Saturday, September 12, 2015

This Dog Cannot Wait

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches this past Sunday, 9/6. The Gospel was Mark 7:24-37. 

          There is nothing easy in today's gospel reading, especially in the first story about Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who wanted healing for her daughter. It's a head scratcher and there are some things in this story that disturb us.
            Did we really hear Jesus say what he said to the woman? He sounded mean and angry. Maybe if we have a better understanding of the text and the culture his words won't seem as harsh. Wwwwwrrrroong! I tried that, but it didn't work. Jesus' words were anything but kind. As a matter of fact, they were outright rude!
            Jesus is exhausted after so much ministry. He is attempting to escape from the demands of the crowds. It didn't work when he went off to a Jewish area, so he gets away to a Gentile area and it didn't work here either. 
I can't help but think of encounters between well-known entertainers or politicians who always try to escape the paparazzi, yet without success. Reporters and photographers always find out where these people are. So it was with Jesus.
The Syrophoenician woman had guts. Not only was she a woman, but she was a Gentile. By approaching Jesus, she was breaking the mores and codes of the day. It was not easy for a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish teacher for help. Love for her child brought the woman across boundaries of gender, religion and ethnic origins. The woman breaks through the barrier of tradition that was getting in the way of what God wanted to do.
Not only did the Syrophoenician woman have guts, but she had faith.  She engages Jesus with what she believes to be true about him--that through him God's mercy will extend even to her. So many distinctions separated Jesus and herself: (including race, gender and religion), yet she believes Jesus is a Savior who has the power to heal all people and that she, though not a Jew, is a member God’s family.
How does Jesus respond to this mother who is desperate to have her child healed? Jesus refers to her as a dog!  "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (v. 27).
For the Jewish people, dogs were outsiders, scavengers and disdained as animals who eat unclean food. Any of us who have every had dogs know that they eat the grossest things. Jews might throw leftover food outside to be consumed by wild dogs, but would never have dogs in their house or “under the table" during a meal.
On the other hand, for Gentiles, who had domesticated animals, a dog was an insider, a member of the family who was not at the table, but still plays under it and benefits from the excess of the children's food and without waiting till the meal is over.
There is no escape from the sharp meaning of this text. It is a very insulting, sharp rebuke. Jesus declares, that for the present, the Jewish "children" are being "fed," but that later the Gentile "dogs" will also be "fed." Gentiles too will be included in the messianic salvation, but they just have to wait.
The woman does not directly react to the insulting term Jesus used. She addresses him as "Sir" which means "Lord." In fact, she is the only person in Mark's gospel to address Jesus with this title. She accepts his authority and affirms what would come to be the Christian confession of Jesus as Lord.
The Syrophoenician woman stands toe to toe with Jesus, she recognized that Jesus had the ability to control cosmic and demonic forces -- and challenges what he is saying. This woman challenged the very system of salvation. She could not wait for the future inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. Her daughter needed Jesus' power and she needed it now.
Despite possible prejudice, this woman is feisty and persistent. She is better able to engage Jesus' challenge than his own disciples. She accepts Jesus' metaphor, but adapts it to her own needs. A shift of imagery takes place. The woman uses the ambiguity surrounding the word dog to turn the demeaning metaphor to her advantage. Her retort reverses the prejudices on both sides of the debate. Jewish peasants may have considered themselves superior to the Gentiles of the city.
Jesus reverses his original response and acts on the basis of what the woman has said. The great miracle in this gospel text is not only that Jesus heal the woman's daughter, but the prejudice and boundaries that separate people is overcome.
Jesus isn't bested in an argument and does not capitulate, but like God, does reverse a previous decision. The encounter was not about male/female or Jew/Gentile, but divine/human, in which God ultimately responds to human needs. In the gospel exchange between the woman and Jesus, her need called even Jesus to a fuller understanding of God's grace.
            This incident between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman was a turning point in Jesus' ministry. It was the beginning of Jesus' ministry to the Gentiles. The story is told in the framework of traditional understanding of salvation history, but in such a way that the explosive newness of God's act in Christ cannot wait. The gospel does not always wait for theology to catch up with it.
            How does this apply to us individually? We are the faith descendants of this woman who was the consummate outsider in every way. In the waters of baptism, all distinctions have been washed away. These waters surprise us with mercy in unexpected places. The baptismal waters open our eyes, unstop our ears and loose our tongues to see, hear and speak to the poor, the weak and the outcast. The Holy Spirit fills us with faith--an active faith that shows limitless grace and mercy.
            Who are the outsiders, the dogs that we fear in our community? What people will snatch away the blessings reserved for the chosen, take up too much of God's mercy, take up too much of our time or simply are not properly housebroken? Is it the homeless? We have shelters so they are taken care of. Is it teenagers or children? We love to have them at church as long as they are quiet or are tucked away in Sunday School. How do we feel about the mentally ill, the poor, the rich? We have agencies that take care of the mentally ill and the poor. And what about the rich? What do they need? They're able to take care of themselves, aren't they?
How does this affect us as a church? It was made clear to the unprepared Jesus, that it was God's will for him to heal the Syrophoenician woman's daughter. As much as he tried, he was never able to escape the needs of those around him because needy people were drawn to the compassionate Son of God.
            It is difficult for us in our day to appreciate the intensity of the struggles of the early church as it opened its doors to non-Jews. We see some of this in Paul's letter to the Galatians, the letter to the Romans and in the book of Acts. It is only difficult to understand until we look at our own church and churches in our area and begin to wrestle with barriers, that may be invisible and unspoken, that continue to separate people of various races, nationalities and economic means. Originally, we may have been a church of Swedes, but now we have welcomed others, some of whom weren't even raised Lutheran!
Today there are no crowds of people chasing the physical Jesus from town to town. Instead, people notice Jesus in the lives, words and actions of Christians. That means us! -whether one person or many, Jesus is there in and with them.
What kind of people will God bring to us as a church? All kinds! If we are letting the healing, saving life of Christ work through us, people will be drawn to us. We will find ourselves involved in conversations with people when our plan was to go to the store and shop for food, to fill the gas tank with gas or to get away from it all on vacation. Do you really think we can stifle and shut down God's presence in us?
            As worshippers today, we are like the Syrophoenician woman and like her we can enter into the community of faith, have our demons overcome by Christ, and eat the crumbs which have become a banquet from the table. With the Syrophoenician woman, we pray for everyone in need of healing.
            Like our Lord, we may be reluctant healers and helpers. As Jesus ministered to outsiders, God will use us to do so as well. We may not appreciate those he brings our way. They may be sick, poor, uneducated or healthy, rich and well-educated. Those God brings us may be feisty and gutsy, firmly believing God wants them to journey with us and wants to bless them through our ministry here.
Are we ready for the task?
Amen!

Resources:
Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Mark in Two Voices
M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary
Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume VIII, Matthew, Mark

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