Sermon from Sunday, September 6, 2015
From time to time, I think about doing a sermon series on things I wish Jesus had never said. Of course, if we wait long enough, almost all of them come up in the assigned texts for Sundays, but I sometimes imagine lining them all up over six or eight weeks. My list would include things like,
- “I came to set fire to the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” Huh?
- And then there is the blanket statement, “You cannot serve God and money.” I’ve always wanted to try my negotiation skills with Jesus on that one. “Really, Jesus, let’s try to break out of binary thinking.”
- Let’s not forget the vivid “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off!” which has to be hyperbole, doesn’t it?
- And then there is the word to a Greek woman begging for her daughter’s healing: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
The sentence dehumanizes the woman and it insults her: dogs were pretty much all dirty and scavengers. It’s not that a simple refusal would be that much easier to deal with, but couldn’t Jesus have just said, “No”? The comment is embarrassing, like when one of your cousins drinks too much beer and starts throwing around the N word.
It is embarrassing for Jesus to talk this way. And yet talking this way is completely in character for a first century rabbi. Here is a line from the writings that would come to be called the Talmud: “As the sacred food was intended for men, but not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the Gentiles” (bHagigah 13a). The Torah was seen to elevate the people to whom it was given. They were—or at least they were supposed to be—morally superior to those without the Law. At some points in history, that status kind of went to their heads.
The woman, though, doesn’t care about any of that. She doesn’t try to talk Jesus out of his assessment of her. She accepts his premise, and argues from it for help: “Even the dogs under that table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Something shifts in him. Maybe he thinks back to the way 5000 Jews had just days before had enough to eat in the desert. Why, the disciples collected 12 baskets of leftovers! He had been impatient with the Pharisees after that: a display of God’s power like that, and they wanted only to ask about whether his followers were washing their hands before eating. Didn’t they see what God was doing? Hypocrites! They were always straining the gnat and swallowing the camel. He was in Tyre because he had just had it with such small-mindedness. He needed a break.
There is more than you think, the woman from Tyre had told him. It was pretty much exactly what he had been trying to teach the disciples. Five loaves. Two fish. 5000 filled, with leftovers. The Gentile woman—he had called her a dog but she was, of course, a person—the Gentile had reminded him, there is more than you think. There is bread for children and for dogs.
Jesus sees her point, and announces to her the healing of her daughter. The God who fed all those people in the desert has enough for a mother in Tyre and her little girl.
Often, we take comfort in thinking of Jesus as the smartest guy in the room—any room he is in, I mean.
- We remember that when he was 12 years old, he astonished the teachers in the temple with his understanding of the law.
- We are not surprised that he can see where his message will take him long before the disciples are able to understand the danger.
- We enjoy watching him outwit those who quiz him with questions like, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” or “Who is my neighbor?”
But in that house north of Galilee, outside of Jewish territory, the smartest guy in the room learns something he seems not to have known before: the kingdom of God is at hand—on both sides of the border, simultaneously. We know from other stories in the Bible that God’s work in the world is routinely a surprise to insiders. The religious leaders from Jerusalem, and the people from Nazareth, and the disciples all have inside information that should mean they are better than others at understanding Jesus, but it doesn’t work that way. They miss what is right in front of them. In this morning’s gospel reading, the most “inside” of insiders misses something at first too. And he learns something about the wideness of God’s mercy and the reach of God’s rule.
We know Jesus learns about these things because he embodies them in the next two stories. First, some friends bring a man to Jesus and ask for his help. Something similar had happened earlier in the gospel when friends of a paralyzed man dug through a roof and lowered their friend to Jesus. Now, in response to another man’s friends, Jesus heals someone else, and astounds all those who see the man and hear him speak clearly. In the second story, while Jesus is still in gentile territory, he feeds another crowd. Finally, there are more than crumbs under the table for the gentiles: 4000 are fed, and the disciples are again filling to-go boxes with leftovers.
There is more than you think. This is the news of the first multiplication of loaves, and the second, and the healing events that happen in between them. In spite of the shocking rebuke that Jesus initially offers the woman, the gospel reading is not about dogs but children, children of God that is, more of them in more places than even Jesus imagined at first. The gospel proclaims an abundance of healing and food—both of which bring to life the reality of God’s reign stretching across geographical boundaries and ethnic ones.
So here we are with a story of abundance and healing, set alongside this week’s news. On the world scene, we hear reports of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since 1945. Nationally, we are focused on the stock market’s ongoing “correction.” Personally, a least a dozen of us are either dealing with a serious health concern or attending a loved one who is.
What would it mean to bring this story into conversation with the week’s news?
1. Without the story, we might be tempted to conclude that the foreigner and especially the outsider to our religion are frightening, or at the very least, not our problem. Maybe part of what this story means is that the Syrians and others seeking refuge in Europe and around the world are children of God, just as that woman from the Roman province of Syria and her daughter were children of God.
The refugees coming to the west have value because they are beloved of God. They have value also because of what they can teach the rest of us about God’s abundance. Jesus, a Jew, dismissed the woman from Tyre as beyond the scope of God’s mission, until she taught him that God’s provision was more than enough even for someone as needy as a gentile mother with a sick child. Maybe refugees and other needy people today will teach us the same lesson: there is more bread than you think, enough for you and your admittedly very needy neighbor.
2. Speaking of bread, no matter what it does, the stock market was never—and will never be—where your security lies, or mine, or ours as a congregation. “You have died,” Paul tells the Colossians, “And your life is hid with Christ in God.” Your life is hid with Christ in God. That is better than the best portfolio. In the Ash Wednesday liturgy one of the sins we confess to God is “our intemperate love of worldly goods.” I have maybe as much intemperate love of worldly goods as anyone, but even I know that they cannot be trusted. Lean on them, and sooner or later, you will find yourself off balance.
To an audience of peasants, Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” How much more would he say those words to us today?
3. Finally, this word of abundance and boundary crossing comes to us as we are praying for ourselves and our friends.
- We pray for those with progressive illnesses that will not get better.
- We pray for friends facing surgery and those recovering from it.
- We pray for those who are attending the deaths of loved ones or finding their way through grief and loss.
For all of you whose personal circumstances are more difficult and pressing than the far away things on the TV news, the Syrophonecian woman offers solidarity. She is, after all, the mother of a sick child.
Martin Luther had much to say about the nature of prayer at times when it seems that the response you get is rebuke or silence. He described it as an experience of the hiddenness of God.
It is not that God is absent, just hidden—which feels like the same thing when you’re going through it, but which is not the same thing. When God is hidden, we might pray something like this: “I cannot see you, but I know you. I met you in Jesus, after all, and I know you finally cannot turn a deaf ear to my plea and still be the God revealed in Christ.” We pray appealing to the character of God whom we know as one who forgives sin, heals disease, and provides bread to the hungry. “Show up, now,” we pray. “Be who you have shown yourself to be in Jesus.” It is an uppity prayer, but then the remark of the mother from Tyre was also kind of uppity.
The Syrophonecian woman is at least as much a gift to us as she was to Jesus. Her story makes us wince, and brings us hope. There is more than you think. There is still more of God’s provision in desolate places and for desperate people, than we could have imagined without her.