It is possible, sometimes, to have a desert mentality about faith. We can become concerned and filled with anxiety about when we will stumble across the next oasis. So we mimic the camel and conserve every last bit of water that we can. We store up our faith like precious water in a drought. Small churches across America have been in “survivor” mode for too long. Concerned with the survival of the church, they focus on numbers and financial success. They trim budgets and focus on what it is they really need to operate and function. During this time of economic stress, it’s even easier to focus on the scarcities that surround us and so conserve all we have. When churches settle into this desert mentality, it is an attitude of fear and survival that neglects to see and appreciate the richness of God’s love in the present. It is easy to get so tunnel vision on the future that the abundance of God’s grace and mercy is missed. Today’s passage from Mark is uncomfortable on several levels, but the most essential part is that Christ rediscovers the rich abundant love of God that he came to teach us about and he reconsiders the limits of that love. Christ’s mission reaches a turning point here in Mark and he does some re-orienting of himself.
Bread crumbs bring us home. It is shocking for us to hear our beloved savior speak the way that he does to the Syrophoenician woman. To call another human being a dog is unthinkable and appalling to our modern ears. And perhaps it was not quite as harsh in those times, yet it is still unspeakable to hear Jesus speak this way. But the writer of Mark does speak of this and it troubles us. Another commonly cited reason for his harshness was that he was taking refuge from the crowds and needed a break. Be that as it may, it certainly doesn’t seem Christ-like. There used to be these WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets that were supposed to help us remember daily to act more like Christ … but would any of us choose this particular Jesus to emulate? Why in the world did he call this woman a dog and refuse to heal her daughter?
It helps us to know that there’s a bit of a power difference here. This woman is a woman of means. She is wealthy as most Gentiles are wealthy, and Jesus’ harsh reaction may have been out of a wish for her to realize that there are some things money cannot buy. Secondly, she is a Gentile. Jesus viewed himself as a prophet bringing his message of God’s love to the children of Israel – the Jews. What is astounding is the woman’s audacity, first in asking him to heal her daughter, and second in refusing to just go away as he asks. We might term this woman “pushy” but she is so passionate and concerned about her child that she is willing to debase herself even if that will help her daughter get well. She does not defend herself or claim that she should have a place at the table with the children. Rather she challenges Jesus by saying that even the dogs get scraps from the table. What chutzpah! What courage!
But really, how in the world does someone challenge God in this way. I’m almost positive that the minute she said those words, the woman was quaking in her boots thinking “What have I done?” But Jesus, does something remarkable … he agrees with her. He changes his mind! He applauds her spunk and tenacity and says that her daughter is healed. This is where things get really sticky for us, theologically speaking. Can God change God’s mind? We get a unique glimpse into how the incarnation may have been continually working to find balance in the person of Jesus. The human side of Jesus reacted with a knee-jerk reaction refusing to care for someone outside of his flock. The divine side of Jesus, however, immediately recognized the wisdom and the truth of the woman’s challenge to him and this refocused his ministries. This is a bit of a turning point, a conversion even, for Jesus as he goes forward healing all who ask it of him.
The Syrophoenician woman held up a mirror for Jesus and asked him to evaluate his own hypocrisy. I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time admitting when I am wrong. It feels so much like giving in that my stubborn nature fights it tooth and nail. But Jesus does not lose strength by admitting he was wrong. In fact, his ministry becomes even stronger because we can see that God is compassionate and merciful – God listens to us, whole-heartedly. Interestingly, in both of the miracles in this passage of Mark (the woman’s daughter and the healing of the deaf, mute man), it is not the sick individual who seeks out healing, but friends or loved ones who seek help for them. What does this tell us about our responsibilities for each other? Taking care of one another is one of the chief ways that we have to love God and neighbor. So we visit people in their homes and in the hospital. We pray for them with the belief that God cares.
And this is really why we are scared of this passage – if God does change his mind, but still doesn’t answer my prayers, what does that mean? What does this passage tell us of God’s response to our prayers? God does change his mind, but both this passage and our theme of Noah’s Ark tell us that God changes his mind in the direction of compassion and mercy. The rainbow tells us that God will remember the covenant made and will never actively destroy or hurt the world. So, while not all of our prayers will be answered the way that we want them, we can be assured that God is always working for us in all situations.
What does this mean practically for this church? I was told when I came here that this church wants to grow and wants to attract younger families. We need to avoid a desert mentality and not be afraid that our resources and bread will be stretched too thin. Let’s think and believe abundantly because as Christ came to realize, the bread crumbs from the Lord’s Feast provides enough for all who may come to the Table. We should celebrate where this church is and the wonderful energy and pride that all of you have for your church and community.
And like Christ, we must be committed to learning and growing in our call to ministry, continually talking and thinking about our faith. We give Bibles to our children so they can begin to discover the wonderful news that is within the Bible … we must also model that to be a Christian means to be constantly engaging one’s faith with the world around us. This is no easy task! I always think of the last part of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indiana is almost through all of the challenges to find the Holy Grail and he comes to the last ‘booby trap’ that is called the “Leap of Faith.” He’s standing on the edge of a sheer cliff and must walk across what appears to be thin air to get to another entrance. Once he steps out in faith, he can see that there is something holding him up. We must step out in faith knowing that the love of God is something that should be shared with everyone.
Like the Syrophoenician mother, care for each other and take care of your friends. Pray for each other. Invite your friends to come to church with you. A few weeks ago, I went up into the attic upstairs and got to see that hand-hewn logs that make up the top of our church. It looked (to my unprofessional eyes) remarkably like the inside of an ark. The chapel at LPTS is deliberately made to look like the inside of a boat turned upside down, because there is plenty of room in the ark for all people. By focusing on the rich love of God, we will build our community here two by two: loving, learning, teaching, challenging, discussing, we feast together on the word and promises of God.
Let us pray: God of the waters, drench our church with your promise of love and care. Flood us with your richness and challenge us to grow and learn. Teach us your ways and write your love upon our heart. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.