Wow! The last time I stood in this place, this pulpit, to deliver a Sunday morning sermon was February 2, 2020. A year and seven months ago! It’s a bit disorienting to stand here again. I wonder if, no, I wonder how my preaching needs to be different after the experiences of the past nineteenth months?
In the meantime, I finally read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. Oh, I had heard about the book and seen it quoted for years. Just never actually read it. But there they were, half a dozen copies sitting by the mailboxes up in the church office this summer. They were left over from the work of our “Common Ground” group. I “borrowed” this one. Don’t worry. I’ll put a check in the offering plate to cover costs.
Jesus and the Disinherited, a book first published in 1949. Its author – African American prophet-mystic, poet-theologian Howard Thurman – identifies the disinherited with the poor and underprivileged. But “disinherited,” what an intriguing choice of words! Those dispossessed of some status or resource already belonging to them by right.
I’ve read the book through from cover to cover, but still haven’t gotten past the first two sentences. “Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall” (p. 1). Thurman proceeds to offer a devastating critique of the Christian church’s tendency – especially the white American church’s tendency – to stand with the strong over against the weak out of a desire for security and respectability within society. This despite the fact that the Christian movement was born of defenseless people well acquainted with suffering.
I know, somehow, that the words of Howard Thurman need both to mark out and call into question my place as preacher this morning.
Our reading from Isaiah speaks directly to those who stand with their backs against the wall. “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God,…[who] will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (35:4-6).
Likewise, our psalm: “Happy are they…whose hope is in the LORD their God;…who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down” (146:4, 6-7).
By contrast, the reading from James warns privileged members of the Christian community not to show favoritism to the rich, while ignoring or despising the poor (2:1-10).
But let’s follow Howard Thurman’s lead and ask about the life and teachings of Jesus expressed in the first portion of today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. Who stands in what place in our little story of the Syrophoenician woman with her demon-possessed daughter? Where do we stand as hearers of this story? Might it disorient us enough to move and stand elsewhere?
“Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre,” our gospel reading begins (7:24). So, Jesus is out of place. Farther away from his own country and his people and their ways than at any other time in his adult life. He’s hiding out – trying to escape the crowds back home in Galilee with their immense human need. To no avail. “[A] woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged [Jesus] to cast the demon out of her daughter” (25-26).
But Jesus brings an entire social and ethnic outlook of superiority and exclusion with him in his backpack to the woman’s country and is quick to invoke the privilege to which he feels entitled. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (27). Jesus and his people are God’s children, the sole and rightful claimants to healing and wholeness. The Syrophoenician woman and her daughter and all their Gentile people are the dogs, unworthy of God’s care and advocacy. There’s only so much health and worth to go around and Jesus knows where the line of difference, of separation, is drawn.
Surely this woman stands with her back against the wall because of her daughter’s desperate situation. Both of them placed among the disinherited. As Howard Thurman would say, however, the woman refuses to allow the three “hounds of hell” – fear, deception, and hate – to dominate her (pp. 26, 64). She chooses not to push back directly at Jesus’ superior and exclusive words with a demeaning insult of her own. Nor does she allow him to silence her. Instead, she non-violently, but irresistibly, deflects Jesus’ words and reflects them back to him – transformed. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (7:28), Gentle but courageous. A bit of common, human wisdom she and Jesus can share despite the difference, the line of separation, between their peoples, their histories, and their religions. These words of the Syrophoenician woman turn Jesus around, change his mind and outlook on life radically – convert him, even; bringing him to a new place where he can see the wider mercy of God. “Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone” (29-30). Jesus learns to listen. Jesus learns to see someone from a place other than his own as worthy of health and wholeness, of God’s care and advocacy. But only because the Syrophoenician woman first found her voice and used it to deflect and reflect back words of superiority and exclusion transformed into words of inclusion and solidarity.
A week ago Thursday, I found myself lying with my back against a hospital bed in urgent care. Don’t worry. I’m okay. It was atrial fibrillation. While I look forward to a final consultation with cardiology, it seems my version of A Fib is about as benign and manageable as it could be.
As I lay in that hospital bed, I kept thinking about place and privilege. That here in Seattle, there was a bed available to me in urgent care – while in Houston, Texas or Jackson, Mississippi they would have been completely full of COVID patients and I would have been left outside. That I have access to quality, affordable health care. That I had transportation to the hospital. Supportive family, friends, and communities. That I waited just minutes to be triaged and led immediately to a room of my own, while, at exactly the same time, thousands of people were waiting at the gates of the Kabul, Afghanistan airport for a flight out of their own country. Perhaps leaving it forever.
Even in a place where my back was against the wall, so to speak, I still possessed the privilege of resources and options shared by few other human beings. What a life and death difference place can make. And how cruelly arbitrary place is. It was sheer chance that I was placed in Seattle a week ago Thursday, not Houston or Jackson or Kabul. Nothing to do with worth or merit. All people, in all places, possess exactly the same worth by virtue of being God’s handiwork, just as the flooding in Louisiana and Tennessee looks exactly like the flooding in Pennsylvania and New York. Human need exactly the same in these different places. And much of the blame for a super-heated Gulf of Mexico and a storm like Ida has to be laid at our common, human exertion of privilege that threatens to disinherit us from our own planet.
At the end of his book, Howard Thurman envisions a place where the love Jesus learned and lived and taught will be ascendent. He writes: “whenever a need is laid bare, those who stand in the presence of it can be confronted with the experience of universality that makes all class and race distinctions impertinent….The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of [people] which is committed to overcoming the world. It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture, and no condition of [person]. For the privileged and underprivileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline, [they] can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a [child] of God” (pp. 93, 98-99).
But in the meantime – my words now – can we also move from standing alone, whether in a pulpit or with backs against the wall, to standing together in a new place with hearts and hands outstretched to one another?
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976).