September 9, 2012
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.
When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,
Could a Plain Belly get in the game? Not at all.
You only could play if your bellies had stars
And the Plain-Belly children had none upon thars.
When the Star Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts
Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches
They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.
(The Sneetches and Other Stories pp. 3-7, by Dr. Seuss)
How can we not love Dr. Seuss? He tells it like it is and makes us laugh at our ridiculous ways. Stars on their bellies? No stars? That is just silly! Of course, we would NEVER draw lines like that! Would we? How many lines do we draw every day – skin color, income level, education, political party, gender, sexual orientation…there are more than we can name in one sermon, but we do it all the time in obvious ways and in ways that are very subtle. What is it about human nature that wants to create distinctions and judge some to be better than others?
We know that God loves us and doesn’t rank us by education, skin color, notoriety, or some other measure like that. That makes the gospel reading this morning VERY confusing. What has happened to Jesus? Is it compassion fatigue? Is he tired of being stalked by people who want something from him? Does he really believe that he isn’t called to serve the Gentiles? Did he just call this woman a dog? This is not the Jesus we talk about – the one who was loving and compassionate and who consistently reached out to those who had been cast off by society. At that time, it was believed that if you had any kind of affliction, it was the result of sin. It wasn’t enough to be blind or deaf, it meant being cast out of the community. This social shunning was terrible because it completely isolated people with no hope of reconciliation. When Jesus healed people, it also had the effect of restoring them to the community, which added a powerful dimension to their healing.
We don’t know why Jesus called the woman a dog and refused to respond to her plea. But we do know this: the wall he built wasn’t the last word. The woman was persistent because her daughter needed help and she knew that Jesus was the only one who could heal her. It’s funny that this woman from outside Jesus’ community believed in him more than people within his community. She wasn’t giving up. She points out that even crumbs are more than she has now.
Something happens in that moment. Perhaps Jesus in his fatigue is just saying, “Forget it. Your daughter is healed.” Or maybe, just maybe, he is saying, “I see you. Before I wrote you off as one of those people, but now I see you and you are a beloved child of God.” Here is the rest of it as I imagine it, “I blew it. I am sorry.” So, here we have this man that we worship – fully human and fully divine – does that mean perfect? Here we see him changing his mind. He loses an argument with grace. That may not be on our list of top ten reasons we follow Jesus, but you might want to reconsider your list.
After I finished seminary, I did a 34-week Bible study called Disciple with Jim Fowler facilitating. Some of you know Jim as the great theologian who came up with Stages of Faith, a developmental model of faith based on the work of Piaget and Kohlberg. Disciple covers 80% of the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, there are many less than flattering stories and images of God. At some point, our group questioned this God portrayed in the Old Testament. Jim replied that God was learning to be God. That gave us all some peace. After all, this human being thing was new and it didn’t always go as God planned. There were many plan b, c, d, and e’s.
That came to me as I thought about Jesus at the table with this bold woman. She didn’t give up and he had to re-think what he said and perhaps what he believed. That makes sense to me. Jesus was learning how to be Jesus too and he’s had many instances that haven’t gone as planned either. Mark tells us that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. We all know the frustration of having our plans interrupted and the tendency to dismiss the interruption rather than engage it. As Loye Bradley Ashton said, “Mark is showing us that the incarnation is not a cakewalk.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 48)
I love this woman’s dogged determination. She wrestled and would not turn loose until Jesus blessed her. It is a powerful reminder that faith is lively, vigorous, and does not give up easily. Jesus may have put the woman in her place, but she won’t stay there. It brings to mind the civil rights movement, any civil rights movement for that matter, where people know that they were not created to be oppressed, put down, or less than anyone else. Maya Angelou’s poem says, “still I rise.”
“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.”
(from And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou)
The human spirit is resilient and strong. We see this over and over again in people. I saw it in Ellen Novak. I had been in to see her some weeks ago when she was on the ventilator. I walked into her room a few days later to find her sitting up in her chair eating breakfast and smiling. I was blown away by the change in her. I asked her what she wanted me to tell people. She said, “Tell them I’m a scrapper.” Ellen was scrappy and she inspired us with her spirit. Let me tell you something else I know about Ellen. She was created in the image of God, as are you and I. We too, have been given a spirit to struggle when needed, to ask hard questions, and to persevere. It is there as a gift and when we step into the fullness of that, we will be amazed at the courage and beauty inside us.
Another person who has this spirit is Bishop Gene Robinson. I went to Santa Fe last night to see Love Free or Die – a movie about his experience as a gay bishop. He was there and talked with us afterward about his experience. Two things strike me every time I hear him speak. One is his determination to stay in the conversation and claim his place at the table. He said he has always known that he is God’s beloved son and no one can take that away. Another way his spirit shows is in his gracious response to those who have excluded and hurt him. He continues to pour love on all people.
This same spirit is given to us to face whatever obstacles come our way – physical illness or limitations, loss of employment, the tragic death of someone we love, being excluded from a table that is intended for all – anything that leaves us desperate for a life raft. But here is something else about the spirit we are given – it is not given for us alone. Notice that the woman asks for healing for her daughter not herself. In the story that follows, friends of a deaf man bring him to Jesus for healing. We are in this together. Our faith is not for us alone. It is for the building up of the community. It is why we are launching “Who is My Neighbor?” We have a beautiful community of faith at St. Michael’s. I am so grateful to be part of this place. But the love and compassion we experience are not intended for us alone. They call us beyond ourselves to the place where there is hurt and need and isolation. Even Jesus had to be reminded that he existed for those outside his circle. His encounter with this woman opens him to a ministry of compassion for anyone.
Our call is to see God in each person we meet. And when we fail to do so, to look again until we do see the person in front of us through the lens of God’s love rather than our own distinctions.
I’m quite happy to say.
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.
(The Sneetches and Other Stories p. 24, by Dr. Seuss)
In the gospel lesson this morning, Jesus invites us to live fully into God’s welcome and when we don’t, to begin again. This is a journey we are on and we continue to take it one step at a time. We mess up and begin again, but always out in front of us, is Love beckoning us onward.