A sermon preached on September 9, 2018 (Proper 18) at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Click here to read the day’s scripture.
I saw an image on Facebook yesterday.
It was a young woman and a small child on a roller coaster… probably one of those kiddie roller coasters. The woman looked forward towards the coming hill laughing with smiling excitement as she held onto the child’s hand.
The child, however, had that look of clenching and fear on his face as he gripped the safety bar in front of him…
And the caption read… God says: “I have a plan for your life.”
The woman was labeled as “Holy Spirit.” The child was labeled as “You.”
It’s a hilarious image, of course. God’s Holy Spirit grabs us by the hand sometimes and takes us on a scary ride. Why is the Holy Spirit laughing? It’s not because she loves your pain. The Holy Spirit laughs because God is excited for you…
how you will be opened, how you will be moved,
how you will be transformed,
how you will be resurrected into a new creation.
We can’t always see what God sees, however. So it feels scary to us. Change always does. So we resist. We lose the ability to listen because we are certain that we know the right thing to do. We lose the capacity to be taught anything new because we already know the answers. And we lose the willingness to become anything but what we’ve always been.
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus entered the region of Tyre. To the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, this means Jesus entered enemy territory. The people of Tyre struck fear into the hearts of Jews because, for centuries, Israel had been invaded by people from this region.
These were not simply unsavory neighbors they had to put up with. The people of Tyre were seen as dangerous terrorists – completely untrustworthy and immoral beasts that one could barely call human.
And Jesus, for some reason is called to cross the border into the region of Tyre. From the safety and familiarity of his home into a place of danger and risk. Facing the repellent, despicable creatures he has feared since before he can remember… because he was taught to hate them. He was conditioned to fear them.
We’re halfway through Mark’s Gospel and this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles. Jesus is meeting people who don’t know and follow Jewish law because it’s the first time he’s crossed that border.
Why does he do this? Why should he do this? Why should he bother with these people?
The original hearers of this story know that Jesus is a Jew and his teaching is for those who understand what he’s talking about. Jesus’ healing is for his people – the people oppressed by Roman occupation. He has come as a Jewish messiah, for the nation of Israel, so that Israel might be free.
So, why does Jesus, a Jewish man, go into enemy territory – a place of fear and unknowing? It’s clear how he feels about these people because he insults the first person he meets. He encounters a brazen woman who begs on her knees before him that her daughter might be healed.
And he says, “God’s children deserve God’s healing love, not you – you who are a dog.”
A dog. This is a huge insult. Even worse than it sounds to us because Jewish people 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 garbage.
Jesus has told the Syrophoenician woman, she is garbage.
Think about what Jesus is doing here.
Think about how Mark is telling this story.
Here’s our Lord and Savior – this person we put on a pedestal, this person who gave us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter a dog. He’s calling her garbage.
Without thinking, he dismisses her. Out of his conditioned contempt for her people, because of what he has been raised to believe in his context which tells him she is not worthy to receive the grace of God. He doesn’t see her humanity at all.
And this woman, whom Jesus finds despicable and easily dismissed, looks up at him, a person of power, as she’s vulnerably kneeling in front of him and she defies his dismissal and claims her place as a child of God. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Even my Syrophoenician life matters.”
Deacon Sue’s beautiful sermon last week reminded us of our call to walk with people who are stuck in poverty. The stories are heart wrenching as we watch what our society’s systems of power do to people who don’t have privilege. We see it most readily in places like People’s Place as we witness the cycle of poverty.
It’s heartening to know that our Outreach efforts make real differences in people’s lives. And, as Sue reminded us, that these efforts are more than just ways to help other people – they are important to our own spiritual health as we learn to share God’s providence with our neighbors.
They are ways for us to cross the borders into places we might find scary. They are ways for us to be opened up by God’s Holy Spirit. When we are in real relationship with the people we serve, we find ourselves being changed.
Perhaps that’s why we might find it hard to be of service sometimes. We might find ourselves on that roller coaster, being asked by the Holy Spirit to learn something new.
The question, as it always is: Are we able to be opened? Are we able be taught by God’s Holy Spirit? Are we able to listen, really listen? Or do we shut down and refuse to be in real relationship with people who live lives unlike ours?
Jesus’ first response to the Syrophoenician woman is so human. He’s defensive and judgmental, unable to see her as human and unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit because he’s so weighed down by expectations and cultural conditioning.
Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him in the face of this Syrophoenician woman. And because of that, he calls her a dog.
And the Syrophoenician woman responds, “But my life matters.”
Something inside of Jesus decided to listen. Some part of Jesus opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman. So that he could go on and teach others how to be opened. Something helped him to refocus his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him.
Jesus demonstrates for us what it means to be opened, to be awakened out of our certainties. Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved in compassion to heal this woman’s suffering little girl. And when he saw the humanity of the one he feared and dismissed, he released both himself and the woman’s offspring from the shackles of hatred and fear. Both became free.
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.
If Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this “despicable” woman…
If Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is opened by her – telling him, teaching him, reminding him that God’s Reign has no boundaries, no borders…
Then I too might be saved from my own prejudices.
I might be made a new creation if I am but willing to be taught… to open myself up and listen. If even Jesus needed to be opened up, then there is hope for me too.
Can I be that vulnerable? Can I surrender my certainty long enough to be taught by that which is right in front of my face? Can I… can we listen? Or will I be like that little child on the roller coaster, clenching and holding on for dear life, resisting the whole ride.
The implication here is a challenging one for us to bear because it requires us to be as vulnerable as Jesus was in that moment. The implication is that we need one another. It’s that simple. We need one another so that we can be freed from our presumptions and our certainties.
Jesus crosses the border into a land of people he thought to be brutal, wicked terrorists so that he would come to know their humanity, to know there is no border, no boundary to God’s liberating, life-giving love.
May we follow our Savior so that we may we be opened too. And may we enjoy the ride.