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A resilient woman who refuses to be dismissed, even by Jesus

The Syrophoenician woman’s faith and sass are held up during Wednesday’s LGBTQIA+ Resilience service, part of the Presbyterian Week of Action

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Jessica Vazquez Torres (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — If you’re looking for a biblical definition of resilience, you’d do well to turn to the story of the Syrophoenician woman’s faith as recorded in Mark 7:24-30.

“Sir,” the woman tells Jesus in the story’s pivotal moment, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

This woman’s resilience gets her what she wants most — healing for her daughter. “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter,” Jesus tells her. The woman returns home and finds that is indeed the case.

Preaching Wednesday morning during a Chapel service celebrating LGBTQIA+ Resilience as part of the Presbyterian Week of Action, Jessica Vazquez Torres called the story “vivid, shocking and memorable.” We know almost nothing about this woman, not even her name. Biblical scholars have framed her in two ways, Vazquez Torres said: as a humble person with deep maternal love or, the version Vazquez Torres is partial to, “an astute, direct, strong advocate for herself and her child.”

Vazquez Torres said that commentators offer up two explanations for Jesus’ “Let the children be fed first” comment in which he is in effect calling the woman a dog: either he’s “a strategic genius,” setting up a scenario where she can speak and all will be transformed, “or the one I adhere to, that Jesus is being a jerk,” one who “allows social class and gender conditioning to come barging into the scene to dismiss one he calls a dog, one who is unruly and threatens the children of the house … Jesus experiences the woman as a threat as opposed to a sibling.”

Her brave response is a mic drop moment as the woman, in Vazquez Torres’ mind, sizes up the room and says, “I see you. I see all of you, all your biases, the gap between your declared values and your actual beliefs. This woman is resilient,” a term Vazquez Torres said she once dismissed as “a ploy by white supremacist institutions to make us heroic. I hate how it’s equated with grit and endurance.”

Think of a resilient ecosystem, she said: it has the capacity to respond quickly to a disturbance and to act creatively. “Most resilient people I know are nimble and think out of the box,” Vazquez Torres said, adding she’s struck by this woman’s “humor, sass and defiance, her passion and courage, her grief and determination.”

Then what to make of Jesus here?

“I am disappointed by Jesus, the clumsy humanity that comes barreling out of him,” Vazquez Torres said. “He reminds me of me. I feel revealed.”

And, she said, “I am convicted by the power of this woman’s witness. “Our Creator is responsive to our demands for justice and inclusion. Our Creator responds to metanoia, a turning around.”

Working for equality in the world means we must hold Jesus to account here, she said. “If we don’t, how will we hold ourselves to account? We have to train our eyes to women like this who are moral exemplars. We must emulate women like her who are creative, strategic and bold” and also those who are “accountable to the most vulnerable.”

“This woman is an ancestor in the faith,” Vazquez Torres said. “She models the aim of what claiming ourselves as queer is all about.”

The service was marked by lovely piano, vocal and violin selections by Chris Copley, the son of Rich Copley, communications strategist with Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Copley played and sang an original composition called “Make Me Sing” and, later in the service, played “Outside of Space,” the second of which he plans to reprise with lyrics during a story/poetry/variety slam that begins at 7 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday as part of the Presbyterian Week of Action, which can be seen here.

Vazquez Torres became emotional during her benediction, asking God to take us on our journeys and lead us to places we may not expect, bringing out “gifts we could not imagine having,” connecting us with people “in ways beyond our thinking” and “exposing us to realities that awaken our compassion.”

“May God confront our beliefs and dogma, shattering the illusion of certainty, which we cloak ourselves in,” Vazquez Torres said before pausing a moment.

“So, possess us. Posses us with a spirit of boldness … and dream with us for a world where no one is ever dismissed. Amen.”

Mr. Chance’s Church

With a nod to a certain children’s television pioneer and fellow Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, one of the PC(USA)’s most charming drag kings, became Mr. Chance, a character who, from the sanctuary of Broadway Presbyterian Church in New York City, read “Who Is My Neighbor?” a thoughtful retelling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan published by Flyaway Books and written by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, with illustrations by Denise Turu.

Mr. Chance, as depicted by the Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt (Screenshot)

“Who is a neighbor?” Mr. Chance asked children young and old during a story time that will be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday. “You might say it’s the person living next door to you, and that’s a good answer. You might say it’s the person down the street or down the hall, and that’s a good answer too. Or you might say your neighbor is somebody you see walking to school or to the park or to the store, even when you’ve got your mask on. These are all excellent answers, children, but I wonder — can your neighbor be somebody you don’t know, somebody different from you?”

Mr. Chance then proceeded to read the story, which details an encounter between a Blue named Midnight Blue and a Yellow named Lemon. The Blues and Yellows didn’t much care for each other until the day Lemon stops to help Midnight Blue after he’d fallen off his bike.

By the end of the story, “Everyone is hanging out together, eating, smiling, and they’re even playing together. It’s a beautiful thing. What a nice sight,” Mr. Chance said.

“Wasn’t that a nice story? And we got an answer to our question. Who is our neighbor? It’s the person next door or down the hall, or somebody we might not even know, somebody who doesn’t look like us, talk like us, eat the same food we do or sing the same songs we do.”

“Maybe,” Mr. Chance said, “it’s about how we can be neighbors to people when they need it. Maybe that’s the real question: How can we be neighbors to others?” Mr. Chance asked, peering straight into the camera. “Be helpful, show care to people, and share with others. Those are just some examples. Can you think of other ways to be neighbors? I’ll bet you’ve got some good ones.”

“If you’re looking for another awesome story like this one, you’ll find one just like this in the Bible,” Mr. Chance told the audience. “You got a Bible in your house? You’re good to go.”

“I’ll bet,” Mr. Chance concluded, “you didn’t know there’s another good story waiting for you right now. Here’s how to find it: Go out there and be a friend and neighbor to people and live your story, cause your story is waiting to be told. Mr. Chance here can’t wait to hear it. Go out there and live your story so you can come back and tell me all about it. Cool! I’ll talk to you later. Have a good day, friends!”

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