September 9, 2018
Last week, after a few weeks this summer in the Gospel of John, we came back to Mark’s Gospel, in a story in which Jesus talks about what is the key identity marker for Jews. Anyone remember what it was? God’s law. Jesus turned that on its head a bit, saying yes, the law is important, but more important than following the letter of the law about things like hand-washing, was considering how clean your heart is. In other words: are we living the lives of love, grace, justice and mercy that God calls us to live?
Today, in contrast to focusing on the distinction of Jews and Jewish laws, Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. Gentiles are non-Jews, people outside of the Jewish community. In Mark, Jesus is often taking great effort to venture into these non-Jewish areas, these places populated by “outsiders,” people who are even, in some cases, enemies of the Jewish people. So today he takes a journey to Tyre, a place far from his home in Galilee, where he encounters a Syrophoenician woman (so, she is Greek, and descended from people of Syria, and Phoenicia, two historic enemies of Jews). His encounter with this woman changes, or rather, opens up the scope of his ministry, and he continues onto another largely Gentile (non-Jewish) region to continue his ministry with this whole new segment of society. So, today’s story is an important turning point in Jesus’ ministry, from focusing on Jewish people, to opening his mission up to non-Jews.
The other two readings set this story up for us, by reflecting on the ways God, and believers in God, are always reaching out to undesirable or downtrodden populations to bring them the good news of God. These readings are full of life-giving words for those desperately in need of that news… even as they are challenging words for those of us accustomed to feeling comfortable in our faith and our lives. So let’s listen, and see what word God might be speaking this day to our hearts.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Is it just me, or does Jesus seem a little… off, in today’s Gospel reading? I mean, we usually picture him as the very embodiment of compassion, care, and availability, right, but today, he first enters a town and doesn’t want anyone to know it, wants to hide away for a while. And then, when someone comes to him for help, what does he do but insult her! “Can’t help you now,” he says. “Gotta help the children of Israel first. I’m not gonna throw their portion to the dogs!” Did he just… did he just call this woman a dog, and refuse to help her daughter? What?? This is not the Jesus we know and love!
It is one of the more puzzling interactions Jesus has, for sure. Interpreters have spilled much ink trying to figure this one out. Is this just an example of how Mark paints a much more human picture of Jesus? Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus exhibit more emotions, as well as more human frailty, even lack of knowledge at times, than we do in the other Gospels. So maybe Mark is saying that Jesus was tired, and a little bit irritable, snarky, and dismissive? I mean, we get that, right? We’ve all been there! But… does Jesus get snarky and dismissive? It opens a complex theological can of worms.
Or maybe, is Jesus testing the woman’s faith? Yeah, standing as the wise teacher who is seeing how bold she will be in her declaration, always with the intention of giving her what she asks, and letting her win the argument. That seems to fit better with our understanding of Jesus – even though I don’t especially like the idea of a God who tests our faith for sport, while our loved one lies in pain!
As I have grappled with this question, trying to understand where Jesus is coming from on this, I realized that really, it doesn’t matter that much to me. What matters more than why Jesus responded to this woman the way he did, is that the woman, who is an ethnic, religious, social “other” from Jesus, has the opportunity to proclaim, even to us, the truth: that Jesus is there for her, too. That her life, and the life of her daughter, matter, and should matter even to this Jewish teacher, even to this God. That she is worthy of God’s care, compassion, and love. This woman boldly proclaims that truth.
We have a complicated relationship with the truth these days, don’t we? Rudy Giuliani made news recently when he claimed on Meet the Press that, “truth isn’t truth.” He caught a lot of flack for that, as he should have, but I do sort of get where he was coming from. These days, it’s hard to know what really is the truth, and what is only some version of the truth, cherry-picked, or conveniently twisted or edited to support one viewpoint or disprove another. I find myself frequently coming back to Pontius Pilate’s poignant question during Jesus’s trial: “What is truth?”
Yet here, this woman of Syrophoenician origin, boldly proclaims a very important truth, and one that can absolutely be trusted: that she matters, and that her daughter matters, and that they are worthy of God’s attention and care.
But even that indisputable truth is not always an easy message to hear. Jesus seems to receive it readily enough, but for us? We sometimes have a hard time receiving the truth, especially when it rubs up in a bad way against something we believe and hold dear, when it challenges our viewpoint. Once we have decided what is the truth, I think a lot of us tend to close our minds and our hearts to anything that doesn’t fit with what we believe.
Perhaps that is why I am particularly drawn to what Jesus says in his next interaction with a Gentile, the man who is deaf and mute. Jesus doesn’t just lay hands on this man to heal him. He says to him, “Be opened.”
“Be opened.” This is message I know I need to hear, and one I think we could all stand to hear and take to heart. Be opened. Be opened to the movement of the Spirit. Be opened to learning something, even something that at first makes you uncomfortable. Be opened to the gifts of others, even others whom you don’t like. Be opened.
I remember once sitting in the office of my college band director. He was leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed tightly across his chest, when he started to reflect, as he often did. He said, “You know, I’ve been told you should never sit this way, arms crossed, when talking to someone. My teacher used to say, ‘Closed body, closed mind.’ But I don’t know – I think I have an open mind, but I just think it is comfy to sit this way!” Well yeah, it is also comfy to sit in our opinions and never let them be challenged. It is also comfortable to stay right where we feel safe, and know how things work. It is comfortable not to rock the boat, not to speak up when we know something is wrong. But I wouldn’t say any of those things are necessarily open, nor faithful! (That said, I do think my band director had a pretty open mind, despite his crossed arms!)
Be opened. Be opened to the truth, even uncomfortable truth. Be opened to ideas, even ideas you think would never work. Be opened to the possibility that you might be wrong, and someone else is right. Be opened to change, even if you love where and how you are. Be opened.
I think this is a valuable word for us today, on Rally Day, as we begin a new program year. We have some exciting things on the horizon. We are trying a new way of doing Sunday School that will teach the kids Bible stories as well as help them grow into a community and teach them to pray aloud for one another. We hope the model we are using, based on FAITH5 practice, will find its way also into the homes of families, increasing and deepening the faith and prayer practices of all ages. We are exploring some stewardship and mission goals that we hope will excite and compel people to be more generous in their giving. We have several new members who are eager to share their unique gifts and passions with this community.
Some of these things are objectively exciting, and will be easily received. Some might require some risk. Some might require some patience, as we work through the inevitable tough spots. All of them require for us to “be opened” – to listen to one another, to be kind and responsive, to entertain the possibility of sitting in a position that might not be as comfortable at first, but one which will absolutely make us grow stronger in mission and in faith.
All of them, I hope, will equip and empower us to boldly proclaim the truth: That ours is a God who loves, who cares, who heals, who brings life, both to those on the inside, and those who are “other,” who are different from us. That ours is a God who never promised that we would be comfortable, but rather, who always invites us to move, to change, and to grow. I hope we will be empowered to proclaim that ours is a God who listens to our needs, who equips us to boldly share our stories, and who bids that we “be opened” to the possibilities of new life that God places before us.
And so let us “be opened,” my friends. As we enter into this new, exciting year of ministry, let us be opened and responsive to the ways that God will move within, among, and around us.
Let us pray. Moving God, you make the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the dead unstopped. With you, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Make it so also with us, dear Lord. Make us bold to listen, be opened, and boldly proclaim your truth. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.