Toorak Uniting Church

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It takes Courage to Become Well

Mark 7: 24 – 37
Pentecost 15
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
9 September 2012

At the end of the Woody Allen film Annie Hall, the main character, Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, comes out of character and speaks to the camera. He tells a story that goes something like this. A man goes to a psychiatrist and tells him that his brother is neurotic and believes he is a hen. He clucks during the day and makes nests in the corner of the room each night. The psychiatrist listens carefully to the man, is silent for a while and says, "Umm, I know his condition and I can cure him. Bring him to my office this Friday afternoon." The man looks at the psychiatrist and says, "Doc, would you mind if we bring him in on Monday? You see, we need the eggs for the weekend."

Strange as it may seem, whatever ails us, whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual, does bring us benefits, it produces eggs in our lives that are not always easy to give up. Even if we know we will have a bigger and better life without that which limits and suppresses us, we keep doing the same things over and over again. It takes a lot of courage to become well.

The Healing Stories of Jesus
The culture in which Jesus lived had a structure and a process by which a person could be deemed as "well" or "whole." I read Glennis Johnston’s sermon on the Toorak Uniting Church website this week and was interested how she focused on the ancient notion of purity and the purity codes. The idea in the ancient world was that God was pure, perfect and undefiled and therefore we, humanity, must go through a process of being made clean so that we can approach the image of a perfect God. Even some of our views of the atonement, the death of Jesus, are framed in the language of purity. Jesus was the perfect unblemished sacrifice that could be offered to a God who demanded perfection and purity on our behalf. I think that is an unhelpful image of the divine which, like many other theological ideas, is best left behind.

That’s where the healing stories of Jesus come in, and the passage read earlier. Jesus was not a great fan of the purity codes or the perfect notion of God. He saw those ideas as religious impositions placed upon people for the benefit of the religious hierarchy. Crudely put, they kept the unkempt masses in their place, which was of course at the bottom of the religious structure. As my friend Fr Peter Kennedy of Brisbane is fond of saying in a contemporary context, "The role for church people is to pray, pay and obey!"

The Gospel writers shaped a different world view, certainly a more radical and religiously subversive one. God didn’t need perfection, as the story of the waiting father and prodigal son illustrated. It was forgiveness and love that defined the Jesus model. God didn’t need be protected from the wrongs and evils practised by human beings, but could actually live with grace among them. And Jesus became the model of that dangerous acceptance of all people without fear or favour.

That’s the kind of transformation that is narrated in the story of the Syro- Phoenician woman in Mark’s gospel read earlier. Now remember, one must read this as a parable, as a teaching device. Not just as an encounter between Jesus and this woman. The early community honoured this story because it shaped and formed them as a community. And it is a strong and challenging story. They're the best kind of course:

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

The city of Tyre is in Jordan north of what is today Israel. The national boundaries, as we know, change with the winds of time and the instruments of war. In this story Jesus wants his presence to be kept quiet, as he does in other stories… Why? I suppose itinerant preachers and healers were in high demand in those days. But a woman who is not of the "tribe" comes to him. How often are we confronted with Jesus welcoming those who "don’t belong". It only takes a superficial reading of the gospel and even the writings of St Paul to see that this burgeoning faith of the followers of Jesus was inclusive of every race, tribe, nation, gender, religion, ethnicity and human proclivity.

So a woman who was born in the Syrian-Phoenician part of the Roman Empire approaches Jesus to have an unclean spirit cast out of her daughter. In the ancient world the words demon and unclean spirit were interchangeable. Unfortunately for us, we have been exposed to a diet of demons and devils from the imaginations of authors or movie-makers for the last several centuries. And while Dante’s Divine Comedy is a literary and spiritual masterpiece, it has given us an unhelpful demonology. An unclean spirit is that which separates from the clean spirit and of course the community and God, because God is perfect and cannot commune with that which is unclean; or, so the view of the day goes, cannot associate with that which is impure...

The Jesus for All and the Other
The author of Mark's gospel introduces the reader or the listener to a bit of orthodox theology of the day:

"First", said Jesus, "let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs."

Umm, that’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? Let the children of Israel, the offspring of Abraham, be made whole before anyone else can sit at God’s welcoming table. But it’s a set-up. Does she have the courage to confront Jesus and challenge him on this theological principle? A principle that Jesus himself does not live by? She replies:

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

I know I often mention my time as a student in Toronto. It probably shows what a significant impact it had on me. But I recall a quote in a book I was reading that said something like, "The dullest student in the class can challenge the brightest teacher, because truth is no respecter of person, position or professor".

How dare she challenge and even contradict both the acquired theology of the day and a respected teacher? The other interesting point is that the author tells a story in which Jesus recants and changes his stance:

Then Jesus said to her, "For such a reply, you may go; your daughter has been made well". She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the unclean spirit had gone.

It takes Courage to Become Well
Like the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment in the crowd, this woman had courage, so that her daughter would be made well. In both those stories it was the removal of what was seen by the religious establishment and society as unclean that was central to the healing.

Over the many years of my ministry I have prayed in gatherings and with individuals for healing. Sometimes it is the overwhelming desire to be cured of the disease or ailment that is afflicting them; sometimes it is prayer for resilience or courage to face the struggle before them. And while there have been those who are fearful of death and desperate to lengthen their lives, most people, whatever the length of their lives, want to have a full, well and whole life.

Strange as it may sound, illness and disease and even being ostracised from society can, when there is the courage to face it, be the gift that leads to wholeness. Let’s be clear about one thing: when you are down, when you are feeling unclean, defiled or impure, the God of Jesus of Nazareth is a God who knows how to get down and get dirty with you.

It takes courage to let go of the desire to be cured and embrace the need to be whole.

That’s what Jesus has given us. The sense that God is with us and for us and that our imperfections and impurities are not what separates us from the life-giving force of God, but what engages us with the life-giving and creative forces of God.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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