuisance, but who listens to the voice rising up within her telling her that the inhuman working conditions that characterize her life and the lives of the people in her community have to change. You know the movie, right? Sally Field won her Oscar for this one, with its climactic scene where she finally shuts down her machine and climbs on top of it holding the sign above her head that simply says, “UNION.” A beautiful word that means, joined together, inseparable, and in the language of grace, the language of God, means everybody in, nobody out. The woman in the movie was named Norma Rae. The woman in real life behind that character was named Crystal Lee Sutton. Names to be remembered.

So, we come close to the end of this story. Jesus heals the nameless woman’s daughter and appears to be changed himself. He returns from the region of Tyre by way of Sidon toward the Sea of Galilee, back to the land of his own people. After his encounter with a Gentile woman who had no problem hearing what he was saying to her and speaking her mind, Jesus next runs into one of his own countrymen this one deaf, and unable to speak. The contrast couldn’t be sharper, and the metaphor isn’t lost on any of us. Her implied accusation rings in all our ears, “now I have to wonder, Jesus of Nazareth, just whose children are in more trouble? Mine, because her body is sick; or yours, because their whole way of looking at people is sick?”

Jesus heals his countryman and says to him, “be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened and his tongue was released. Jesus tells them to keep this a secret, but the scriptures say the more he insisted, the more zealously they told the story. Those who saw this miracle were astounded, saying “he has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” But in this he is really practicing what the Syrophoenician woman taught him how to do, to open his ears to the cries of people calling out for change and to speak up, to speak out, to say something.

“Be opened,” Jesus says, and now we have to wonder who he is talking to. Is it possible that our whole way of looking at people is sick? What would we have to be open to if we put people first, and made the necessary changes to provide the healing that is necessary for our bodies, our communities, our culture and, in fact, the whole world? What wisdom would we ha
ve to entertain, what unlikely sources might bring it to us? Listen for the voices of the nameless people calling out for change. Be opened.


For more on Interfaith Worker Justice’s “Labor in the Pulpits / on the Bimah / in the Minbar” program, click here.

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