Michael Jackson I am not, but I gave it a shot for sure at the Dancing for a Cause event on Saturday night. There we stood, in our costumes. One was dressed as the Joker from Batman. Another was dressed as a jazz artist. Another was dressed, well, he had on six-inch platform boots with a bright blue sequined shirt. We were all so nervous, waiting our turns.
Then, the professional dance group came in: Royal Flush. They were great, all decked out with hip hop outfits: tank tops and tennis shoes and hats and jeans.
I stood there by the chicken strips in my outfit: black suit with bright red shirt and fancy bowler hat. I thought I looked every part of You Rock My World. One of the professional dancers came up to talk to me. Me! I introduced myself to him, and he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Are you a magician? Is there a magic show tonight too?”
Are you a magician? Interesting question. I stood there, looked him straight on, and said, “Absolutely, I’m a magician. I’m actually a priest here in town. And, I’m the first dancer in the show tonight.”
“Shut up!” he told me.
Expectations are tricky things, aren’t they. We all hold them of others, and we fail to meet them all the time—even the ones we hold for ourselves.
Look at Jesus in today’s Gospel text. This particular story has always been a bit uncomfortable for me. Jesus meets a woman near Tyre whose daughter is struggling. She runs up to him, asking him to help her. He has helped others, and she’s heard of him. So, she takes the risk.
And what does he do? 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.” She was a Syrophoenician woman and Jesus was, of course, a Jew.
What? Not exactly what she expected to hear from Jesus.
And what are we to think about this encounter? How do we feel about this Jesus?
The woman comes back, saying “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And because of that, the text says, “for saying that,” her daughter is healed.
This image of Jesus fails to meet my expectations for how Jesus should act. I don’t like the rude Jesus I seem to encounter here. This image is, in a way, kin to the one of angry Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. We may struggle with that image of angry Jesus just as we struggle with this image of crass Jesus or rude Jesus or insensitive Jesus.
Expectations are tricky things, aren’t they?
But the Gospel text goes on to describe Jesus heading toward the Sea of Galilee. He meets a blind man who had a speech impediment on his way, and folks begged Jesus to help. And, he does help. He takes the man to the side, “put his fingers in his ears…spat and touched his tongue.”
The text says that Jesus “sighed” and said to him “Ephphatha,” Aramaic for “be opened.”
Interesting that this phrase “be opened” is the same Greek word used for the Road to Emmaus text that described how the two travelers’ hearts were “opened” while Jesus reinterpreted the Scriptures to them.
There was an opened of ears and sight, as well as of mind and heart….a true healing.
The man was healed, and everyone was talking about it. They couldn’t keep the story under wraps! And, there’s this interesting point where folks are telling everyone they see, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
Jesus meets their expectations—and ours—and exceeds them!
Expectations are tricky things aren’t they?
I think it’s fascinating that these two stories are put side by side: one this tricky encounter with Jesus seeming harsh and crass, and the other with Jesus seeming gracious and healing. How are we to make sense of this?
In our bulletins today, I added a little snippet there by the Nicene Creed. I want to give a little story or teaching each week on some element of the liturgy, as we continue to grow in our awareness of how the way we pray shapes the way we believe.
The Nicene Creed is such a central part of our faith, this outline of the faith that holds the core beliefs of the Church. It’s the Church’s creed. It doesn’t belong to any one of us, so when folks struggle with it, I always say, “that’s fine. It doesn’t belong to any one of us. It’s the Church’s. Keep wrestling with it and you’ll be just fine.”
Tucked in there in the Creed is the portion pointing at the Incarnation. You may have noticed that some—including me—bow when we get to this part of the Creed.
“By the power of the Holy Spirit he became Incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.”
And was made man…
It’s such a crucial part of our faith: that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. It took the Church 431 years to fully clarify at the Council of Chalcedon that, yes, Jesus is both these things. That his divine nature and human nature are held in this creative tension, this unresolved relationship. Both maintained. Not confused. Distinct and unified. Son of God and Son of Man. God Incarnate and Human Being. Don’t try to get your head around it. That’s not the point. Celebrate the mystery of it!
When we explore texts like today’s, encountering this Jesus who fails to meet our expectations on one hand and exceeds them on the other, it reminds me of this line in the Creed: “and was made man.” It’s a struggle for us still, after two thousand years of wrestling with this amazing faith we have.
“But Jesus is perfect,” we say. And I wonder: do we mean this at the expense of being fully human? Theologically, what we’re doing is struggling with the heresy of Docetism, that is, that Jesus only really seems human, that he’s really more Divine than human. Or, that he’s human in some things, like eating and growing and being killed and dying, but divine in other things, like being perfect or not cussing or drinking or being mean to people—except, wait… “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
So, we live in this tension, don’t we? This fully human and fully divine.
After reflecting on this text the past couple weeks, I have a sneaking suspicion: What if we don’t mind Jesus being human so long as he’s not as human as we are? We can’t imagine that, so when we encounter texts like this, we immediately feel this impulse to rationalize this Jesus: well, he must have meant, he couldn’t possibly, the woman wasn’t understanding him…and so on.
It’s like Cynthia said this week when we were talking about this: we want Jesus to bear a stylized family resemblance—not an actual one. We want Jesus to be human, but not that human.
We want to protect Jesus, somehow—or at least protect our image of Jesus that makes us feel more comfortable. This way, we can continue to hold on to our same expectations, right?
But, the tension will not relieve itself. And, it’s a great thing that it won’t be relieved!!! Because that creative tension, that unresolved grating between the divine nature and the human nature is, believe it or not, the very space of our salvation. Jesus must be fully divine. And, he must be fully human….fully human. Not just some stylized human form.
St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who was born around year 125, so a good bit ago, described this space of our salvation so well. He studied with St. Polycarp, who himself studied with St. John, so he had pretty good credentials we might say. He wrestled with the reality of the Incarnation as well, and he said this
For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.
Fully divine—and fully human. A Jesus who, rather than merely meeting our expectations, in reality, goes beyond our wildest expectations.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, he became Incarnate from the Virgin Mary….
And was made man.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 18, Year B
St. Mark 7:24-37
September 6, 2015