The Rev. Clare Fischer-Davies
September 6, 2009
Proper 18 B
I have been trying to write a novel off and on for last ten years or so. I haven’t really made much progress, although I still believe there’s a story to be told in there somewhere. And then yesterday, surfing around through some preaching sites to get inspiration for a sadly-uninspired sermon – I found something that made the light bulbs and sirens start going off.
Bear with me a minute because I want to give full credit to the woman whose work I stumbled across in the random way we noodle around on the internet. Her name is Alyce McKenzie, and she teaches preaching at The Perkins School of Theology, which is part of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
This is what she wrote: “Lately, I’ve been reading some books by novelists on writing novels. I’ve been looking for advice for us preachers on how to preach more exciting sermons. One thing they point out is that the desire of the main character is the key to successful storytelling.” Then Dr. Mckenzie goes on to quote some of what she’s learned: “to engage our attention and sympathy, the protagonist in a novel must want something and want it intensely. A common fault in novice writers is that they create a main character who is essentially passive. Fiction is the art of human yearning…absolutely essential to any work of fictional narrative art (is) a character who yearns.”
A character who yearns. Well – no wonder my novel hasn’t gone anywhere for ten years. I’ve done a pretty good job of creating a couple of characters with problems, but if you asked me to simply state what those characters yearn for, what their most burning desire is – well, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea what they want, so it’s no surprise I can’t tell a story about them.
A character must want something and want it intensely. Scarlett O’Hara wants never to be hungry again. Mrs. Bennett wants a husband for her five daughters. Harry Potter wants to destroy Voldemort. Every good story is propelled forward by the burning desires of its characters. That’s true in movies – in both modern and classic novels – and it is most certainly true in the great stories of our faith tradition.
More than anything else the bible is a collection of stories – stories about human longing and desire, and about how God longs for and desires to be in relationship with us. Adam and Eve long to eat the forbidden fruit, Abraham longs for a son, David longs for Bathsheba, Moses longs to lead the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt into the promised land. Some of our longings and our burning desires are pleasing to God and some are not. Some of our longings lead to revelation and powerful epiphanies, and some lead to destruction and despair.
Jesus explodes with his desire in the very opening lines of the Gospel of Mark – he yearns to tell the whole world that the Kingdom of God is at hand – he longs to reach every human soul with his gospel, his good news of God’s salvation. But he encounters a world filled with people with different desires – conflicting desires. And those conflicting desires drive the narrative in Mark forward fast as an out of control train. The disciples long for Jesus to be the Messiah they have been waiting for. The Pharisees long to hold on to their power and influence in religious life. The people around Jesus burn with the desire to be fed, or to get well, or to be healed. Everyone wants something, yearns for something. Once Dr. McKenzie opened my eyes to this, I wondered how I’d never realized it before.
And so we come to today’s Gospel passage. Jesus goes off into Gentile territory – way up north even for a Galilean. This is not a trip that makes any kind of logical sense. It is not on the way to anywhere. It’s not a place that observant Jews would ever visit by choice; it is pagan and unclean. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for Jesus to go there except to carry the Good News to the Gentiles – right into the heart of everything that is pagan and unclean. And then Mark tells us that Jesus “did not want anyone to know he was there.”
This is probably not about psychology. This isn’t a statement about Jesus wanting privacy, or a chance to rest. All through Mark, Jesus keeps telling people to keep quiet, not to spread the word about him. The Good News can’t be fully revealed and fully understood until the last moments of Jesus life. Those conflicting desires driving Mark’s narrative forward will all intersect at the cross.
But one woman wants something so badly, has such a burning, desperate desire – she pursues Jesus and she throws herself at his feet. Mark makes sure we have all the important details. This woman has a suffering child and yearns for her to be healed. And she is also a Gentile – and not just any Gentile – she is Syrophoenician. In other words, her pedigree is especially bad – she’s linked to a thousand years of cultural conflict and prejudice.
But this woman wants one thing – she wants her daughter to be healed. And she believes that Jesus is the source of that healing. And she begs him to come and cast the tormenting demon out of her little girl.
And then comes the line that makes all of us sit back and shake our heads and ask, “He said what?” Jesus – gentle Jesus, compassionate and all encompassing Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first,” (and by children, he means the Jews), “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Let me just say that absolutely no one really understands what’s going on here. It is a subject of great scholarly debate, and preachers go off in all kinds of wacky directions with this unexpected, uncharacteristic and unkind response. Sometimes people say that Jesus must have just been teasing her – battling wits in rabbinic style to test her. But I think that’s mean – making a desperate, terrified woman aching for her child take a pop quiz. And the other frequent interpretation is that this moment marks the point in Jesus life and ministry when he first fully understands who he is, when he realizes that his Gospel is for the whole world and not just the Jewish people. But I have just as much trouble with the idea of Jesus standing there with that weeping woman at his feet saying, “D’oh! I didn’t know that!”
And the more scholarly problem with that statement is that this is not the first time Jesus has ventured into Gentile territory. He’s already gone where he’s not expected to go, and healed and cast out demons from people he’s not expected to touch.
No – I think now that this is pure narrative art. Mark wants us to know just how badly this woman wants her child to be healed. Jesus says, “I’m not giving good Jewish food to the dogs,” and the woman, instead of slinking away mortified and ashamed, refuses to be dismissed. She wants her daughter healed so badly she will endure any humiliation, suffer any unkindness and so she identifies herself with those filthy dogs, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
“For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
What has she said? She has made herself entirely vulnerable. She has asserted a faith in Jesus she has no birth right to avow. She has proclaimed that even she has a place at God’s table, and that even the crumbs of that feast are enough to nourish her. We are wrong to focus on Jesus in this passage – the main character is the one who wants the most. The woman, pagan, marginalized, rejected – wants desperately for her daughter to be healed and she knows that Jesus is the one who can give her what she wants. She claims her place at the table.
It’s a funny way to look at faith. I think we tend to define faith as intellectual assent to theological statements – it’s something cool, cerebral, passive. We don’t usually associate faith with emotion, with longing, or with desire.
I’ve experienced faith differently this summer – I haven’t quite hurled myself at Jesus’ feet, but I have been stripped of my cerebral, skeptical passivity. And I have also experienced that the more naked and empty handed I became before God, the more clothed, comforted, and filled I was. The more I needed God, the more God was there to meet that need.
At bible study last week, we started talking about grace – about what we mean when we say we’ve received the grace of God. I had intended to take more a cool and cerebral approach to grace this morning – but the intensity of the Syrophoenician woman’s longing broke through into my heart and soul instead.
And so I guess, that’s what I mean by grace. There’s a Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” The more I needed God, the more God was there to meet that need.
If any narrative is driven forward by the longing of its protagonists, then surely the story, the narrative of our own lives is driven forward by our longings. Just a few minutes in front of the TV will show us some of what we long for: white teeth, clean laundry, tasty snacks, and a way to pick up pet hair. It is perfectly possible to build a life around those kinds of longings, to never cultivate an awareness that our hearts and souls might yearn for something else.
But sometimes, the narrative of our own lives awakens us to those deeper longings, to the desire for healing, or connection, or redemption – the yearning that drove the Syrophoenician woman to fling herself at Jesus’ feet and claim her portion of his goodness and healing power. When the student is ready, the teacher appears. The more I needed God, the more God was there to meet that need.
A Christian community like ours is a community of stories – of narratives about our longing. Our desires brings us together week after week. Maybe that desire is mostly about liking the fellowship here, or enjoying the music – and there’s nothing wrong with those desires – but this community is also a place, this altar is a place, where we can open up even the secret places of our hearts, open our deepest, most aching longings and claim our portion of God’s goodness.
The more we need God, the more God is here to meet that need. The teacher is here. Are you ready?
Alyce McKenzie’s most excellent sermon can be found on a Lectionary Homiletics sample page, via that most excellent sermon prep tool textweek.com. Dr. McKenzie quotes “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” Sixth Edition (New York: Longman, 2003), by Janet Burroway with Susan Weinberg, and they in turn quote Robert Len Butler.