a sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)
By her faith, the Syrophoenician woman understood that Jesus, who fed 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and two fish, had so much power and grace and love that even a crumb was enough for her modest needs. And by her faith she knew, even before Jesus did, that he was sent to heal the whole world.
A few days ago, a picture of a three year old boy shocked the world. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and his body was found washed up along the shore of a beach resort in Turkey. His family were refugees from the Syrian town of Kobani, in the Province of Aleppo, right along the Syrian-Turkish boarder. Kobani has been under attack by ISIS for over a year, but the Kurds who live there are considered undesirables by both the government of Syria and Turkey and there has been no official help for them. Aylan’s family was desperate and they decided to attempt a dangerous journey to get to Canada, where they had relatives. They bribed their way into Turkey, then paid smugglers to get them across a three mile strait of water into Greece, hoping to find refuge there. But the rubber boat they were on was way over crowded and it capsized soon after leaving the shore.
Kobani, Syria is only a few hundred miles from the ancient city of Tyre, where today’s Gospel reading takes place. Jesus had just finished feeding bread to the 5000, and he traveled with the disciples across the Sea of Galilee to the foreign land on the other side. There he did even more preaching and healing, and he was bone tired. He didn’t want to be bothered, so he found a house where he could rest and take refuge.
But a Syrian woman – what the bible calls a Syrophoenician woman – learned that he was there. Like Aylan’s family, she, too, was considered undesirable: she was a single woman, with a child at home, and she was a gentile, not a Jew. And like the Aylan’s family, she was desperate – her daughter was deathly sick and she had no one to turn to. But she had heard about the healing power of Jesus and recognized that he was a holy man who had a special relationship with God. Surely, she thought, this man who had fed so many people, this man who had healed lepers and blind men, could help her, too. She approached him reverently, worshipfully – she couldn’t have been more respectful – then she knelt down and begged at his feet.
Part of being human – and Jesus was fully human, just as he was fully divine – is that we’re not always at our best. We are emotional creatures whose perceptions and responses change with our mood and our surroundings. This is especially true when we’re tired or when we’re confronted by situations that make us uncomfortable. And nothing makes us more uncomfortable than meeting someone who is different from us – someone who looks differently, or lives differently, or believes something different from what we believe. Too often, our first response is just like Jesus’ was. We lash out and say mean things, nasty things, so that we can separate ourselves from “the stranger” or “the other guy.”
Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take
the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
This story makes us uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. First of all, it challenges our notions of who Jesus is. Jesus, the Son of God, the healer and teacher, the compassionate one; Jesus, the one who always takes the side of the lowest members of society, where was that Jesus that day? Why would he resort to an ethnic slur when addressing this woman? For that is what he did. Dogs in Jesus’ day weren’t kept as pets because they were considered unclean, just a step above pigs. Comparing her to a dog was as degrading to her then as other racial epithets are to us now.
Second, it challenges our notions of the woman. She was a gentile, not a Jew. She wasn’t a member of Jesus’ tribe, so to speak. She was an outsider, not a member of the church. She was probably used to being ignored or scorned. Still, what possessed her to think she was entitled to approach a holy man?
Finally, it challenges our own preconceived notions of the Church in general. Whether we like it or not, Christianity has a bad reputation among many people in our country. Some see the Church as a narrow-minded institution, filled with people who are simply unable or unwilling to accept people whose views differ from their own. And if I am honest, I have to admit that even though I consider myself more open minded than many of our brothers and sisters, I still have my own beliefs that I believe are right to the exclusion of everybody else.
This is why the woman’s response to Jesus is such a blessing. By her faith, she recognized something that even Jesus himself didn’t understand – not yet, anyway. By her faith, she understood that God’s love not limited to any one person, or tribe, or race, or gender, or way of life. By her faith, she recognized that in spite of Jesus’ rather limited view of his own ministry, God’s salvation was intended for the whole world. She takes Jesus to school, so to speak, turning his insult into a teaching moment, and shows him that his ministry, and ours, is meant to reveal God’s love for us all, regardless of person, or tribe, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation.
Too often we hear of how people do terrible things in the name of faith. ISIS has slaughtered hundreds of innocents in the name of their faith. A pastor in Florida has burned piles of Korans in the name of his faith. An elected official in Kentucky has denied perfectly legal marriage licenses to people in the name of her faith. And that one church in Kansas has picketed dozens of funerals, some of heroes and others of innocent victims, all in the name of their faith. I believe that these people all have something in common, but it isn’t faith.
Faith about how we live, not what we believe. It is the quiet confidence that comes from understanding that whatever comes our way, God will still be with us. Faith is what allows us to keep our hearts open to God, even when the rest of the world is closing its heart to one another. Faith isn’t boastful or belligerent, but calm and peaceful. Faith gives us the strength to speak the truth, even in the face of evil.
The Syrian woman’s faith was like that. By her faith in God, she realized that God’s plan doesn’t depend on haves and have-nots, on supply and demand; it depends on abundance. By her faith she understood that Jesus, who fed 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and two fish, had so much power and grace and love that even a crumb was enough for her modest needs. By her faith she saw, even before Jesus did, that he was sent to heal the whole world. By her faith, the she pointed out that there’s plenty of food for everyone, that even after Jesus heals children of Israel, even after they are brought fully into the kingdom of God, there was plenty of room for the rest of us – for the outcasts, for the homeless, for the poor, for the sick, and for the refugees who are seeking a new life with God.
By her faith, her daughter was healed.
And by her faith, Jesus came to reexamine his whole ministry. Because in the face of her faithful response, he recognized that God had chosen to save more than just his Chosen People. God had chosen to save the whole world. By her faith, Jesus came to understand that his ministry was intended to go beyond the boarders of Israel; his mission was is to save the entire world.
Friends, no matter how right we might think we are as Christians or as Episcopalians, our mission is to push out beyond our preconceived notions of who God is or what God wants, because God is so much bigger than we can even imagine. In God’s abundance, there is more than enough for all of us to share. Our mission is to reach out beyond our familiar ideas and comfortable beliefs to find God beyond the boundaries of our ideas or the walls of our church. To reach out to the vast majority who look, or act, or believe differently from ourselves, and engage with them on their terms.
Our mission is welcome all and bless them, just Jesus blessed that Syrian woman and her daughter that day. I realize that this is a tall order, but this is God’s mission, not ours. May God, who is the source of our faith, give us the strength and the will to fulfill it.
Thanks be to God.