Sneakers, a Foreigner, and Hope

Today is Kick Off Sunday at Christ Church. It’s the day we launch the full slate of classes for children and youth here, and celebrate a new season of ministry with a kind of back to school enthusiasm. To do this we use a football reference, which is not exactly my strong suit. Some friendly Episcopalians tried to teach me how to call the Hogs when we moved to Arkansas. Not a hugely successful lesson for this introvert, but I remember it fondly. From there, my football knowledge is pretty limited, actually. But even I know that the NFL and Nike are wrapped up in a pretty interesting controversy right now.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, Nike included Colin Kaepernick among the athletes commemorating the 30th anniversary of it’s famous “Just Do It” campaign. The ad includes a close up of Kaepernick’s face with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” It’s a reference to his lawsuit against the NFL for allegedly keeping him out of the league over his protest of police violence against people of color. He made taking a knee during the national anthem at football games famous. People either applaud his method of protest, or denounce it as disrespectful. There are clearly two camps.

So when Nike launched it’s new ad this week, of course the internet went ballistic. People posted pictures of burning their Nike gear in protest. Other people displayed their new Nike purchases in support of the company’s decision. Humor has certainly helped a tense situation. My favorite meme was a picture of burning athletic shoes with the caption, “sneakers flambé.” But on a serious note, it’s not just the sharp difference of opinion on the larger, complex issues that has troubled me this week. It’s also the demonization of each side by the other in that unique way that happens in the performative outrage of social media. Whatever your opinion on taking a knee, you were vilified this week by the other side. I’m not sure that the world “polarized” we hear so often fully captures the state of things these days. The great 20th century German theologian Paul Tillich once wrote that the human condition is defined by alienation: from ourselves, from one another, and from God. Alienation might be the better word. The Nike controversy seems to be simply the latest example of the very old truth that we are profoundly alienated from one another.

Perhaps we can find some help with this condition if we look to a very old story, the one from Mark’s gospel today. The first thing to say is that it’s a troubling story. The Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, and Jesus calls her a dog, a common ethnic slur at the time. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he quipped. This is not the Jesus we think we know. We expect Jesus to be loving and open to everyone. After all, we embrace Christianity as a religion that values everyone fully and equally, and for good reason. Remember those beautiful words that Paul wrote early on to the Galatians, that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This was radical at the time. I think it still is.

But that’s not the response we have in front of us, at least not on the surface. Was Jesus upset that it was a woman that approached him? Or a foreigner? It’s unclear.

Over the ages, interpreters have tried to clean Jesus up in this story, by suggesting that the word he used for dog was in the diminutive, meaning something more like “little puppy.” Or that he was really tired and it was kind of an off moment. Or that he said the insult with a wink or a twinkle in his eye, getting ready to use this as a kind of teaching moment. But there isn’t evidence for any of those suggestions. It’s possible that Jesus gave a common, knee jerk response based on a world full of prejudices, the world he lived in.

I think what matters most in this exchange is what happens after he calls her a dog. She persists, and he changes his mind. It’s the only place in the Gospels that he changes his mind. Perhaps he realizes in that moment that his ministry is not just to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but also to this bold, foreign woman in front of him. This nameless woman has been called the woman who changed history. This exchange would alter the course of the Christian movement and broaden its mission beyond the Jewish community. And besides all that, it certainly altered her life – she left that encounter freer than when it began. Her daughter healed, her hope renewed. The alienation in her life shrunk that day. That’s what happens when we come into the presence of Christ.

There is a pretty clear Gospel mandate in all of this. If Jesus could get caught up in knee jerk reactions and common prejudices, so do we, everyday. And if he could change his course, so can we. The first step is to acknowledge the divisions and deeper alienations in our lives. There is no shortage of examples of alienation. For one, I might have a knee jerk reaction to the people with a different opinion than mine about taking the knee. Or take some Little Rock examples – how about someone on this side of I-630 being afraid to go south of the interstate, and vice versa in our segregated city? Someone on one side of the Arkansas River might make assumptions about people on the other side. We might fear the person approaching us at an intersection or in a church parking lot. On a gut level, we might fear anyone we perceive to be different than us. Maybe that’s why sneaker burners and sneaker buyers are raging against each other this week. It’s clear to me that we are not just politically polarized or socially separated from each other. We are deeply alienated from one another. I think Tillich was right about the human condition.

But that’s not the end of the story. There is hope for us because the Syrophoenician woman was right about Jesus and his healing ministry, even if she had to be one step ahead of him. His ministry was to reconcile us, to each other and to God. That’s what the church is all about. We even say that the very mission of the church is is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. We come here to be restored. And to be transformed into the kind of people that work toward reconciliation and justice and goodness in the world. There is no shortage of temptation to not be those people. But in Christ it’s possible. That’s the beauty we see in an old story about Jesus and foreign woman. That’s the beauty of the Christian message for a problem of alienation that is as old as the hills and as fresh as a football controversy.

My friends, we’re all going back to school today. Fall kick off marks a new season of church classes and opportunities to learn about the way of Jesus together. Who knows how much we’ll discover this year. Who knows how our hearts will be changed. And who knows how much alienation will be healed. I can’t wait to see.

Kate Alexander