(a sermon preached at St. Mark Presbyterian Church, February 26, 2012)
Jimmy's family, with the photo of Jimmy's newly repaired heart.
Good morning. I bring you greetings from Baja California, from the small coastal town of La Mision, about an hour south of the border. It is there that I live, ordained by this presbytery, by a partnership, called Bridging Borders, in which St. Mark has played a key role. I live there in a community of expatriate Americans, alongside two Mexican communities.
People often ask me what took me to La Mision—it was my parents, actually, since my first visit was as a six-month-old baby.
My grandmother lived in La Mision, for the last twenty years of her life. I live in her house, and though some of the furnishings have changed—thankfully—I still sit outside on the flagstone patio where I have photos of my grandmother sitting, and still walk through the same front door—it is a half door, that you can open just the top, but which also, in the winter, allows the cold to seep through the cracks—and wash dishes in the same sink.
I also bring you greetings from the Casa de Paz orphanage, about 40 minutes further south. It is the American community there in La Mision that has been building a relationship with Casa de Paz, and we, as the Bridging Borders Partnership, have been able to come alongside them as they seek to learn better how to love their neighbors, the children of Casa de Paz. Your amazing generosity in that endeavor has been a witness to the folks living in La Mision.
For you see, when you ordained me, none of us really had an idea of what might unfold from that. We took a risk. We took a risk to try something new, something a bit outside the box, something that hadn’t really ever been done quite like this before.
In fact, one of my neighbors, Kathy, who is not necessarily a churchgoing type, happened to be traveling in mainland Mexico. She met a man that was Presbyterian. “Oh, my neighbor is in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister.” She responded, and told him about this idea that I would be ordained in this very creative, unconventional way, and based, not in a church, but in this community, and then sent out into the world. “Oh, she must not be Presbyterian,” was his response.
But this Bridging Borders Partnership was created—folks from St. Mark, and from St. Andrews, from Santa Ana First and from Downey, from Placentia and from Village, our new church development down in Ladera Ranch. We came together, having a sense that God was calling something new into being, but not really having any idea how it would all unfold.
I wonder what that Syrophoenician woman was thinking on that particular day, as she searched for Jesus. I’m guessing it was the thought of her daughter that propelled her forward. Thoughts of her daughter’s need that pushed her to keep searching, even though, it seemed, that Jesus was hidden, and, it appears, maybe even intentionally so.
Maybe she had heard about this Jewish teacher, this man who had been doing amazing things.
But she was a Gentile, a foreigner. Not only that but a woman—how could she even dare to approach Jesus, much less ask him for a miracle for her daughter?
Biblical scholars suggest that, had there been a father or husband in the picture, it was likely that he would have been the one to approach Jesus since it would be a man’s role, not a woman’s.
So it is possible that this woman was not only a foreigner, but also without a husband to advocate on her behalf.
But maybe it took a mother’s love for her child in need to bridge the boundary lines of culture and race and ethnicity that separated this woman and her daughter’s healing, from the one who could most surely provide it.
I wonder what she was thinking that day, as she searched for Jesus?
Last fall I was at a birthday party in La Mision. The birthday party was for Becky, the daughter of the local pastor of the Mexican protestant church in town. Through a somewhat chance encounter, I had been introduced to Becky a few months before, and she had become my Spanish tutor as well as my friend. It was at that birthday party where I met Sarah, an American missionary, running a medical clinic in the local community.
As Sarah and I talked she happened to mention her frustration in trying to get treatment for Jimmy, a local man with a serious heart condition—called a coarctation of the aorta.
“I know Jimmy,” I said, remembering that my friend and neighbor Audi had helped the local American community raise some funds for the tests that Jimmy needed to undergo back in the spring. Many in the American community also know Jimmy, husband to Blanca and father of three young children, because of his work at the La Fonda restaurant, or as the son of Don Lucio, or because his brother Beto plays on the local baseball team.
Sarah continued to share the severity of the problem, it appeared, was beyond the capacity of the resources of the General Hospital in Tijuana. “At this point there really is no hope, short of a miracle,” said Sarah.
As we chatted it occurred to me that we, as the Los Ranchos Presbytery, have a partnership with Hoag Hospital—the hospital where I was born.
“Well, I might have some connections with Hoag Hospital, in Newport Beach,” I said to Sarah, telling her I could at least ask. I’m not sure that either one of us really thought that anything would come of it.
But as I went home that night it occurred to me that, because of where I happened to be born, were I to have this heart condition, I might die of it, but I surely would not die from lack of medical care. The least I can do is ask, I thought to myself.
Who knows what the Syrophonecian woman was thinking to herself, as she finally found Jesus. She fell down at his feet and begged him to heal her daughter.
Jesus, as the book of Mark tells it, had been on the go—the whole book is full of immediately this and then immediately that.
But in this story we find him retreating to the region of Tyre—which is Gentile, not Jewish country—and hoping to avoid notice. It would make sense that perhaps Jesus, after all of this being on the go, would need a bit of a breather.
And then, almost from nowhere it seems, in barges this woman. Not just a woman, but a Gentile woman. Not just a Gentile woman, but a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit. Perhaps not exactly the ideal person for an up and coming rabbi to being hanging out with.
She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. And Jesus, the Great Physician, Jesus, the wise teacher, Jesus who said “let the little children come unto me”, Jesus, the one we expect to be compassionate, especially to someone in such need says “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Did he just compare the woman to a dog?
It’s one of the more troubling passages, about Jesus, and scholars have debated its meaning—was Jesus being tongue in cheek? Was he simply reflecting the prejudices of his day—Jews thought of Gentiles as dogs, a derogatory term—was he trying to bait her, to see how she would respond?
It’s a parable, of course. In the book of Mark Jesus often speaks in parables—in fact, he almost never says anything plainly.
Not long ago I posted something on facebook about dealing with rocky ground. All of my pastor type friends assumed I was using it as a metaphor. I had to explain that no, in fact, I had been planting carrots, and the rocky ground was making them grow all bent.
But in the gospel stories, and especially the book of Mark, Jesus speaks in parables. And the disciples, the ones who are with Jesus, the Jewish men, the right kind of people, are continually asking him, um, what did you mean?
We don’t know why Jesus said what he said that day.
But we do know how the woman responded. Her response was as sharp as it was quick—“Yes, but even the dogs under the table get to eat the children’s crumbs.”
She got it. Not only did she get it, but she spoke back to Jesus, in a parable. This woman, this foreigner, spoke back to Jesus in his same language. She is the only one in the gospel stories to not only understand the parable, but to speak back to Jesus using a parable herself.
And Jesus says to her, for your words, your daughter has been healed. Not for her faith, but for her words.
She spoke up, defying all social convention, and the unbelievable happened—her daughter was healed.
I went home after that birthday party conversation about Jimmy. I emailed a few folks here at St. Mark, and at St. Andrews, that I knew had connections with Hoag.
At the November presbytery meeting I spoke with Don Oliver, Presbyterian chaplain at Hoag, and he told me he’d pass it on to Dr. Afable, Hoag’s CEO, who also happens to be a member of St. Andrews. “But it would be great if you happened to see him, say at church, if you would ask him yourself.”
The next week was Thanksgiving, and I went to St Andrews with my mom for their Thanksgiving service. “If you see Dr. Afable, could you point him out to me? I’ve got a question to ask him.”
After the service, as we were walking out of the sanctuary, she said “Oh, there’s Dr. Afable, right in front of us.”
I have to admit, I felt like a schmuck, bothering him on Thanksgiving day, at church.
But something compelled me, propelled me forward—at least you can ask, I thought to myself. So I did, introducing myself, and explaining the situation about Jimmy. He assured me that Hoag would do everything they could.
So, we got Jimmy’s medical chart info to the right people at Hoag, and then we waited. That was back in the fall.
I found myself thinking, there is no way that this prestigious, beautiful, state of the art hospital in Newport Beach would agree to cover all the costs for a complicated and fairly risky surgery for my Mexican neighbor Jimmy, son of Don Lucio and one of sixteen children, from tiny little La Mision—not only that, but to also work to get him an emergency medical visa so that he could even enter the US in the first place.
And then, about ten days ago, we got the good news. As Sarah told me, with tears in her eyes, she gave me a hug. The tears spread to my eyes as well.
Jimmy, who is at Hoag recovering as we speak, had open heart surgery on Friday. His family, his father Don Lucio, his sister Herminia, and his niece Vanessa, are here with us this morning.
It was with tears in his eyes yesterday that, in the 4th floor waiting area at Hoag, Don Lucio explained to Sarah and myself that in all of his 76 years he had never seen a miracle such as this fall from the heavens.
I wonder how long it took the Syrophoenician woman to get home that day? Had she left her daughter alone while she went to meet Jesus? I wonder what she must have been thinking, as she hurried home? But I’m guessing, as she entered the house and found her daughter well, it was with tears in her eyes that she picked her daughter up and gave her a hug, drawing her close to her heart.
On Friday afternoon, after the close to 8 hour surgery, Dr. Caffarelli, Jimmy’s heart surgeon, came into the waiting room to explain to the family what he had done in the surgery. The problem, as Sarah had explained it to us, was that it was as if someone was stepping on a garden hose, so not enough blood could get through. Normally the solution would be to simply replace the problematic part in the artery. But because Jimmy had had this condition from birth, the body had attempted to solve its own problem, by sending out all sorts of small blood vessels to try to get the blood where it needed to go. To operate in this area would be much too risky, due to the potential loss of blood.
“So what we had to do,” Dr. Caffarelli explained, was to bypass that area entirely. “So, we created a bridge.”
A bridge that allowed them to transcend all of the diseased areas, and allow the lifeblood to flow again, restoring his heart.
The word heart, has many meanings. Of course on Valentines Day we tend to associate it with love and chocolate and romance. But the word heart can also mean the center, the core, that which matters most, as in the heart of the matter.
And it seems to me that the heart of the matter is this:
That which pulses through the very center, beating life, bringing love, knows no boundaries—national, ethnic, or even theological.
And the bread on the table? It seems as though there is enough for everyone—for the children and for the dogs under the table. Maybe it’s time we throw open the doors, let the dogs in, and all get down on the floor and eat together.