Preached at St Martin’s, Detroit on Pentecost 15. Mark 7:24-37. Text has been edited from the original.
The fall has always been my favorite time of year. There is an air of excitement about it to me. Perhaps it’s because I always loved school and the return to learning and being challenged. I also love the change of season that happens because I’m not a big fan of heat. The cool, crisp air. The bright colors that display a brilliant flame of life just before we move into the hibernation of winter.
There are other factors that add to the excitement, of course: football games, marching band season, harvest, apple cider and donuts (which, I’m told is a very big thing here in Michigan that I very much look forward to experiencing!), political races (if that’s your thing), friends returning from vacation, social gatherings. It seems to be a time of year when we most often feel the abundance of life – the abundance of God’s grace.
Sometimes, however, our experience doesn’t exactly feel “abundant”. There are periods in our own life as well as in the life of community in which not all is well and we wish to return to a time that felt more comfortable, less stressed. More satisfying, less scarce. Hope seemd to drain when we acknowledge we don’t have enough to do what we think we need to do. We can wonder where God’s grace is. And we can feel desperate, lonely, confused, depressed.
And when we don’t feel supported, when we feel stretched – similar to when Bilbo Baggins says he feels… “thin. Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread. When we feel this way, it becomes hard to offer much of ourselves. And hearing our call to ministry, as obvious as the Holy Spirit can be sometimes – even when She’s kneeling at your feet… hearing our call to ministry is usually beyond our capacity.
As baptized members of the Body of Christ, we all have ministry. We all have gifts to share as we participate in the coming of God’s Kingdom. We all have ministry to inhabit. Some of that ministry is within the life of the congregation, within the walls of this church. And some of that ministry is beyond the walls of this church building, in the larger community around us. Because Christ is not limited, cannot be limited, to the walls of this building or any building we humans erect.
But while Christ’s mission is most certainly not limited to what we do at church, being church together – being the Body of Christ together – is a significant and meaningful ministry that gives us sustenance to be the Body of Christ in the larger world around us. It holds us up. A community of faith helps us to feel God’s abundance so that we can bring Christ into the world around us. This community helps us to hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper, to look through the prejudicial conditioning and see the Kingdom of God kneeling at our feet.
This “holy” often comes to us unawares, unbidden. God’s Holy Spirit is always moving among us and through us and between us and in us. It is our responsibility as creatures of God, to listen. Even and especially when it’s hard to.
And today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark offers us such an amazing lesson in listening to the Holy Spirit when it is particularly hard to hear.
Now, I must admit that the lesson of the Syrophoenician woman is one of my favorites in the gospel stories. And it is because Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this apparently despicable woman. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is humbled by God’s Holy Spirit – telling him, teaching him, reminding him of God’s Kingdom. And it’s not necessarily an easy lesson.
To give you a little background, the Syrophoenician woman was a non-Jew. And in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles. This is his first time meeting someone who doesn’t know and follow Jewish law largely because he’s ventured outside the walls of Israel. This is the first time he is truly faced with a new reality of what the Kingdom of God is about and who belongs there.
You see, the region of Tyre where Jesus has traveled to, is enemy territory. The nation of Israel had, for centuries, been invaded by people from this region. So, the Jewish people understood that those from this region were not benign neighbors that they simply did not want to associate with. Rather, the people of this region were seen as dangerous terrorists. Untrustworthy people of the worst kind. Despicable creatures that one could barely call human.
As if that’s not enough to make any normal first-century Jew highly suspicious, this is a woman! At a time and in a culture where women were considered property and social customs prevented any contact between women and men, especially one as intimate as this where they are alone, this interaction between this vile, loathsome woman and Jesus is absolutely scandalous.
So, Jesus, a Jewish man, goes into enemy territory – to a place where the people have invaded the land of his own people and they have tortured and killed his ancestors for centuries – and he encounters a shameless woman who begs for her daughter to be healed.
And Jesus’ first response is so human. He’s defensive and judgmental. He’s unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit at first because he’s so weighed down by expectations and by cultural conditioning. Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him. And he calls her a dog.
A dog. This is a huge insult. Even worse than it sounds to us because the Jews of this time saw dogs as filthy, unclean, pest-ridden, disgusting animals. They were not kept as pets or even as working animals. They were scourges and scavengers. They were scum.
So, here’s our Lord and Savior – this man we put on a pedestal, this person who we know to have given us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter… he’s calling her scum. And then it happens.
Something inside of him opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman. Something helped him to open his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him. Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved forward in compassionate ministry in the healing of this woman’s suffering little girl.
Jesus is never more real to me than in this story. And it is here that I find great comfort, that I find immeasurable healing. For the message I glean from this story is one that tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s Kingdom is indeed boundless – it extends to all people regardless of my personal issues with them and any cultural conditioning I might have been raised with.
It tells me that God is with me, even in my most sinful moments where I’m too tired or too spent or simply cannot be bothered with the Kingdom that kneels before me.
It is also a story that tells me that I am always called into ministry – beyond boundaries, beyond even the walls of the church. I’m called again and again and again – just as we all are – into ministry in the most uncomfortable, and yes, sometimes scary places.
And perhaps those places aren’t so scary after all, those unfamiliar places beyond the walls, the safety net of our cultural understanding of what church is or what it has to be. And knowing this, seems to make tough decisions just a little easier and uncomfortable situations just a bit more tolerable.
And so, how are we called to drop our expectations today?
How are we called to reimagine the Kingdom today?
How are we being asked to open ourselves and move forward in compassionate ministry that offers healing to the world… today?
When we consider our ministry, the foundation for that ministry as the Body of Christ, is found in our baptismal vows. That is when we were baptized into the Body of Christ, when we were baptized into ministry. It helps us to be reminded of these vows because they point us to Christ’s mission. They signal God’s dream.
So, I’d like to ask you all to do something with me. I’d like it if you could take out your prayer books and look at our baptismal vows with me. So that we can perhaps hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit in the words of our vows and reflect a bit on our ministry as the Body of Christ.
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
I will, with God’s help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
I will, with God’s help.
I’d like to ask that we spend the next few moments in silence, inviting the Holy Spirit into our experience right now. And ask ourselves,
“How am I being asked to embody my baptismal ministry? How can I better see the Kingdom of God that kneels in front of me?”