Karen Thomas Smith
Texts: Mark 7:24-30; James 2:1-9
My brothers and sisters, I bring you greetings from the Al Akhawayn Christian Community in Ifrane, Morocco, where I am chaplain and from the Eglise Evangelique au Maroc where I am pastor, your brothers and sisters in Christ who give thanks to God for the Alliance of Baptists for this community of faith. It encourages us that the Alliance calls its congregations to intentionally seek to relate to persons of other faiths in the spirit of Christ. And of course, it matters to us that the Alliance supports our efforts to offer an alternative witness to Christ in our university context in Morocco which is inclusive and open to our Muslim students, colleagues and neighbors. Indeed, the Alliance was the first denominational organization to support this ministry, though other denominational and interdenominational groups now support us in France and Germany. Being here today allows me to thank you personally by sharing our experience with you in the hope that it may be helpful to you as you consider your own vocation in relation to your Muslim neighbors, a topic that has never been so hot as it is now in Raleigh, NC. But I am also grateful for this chance to come to know Pullen better, having respected you for many years. In the Qur’an we read that God has said to us: “O humankind, God has created you from male and female and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another.” Thank you for asking me to be with you today that we may come to know each other, learn from one another, and seek a word from the Lord together. PRAYER
I have chosen this text from Mark because it is one of the few times that the gospels show us Jesus in a real interfaith encounter. It takes place in the region of Tyre, southern Lebanon, just across the border from Israel, then and now, a borderland that has been hit hard in many of the wars that have rocked the Middle East over the past century, most recently in the summer of 2006 when Tyre faced relentless bombing in that month-long conflict.
Political wars in the middle East, are, as we all know, religiously loaded, charged with ongoing tensions between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. In Morocco, we are, perhaps, more sensitive to underlying religious tensions, as we are politico-geographically part of the same region of the world, a region that doesn’t easily separate politics and religion. Unfortunately, in the minds of many of our Muslim neighbors in Morocco, the complicated political conflicts in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan boil down to Jews and Christians siding against Muslims. And while we in the USA may object to such an oversimplification, I think we have nevertheless adopted a rather schizoid way of looking at these conflicts. We adamantly deny that our own military involvement in Iraq or our supportive role of Israel has anything to do with religion, but at the same time we view those with whom we are in conflict through a religious lens – we speak (and hear) of Muslim terrorists, Islamic extremists, Shiite or Sunni militias; this kind of language, repeated over and over again in the media and in our discussions about the news results, I think, in folks feeling like the fight is not simply between nations, but, indeed, between faiths. And so Christians come to feel like anything Arab and Muslim is foreign, threatening, dangerous – of the enemy.
This plays out in America in disturbing ways. My mother-in-law refused to listen to Barack Obama during his campaign because his middle name was Hussein; she was convinced he was a secret Muslim with a Muslim agenda. Her suspicions were aggravated by a widely circulated email message proclaiming that no Muslim can be be a good American, first of all because his allegiance is to Allah and can never be given fully to his country. (Makes a Christian wonder…).
A few weeks ago some of you might have thought in your progressive corner (or should I say triangle) of NC, Islamophobia was not a real issue here. But the arrest of Daniel Boyd, his two sons, and four others on July 27 shattered that illusion, did it not? I read some disturbing online comments about the articles appearing in the Raleigh News and Observer, which you may have read also, all posted pseudonymously: “Mitt Romney was right when he said mosques should be wiretapped … You cannot trust these people. I hate to say that about any group of people but it’s true.” “America needs to wake up NOW. If you are not Muslim you are the infidel. These people are NOT playing around.” And finally, “Muslims hate Americans and will do anything to destroy us.”
This disturbs us, does it not? Especially since we know that many of those who feel this way are people who are good, church-going folk.
Well, we should take heart in realizing that this is not altogether unlike the world Jesus lived in, where social, political and religious tensions were often blurred. When we read that Jesus crossed into Tyre, a political, social and religious boundary, our antenna should already be raised for tension. But if the setting provides the potential for conflict, it’s the action that upsets us. Certainly, there are many disturbing stories in the Bible: God commanding whole Palestinian cities to be destroyed by the invading army of his chosen people with no man, woman, child or animal left alive, for example. But those stories are in the Old Testament, we note, taking heart in the fact that as Christians we live under a New Covenant in which God’s unconditional, unfathomable love for all people has been revealed in Christ Jesus.
Yet this troubling story of the Syrophoenician woman is in the New Testament. And that which troubles us comes from Jesus’ own mouth: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It sounds like Jesus is calling this woman of a different faith and nationality a dog. (This is bad enough to our ears in America, where we love our dogs – and I love the pictures of your dogs in the church directory — but its many times worse in a semitic context like Palestine or Morocco, where dogs are despised as unclean animals.) The words sound racist, implying that she and her kind don’t deserve his attention, implying that those who are of the house of Israel are more valuable than those who are not, that it’s an “us” and “them” situation, and “we” matter more than they do.
Alas, here it is Jesus himself who seems to be guilty of the very sin the epistle of James will rail against: making distinctions between those who matter and those who don’t. James says that such acts of favoritism show that one does not yet truly believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. But what if Jesus himself is among the guilty? What if Jesus, whom we believe was without sin, wasn’t?
Scary thought, huh? If you look at a few commentaries on this passage, you can tell just how scary this is for folks by how quick scholars are to perform exegetical gymnastics, stumbling all over the passage trying to defend Jesus or running away from the problem therein. But I think if we can find the courage to face the text head-on, as good Baptists should be willing to do, exploring the story and the disturbing questions it raises, we may find help, brothers and sisters, in learning how to live as Christians with our Muslim neighbors.
So consider the story. Mark begins with these words: From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. “From there” evidently means somewhere in Galilee where Mark tells us Jesus has been traveling about teaching, preaching, healing and getting into fights with Pharisees. It seems the last one wore him out, and he wanted to get away from it all. So he left Galilee and went north crossing into the Roman province of Syria, outside his home turf, where folks did not know him and would leave him alone. But it seems that the paparazzi had chased him down and revealed his secret, because the word that the Jewish healer from Galilee was in town immediately reached the ears of at least one local woman, and she wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. She was a mother, you see, and her daughter was suffering, under some kind of demonic attack, she was sure, and she didn’t care what kind of taboos she might break, what this guy’s religion was, or who she might have to argue with, she was going to get in to see the one person who might be able to help her little girl. So she did what she had to do. She barged into the house where she was not invited and not wanted and she bulldozed her way through to the place where Jesus was resting, and bowed down at his feet.
Something like this actually happened to me last February: a whole group of shepherds came to my house and one of them bowed down at my feet and started to kiss my boots to beg me to intervene in a situation. In Berber culture, that’s a way of showing utter humility to put the person before whom you bow under obligation to act nobly and grant your request. And I have to admit that I was not happy with this. I take comfort in the fact that, in this story, Jesus also was not happy. You see, ever since the middle ages, we Christians have had a tendency to forget that our Lord and Savior was not only divine, he was also human. He was tired and he was on vacation and this woman had come here to take away any peace he had hoped to find in the city of Tyre. If word got out among the Gentiles in this northern region that Jesus was healing there, too, there would be no place left for him to go to be alone.
This was a real problem for Jesus; Mark says so over and over again. He struggled not to become so famous, so well known because 1) he needed privacy, a place and time to relax and renew his own strength; 2) he had limits; he simply could not heal every sick person in Galilee, much less all of Palestine; and 3) his vocation was not simply to be a miracle man. He was about more than that and he was always in the process of discerning how to live out the fullness of his calling, deciding where to set limits and where to give of himself. Sound familiar, anyone?
One of the ways he had set his own limits was by making the decision to focus his ministry within his own community, among the Jews, his own people. That is what he tells this Gentile woman in not so gentle words, actually quoting a proverb; the children, indeed meaning the Jews, are to be fed first. If he uses up all his ministry energy in Tyre, he will have nothing left to give when he goes back to Galilee. It would not be right to take the little energy he has and give it to the Gentiles, among whom he does not anticipate having a meaningful, effective ministry, when those to whom he feels called are hungry. Yes his words are harsh; the proverb he uses is blunt. But he had to say no sometimes. And that is no sin. What he said, blunt as it was, was true to his discernment of his vocation up to that point.
But this woman refuses to take no for an answer. In a quick retort, she plays on his words, quoting another proverb in response: even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. It’s perhaps something of a jibe back, implying that what he would do for her and her daughter would simply be a crumb, a scrap, not a very flattering description of his ministry. But it surprises Jesus. He has seen this woman in all her faith and fierceness, in her intelligence and stubbornness, and he is moved. Marveling at her, he tells her, for saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter. And so she leaves, trusting him, taking him at his word, and finds her daughter well and whole.
Jesus’ words gave this Syrophoenician woman a great gift, restoring her daughter to her. But the Syrophoenician woman’s words also gave Jesus a great gift, for he had, perhaps, not see that kind of fierce, obstinate, challenging faith in all of Israel. // Brothers and sisters, Jesus grew in wisdom, if not in stature, that day. He learned from this woman more about who he was and what God was about in his life. And to learn and grow is not sin; it is being receptive to God’s voice as it comes through others. Though he had healed at least one Gentile before, he had not seen the Gentile context as the locus of his ministry. He had grown up seeing the world as Jew and non-Jew (even more than I grew up seeing the world as Baptist and non-Baptist, and that is saying a lot). Every model for ministry he had ever seen had instilled in him that he would achieve his mission by working with his own people, to bring them to greater faith and faithfulness. That’s what rabbis did. And as for the Gentiles, their salvation would come through the Jews.
Indeed, according to Mark, Jesus had spent NO significant time in Gentile territory up to this point. But immediately after this experience, Mark says, Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went by the way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee and into the region of Decapolis. Now some scholars have commented on this as Mark’s bizarre geography; Sidon is north of Tyre, in the opposite direction from Galilee further south. And Decapolis is still further south and east. Scholars find this nonsensical geographical path a rather embarassing detail about Mark’s account. But it makes sense if Jesus is intentionally NOT returning by the most direct path. It makes sense if Jesus has suddenly and decidedly chosen to return by another road whereby he might spend time with his Gentiles neighbors, listening to their hopes and fears and dreams.
I have a hunch that I’ve never seen any commentator make, that what Mark is trying to tell us is that this event is a pivotal moment in Jesus’ life. Why else tell it, with its potential for embarrassment, if this brassy woman of Tyre were not the catalyst for a sea-change for Jesus. That day in Tyre, Jesus broke out of some of the categories that had shaped his thinking and acting — those that divided the world essentially into Jew and Gentile. That day across the border in Lebanon, some boundaries shifted within Jesus himself. He would still have to set limits for himself in his ministry, but the boundaries could no longer be drawn along ethnic/socio-political lines. He would walk the path of the Gentiles, for it seemed clear now that God had work for him to do among them, too, and before he had left, God would perform through him another miraculous multiplication of bread among them – so much more than crumbs. The Gentiles would be included in the blessing of bread broken and shared for the multitude.
Brothers and sisters, as we consider our relationship with Muslims, neighbors whose faith is different from our own, we must not consider ourselves above our master. We should, rather, learn from him and follow his example. I think that means first that we need to recognize and examine our own resistance to encountering Muslims and their faith and the resistance of the people in our pews: Are we so tired from the work we are already doing that tackling anything new feels exhausting? Do we not know enough about Islam to speak intelligently about it and so we’d rather just avoid the topic, and hence, avoid our Muslim neighbors, rather than look dumb? Does the idea of relationship and encounter with Muslims (or others who do not share our faith) seem fuzzy, with no clear goals, hard to organize, plan for? Are we afraid of screwing up or failing? Or are we scared that we might find out our neighbors are right about something when it’s so much easier just to assume that we are the ones who are right about everything?
We need to get in touch with this resistance in ourselves, brothers and sisters, address it, and by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, overcome it. For it has never been more important for Christians to come out of their ecclesial cocoons, to take off our churchy blinders, and meet the Muslim world in a different spirit. In our time, so many voices tell us we are living a “clash of civilizations”, an era when the Christian or post-Christian west finds itself opposed to the Muslim East, when folks on both sides of the divide have internalized this metaphor, believing it to be our sad, but true reality.
But today I come before you to testify to a different reality. In my congregation and in the Eglise Evangelique in Morocco, we live quite literally at the crossroads between East and West: the word for Morocco in Arabic, el-Maghreb, means the west, as in the westernmost part of the Islamic world. We are Christians on this raw edge of the Muslim world, living the tensions. And yet, we are witnesses to the fact that we do not have to accept this model of warring animosity as the only way to live as Christian and Muslim. As disciples of Jesus Christ, and as those who would imitate him, we refuse, firmly and resolutely, the categories of division this world would impose -who is an ally, who is an enemy, who’s a good guy, who’s a bad guy, who is legal and who is illegal, who is in, who is out, who’s us, who is them. In Christ, as it was in Tyre 2000 years ago, so it is for us today: where God’s spirit moves, barriers are yet broken down, dividing lines are still crossed, stifling paradigms are ever dismantled and sent to the trash heap. Therefore we cannot look at our Muslim neighbors from our former point of view — seeing them as infidels to target in our evangelism programs, as opponents to be vanquished, as competitors to beat. Rather, we see them now from the point of view of Christ, as neighbors to be loved.
It has been my joy over the past few years to lead my congregation to participate in a development project in the shepherding community of Tarmilat which a group of Moroccan students and I initiated along with the shepherds themselves in 2004. In this venture, we have worked together as Muslims and Christians to accompany these marginalized shepherds and their families to find dignity, purpose, hope, and respect, crossing religious, social and cultural barriers. I can’t tell you what a joy it is just to come KNOW women like Ito Abou (barn), Aicha Rehiwi (marriage), Khadijah Sghiri (Fadwa). I have come to know and care about them and their families and they have come to know and care about me – car accident. Can Christian mission look like this: Knowing and loving, being known and loved?
I could not believe more strongly that it is incumbent upon us now to break out of old paradigms for mission to Muslims and find new ways to be loving neighbors to Muslim neighbors in North Carolina, in Morocco and beyond in the world if we are to be true to the Spirit of Christ in this age. That is one thing I think we in Morocco may be able to offer our Alliance church partners, because we’ve got some experience in working out, in living out an alternative model of authentic witness which I would say must have three characteristics: It must be cruciform (in the image of our vulnerable, humble self-giving savior and never triumphalistic), dialogical (with emphasis on the listening and learning side of the dialogue), and diaconal – lived in service with (alongside) our Muslim neighbors, a Christian mission that can be lived hand-in-hand with Muslims.
I close with a quote from a student, Younes Cohen, Muslim of Jewish descent (as his name reveals), who wanted to explain to me in his limited English what the words he had written on his project, Allahu Akhbar meant. (They are the words that begin the call to prayer, you know, and I knew what they mean officially, but I wanted to know what they meant to him.) He said, “Miss, it means, ‘God is so, so big.'” On this interfaith journey, may we come to know the Bigness of God. And give thanks always. Alleluia. Alhumdulillah. Amen.