I hate mess. It drives me crazy when I sweep and mop the floor, only to have milk immediately spilled upon it, which happens 100% of the time. I hated it when the boys were little, and I would wash bedding, only to have someone–or all three–wake up in the middle of the night puking on their sheets. I hate sticky doorknobs and salty winter boots. And I hate–hate–cracking an egg into a bowl and seeing shards of shell slip to the bottom and elude me as I chase them around the bowl with a spoon. Now, having said that, I have given up trying to keep bathrooms or my office clean. There is a unique and triumphant resignation to messes that simply must be. As much as I hate mess, I understand this is a part of life, whether it is kid-related mess, messy relationships or messy work. To be human is to be messy. Mess can be annoying, even tormenting, unless we pause to consider the beauty in messiness.
For example, persistence is beautifully messy business. Sen. Elizabeth Warren knows this, when she was silenced in 2017 by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who invoked an obscure Rule 19, when she dared criticize the attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions. McConnell said, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Undeterred, Sen. Warren then took her letter and read it in its entirety outside the Senate doors–and streamed it live. The silencing of Senator Warren resurrected a classic feminist phrase–nevertheless, she persisted–and created a maelstrom of social media backlash around the world, in a sort of verbal brawl mostly by women who were tired of being told to sit down and be quiet. “Thanks for the new battle cry,” an angry Tweeter remarked. Despite repeated attempts to silence her or call her inappropriate names like “Pocahontas,” Senator Warren prevailed. Currently, she continues to fight against the racial prejudice of our criminal justice system and extolls the power and covenant of unions in the United States. She has persisted throughout the whole messy deal, what a beautiful thing.
The woman in today’s Gospel is persistent. She approaches Jesus on behalf of her daughter, who is very sick, and there is nothing messier than a sick kid. This woman does this at great personal risk. First of all, she is a woman–unimportant enough in ancient times to render her nameless–and she dares to approach a man; furthermore, she approaches a man with a request, in fact, a demand. Lastly, she isn’t even Jewish as Jesus is; she is Gentile, she is Syrophoenician, she lives in Tyre. She is a female pagan in the land of pagans.
Because of all of these reasons, she has no business approaching Jesus at all. Nevertheless, she approaches him and says, “I beg you to heal my daughter.” Jesus’ reply is shocking in its severity. “No,” he says, “I am not here for you.” Scholars have tried traditional methods to justify this response. Maybe Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to be persistent. Maybe Jesus is testing the woman’s faith. Maybe Jesus is caught in a deep internal struggle with the prejudices from his own upbringing against the pagans living in the region of Tyre. Or maybe he is a first-century Palestinian man, fully human, and therefore not above being challenged from time to time; in other words, maybe this woman really, truly and actually corrects Jesus. Maybe her persistence sets Jesus back on his heels in a sort of holy crap moment, when his claim that, “I have not come for you,” prompts her persistent reply of, “Oh, excuse me, sir, I beg to differ, I do not accept your ‘no.’” While this is Jesus’ first eye-opening run-in with a mother with a sick kid at home, he’s no stranger to the demands of strong women in his time…(recall his own mother’s demand that he turn water into wine in his first public miracle at the wedding in Cana).
So consider this–what if Jesus looks at this strange, peculiar and persistent woman and sees the fierce and defiant love she has for her child and realizes that they have more in common than not, that they would both do anything for their loved ones–even die? Does this somehow diminish or weaken our idea of Jesus as God? Or can it strengthen it, this idea that human risk and persistence on behalf of another person is actually something God adores and honors? The mother is persistent; she prevails. Her daughter is cured. A messy and beautiful story.
We simply can’t talk about messy persistence this week without talking about Colin Kaepernick. (Please note, this is the second week in a row when I have referred to sports, which only proves the extent to which I will go to be current in illustrating how the Gospel is relevant to the world today.) In 2016, the then-quarterback for the San Francisco 49’ers, Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem at NFL games in an effort to raise awareness about racial injustices, including police brutality against African-Americans. He persisted nonviolently in a way that called the question of…does our flag still wave “over the land of the free and the home of the brave”…? Our national anthem ends with a question, and his protest answered that question with a resounding “no.” However, remember that Kaepernick knelt on behalf of others, not himself. He himself was drawing a rather comfortable $11.9 million salary for the 2016 season and had not had his life threatened due to racial profiling.
Rather, Kaepernick knelt on behalf of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and over 100 unarmed black men who were shot and killed by police in 2015 alone. His persistence created quite a mess and led him to be released from his contract with San Francisco. However, according to an article yesterday in Newsweek, police killings of unarmed black men has dropped by more than half since 2016. Has this persistence begun to prevail? We learned this week that Nike has hired Kaepernick to be the face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. His slogan is–believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. His persistence is admirable, whether you agree with the politics or not. I know there are some that say, “Your job is easy. Stand up, play football and repeat.” But what if we all did that, slaves to our salary, without challenging social mores that might not oppress me personally, but others certainly? He is one of my heroes (maybe not yours, that’s fine), because he took the risk to persistently act on behalf of others.
I don’t think Kaepernick had any idea what he was starting that day when he dropped a knee any more than Rosa Parks did that day in Montgomery, AL, back in 1955, these actions that call the question–if it’s true for some, is it true for all? Is liberty true for some or true for all? There is no liberty if some are enslaved. This question isn’t only a question of civil rights, but it is fundamentally a Gospel question. Can Gospel be gospel for some and not for all? The answer is no. If the Gospel isn’t Gospel for all, then it is not Gospel.
The brilliance in our reading today from the book of Mark is that, through accident or instruction, Jesus honors those who persistently work and pray and beg on behalf of others, even when things get messy. Jesus, then, is all about advocacy. Jesus rewards persistence, because Jesus understands how difficult it is. Jesus knows people will refuse you and deny you and even persecute you for standing up for, or kneeling on behalf of, others.
The challenge here is that we don’t always get to see resolution in persistence, like the woman or the deaf man. Sometimes the daughter isn’t healed. Sometimes hearing or speech are not restored. But remember that prevailing justice and success are not the same thing. My persistence may not be rewarded individually, but maybe yours is–and can we find communal joy in that, as a body if not an individual? Can we be persistently selfless, lifting up the other first, before myself?
This is messy and challenging stuff that Jesus invites us into today. This moves us from Jesus Loves Me, This I Know to Jesus Loves You, This I Know, even if you are black or Muslim or gay or different from me in whatever way. This is radical justice, this persistent love on behalf of others. Which is why the ancient prayers of intercession are so fundamentally beautiful, even if at times they seem numbingly boring, they are in fact, bold and brilliant–they call us to pray for everything that has being, in their formulaic pattern that moves us from that which is most cosmic and universal to that which is uncomfortably close at hand, including in God’s reign of mercy firstly those who do not look like me, speak like me or pray like me and lastly to me. Intercession lies at the heart of today’s Gospel–begging on behalf of others,as the woman did for her daughter, as the man’s friends did for him. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is–’what are you doing for others?’”
Persistence is truly a messy business. Persistence necessarily involves things like spit and sweat and blood and tears, as we see in this Gospel text. Think of Ruby Bridges, who, at 6 years old, was spat upon as the first black student to walk through the doors at William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960, giving persistent courage to the ongoing fight for African-American civil rights. Think of the sweat of her enslaved ancestors in the cotton fields in Mississippi, who persistently sang Gospel hymns of freedom and liberation. Think of the blood of Matthew Shepard, beaten, tortured and left to die in Laramie, WY, in 1998, because he was gay, adding fuel to the persistent march of the LGBTQ community around the world to end such hate crimes. Think of tears wept by Native Americans, leaving a trail to land west of the Mississippi as they were driven from their homeland or Mormons on their trek westward, as they were ousted from this land because of religious intolerance, history which persistently calls our country back to its claim of religious freedom for all people, not just white Christians. Think of tears wept by women who marched in the 19th century just to get a vote, because they were tired of being told to sit down and be quiet, as women move from kitchen to the public arena with each persistent ballot. Wave after persistent wave of sweat, spit blood and tears, as generations march and demonstrate and beg for liberty for all, not just some. As a political human figure and the Son of God, Jesus participates in this persistence, as he overturns–literally–the power structures that oppress and marginalize and opens up a new reality for all, not some, “Ephphatha” an opening up for all people, not just one. Slowly, one persistent kick at a time, walls are knocked down. Erosion begins with one drop of water.
The kingdom of God is not afraid of or deterred by our human mess. Jesus himself was spat upon, sweated in Gethsemane, bled on the cross, cried tears of anguish as he died. The kingdom of God is in the trenches with us, it is Jesus mixing spit and mud in order to heal; it is a sweaty Jesus walking from desert town to desert town to preach the good news of God; it is Jesus touching a bleeding woman, it is Jesus weeping in the face of death, crying out over the injustice of Jerusalem, letting slobbery children crawl all over him. The kingdom of God persistently spins towards us in today’s Gospel, offering a gorgeously messy glimpse of what love looks like in public, which is Cornel West’s definition of justice. Be persistent in your public faith, and may your ears and eyes be opened and your tongue loosened to stand up for or kneel on behalf of others, trusting that others are standing up for you or kneeling on your behalf.. It’s messy and risky, but together we are strong. We are witnesses to a cosmic Ephphatha–the breaking open of God’s kingdom in our midst–and it looks like an egg being broken open over a giant bowl with shards of shattered shell flying everywhere, messy–but no one has time to care, as all stand in anticipation of the feast to come.