Why Not Us, Why Not Now, Pastor Kinsey
“Why not us, why not now!” That was the slogan of the Forest Park Girls Basketball team in Crystal Falls, MI, of 1995. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year. They lost 3 starters to graduation, and had junior and one senior left over, to be the leaders to build their roster back up. But they had some very good young talent that came up from JV, two sophomores and even one freshman, who joined the starting 5. One of them was from our Confirmation Class that year.
The season began against cross town rival Iron River, MI. They were always a tough match-up, but Forest Park was the clear underdog. Behind the surprising 3 point shooting of the new freshman and sophomore guards, Forest Park won by 12 points! Next they played Kingsford, the number one ranked team in the Conference, and beat them by a basket at the buzzer!
Everything was clicking from top to bottom. The coach was talented and well liked. The girls team was full of academic leaders to match their basketball talent. They had gone to summer practices together and were obviously ahead of schedule. And their fans were loyal – parents and grandparents, siblings and best friends, even the boys team, all came to cheer them on!
And at a team meeting that week they came together and talked about their goals for the year. Was this a rebuilding year? Or did they have something special already, that they should go for more? And I think it was at the next game where the first sign showed up, just a couple of 8.5 x 11 inch flyers taped to the wall: “Why not us, why not now!” And when they won again, next week a 3 x 10 ft. banner appeared under the home basket that Friday night.
And why not indeed?! That season, the Forest Park Girls basketball team took their Conference title, went on to win the Region, and finally headed down over the bridge to the finals in Detroit, before losing to a very tough parochial school, Portland St. Patrick, who won it all the year before, and the year after. But “Why not us, why not now!” got ‘em all the way to the finals, when no one thought they’d even make the Conference playoffs!
Jesus encounters a woman who was such an under-dog, that no one, not even Jesus, considered her a winner at first!
Jesus was just trying to find an out-of-the-way location to get some well-deserved R & R. He went to the coastal region of Tyre, just over the northern border from Palestine on the Mediterranean, thinking it would be perfect – a little seaside air, a foreign land where no one would recognize him. And just to err on the side of caution, and ensure his anonymity, he had his disciples smuggle him in the house – disguised in sunglasses, and a hoody – (isn’t that how you do it?!) But, to no avail.
But, says the gospel of Mark, “A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.” Was she a domestic? On duty to clean the rooms? Or maybe the owner? Not afraid to ask a favor of a famous man? Did she not know the Jewish laws forbidding women to approach men in public to engage in conversation? Did she not know Jews and Gentiles don’t mix, whether male or female? Did she not know that Jews had to keep their distance from unclean spirits?
Never-the-less, she ‘begs Jesus to (come and) cast the demon out of her daughter!’ So what’s Jesus to do? How would you feel…? on your way to vacation, almost to your room, safe, where you can crank up the AC, and flop on the bed, and relax!? Perhaps, we still would expect Jesus to take a minute, show some patience, hear the woman out, and see what he can do!?
But Jesus says, “Let the children (that is, the Israelites) be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did he just call her what I think he did? Maybe he didn’t do it directly, more like, in the third person, referring to all Gentiles as dogs. And yet, there she was, the only Gentile in the room, as far as we know. Kind of hard not to take it personally!
It helps to understand – at least from my high horse, my straight, sis-gendered white male, perspective – that this was a kind of every day derogatory term, used of Gentiles, by Jews, at the time. In other words, Jesus was just in the mainstream of his religion’s thought process. It was clear that, God’s chosen people, the Jews, held a kind of privileged place – though it wasn’t ever meant to be exclusive. God made clear in God’s choosing, that Jews were to be ‘lights to the whole world,’ for the specific reason of preparing the way for ‘all the nations’ to become God’s chosen people – all would be brought in and included in the covenant of salvation!
When Matthew’s gospel tells this story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, he states this clearly, when Jesus says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And certainly, that’s the initial picture we get of Jesus in all the gospels. He heals and feeds his own, the Jews, to start with, but he also always ends up going farther, crossing borders, spreading the gospel message and enacting the realm and kingdom of God even outside Israel, with the Gentiles. The promise of including all nations was coming true in the ministry of the one called Messiah.
So how might we respond if we were in the Syrophoenician woman’s shoes? Once we were, the Gentiles, outside the promises of God, too. But now, all these centuries later, can we even imagine how she must have felt? Being excluded 3 times over, from the God of the covenant, Jesus represents?
But the foreigner; A woman; with the demon-ized daughter; answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
“Why not me, why not now!”
“For saying that,” Jesus tells her, “you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” ‘So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone,’ our Markan gospel tells us.
Professor Elisabeth Johnson tells a story about how the students in the Lutheran Institute of Theology in Cameroon (West Africa) reacted when they took up this gospel pericope: “They are troubled by this story,” she says, “because they have heard Muslims use this story -- and particularly Jesus’ words in Matthew, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ -- to tell people that the Christian faith is not really for Africans.” The Christian-Muslim dynamic, can of course, be a volatile one, in some parts of the continent! But when Prof. Johnson tried to assure them that ‘all’s well that ends well,’ that the Syrophoenician woman persisted, and Jesus heals her daughter – they didn’t buy it – that’s not what bugged them.
“I sense that my students are not convinced that it is enough to have crumbs from the table,” Johnson surmises. “Materially speaking, that is pretty much all that they have ever had. They don’t want to be told that they should be satisfied with spiritual crumbs as well!”
The underdogs are often miscounted, but God in Jesus has come to lift us up! Of course, sometimes we’re the underdog, and sometimes we’re the oppressor.
We know that sharing our bread at the communion table is a beautiful sign of the grace and love God wants equally, for all. So how do we share that miracle with the world in our work-a-day lives, so that the world doesn’t see just bread crumbs?
Of all the healing stories in the gospel of Mark, this is the only one, where Jesus takes advice, and learns from the one he heals!
Let us listen and hear, like Jesus, that we may not miss seeing, and chewing, and digesting the message being unfurled like a banner: “Why not us, why not now!”