Helen Kennedy’s sermon from September 6 on Mark 7:24-37
Note: Unfortunately we don’t have the audio for this sermon, but do encourage you to take a few minutes to read the text. Read it, mull it over, and then ask yourself how we might respond…
Did Jesus just call that lady and her daughter a dog? If he did, that is a bit rude, in fact a lot rude! Some commentaries will tell you that Jesus was tired after his long journey deep into the heart of gentile territory, and that this interaction was a slip in his composure, he was frustrated and a bit snappy. He didn’t really mean it. Others will tell you that this was a test, Jesus was testing the receptiveness of the locals and wanted to see if she was there for a free ride, that it was not about faith, the woman wanted a quick fix for her daughter. So, because Jesus finally healed the daughter, she must have passed the test. Then there are even others who will tell you that the word ‘dog’ is not as harsh as it sounds, he is referring to her as a kind of pet. None of these are particularly satisfactory, because I do think that Jesus said, ‘Sorry, what I have to offer is not for the likes of you.’
Then I came across a couple of untraditional answers or further explanations as to why Jesus would be so exclusive, abrupt and closed. Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus had not yet realized the full extent of the radical nature of the kingdom he proclaimed, and that Jesus is in fact, learning this stuff too.
It is all too easy to want Jesus to be perfect, with no short comings at all. Jesus knows everything, all the time, right? It makes life easier if that is the case, because then someone familiar, someone dependable is in charge, and we have less responsibility. However, if we are to take Mark’s narrative seriously, and we are faithful in our belief of Jesus’ humanity, then perhaps we should not be surprised to see a development in Jesus’ own understanding of God’s vision for the world. The Syrophoenician woman may have been prophetic in her interaction with Jesus, she may have been an embodiment of Isaiah, revealing to him a broader vision. If so – if we can imagine that this woman didn’t simply pass a clever test but instead, and as Jesus himself says, demonstrated profound faith, this fierce mother has much to teach us.
The Syrian woman forced Jesus to look at the situation of another in a different light, from a different perspective. Even the dogs under the table get the children’s crumbs. This week in our news we have had a Syrian child demand of us to look at the situations of countless others in a different light or from a different perspective. They have said “Please let us in, and allow us to have the crumbs from your table.” We are struggling with our response to that?
This woman also teaches us about the nature of faith. We have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus’ time. But we do know that she believed her child was. She was convinced that her precious, beloved child who was being oppressed by an unclean spirit was absolutely deserving of Jesus’ attention and so she was willing to go to great lengths to help her, even to the point of risking her life for the chance of change. That is also echoed in this weeks news. Faith shows itself most fully when exercised on behalf of others. These past few weeks the world has been shaken awake to the oppression of Syrian refugees, whose realities make fleeing to the unknown, in unsafe vessels preferable to staying.
So let’s talk about refugees. Let’s talk about Syria. Not statistics, nor graphic photos, nor politicising – the internet is full of all of that. Let’s talk about what we – the church – are doing about it.
Our Primate Fred Hiltz, has written an open letter that calls for prayer and action; our Bishop has written to all churches with a similar call; our diocesan refugee coordinator is encouraging congregations to sponsor a refugee or family. Our Diocese is a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the government, so we have easier access to offer much needed support to welcome the stranger. This is faith in action, and our actions are exactly what James is talking about in his letter.
Seriously, the lectionary readings could not have been more appropriate for the specific circumstances of this weeks events. It is good to ask of ourselves, how is our faith calling us to action? How are we inspired to live out the love that God has given us to share? We start, of course, with worship. We start in community. We start in this holy place of redemption. The collect of the day, the short prayer after our opening song said today “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, to bear the fruit of good works” Stir us up, our faith is meant to stir us up to see a hardness in the world, and to then take action to do something about the hardness, the suffering, the hurt. Our faith inspires our actions – our actions grow out as a response to the wonderful gift of faith. That is what the church is to do, remembering that a church is a collection of people, not a building or an inanimate institution.
Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people,
that richly bearing the fruit of good works,
we may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
We find our true selves most deeply in community, in relationship, and when we are advocating for another. As in the story in the second part of our Gospel, where a deaf and mute man, who also has others speak on his behalf, is brought to Jesus for healing. Jesus, gives to the man (privately) his physical restoration, and to his friends a spiritual re-affirmed faith. So today’s gospel is also benefit to our own faith, when we are willing to ask God for help on behalf of someone else. Our sense of mission and energy and spirit will be renewed when we identify those around us who need our advocacy and care.
Elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that only those who give away their lives will find it. I think that’s true both in our individual and congregational experience. Jesus first learned just how true that is from this fiercely loving Syrian mother, one that he initially dismissed. We are invited this week to learn from other Syrian mothers, to look again, think again, not dismiss but rather to put our faith into action for the benefit of another.
That is our faith, that is our call, what is our action? I leave you with that! AMEN