I once served a church located on the campus
of The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
I don’t know if it is still true,
but when I was there in the 1990’s
there were a lot of homeless people living in the area.
One of the local itinerants was named, Annie.
Annie had a grocery cart full of newspapers.
I mean full, as in over-flowing
in the same way a giant mound of ice cream
falls off its waffle cone.
Newspapers of every kind:
discarded office papers, wrappers
she found on the street,
Each item of paper was meticulously flattened out
as smooth as she could get it.
She was scrawny with a petite frame that bowed,
but she had big guns for biceps.
Even so, driving by Annie
as she pushed her cart up the street,
you had to wonder how she had the strength to do it.
After a hard rain, Annie would
use the plentiful number of steps in front of the church
to lay each of her papers out to dry.
The church was U-shaped with three distinct
rectangular buildings forming an open courtyard
facing the front street.
Running the full length of the front of the building,
were two tiers of steps,
each tier about half a dozen steps.
In other words, copious amounts of concrete stairs
upon which to dry all of the contents of her cart.
One Saturday afternoon I pulled up to the Church
to get ready for a wedding,
and there was Annie with all her papers on the steps.
I never really got used to those kind of situations
even though they happened with frequency.
Once, as a wedding party and all the guests
poured out of the church,
there was a man lying on a bench in the courtyard
That was great for the wedding photos.
Anyway, you get the picture of Annie:
she pushed her grocery cart
full of heaviness
all around the neighborhoods of the Church.
In at least one way, we are all Annie:
We are all Annie carrying the heavy freight
of personal baggage we have with us
into every situation.
Even right here, even right now.
If you had the eyes to see it, you would be able
to discern the enormous backpack I have on,
and the messenger bag slung over my right shoulder
opposite the canvass bag in my left hand.
Why do you think I sweat so much?
And if I had the eyes to see,
I could behold the incredible array of heavy baggage
you carried right through that door
into this sacred space.
Some of it, I am certain,
is very fine luggage you bought at Brookstone,
while others carry burgeoning brown paper bags
and assorted totes.
I imagine there’s a garbage bag or two in here also.
What we carry in our invisible baggage
is our life experiences that shape
what we expectto see and feel
in every given situation.
In the bulging chaos of the past
we carry presumptions,
we are not even aware
are prejudicial or peculiar.
It’s just our baggage.
We have been carrying it so long
we don’t even realize how heavy it is.
One of the benefits of a spiritual community
ought be that we discover
bits and pieces of our baggage,
and unload it.
Of course, that is easier said than done.
And God-forbid anyone else
should try to unload any of our baggage for us!
On that wedding day at that church in Columbus,
the sexton tried to collect Annie’s papers off our steps.
You never heard such screaming and profanity!
She was drying her papers,
and they weren’t dry yet,
and she didn’t care whether we wanted to use
the church or not.
No one was going to moveher papers
or takeher papers
until she decided it was time.
She could roar like a lion,
and scream like a banshee,
and swear worse than a sailor.
All of which she did.
Well, you and I are just like that too.
You and I have stuff in our baggage
that we know we need to get rid of,
and that maybe we are even embarrassed
or ashamed about.
But, by God,
no one else is going to touch it but us,
and we will NOT unload it
until we are doggone ready.
One of the amazing things about the Bible,
it seems to me, is in addition
to having its own baggage,
it also does not try to hide the embarrassing baggage
that even some of its heroes carry with them.
For example, in today’s reading from Mark
Jesus’ baggage is unmasked.
You see, Jesus brought some loaded baggage
into his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman,
just as all of us would.
I think the lesson we learn
when we watch Jesus embarrassed by his baggage,
is that to love –
whether it is loving our neighbor as ourselves,
or our self as our neighbor,
or loving our partner,
or even our dog –
to love well
is never done without also unloading some baggage.
Let me show you what I mean.
Here is warning:
in order to see what I’m about to say,
we might need to let go of some baggage
we received as a child that said Jesus was perfect.
We know that Jesus was human,
and no human is perfect.
So, Jesus encounters the said woman, where?
Alone in a house.
Even today, in our free and open society,
a well-known public figure,
a religious figure no less,
is in hazard if found alone in a home
with an unrelated woman.
In Jesus’ day the taboo was more powerful
and more dangerous
than you and I can possibly understand.
It violated an untold number of religious purity laws
as well as the rigid moral caste system
of a tightly stratified society.
It was bad all the way around.
Never mind that he went there to escape strangers,
or that he went there to be alone.
Never mind that he went there to get away
from people like her…
people like you and me…needypeople, that is.
Secondly, she is not even Jewish.
She is not Judean.
She is foreign.
She is a Gentile – like you a me,
dirty in other words.
Dirty Gentile – that is a redundancy.
She was a source of ritual impurity
so do not touch,
do not speak,
do not acknowledge her presence.
If we listen carefully,
we can almost hear Jesus thinking,
“Dirty, filthy, Gentile, pig-eating woman,
interrupting my quite time,
risking my reputation,
begging for special treatment…”
Well, who here has never had such angry,
resentful thoughts about the person ahead of us in traffic?
Or how about the Annie’s of this world
who will not budge in their idiosyncratic craziness
to make way for our business as usual?
Who here has never been in a hurry at Wegman’s
and gotten behind the wrong cashier
or the wrong customer,
and didn’t have to bat away some pretty ugly internal snarling?
Yeah, well Jesus had baggage too.
It is not that he was grumpy only because she was
but because she was a woman!
A woman, a Gentile woman
a low-life Gentile woman.
He had baggage, he was human.
“Get in line, lady!” he might as well have said.
But look, we all have serious baggage, the dark kind.
We all have prejudices rooted in ethnicity,
nationality, even profession.
They are dark spots
in otherwise wonderful people
that keep us apart.
The point is not to be someone without baggage –
no one is without such baggage.
The point is to be open to seeing and feeling
the baggage we carry,
and to be willing to unload it
when the opportunity comes.
Indeed, we can unload such baggage.
We can unload prejudices and presumptions;
but we shouldn’t kid ourselves either –
there will always be more we still carry.
Anyway, the darkness in Jesus,
the ethnic bigotry and misogyny
that was part of his baggage,
endangered the love-your-neighbor ethic
he was trying to spread.
So, the darkness in Jesus,
his own neediness for space and nourishment
as well as his ethnic and religious prejudices,
endangered the love between him
and the nameless woman with an ill daughter.
But she would not budge
any more than Annie would budge.
That Lebanese Woman’s love for her daughter
was steel in her spine,
and she had more dignity and more guts
than Jesus has bigotry.
She challenged him.
She challenges him by rubbing his own baggage in his face
where he could smell it up close and gag.
Was he going to remain seated
in his own squalid waste?
Will the ethnic bigotry he had inherited,
the misogyny he didn’t even recognize,
the temper born of unmet needs
driving his judgments,
remain the driving force in that moment?
Or, was he going to unload some baggage?
Was he going to take that opportunity,
stinging as it was,
to unpack one of his suitcases
and move on a little lighter and wiser than before?
Jesus, being Jesus,
saw precisely what she was holding up.
Being human, he must have felt defensive
and embarrassed, ashamed
and angry with himself, and tempted
to point that anger away from himself
and back toward her…but he doesn’t.
He takes a deep breath.
He takes a step back.
He wiggles a little distance for himself
to gather up the considerable resources
he has within himself
for just such a moment as this,
and then he swallows hard.
“Yep. I got baggage,” he admits to himself.
He may even have spent some time later on,
trying to figure out where that baggage came from
and how he could help others to see it as well.
But before he even understood it all,
he acknowledged it
and changed course right there on the spot.
In fact, the next paragraph tells us
that he changed course
and went home by way of Gentile territory –
an unusual route for a righteous rabbi.
He must have taken some time
to interact with a lot more Gentiles,
and to work with his prejudices
and unload them
by filling his baggage with new experiences
of people he came to love –
and see aslike himin every way,
as much as they may have been
different from him in some ways.
That is how we unload baggage, by the way,
by replacing it with new experiences
that teach us something different.
That is how heterosexual parents
suddenly become advocates for their GLBTQ children.
That’s how black and white teenagers
fall in love with one another.
That is how Afghanis or Iraqis
can learn to love even an American.
That is how the chasm of class can melt away
between people who have learned
to trust one another.
Whatever the boundary,
whatever the baggage,
whatever the prejudice,
whatever the bigotry…
it gets unloaded
when new experiences replace them.
You see, that is the big fallacy among wealthy,
educated liberal Americans
who imagine that education alone
can change the world.
If education alonecould change things,
then there wouldn’t be such a horrendous
drug, alcohol, smoking, or STD problem.
It is experience that finally transforms.
As long as we are segregated by
whatever thing separates us –
gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, neighborhood –
we will have the heavy burden of our baggage.
We need the encounters–
and the sight of one another –
to learn that Muslims and Jews,
homosexuals and heterosexuals,
Evangelicals and Progressives,
Hispanics and African-Americans,
Caucasians and Asians
are just folks like us in most every way that matters,
even as we honor our differences.
Then, and only then,
can we begin to understand and appreciate
We do not even have to like the differences
between us in order to love one another
and unload our baggage.
I think that may be the exclamation
at the end of this little story in Mark.
If so, I hope it helped us
unload a piece of paper or two
within you and me.