St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.
When you picture Jesus, what is he like? Most often I imagine him walking through the streets, surrounded by a crowd, teaching, preaching, and healing people. Sometimes I picture him sitting around a table with his disciples, cracking jokes, grateful for a chance to rest after a long day. Jesus must have had a magnetic personality to attract so many followers. Perhaps it’s because I’m an introvert, but I tend to envision Jesus speaking not so much with a booming voice, but commanding respect from a place within of deep peace and conviction, with a twinkle in his eye.
To be sure, these are all safe images. I would venture to say that most of us do not like to think about the angry Jesus who throws the tables in the temple over and chases people out with whips or the Jesus who turns away a disciple because he wants to bury his father first. But all of these images together make up a more complete picture of the complex person who we know Jesus to be.
We are faced with another uncomfortable version of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus has been traveling around for some time now, healing and teaching and performing miracles. He has selected his disciples, lost his cousin John the Baptist, fed thousands of people, walked hundreds of miles on dusty roads surrounded by crowds, and as we heard last week, the Pharisees—religious leaders—have been on his back, criticizing his methods. He’s undoubtedly exhausted! So he heads up into a land occupied mostly by foreigners where no one knows him so he can escape from all of it for a while. The text says “Jesus…went away to the region of Tyre…entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (Mark 7:24). However, his respite is short-lived; he cannot “escape notice” for a local woman hears about him “immediately” (vv. 24, 25).
I don’t know about you, but I tend to get a bit grumpy when I don’t get enough rest, especially when I’ve been traveling for a long time. And my attitude is not improved when, just as I’ve put my feet up and begun to relax, someone asks a favor of me, especially when that person is a stranger and not a close friend or family member. So I can certainly relate to Jesus’ impatience when the Syrophoenician woman interrupts his well-deserved vacation.
The woman is desperate; her little girl has “an unclean spirit” and she is at her wit’s end. She has heard a rumor that a healer is in town, one who has cast out demons on several occasions. Maybe he can heal her daughter!! She busts into the house where Jesus is staying and throws herself at his feet, begging him to cure her child.
The woman’s request is not an unusual one. Jesus has already cured a Gentile man possessed by demons earlier in Mark’s Gospel (5:1-20). Why is his reaction to her so strong? Jesus’ rude response calling the woman and her daughter dogs is not simply a retort from our weary, aggravated Lord. No, this response comes from a place much deeper than that. Jesus has grown up a Jew, the son of Jewish parents, in a Jewish community. Being Jewish, as far as his family and community are concerned, is his primary identity. The Jews of the time keep to themselves, as do the other ethnic and religious groups. The Jews are God’s chosen people, and there are laws in place preventing them from mingling with people of other faiths, lest they become tempted by their neighbor’s gods.
When we segregate ourselves we begin to view people not part of our group as “other”, which can easily translate to “less than”, especially if there is a power differential involved. In this case, the wealthy landowners in the region of Tyre have been exploiting their Jewish neighbors.* And so it is from this place of deep-seated distrust and prejudice that Jesus calls the woman and her little girl dogs, not worthy to receive the same treatment as God’s chosen children.
Let that sink in for a moment. In this passage we have been privy to a very human moment in Jesus’ life. This is not the kind, compassionate Jesus we like to think about. Jesus’ prejudice is showing, and it is not pretty; prejudice doesn’t look good on anyone, least of all the Son of God.
Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. The courageous woman comes right back and declares that God is big enough to also provide for her and her people, even if they are dogs and not God’s chosen children. There is room for everyone at God’s table.
I can imagine the look of shock on Jesus’ face at being spoken to in such a way by a Gentile woman. And then almost as quickly the dawning realization as the woman’s words begin to sink in that his mission is much larger than he initially thought. The Syrophoenician woman has done the incredible: she has changed Jesus’ mind.
There are only two times in the Bible where Jesus changes his mind. One is this instance today, and one is at the wedding in Cana, when Mary convinces Jesus to perform his first miracle and turn water into wine (John 2:1-11). Both times it is women who convince him to change. In a patriarchal society, this is huge!
The woman’s love, courage, and conviction change Jesus’ mind, opening him up to expand his ministry and reach out to all people, and not just his own.
The next story in today’s passage is another healing one, and it serves as a metaphor for Jesus’ newly-broadened vision. Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. Just as the man’s ears are opened, Jesus has been opened to the universality of God’s love.
The Good News of God’s universal love is especially pertinent today. The Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, sent a letter to clergy this week, “calling on Episcopal congregations to participate in ‘Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday’ on September 6.” In light of the systemic racism found in our society brought to the Church’s awareness especially on June 17th in Charleston, South Carolina, we are joining our sisters and brothers in the AME Church and other denominations in praying for and working toward an end to racism. In the Presiding Bishop’s letter, she quoted AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, who said, “Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking. This is an effort which the faith community must lead, and be the conscience of the nation. We will call upon every church, temple, mosque and faith communion to make their worship service on this Sunday a time to confess and repent for the sin and evil of racism, this includes ignoring, tolerating and accepting racism, and to make a commitment to end racism by the example of our lives and actions.”
Katherine Jefferts Schori’s letter goes on to inform us that this summer at General Convention, a resolution was passed stating that, “The Church understands and affirms that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant” (Resolution C019 of the 78th General Convention).
The vows we make in our Baptismal Covenant include the promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). We are called to examine our lives to see where our prejudice shuts people out rather than welcoming them in, and where our privilege gives us unfair advantages over others.
In our world we are inundated with information and images. Every day we hear of horrible things happening around the world and in our own backyard. Admittedly, the enormity of the pain and suffering and tragedy is overwhelming, and it’s much easier to block out the sound of distress than to try to choose where to start helping. But we can no longer keep all of this at a comfortable distance. We can no longer make excuses to ignore what's going on around us. Like the deaf man, our ears must be opened to hear the cries of our neighbors in distress. Like the deaf man, our tongues must be loosened to repent of our discrimination and call for reconciliation and justice. Like Jesus, our vision of the children of God should be widened to include all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, age, or socioeconomic status.
So...where to begin?
This Saturday there is a 5-K to support St. James School, an Episcopal middle school in North Philadelphia that serves children growing up in low-income families in the neighborhoods surrounding the school. Not only do they teach children the core subjects, but they also have an anti-racism curriculum. The effect of the education goes beyond the students to their families and community, as the students are required to do community service. Our middle and high school youth groups have been tutoring students once a month this past year and have found it to be an eye-opening and incredible experience. I invite you to join us in tutoring one Saturday to get to know these wonderful kids who come from a different walk of life.
This fall we will be offering a book study to begin examining racism and privilege in America. During this time we will listen to and share stories to examine how privileges and challenges have affected our lives and the lives of our neighbors. It will give us an opportunity to broaden our perspective. I hope you will join us!
On October 17th the Diocese is hosting a symposium on the history of race, slavery, and discrimination in our diocese. This is a response to the resolution from General Convention that I mentioned earlier.
These are just some of the ways to educate ourselves, to open our eyes to where our prejudices cause separation among God's people. Jesus didn't come to the realization of God's universal love on his own; he listened to the Syrophoenician woman's story and his heart was changed. May our own ears be opened to listen to our neighbors' stories, our hearts opened to expanding, and our tongues loosened to go forth into the world rejoicing in the spirit and proclaiming God's all-embracing love.
Image of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman found here.
*Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Mark 7:24-37.” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3. p. 47.