Saturday, September 5, 2009

Sunday Sermon: The Syrophoenician woman.

Isaiah 35.4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2.1-10 and 14-17
Mark 7.24-37

This morning is one of those mornings when the readings really seem to come together and express a powerful message. The readings focus on what the religious professionals might call the eschatological: the future times or indeed the end times. “This is how it will be when the Kingdom of God is realised on earth” is the message but the key thing is that this future fulfilment of God’s Kingdom isn’t something that will happen to us in a passive sense: we don’t sit back and then wake up one morning and there it is.

There is a wonderful WW2 poster which has re-emerged recently. It was kept back by the government to be used in the event of a successful German invasion.

“Keep Calm and Carry on.”

I can’t decide whether that’s good advice for ushering in the kingdom of God or not.

I think it depends what you are currently doing and I think James gives us the clue.

Both Isaiah and Mark allude to the end times as being times of healing, wholeness and fulfilment and then along comes James and illustrates how all that can be mere head-knowledge if we aren’t careful, and he does this by posing the absolutely credible scenario of a congregation being impressed by the new people in church because of their fashionable clothes and general air of success. “These are people of substance” they thought. “We like these sort of people in church.” while at the same time, and presumably without really appreciating the irony, ignoring the other new, but much more shabbily dressed, person in the congregation. Assumptions were made about their relative spirituality on the basis of their appearance.

Or as Karen from Will and Grace put it so succinctly as she abandoned Will in mid sentence “Oh look, more interesting people.”

James is right. That won’t usher in God’s Kingdom.

“Keep calm and carry on” might work as a strategy, on the other hand, if we are consistently living lives of obedient discipleship. The reign of God comes closer incrementally, in tiny stages as each one of us decides to model more the pattern and example of Jesus. If we are doing that, “Keep calm and carry on” works just fine.

And this is where the Psalmist makes his contribution as he points us in the right direction. God’s kingdom will come when the oppressed receive justice and the hungry are fed, when the widows are protected and strangers are respected, and when the downtrodden are lifted up.

Now all that sounds rather lovely doesn’t it? But where to begin? The aspiration is there but beyond that this is no detailed instruction manual. So, back to the Gospel to see how Jesus accomplished things as we see him at work on what we might assume is a typical day for the Son of Man dealing with those very same downtrodden. First a foreign woman, then a deaf man approach him for healing, and we need to recognise that there are no coincidences in the gospel stories. That the woman was foreign and that the man was deaf are deliberately placed details because they reveal something deeper in the story than simple divine healing.

The deaf man is easy theologically. He was a Jew. He was a man. There was no problem in his approaching Jesus. It is the deafness which is the real issue here and generations of commentators have used the analogy of spiritual deafness, deafness to the message of salvation that Jesus brings. It is this that needs curing and the story becomes timeless because we all suffer from spiritual deafness which needs the healing touch of Jesus.

It is the Syrophoenician woman who is the theological conundrum in this story and what happens to her is so much more significant than we might assume on a first reading.

As Lutherans we know a lot about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved but what we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to that grace and that is a question that echoes through time and through Scripture itself.

There was always an awareness that God’s grace could reach far and wide. Psalm 67, for instance, is clear that God can be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” The Psalmist says, “May God be merciful to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.”

Though the Gospels stress that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” in today’s Gospel a non-Jewish supplicant draws him to a wider vision. This supplicant, as the pronoun makes clear, is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though, she makes a bit of a public scene around him.

This story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing challenges the church today and is most certainly about ushering in the kingdom of God and the part we play in that.

The woman is a foreigner to the kingdom of God, an intrusion into the tidy boundaries with which the disciples were comfortable and within which Jesus focuses his basic arena of activity. In Matthew’s version of the event this woman comes alone to Jesus, crying, “Have pity (“mercy”) on me Lord, Son of David.” a term which would hardly have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning suggesting a degree of knowledge and understanding of Jesus that he and the Disciples should have taken more notice of from the outset. In addition we see her bowing down before Jesus. Matthew is very clear about this: it is worship and this is something even the disciples have yet to do.

Since illness was thought to arise from demonic attack, she begs release and healing for her daughter. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly. He claims to have a clear goal, a fixation – an all-consuming passion, in fact – on where he is to direct his attention and his energies and that is on the children – the children of Israel that is. The woman is not in that vision, for she is a foreigner, a dog.

But the woman seizes on this immediately and she will not let the opportunity pass by. Rather than the rebuff it was surely meant to be his words provide a new opportunity for her to press her case. We need to recognise now that her actions would have been breathtaking at that time, indeed quite scandalous: that she should be so bold, so brave and so challenging to press her case with such force. She has been reduced to desperation, to be sure, but she will not give up now. She hangs on for all she is worth.

The narrative changes now: this woman, disadvantaged, an outsider because she is a Gentile and a woman who is alone in public, challenges this rebuff by being lippy! She started with the plea, she was begging as she knelt before him in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me. You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down, for you are the only One to whom I can look.” This is what we can read into Mark’s typically terse writing. Now she has moved on: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

You can almost imagine the frisson of shock rippling through the crowd. But after a pause that must have seemed like a lifetime to the crowd, in a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” Her daughter is healed at that moment. He who has fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who will feed another four thousand only a short time later grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” Do not the feeding of the five and four thousand serve as a great pair of bookends around this story? He who feeds Israel, to whom he is sent, has given an “appetizer,” as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the children’s table.”

She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her rights or merit: only a plea for mercy, an undeserved help. She has nothing to bring with which to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing. She simply brings the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter. In this way she broke through the barriers that could have hindered her. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, being carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come.

Two interpretations have accompanied this narrative through history. Building on the first reading, which foresees that the Gentiles will come to Israel’s God to form a house of prayer for all nations, this foreign woman is a symbol of those nations that will hear the message of the Gospel. The courageous faith of the woman is a second major theme. But neither of these captures the shock and surprise of the exchange between the woman and Jesus. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of his mission. In Mark’s Gospel we have so far seen a Jesus who has limited his mission to the sons and daughters of Israel, yet here he crosses this self-imposed boundary to bring merciful healing to a Gentile.

The woman brings to him the full implications of his mission.

Out of this long tradition of boundaries to God’s grace established within Judaism came this man Jesus. He knew that his task was to take up this long history of Israel, making it his own, filtering it through his life and body, filling it full of new meaning that could, at least initially, only be understood from within that story of God’s people, from within Israel. He would eventually broaden those “boundaries” in ways unimaginable to the disciples around him – and unthinkable in general to those out of whose midst he was arising. It took an immense struggle to expand the horizon of thinking about these boundaries on the part of his disciples and those who followed them.

Nor has this struggle been overcome to this day. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. At other times they have been much more subtle. But we keep wanting to establish limits on God’s grace and God keeps pushing on them. We like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries to our lives, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn.

Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.

The great faith of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time. The Canaanite women would not accept the idea that Jesus was only sent for certain people. Her faith melted that barrier. It calls all of us to receive what Jesus has to offer and to push the limits and boundaries ourselves as we present that same Jesus and what he offers to others. We need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea for mercy and grace and we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”

We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter their understanding of Christianity and the conditions they demand as evidence of “true discipleship”. But in the end the eternal fate of others is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to set limits on God’s grace.

Just to conclude then. Did you notice what didn’t happen in the story? Nobody performed an act of contrition. No offering was made nor any sacrifice. There was no promise of leading a new life, no agreement to change one’s ways, no pledge of future faithfulness. This is a clear and powerful reminder that God’s grace is showered on all of us, whether we have earned it or not. And let’s face it: most of us do not deserve it.

So, as we keep calm and carry on, making our contribution towards the establishment of the Kingdom of God in our obedient discipleship, let us do so in the knowledge that we have done nothing to earn God’s grace. Let's be careful how we are seen to apply that same grace to others.