Saturday, September 5, 2015

Let Christian Cynics Arise! Reflections on Mark 7.24-37 (6 September 2015)

RCL Proper 23B
6 September 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            At some point during Paula’s studies at Vancouver School of Theology I was asked to preside and preach at Saint Anne’s Steveston.  Because Paula was unable to come with me that Sunday, I had to take all three children with me.  For reasons I cannot now remember there was no church school that Sunday, so the children sat in the front pew by themselves.  They sat in chronological order:  David, Anna and Owen.
            Things went well at first.  They were, for the briefest of moments, poster children for the ‘Aren’t Clergy Kids Cute?’ campaign.  Then the sermon began.  David began tussling with Owen, while Anna, sitting in the middle, acted as if nothing was going on.
            Since I was in the midst of delivering my sermon, I really wasn’t sure what to do.  Should I interrupt my comments and thus draw attention to the children rather than the readings or should I ignore them in the hopes that the congregation wouldn’t notice?  The boys were actually tussling in silence, so I had that in my favour, but I knew that David and Owen realized my dilemma.  They both looked at me and then picked up the pace of their tussle.  Anna just sat there with a look on her face that said, “Boys, harrumph.’
            Just as I was losing the train of my sermon, an elderly woman, whom I knew had grandchildren of her own, leaned forward and gently spoke to the boys.  I don’t know what she said, but their tussle came to an end and they returned to their previous angelic behaviour.
            At the end of service I took the time to thank this woman for her help.  I apologized for the boys’ behaviour.  She just smiled and said, ‘Oh, that’s alright.  I like children who have a bit of spunk!’
            A bit of spunk is what we get in today’s gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with a non-Jewish woman of Syro-Phoenician birth.  Jesus, full of his sense of vocation to the Jewish people, comes face to face with a woman who is not prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer.  She will not conform to the social and cultural mores that restrict, even obstruct, her access to this miracle-working rabbi from Galilee.
            Some interpreters of the New Testament suggest that her persistence and her challenge to conventional ways of behaving resemble the approach taken by a Greco-Roman philosophical movement known as Cynicism.  These ‘Cynics’, as the followers of this movement were known, were committed to a life-long search for virtue and for the truth.  In pursuing this search the Cynics were not prepared to put up with conventional wisdom or behaviour or polite ways of speaking.  They asked embarrassing questions of those who were in power and they did not care much about what ‘other people’, ‘nice people’, ‘normal people’ thought about the Cynics themselves and their sometimes eccentric ways of behaviour.
            Over the last two thousand years the word ‘cynic’ has taken on a different connotation for us.  Nowadays we call someone a cynic when he or she looks for an ulterior motive behind a good deed.  We sometimes equate cynicism with hypocrisy when someone acts contrary to the rhetoric they use.  I don’t envy Prime Minister Harper right now in the light of the Syrian refugee crisis.  If he takes dramatic action, particularly in the midst of an election campaign, then he surely risks an accusation of ‘cynical’ motives rather than praise for steering a new course.
            But in today’s gospel reading, we have a wonderful example of a Cynic in the classical meaning of the word.  I love this story.  Jesus is doing all the right things and gaining a growing number of followers.  People are impressed by what he is doing and some folks even invite him and his disciples into their homes.  Then along comes this foreigner, this woman, who dares, on Jesus’ campaign trail so to speak, to ask Jesus to heal her child, a foreign child, a girl child.  He insults the woman, using words that really stung in the context of first-century Palestine.  Dogs were not nearly so well loved in those days as they are today.
            But this wonderful Cynical woman turns the tables on Jesus.  She uses his insult as the springboard for her challenge to him to do what is surely God’s will --- the healing of a child who has no other helper.  This woman is the only person in the whole Gospel of Mark who gets the better of Jesus in an argument.  She seeks virtuous action; she seeks the truth; she will not be thwarted by the standards of the social and cultural status quo.
            Friends, we need more Cynics in the classical meaning of the word.  We need more people who are so committed to justice, to compassion and to generosity that they will not be afraid to challenge the social and cultural status quo of our own time.  I dare say that it is the vocation of all Christians in Canada today to be as persistent, as witty, as courageous as this woman who dared to confront Jesus and to remind him that his ministry could not be confined to the geographical boundaries of Palestine.  I wish we knew her name so that we could celebrate a feast day for her in the liturgical calendar.
            I have no illusions about how difficult it is for an institution such as the Church to regain the spirit that moved within us when we were only a messianic movement within the Judaism of Jesus’ day.  But I pray that we can regain it and that we can again dare to challenge ‘conventional’ wisdoms that enthrall us and those to whom we are called to be the presence of Christ.

            No doubt we will be criticized for colouring outside the lines and for dabbling in affairs that some people think are best left to those who are ‘in the know’.  But I hope that there is still enough life left within this two-thousand-year-old community.  What I’ve learned from the story of a woman who lived two thousand years ago and from a grandmother whom I met twenty years ago is this:  I do love it when those who love God show that they have a little spunk in them.

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