The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a story that friend of mine tells about a third friend--it’s several degrees removed, so it may not be exactly as I relate it--but it’s a useful story for me, and so I like to revisit it occasionally. I hope you’ll indulge me.
A priest and parishioner--we’ll call them Charlie and Dorothy--were traveling from the South to New York via train for a conference. Charlie was well-beloved, and Dorothy was the sort of parishioner that we might call a pillar of the community. She was chair of the altar guild, she served on the vestry, and she coordinated the casserole ministry of the parish, taking food to shut ins and the bereaved. St Saviours Church couldn’t run without Charlie, so he thought, but the parishioners really knew it was Dorothy that kept the whole thing running. She was on every committee there was. She did it all. And so they headed off to the conference in New York, and when they arrived at Penn Station, they came out to hail a cab on Sixth Avenue and, predictably, someone came up and asked them for money. The priest, wise to the world, waived the man away, but the parishioner, a generous, well-heeled woman, pulled out of her purse a fifty dollar bill and gave it to the man, who slipped away as quickly as he’d come.
Fr Charlie, a worldly and wise man, was shocked to see what Dorothy had done, and he upbraided her: “Dorothy, why did you give that money to that man? Don’t you know what he’s going to do with it?” But Dorothy replied with a wry smile, “Father, that may be the case, but I am not on that committee!”
Dorothy was able to give without concern for how her gift would be used--without anxiety about what came next. She did what she could, and she didn’t worry about the thing she couldn’t control.
Now, there are lots of reasons to give and not to give money when folks ask for it on the street, and there’s no one right answer to whether or not to respond for a request for money. Each of us has to discern what’s right for us--what we can, or what we should, do.
But I love this story because it shows Dorothy in the most nonanxious way. She did what she could do, and she left the rest alone. She’s not on that committee. She’s not in charge of what the man decides to do with her gift.
This is not how I usually operate. This is not how I respond to great need. Maybe part of why I like the story is the freedom that Dorothy exhibits. I generally get anxious, frustrated, sometimes even angry, when I’m presented with a need that I cannot meet, a thing that I cannot fix. And I have to work hard to back up and really see the situation--to identify what I can do, and what I can’t. To try to love the person who’s asking, even in the most complicated situations--and to also love myself enough to admit where my limits are.
Maybe I am on the committee and shouldn’t be, but that’s where I am sometimes.
The needs of the world can feel overwhelming sometimes, and I want to step back, to take a break, to escape.
I wonder if Jesus ever felt that way. We hear over and over again in the gospels about Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place; of Jesus moving on when the crowds grew too large; of Jesus going off alone, or with only his disciples. And today’s gospel is no exception:
He’s crossed the sea of Galilee several times, he’s fed the five thousand, the crowds have followed him, and he’s headed northwest from the sea of Galilee to the city of Tyre, on the shore of the Mediterranean, a couple of days’ journey away. He goes to a house there, and scripture is clear that he wants to avoid notice. He wants to retreat. He wants to be left alone, if just for a moment. (Mark 7:24)
But a Syrophoenician woman, that is, a gentile, someone who is not Jewish, seeks him out and finds him and asks him to heal her daughter.
Jesus’s words are harsh: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (27)
Her response, which we say in the words of our own Prayer of Humble Access in the communion service, echo down through the millennia: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (28)
And her persistence pays off. Her unwavering faith is rewarded. Jesus assures her that her daughter has been healed. The woman leaves and returns to her daughter, and it’s true. She is indeed healed.
There are many things to commend this passage to our hearing, not the least of which is the Syrophoenician woman’s persistence. Even though she’s an outsider, not a member of one of the tribes of Israel, even when she is spoken to harshly, she perseveres and asks Jesus for what she needs. She believes that Jesus, whom she’s never met, can heal her daughter. And she’s right. We can learn something from her courage, her persistence, her faith.
And, I suspect, this outsider status is part of why the story is included in the gospels. We learn from her persistence that even the gentiles, even those outside of the tribes of Israel, are included in Jesus’s reconciling work--that all are welcome, all are valued, all are whole in the kingdom of God. This is an important message that our world needs to hear; after all, we are the gentiles--we are the outsiders in every way--that are included in the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.
“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,” we pray before receiving communion, usually in this parish during Lent.
It’s important to note this broadening out of the gospel--that all are included, even the unexpected foreigner, the outsider, the gentile--and that we must model our own lives on this principle of radical hospitality. That we are called by Jesus to seek out the other and find our common humanity--to recognize that all are beloved of God.
But I’m also interested in Jesus’s complicated words.
It seems to me that, traveling to a port city, a Roman city, a city that’s not particularly Jewish, Jesus shouldn’t have been surprised to meet a gentile woman. Wouldn’t there have been more Syrophoenicians in Tyre? Is it possible that Jesus and his followers from Galilee would have been the outsiders?
Without having been there, it’s hard to understand the exact context of the exchange.
But Jesus’s frustration is not hard to recognize. And maybe it’s not so hard to understand.
He is trying to withdraw, to keep away from the crowds, to take a break perhaps--maybe to rest--and the needs of the world keep coming, like a wave, a force he cannot escape.
It’s not fair! Jesus actually says. A woman he’s never met, that he has no connection to, that isn’t even Jewish, hunts him down in the house where he’s hiding. “He could not escape notice,” scripture says.
And Jesus is frustrated.
And he heals her daughter.
I don’t know the particulars of the situation; I don’t know how Jesus was feeling at the moment. I only know the brief encounter as it’s reported in the gospel texts. But I know that the woman’s daughter was healed.
When Jesus comes near, there is healing and wholeness. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when the needs of the world are overwhelming. Even in the hard places there is healing with Jesus.
I’m curious about why we expect Jesus to be nice all the time. If Jesus is fully human, as we are, surely there are moments his physical body needs rest--moments his spirit needs a space to stop and reflect. And yet also fully divine, he is always about the work of his Father’s kingdom--love, reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. Even in the midst of the chaos of the world’s great need--especially in that place--Jesus is saving.
Is it possible that, unlike Doris, who could give away money to someone she’d never met with no anxiety whatsoever, that Jesus is genuinely grieved by the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman? Is it possible that he is genuinely frustrated and saddened by the plight of her daughter? That he is also frustrated and saddened that he has to give up a moment of peace, a moment of quiet, a moment of rest and reflection to dive back into the world’s broken places, to confront again the powers of fear and death, and to bring hope and life even in the midst of a fallen world?
Because that’s where Jesus eventually ends up. We hear in the garden of Gethsemane that Jesus prays that the cup of his crucifixion might pass--but it does not, and he goes, sinless victim, to an execution, to step again into the breach, to die, but also to rise--to proclaim that life conquers, that love is all there is.
One of the problems of this story of the Syrophoenician woman for me is that it confronts my sanitized view of God’s saving work--of the life of Jesus--that makes it seem easy for Jesus to do the work of salvation.
There is a cost to the work of healing, of wholeness, of reconciliation--there is a cost to salvation.
Jesus bears it on the cross.
He bears it in this moment of healing, even as he gives up a very human need--all he wants is a little time apart.
Why would we expect anything different?
In our relationships, in our lives, we may want things to be clean, comfortable, well-ordered, and there’s nothing wrong with that desire--and it’s wonderful when things can be. But we needn’t be surprised, when we really get in relationship with the world, that we may see things that aren’t as we wish they were. When we see pain and suffering that alarms and saddens us. That our own lives may be made a little more inconvenient when we reach out to others whom we may not even know in love.
And that’s okay.
Let’s don’t make the mistake of avoiding the hard places, avoiding the uncomfortable relationships--let’s not make the mistake of distancing ourselves from difficult things because it seems too hard, or too painful.
God promises that the eyes of the blind shall open, the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped, the lame will leap like a deer, and even the mute will sing in the chorus of salvation that is God’s redeeming work. All of creation will be healed and whole.
And we know it’s true because we have seen Jesus risen. We know the empty tomb.
So let’s get involved with the world around us. Let’s go out in hope and courage. And let us not be afraid of the cost of relationship with the person who is different, who is other, who is full of need. For Christ has already paid the cost, and he walks with us into those difficult places, bringing health, healing, and salvation.