September 9, What did you say

What did you say?

Mark 7:24-37

In his opening editorial in last week’s Christian Century magazine, publisher Peter Marty writes about the use of language, particularly “insider” language. (Christian Century 8/29/18, p.3)

The piece was titled “Tired church jargon,” but when I first read the title, I thought it said, “Tired of church jargon,” but that wasn’t it. The title was “Tired church jargon,” although I suppose both could be true: the jargon could be tired (or tiresome) and we could be tired of it.

Anyway, he mentions that every field has its own buzzwords and insider phrases. “Educators,” he writes, “may speak of instructional scaffolding, flipped classrooms, and self-blended learning. Business people talk about deliverables, synergistic game changers, and moving the needle.”

Then he points out some of the current “insider” language or jargon that shows up in church circles – phrases like “the missional church” and “the radical in-breaking of God.”

About the “missional church,” he says, “God’s mission in remaking the world is a lovely idea, but adding a couple of extra letters to make a straightforward reality sound sophisticated doesn’t work.” About the “inbreaking” jargon, he writes, “Who knows what (radical inbreaking) is supposed to mean, except it sounds an awful lot like what thieves do to a jewelry store in the middle of the night.”

He continues with his critique of insider language, adding to his list of church jargon several other phrases, including the following: “intentional discernment” and “a God-thing” and “fellowshipping.”

As I read his critique of church jargon, I was relieved to note that I don’t use any of those particular phrases, but I admit that I did cringe a little as I tried to think about what phrases I do use that would qualify as church jargon – the insider language that everyone tends to use in their own circles.

Does a phrase like “church family” or even the word “community” qualify as church jargon? As insider language? Are there particular “Brethren” catch phrases or words that we throw out, assuming everyone will know what we are talking about? Perhaps things like, “Continuing the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, together” or “Another way of living,” or the very latest thing, “Compelling Vision.”  

Or how about the places where denominational jargon gives way to the jargon of our local congregation? How about this: What’s a love feast or a fellowship meal and what’s the difference? Camp Mack Sunday? We just had it, but if you missed it, do you have any idea what you missed? What’s an Ecclesia choir or a Koinonia class or a Peace Patch? And what’s a narthex or a chancel or a vestibule? Better know which is which if you’re supposed to show up there!

We may not prattle on about missional church identity or the radical in-breaking of God – maybe we’re just not that up-to-date with the language of cultural Christianity, particularly the language of evangelical Christianity – but we have our own insider stuff. How about “servant leadership” or “peace and justice” or “sister church”?

Sometimes language is the on-ramp to getting on a particular highway so you can join others who are traveling in the same direction – learning the language is your ticket at the toll booth. But sometimes the insider language is more of a barbed-wire fence, or a ten-foot wall, or a long, long stretch of no-man’s land. Sometimes you just don’t know what something means and the not knowing marks you as an outsider, or even worse, causes you to cross the boundary at the wrong place or in the wrong way. Look out then! The insiders will not only exclude you; they may well punish you.

In Indiana, there was recently a law passed that you no longer have to post no-trespassing signs if you want to keep people off your property. Now you can just use purple paint to indicate no trespassing. Just paint a tree with purple paint, with the bottom of the mark at least three feet and no higher than five feet off the ground, a vertical line that is at least eight inches in length and no farther than 100 feet from the nearest other marked tree. You can do it on a post too, with a few different instructions. The law went into effect July 1.

But did you know about this? Or is it more likely that you would go wandering by the purple mark thinking to yourself, “Huh, that’s interesting. A tree painted purple. Wonder who did that? Oh well, I do like purple!”

It could happen because purple paint doesn’t mean the same thing to you that it means to the person who put it there. Vigilant property owners, persons obsessed with privacy, deer hunters, state legislators, news reporters – they might know, because they are insiders when it comes to trespass and property issues, but would you know? Well everybody knows purple means no trespassing. They’ve been doing it out west for years! Ok, well, I’m not from “out west,” I’m from “back east” (or as you Indiana-insiders like to say, “out east”)

The matter of insiders and outsiders and who not gets included or excluded is not only a matter of identity – although it begins with that. It’s also a matter of language and understanding. Do you know the secret pass word? Do you have the jargon down? Do you speak with the right accent? Are you one of the natives? Part of the tribe?

In the first part of this morning’s scripture, sometimes what is highlighted is Jesus’ initial rejection of the Syrophoenician woman. She asks for healing; he essentially calls her a dog. Maybe it’s that simple, or maybe it’s not, but what is clear is that there is this insider/outsider dynamic at work.

Jesus is visiting a region that is outside his home area. The region of Tyre is in the Syrophoenician area. It’s outside of Jewish territory. I’m not saying that there were posts marked with purple paint on the boundary between Galilee and Tyre, because both were under Roman rule, and so they were both territories of the Roman Empire. But they were different territories with different tribes. And the people didn’t mix. Maybe they had in common a hatred for their Roman occupiers, but it’s hard to imagine that there was any love lost between the Jews and Syrophoenicians.

Is that why, at the beginning of this morning’s scripture passage, as Jesus enters a house there, he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there? Or maybe is it a matter of him wanting a little privacy, a little relief from the healing tasks and the questioning and the crowds?

In any case, he can’t escape notice and the native woman comes to ask him for healing for her daughter. She begs him in fact. Jesus says 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.”

Now mind you, she isn’t a Gentile coming into a Jewish house in a Jewish city in Jewish territory asking a Jewish rabbi for a favor. She’s in her own town, on her own turf, asking a favor of a visitor. And yet Jesus speaks as though he’s on his own turf. Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

At that moment, in the region of Tyre, in a Gentile house, being approached by a Gentile woman, he is the outsider. But he speaks as the insider – almost as if, wherever he goes, is now Jewish territory and he’s there to meet Jewish needs.

But listen! He’s in the region of Tyre! There are no Jewish mothers lined up outside the door waiting for healing miracles for their little Jewish children! There are no little Jewish tykes standing in the courtyard hoping for a piece of bread from this Rabbi Jesus!

So, what is he talking about when he says “Let the children be fed first”? It can’t be about resources or about the situation of the moment. It has to be about insiders and outsiders. It has to be about access to healing and compassion. It has to be about rejection of the foreigner.

And this creates quite a problem for us, because we who are such devoted and diligent Jesus-followers, believe that we are following a Jesus who welcomes the child and receives the stranger and respects the foreigner and even loves the enemy! After all, at various other times, he – Jesus himself – has lifted up or spoken about or acted out these values. But here, he seems to have put up a big stripe of purple paint: no trespassing.

The woman – and you’ve got to admire her, right, for her quick-tongued, clever and yet determined response – says to him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

She doesn’t say, “What are you talking about? What is this thing about children being fed first and not throwing food to the dogs? What kind of talk is that? What kind of insider talk is that? What kind of jargon is that?”

No, she says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And somehow…somehow…what she says is the key that unlocks his compassion. Because he immediately replies, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

He doesn’t say, “Well, on second thought, maybe I can make an exception,” or “Let me think about it; I’ll get back to you.” No, right away he says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” So, it’s her words that matter. It’s what she says: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” That’s got to be the key.

So, that’s the thing I’ve been carrying around with me this week – that sentence, those words from the woman with the request, the mother with the demon-possessed daughter: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I’ve been carrying that around because somehow that’s the kind of language that breaks through the jargon, that moves past the insider/outsider dynamic, that washes away the purple paint.

We usually focus on what Jesus says. But this week, clearly, we need to focus on what Jesus hears: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

So, what did she say? What did those words mean? That it’s okay to label some children and others dogs, so long as all get fed?

What did she say? That there are crumbs enough to go around – there’s always enough to go around?

What did she say? That Jesus, with his children and dogs comment, is being too clever by half, and he needs to stop including some and excluding others and accept that healing is a gift deserved by all?

What did she say? That all humans are humans, all humans are created in God’s image, and all humans, of all tribes, in all times and all places, are humans worthy of God’s compassion and mercy?

What did she say? She said “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

And maybe she meant all of that: that labels aren’t going to set the limits; say what you will if you have to use the labels, but make sure all get fed, because there’s always enough to go around. And maybe she also meant that Jesus, with his children and dogs comment, is being too clever by half, and he needs to stop including some and excluding others and accept that healing is a gift deserved by all, because at the end of the day, all humans are humans, all humans are created in God’s image, and all humans -- of all tribes, in all times and all places -- are humans worthy of God’s compassion and mercy.

Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

In the same Christian Century issue that I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, there was also an article about an African asylum seeker being offered refuge on an Israeli kibbutz. “I feel better, like I can breathe,” said Rowha Dabrazion, a single woman from Eritrea with two small daughters, as she sat in the living room of Yael Eisner, a kibbutz member who, along with her husband, volunteered to host Dabrazion and her children.

The article continued, “While Dabrazion talked about her life as an asylum seeker in Israel – she crossed the Sinai desert, partially on foot, to get here seven years ago – and recounted some harrowing moments in Eritrea that led her to seek asylum, her younger daughter fidgeted in her lap. “Come to savta,” Eisner said, using the Hebrew word for grandmother and sweeping the little girl into her arms. She took the girls to visit the kibbutz cowshed.”

“So far,” the article reported, “12 asylum seeking families have been placed on kibbutzim; the goal is that 100 families will be hosted by the end of the year. The grassroots initiative was undertaken by individual members within the national kibbutz movement. They were first mobilized to help refugees in Israel early this year, amid outrage at government plans for a mass expulsion of asylum seekers, whom officials referred to as “infiltrators.” (8/29/18, p.15)

“Infiltrators?” That’s an interesting word. It sounds a bit like “dogs” doesn’t it? But when Eisner hears her government use the word “infiltrators,” she responds by not only taking in the family of asylum seekers, these foreigners, these people of another “tribe” so to speak…she invites the littlest girl to call her savta – grandmother. And that kind of language shift, shifts everything else as well.

Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Let us listen to what those who cross boundaries by flying on the wings of new words, have to say. Let us listen to grandmothers who take little girls to see the cows in the cowshed. Let us listen to mothers who want a gift of healing from an itinerant Rabbi. Let us listen to what they are asking for: compassion, respect, relief, healing; an opening of the boundary, a lowering of the wall, a path across the desert.

Let us listen just as Jesus finally listened, and respond in kind – not only with crumbs, but with kindness.



Benediction: This week, this shift: not dogs, but children; not infiltrators, but grandmothers and grandchildren; not purple paint, but open arms – Jesus listens and responds; we listen and respond. Amen.


Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

September 9, 2018