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“Don’t Name a Sin What is not Sin,” The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6th 2009

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Pentecost XIV – September 6th 2009

Isaiah 35: 4-7a -Psalm 146 James 2: 1-10,[11-13]14-17 Mark 7: 24-37

Don’t Name a Sin what is not Sin

Once watching a documentary on Gypsies, now often referred to as Roma, I saw a young woman on a hill at sunset, screaming at the top of her lungs at a village below her: “You treat your dogs better than you treated me!” Her anger and her rage at her rejection went right through me. It was a cry from her soul against rejection, discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry.

The Jews in the time of Jesus considered themselves clean and righteous, (we would call them self-righteous) while they thought of the Gentiles, the Greeks and Romans, as unclean. The Gentiles had to be baptized to become cleansed proselytes, while Jews were clean and did not require baptism. They called the Samaritans dogs and probably even referred to the Syrophoenicians, like this woman in our story – as dogs.

The geography in our story is important, because Tyre, Sidon, and the Decapolis are Gentiles territory that Jesus seems to enter because he is so sick and tired of the self-righteous bigotry of the Jews of his day. Before our lesson in Galilee, Jesus had just confronted the Jews, the ones who called themselves the chosen people of God. He was challenging them to have more integrity. They are condemning Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before they ate. Jesus retorted, “You are a people who honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me. You teach human traditions rather than the commandments of God. For bringing a holy offering to the temple, the Pharisees seemed to give people an excuse for not supporting and taking care of their aged parents. Then Jesus said, there is nothing outside a person that going in can defile him or her, but the things that come out are what defile us and make us corrupt. Thus Jesus annulled the kosher food laws.

So whether you ate pork or only kosher beef, whether you were vegetarian or vegan did not make you moral. You could take three showers a day and you still might be full of prejudice. A drug lord might wash his hands before every meal, while having hundreds of people murdered. Jesus showed that hygiene and morality were two different things.

When our hearts are full of filth, taking a shower won’t clean them and the filth spills out of our mouths. It is corrupt to be bigoted and to name those who are different from us as evil, unclean, and non-human.

I believe that Jesus became so angry with the religious bigotry of the chosen people that he went right into Gentile country. Tyre and Sidon are Roman and Greek areas. The Decapolis, or the Ten Cities, were Hellenistic and Roman. That meant that you could go to the Greek theatre there, you could watch the games with the gladiators killing each other for your entertainment, and of course there were many temples for other gods.

I believe that Jesus was leading the holy people of his following into sharing a common humanity and saying that the bread of heaven, the wonderful teaching of Jesus, was also for the Gentiles and they were not unclean unless they were immoral, and truthfully the smug attitudes of the self-righteous can drive people to immorality. Luther spoke of self-righteousness as a monster capable of all manner of sins. Ah, we can become furious. But we can have no excuse. We all have to take responsibility for our selves and we cannot blame our acting out on others.

When the Syrophoenician woman in our story comes to Jesus, he starts breaking taboos. In Greek, Jesus uses the word, “little dogs.” I do not think he is slamming her with religious prejudice, but showing and introducing his disciples to the common humanity they shared as Jews with the Greeks and Romans, and even with this Syrophoenician woman.

Jesus says, “It isn’t right for me to take the bread from the children and throw it to little dogs.” Was he referring to the little demon possessed girl? Was he encouraging his disciples to draw closer by merely calling these very different people “little dogs”? The bread that Jesus is speaking about stands for grace and forgiveness and the very special relationship we have with the One true God and God’s Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that fills us.

The desperate mother says, “But even the little dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs that fall under the table.” She uses a more inclusive word for children than Jesus used and she helped make the cross-over, which can be so difficult, easier for the disciples who were trying to forge a new relationship with someone very different from them. Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.”

When we are crossing a bridge between very different people, it is most important to press on while being humble and sensitive to one another.

Now we usually just ascribe a miracle to Jesus as a common place. But the words here show that Jesus and the woman discussed what was going on with her daughter and Jesus gave the bread, provided the grace and forgiveness that healed the little girl.

This mother was not asking for herself, but for her daughter. Perhaps Jesus was using the word “little dog” or maybe “puppy,” for the girl. But don’t forget that dogs were considered pests in those days and we have no evidence that they had the concepts of dogs as pets in those days. Like some children have pet rats. I can’t get my mind around that yet.

Again, what the mother had in her favor was that she was not asking for grace and help for herself, but for her daughter. And think about it. She was even taking a stand for the little dogs that fed on the crumbs under the table. That kind of a stand for others, especially and literally, the under-dogs, quickly won over Jesus himself.

Now Jesus did not only break the taboo about the One True faith only being for the Jews and bringing grace and forgiveness to the Gentiles. He was also speaking to a woman in public. In those days men were not allowed to speak with women that way. In some Moslem countries, men still are not allowed to. In Saudi Arabia some young men try to get away with text-messaging women, but they can get punished severely if they are caught. In Jesus’ time, rabbis were told that they should speak as little as possible even with their wives. Back in the street, the man was educated and she was not. So if they talked, they could only be speaking about one thing, so their misogynous reasoning went. They said that any woman that approached a man in public had to be a prostitute.

I kid you not. Aren’t you happy that Jesus broke this taboo and we are no longer in that kind of a distorted society, which is so dreadfully set against women and is so dreadful for women? But that is how the people of that day thought and felt and Jesus spoke to that woman, discussed her daughter’s plight with her, and healed her, not caring what the disciples were thinking about it. He led them into fearful territory away outside of their comfort zones. Yes, he was crossing boundaries that made them very uncomfortable, but that is why we know and love Jesus as the Lord of life, the Bread of heaven for all people.

Jesus told us to look at the heart. When you go by the color of a person’s skin or by a person’s gender, then you make something that is not sin into sin, and sin and evil themselves are set free. The sin of bigotry, whether it has to do with religion, race, class, or sexual orientation, gets set free to raise havoc amongst us.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. it is the content of a person’s character, that is, their heart, their sense of personal responsibility that makes them moral or immoral. Whether a person is rich or poor does not determine the content of their character. A rich person can be immoral, witness Bernie Madoff, who made-off with 65 billion dollars of other people’s money. Witness the Kennedy’s, who keep fighting for the underdog and for more justice for the poor and oppressed. It all depends on the change of heart brought about by the grace and forgiveness of God.

Most people in our society idealize millionaires and view poverty as a crime. In our society, if you are poor you are considered like a criminal from the get-go. Jesus teaches us that love covers a multitude of sins. In our society, money covers a multitude of sins.

We know that it is similar when we look at the racial issue. You can be a Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor or you can be an attorney with a father that is a policeman and a mother, who is a peace officer, and you can have just gotten out of the Navy and a white cop can man-handle and arrest you. That is what Jesus also confronted. They call sin what is not sin, and their sin of bigotry and prejudice is set free and they open the door for all kinds of evil and injustice to come out.

Now there is real evil, real uncleanness, corruption, and immorality. But to label a poor person, a woman, or someone of a different race in and of themselves immoral, names what is not sin to be sin and lets real sin rampage amongst us, come out of our hearts and raise havoc in our society.

Now this will probably take you out of your comfort zone, but I believe Jesus would cross this barrier as well today. Just because someone is Gay or Lesbian does not make them into sin. They too have to be judged by the content of their character. Jesus I believe would break that taboo today and say, only if they have a corrupt heart are they sinful, for very many cannot help their sexual orientation. To say that Gays or Lesbians are immoral just because of their orientation is to name sin what is not sin and can allow our sin to rampage unchecked.

So to follow Jesus we need to go to the heart. Are you giving your Christianity lip-talk, well then Jesus will give you some soul-talk. Let’s not only honor the Lord of Life with our lips, but also from our hearts. Let’s have our hearts draw close to Jesus our Savior, who broke all these taboos for us. Let’s cling to Jesus even when he asks us to have the courage to get to know people who are different from us, who draw us out of our comfort zones. Christ is full of grace and forgiveness for all people and our hearts have to beat with his heart as if they were one. Ours has to be the throbbing heart of Jesus within us.

If we name sin what is not sin, real sin will rampage amongst us. How will we take the speck out of someone else’s eye, when we have a log in our own?

To take easier examples, the Roman Catholic teaching that eating meat on Fridays was a sin can make people blind to real sins. We used to live among French Canadians when I was young. My mother also served us fish on Fridays, but not because we thought it was a sin to eat meat. She explained that it was on Fridays that the fish was fresh. Now a Catholic can eat fish every Friday, and can still be completely immoral. Just being a vegetarian does not make you moral and being a meat-eater does not make you immoral. The Hindus do not eat beef, because for them cows are holy and the Moslems eat beef, but do not eat pork because it is not kosher. So they kill each other because each names sin what is merely a human tradition, letting evil rampage between them. The Moslems had to flee the Hindus up into Pakistan and they have had armies facing each other since their religious prejudices tore up India.

Another example, when an innocent man is executed for rape and murder, as may well have happened, the real rapist and murderer is still out there doing those horrific crimes.

We have to name sin what really is sin: hatred, religious violence, prejudice and bigotry against those who are different from us. To follow Jesus takes us over boundaries that make us uncomfortable. To follow Jesus is to become challenged to our very core. In our baptisms we die to our old selves and Jesus raises us up into our new selves, giving us the upbringing of the children of God. If you think our new birth in Christ is easy and comfortable, then just ask any mother what it was like to give birth to a child. For the change we need, keep your eyes fixed on the cross of Christ. To follow Jesus is to experience the cruel rails of the cross. It is the only way to our glorious resurrection. Amen.


Written by peterkrey

September 8, 2009 at 6:22 am

Posted in Selected Sermons

One Response

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  1. […] I wrote a sermon on the topic last year. See  “Don’t Name a Sin What is not Sin” […]

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