Published on 10 Sep 2012
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 9, 2012
The Rev Alisdair Smith
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon
I love Facebook. In fact it is my news source and I check it 2 – 3 times a day, and sometimes more often. I no longer read newspapers, I rarely watch TV News, I do listen to the CBC News if I’m in the car, but most of my news, I get through Facebook. It’s the news I’m more likely to be interested in, although I do admit there are a few contributors I have blocked; that “so and so” has had another yoga practice with the really hot instructor does wear thin after a while. That said, I know that if there is really big international news, like Canada has won another Gold at the Paralympics, or Mitt Romney has alienated another entire segment of working people, I’ll know about it almost immediately.
There are though, a number of shadow sides to Facebook. We don’t have time to go into them all in our short time together, but one shadow side is how generally one sided my news is. For example, if my Facebook friends were any indication, the Conservatives would have been wiped off the face of the electoral map in the last Federal election. There were one or two of my 600 or so “friends” on Facebook who had anything positive to say about the Harper Conservatives. The news that I then receive on Facebook is therefore largely biased. The people I hang out with, the people who hang out with me on Facebook are largely centre and left of centre politically, and so the news I get comes from that perspective.
And herein lies a problem not just related to Facebook; fundamentally we humans seem to like to stick to our community, stick to the people we like, or who are like us. For example, a gay friend of ours joined a group of us, most of whom were straight, on a vacation a few years ago. About two or three evenings into the vacation he said, “you know, you straight people are surprisingly fun!” Or here’s one, as a frequent flyer, I can always spot, and often find myself judging people who don’t fly very often; they holdup the line getting their ID out time and again, they get in the way of those of us who get to board first. They are not like me, who is so wise and knowledgable in the ways of air travel. And it gets even more sinister; on a flight from Solomon Islands to Australia last month, there were three brown-skinned men who were wearing “kurtas” the long loose fitting shirts, that suggested that they were Moslem. The white guy across the aisle from me gave me one of those nervous ‘knowing looks’, you know, the face that said only half facetiously, “I hope they’re not armed.” And I smiled back.
And this seems to me to be a universally human condition. While in the Solomon Islands I learned about a cultural paradigm called “Wontok”. The best way to define it is to sound it out; it means literally “one talk.” In a country that has a little under a hundred separate languages, the people you meet who speak the same language are your “Wontoks”, they are automatically your friends, part of your crowd.
This morning’s Gospel includes a scene that might be included as an example of what happens too often when people of different “Wontoks” meet. According to the author of Mark, Jesus says to a Gentile woman, who asks that he heal her daughter, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Wait a minute, did Jesus call this woman a dog? Why, yes, according the text he just did! Oh well, maybe we should just ignore that bit?! Or, rather, we might pay very close attention to what happens here in this story.
A way of thinking about what happens to Jesus and to this woman, is that they are from two different “Wontoks.” Now to get us there, let’s get settled first on an important couple of points about how we hear this story differently from the first hearers of this story. To us, we have some very convoluted projections on this character “Jesus”. 2000 years after the stories were first told we have our own expectations of Jesus, we have the other three Gospels, we have the birth stories, we have the hymns, the sermons, the choirs, the Sunday schools, the Church, the Reformation, all of that extraneous material that informs our contemporary interpretation of this story. But, it’s important to know, Mark’s Gospel is probably one of the very first writings about Jesus. It is being told before the other three Gospels, it is being told centuries before Origen, Augustine, Hildegarde, Theresa, Luther, Dunne, King and Mother Theresa. It is being told long before Hallmark cards, and Christmas decorations in retail stores. And so if we try and hear this story with the ears of the very first hearers of the story, we might hear a slightly different tale.
As first listeners to this story we might know that Jesus part of a tribe of people trying to keep their autonomy, keep their place in the midst of a terrifying and powerful empire. A people for whom autonomy and difference are fundamental parts of their very being. (Kind of like how we Canadians dislike being called “Americans” when we are traveling internationally!) We might hear that for Jesus‘ people, Jesus’s community, Jesus‘ “wontok” there’s nobody else quite like them. And so for a person from another “Wontok” to expect to be included in this “Wontok” may actually have been quite rude. In other words, everyone, including this woman herself, “knows” that Jesus is all about his “Wontok.” For the first hearers of the story this woman’s actions would have been kind of like you or I sitting next to a stranger on a plane and asking them, if they were finished with their meal, “could I have your vegetables?” You may be really hungry, but it’s just not done.
And Jesus replies from the place of his ‘Wontok’, ‘my wontok first.‘ And this woman then pushes back against the ‘wontok’ paradigm, pushes back like Rosa Parks pushed back by refusing to move out of her seat. This amazingly courageous woman holds a mirror up against the ‘Wontok’ system inherent in so much of our lives and says, “even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus looks into that mirror and undergoes a startling shift; he get’s it. He see’s that she is right. He sees that in fact it’s not all about me and my ‘wontok’. As important as autonomy and difference are, as unique and separate as we all are, we are all far more the same than we are different. Even though my Facebook friends and I may think we have all the answers, that we are so smart because we’re “progressives”, we actually have far more in common with Stephen Harper, ant other neo-conservatives than we might think. We breathe the same air, we love, we hurt, we laugh we cry. We may have different political viewpoints but that is only one small part of the complexities we call our lives. I might learn that it might be more helpful for me to hold an unwieldily bag or work on my own patience for the inexperienced flyer, because there’s lots of things I have little or no experience in and would hope that others might be helpful with me. And as much as two white men on a plane may exchange judging glances about 3 brown men on the same plane, the five are far closer to each other than they possibly even imagine.
Jesus learns in a heartbeat what it takes most of us a lifetime to realize. We are far more like each other than we are different. Love, courage and inclusion always trump hatred, fear and exclusion. And the fact that a woman, from outside the ‘wontok’ is the teacher of Jesus is worthy of particular celebration. That she has the courage to speak the truth to authority is so vital for all of us to learn from. We always learn more from people who are ‘other‘ to us, who are from outside our ‘wontok‘ than we do from people who are inside our ‘wontok.’ And it takes great courage to listen to and hear a truth we might not want to hear.
So this week, as we move through our daily lives, in the places God has given us responsibility, may we each have the courage of the Syro-phonecian Woman to push back against the ‘wontoks‘ we inhabit. May we each, like Jesus, have the courage to learn from the people who speak truth from outside of our ‘wontoks’. And may that courage to speak and hear truth from outside of our comfortable wontoks continue for not just this week, but to begin to inhabit our lives every day. Because in the words of the American anti-war activist, “the world is now too small for anything but love and too dangerous for anything but truth.” This amazing moment between a Syro-Phonecian woman and Jesus reminds us of that simple and terrible truth. And it reminds us that a safer and more loving world is not up to different political stripes and debates between political parties, it is up to you and me moving slowly but surely out of our comfortable but inhibiting “wontoks.”
Enjoyed this post?