A sermon preached on September 5, 2021, by the Rev. Teri Daily on Mark 7:24-37….
Freedom is a topic we tend to hear quite a bit about in this day and age – we strive for freedom, think of it as a God-given right, and wave it proudly. It’s something we’re thankful for in this country and for which we owe a great deal of gratitude to those who’ve come before us and to those who serve our country. And yet, when I look at my own life or the life of most Americans, I don’t see a lot of freedom in our day to day lives. Most of us are people who live in bondage – to the way we think things should be, to the demands we place on ourselves, and perhaps most of all to our clocks and calendars. We pay more attention to our clocks, google calendars, wristwatches, and speedometers than to almost anything else in our world. And there’s a reason – these gadgets feed the illusion that our life is manageable and that WE are in control. We create a roadmap of our life, with estimated arrival times at each destination along the way. And in the process of making ourselves the gods of our own lives, we gradually lose reverence for the world around us and for the one who created it. We lose an awareness of God’s activity in our lives. We script our lives so tightly that, as one of my professors used to say, the Holy Spirit couldn’t get in there with a crowbar.
In her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor describes several practices to help us rediscover the sacred in the world around us. And one of these practices is the practice of paying attention. Of course paying attention to the world around us requires taking our eyes off the road ahead and daring to look at what’s on either side of us. It demands that we be willing to at least briefly look up from the speedometers, watches, and calendars that dictate how life should be in order to see life the way it really is. This is not easy to do. For example, often when I see a beautiful sunset I’m on my way somewhere with no time to pull over and enjoy it; when I get done with what I’m doing, the sky is dark and the beautiful moment has long passed. But if paying attention to creation is hard, believe me, paying attention to the people who interrupt our lives can be even more challenging. As Barbara Brown Taylor points out, it’s easier to love humankind in the abstract than it is to love particular human beings. She writes:
Particular human beings hug my bumper in rush-hour traffic and shoot birds at me when I tap my brakes. Particular human beings drop my carefully selected portabella mushrooms into the bottom of my grocery bag and toss cans of beans on top of them. They talk on their cell phones while I am having a nice quiet lunch at Blimpie’s; they talk on their cell phones while I am waiting to pay them for my gas; they talk on their cell phones while I am trying to step past them on the sidewalk. Particular human beings rarely do things the way I think they should do them, and when they prevent me from doing what I think I should be doing, then I can run short on reverence for them.
In other words, when we know where we are going and are bent on living our lives according to our plans, particular human beings often have a way of adding frustration, impatience, and irritation to our day. And I think this may be what Jesus experienced with the Syrophoenician woman in today’s gospel reading.
By the time we reach today’s gospel reading, Jesus has been trying without success to have just a little time to himself. First, he convinces the disciples to get in a boat and withdraw to a deserted place. But the crowds follow them. Instead of spending some time in solitude, Jesus has compassion on them. He ends up curing their illnesses and feeding more than five thousand of them with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fishes. Then he tries again to have his own space, this time sending the disciples on ahead in the boat while he goes up to the mountain to pray. But then he sees his friends being tossed around on the sea in a storm, and he goes to them. When the boat does land on the shore, he’s bombarded by people wanting to be healed, begging even just to touch the hem of his garment. And then, in the midst of all this, the Pharisees and the scribes come to Jesus to register a complaint about Jesus’ followers – why don’t they wash their hands before they eat? I suspect that by this point Jesus is tired, and probably more than a little overwhelmed and frustrated by what’s coming at him from all sides. So he goes away into the region of Tyre, a largely gentile area, goes into a house, and hopes nobody finds out he’s there.
Enter the Syrophoenician woman, bowing down at Jesus’ feet and begging for him to cast an unclean spirit out of her daughter. Far from the kind, never tired and never rattled Jesus that most of us picture in our minds, the Jesus in this story says: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Now, Christians have tried all sorts of interpretations to try to soften this statement. Perhaps Jesus is merely testing her faith – but nowhere else in the gospel of Mark does Jesus make faith a prerequisite to healing. Or maybe Jesus was just playing devil’s advocate and describing what the Pharisees’ response would have been if they had been in this situation. Or better yet, maybe Mark is just setting up a dramatic scene after which the inclusion of non-Jewish people in the early Church is all the more striking. It’s even been said that the word used by Jesus is actually better translated “puppies” and could actually be seen here as a term of endearment – although that’s a real stretch if you ask me.
But maybe, just maybe, the Jesus we see in this story is in the process of coming to understand who he is as the messiah. He knows exactly what he’s called to do and how God’s kingdom is supposed to spread. It’s no secret that Jesus comes first to the house of Israel, and only after that will Christianity embrace the gentiles. Even in the book of Acts after Jesus’ death, when Paul arrives in a town, he always goes to the synagogue first to proclaim the gospel to the Jews before proclaiming it to the gentiles. But then this woman shows up all out of order, asking for her daughter to be healed. I suspect Jesus’ answer wasn’t so much a “no” as it was a “not yet.” Jesus knows his job description, and he’s sticking to it.
But the Syrophoenician woman won’t fade into the background that easily. As Jesus is stuck in his own reasoning, she makes her next play in the game of mental chess. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Now she’s not saying herethat gentiles should receive a fraction of what Israel has, or that they should receive what happens to be left over. Instead, there are two points in what the woman says. First, the food that is Jesus’ life is powerful – so powerful that even a couple of crumbs will do what this woman needs and asks. And second, that food is spilling over the edges of the table. There are always enough crumbs. Just as more than five thousand people were fed with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fishes, the scope of God’s love and goodness knows no boundaries. There is always enough.
Could it be that Jesus is converted by the words of this woman? He responds, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” In that moment, the woman’s daughter is healed, and the door she’s been knocking on bursts wide open. What has been up to this point a contained, narrow mission, explodes into a mission to all people. For Jesus to be true to who he is, for him to be the incarnation of God, requires that he act out of the presumed order of things. It means not waiting for “perfect times” or sticking to well-made plans. And things are changed from here on in the gospel of Mark. Jesus cures the deaf man brought to him and feeds another 4000 people – also in predominately gentile areas. From here on out, it’s clear that grace, love, and blessings won’t follow a roadmap or a timeline.
Maybe we would do well to remember that ourselves sometimes. We can map things out in our lives, even in our church, and we can be almost certain we know who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do. But when God is alive and active in the world, when the Holy Spirit moves and we dare to look up from our clocks, calendars, and GPS to pay attention to it, we may find our neatly-defined plans become a bit tousled. They may seem a little less clear and a lot more fluid. Because whenever we try to put God’s mission or plans into a box, something comes along and bursts through those constraints. We start to do things out of order, we begin to do things differently, the idol of how things are supposed to be and how things ought to happen starts to crumble. Maybe that’s why the Holy Spirit gets described as wind, as fire, and as water that flows – try holding onto any of those very tightly and we’ll be frustrated indeed. But let them move through us and in us, and we’ll find blessings that far exceed our well-defined plans.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, New York: Harper Collins, 2009, page 27.