Mark 7:24-37 What do we hear the stranger saying?
Sermon by Anne Stewart
I wonder how many of you have had occasions where you have found yourselves in situations where you are up against it before you even begin, because of your gender, your race, your background, or the assumptions and perceptions of others. This is the world of the Syrophoenician woman. Sometimes these things are things that we can do nothing about, for instance, we are all born a particular race, irrespective of where we may later choose to live. Immediately by this accident of birth we are assigned to a specific place in our world with its own idea of social ordering. For most of us, it’s ok, and it’s barely a thing we even consider. Travelling to another country may be the first time we actually notice that our world is not the world. But imagine if your skin colour determined your future in a negative way, or your hair type, or the way you speak. Imagine the confusion of wondering why things are one way for you and an entirely other way for some of those around you, simply because of something you had no control over. Imagine too, a world where you never have to worry about food, not what food you might like, but whether there will be sufficient to keep you growing and developing, a world where this is simply a given – that’s not too hard to imagine is it. Then imagine a world dictated by the effort required to simply having enough to avoid starvation and possibly death. Imagine your accident of birth suddenly determining what school opportunities you might or might not have available to you. Whether you get to play sport or learn music or art or to read books, not the choice of which and how many of these but just whether any of these are possible. From our privileged viewpoint it’s hard to imagine a world where none of these might even be known about, let alone be possible.
The Syrophoenician woman came from an area on the Syrian coast, not only well outside Palestinian Jewish society, but an area considered to be one of the historic centres of the Phoenician naval empire, and as such, a legendary adversary of Israel. Syrophoenician by birth she was loosely regarded as ‘Greek’ and therefore she was considered to be a Gentile, and, from a Judean perspective, she was a wonderful example of what we mean by an ‘other’ or an ‘outsider’. Because this world is so foreign to us we can miss the scandal of her encounter with Jesus, the great Jewish Teacher. In conventional Mediterranean ‘honour culture’ it would have been inconceivable for an unknown, unrelated woman to approach a man in the privacy of his residence—much less a Gentile soliciting favour from a Jew. So how on earth did this happen? What drove her to leap through social convention and take the incredible step of finding Jesus and forcing her way to him? This is not how people of her background are supposed to act. Her daughter was terribly ill, so she did what a parent does, namely whatever she can do to help her child. She knows that if anyone can cure her daughter it is this man. So she pushes herself forward, not for herself but because her daughter’s ill-health is enough to make her take these incredible risks.
What does she get for her efforts? Jesus’ reaction, at first glance, must surprise, or even horrify us. This is not a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ response to someone in need. Why would he treat her this way? Some argue that he was testing her faith, to see if she really believed in him. But there are problems with this notion. Firstly, this is not how we see Jesus act anywhere else in the gospels and secondly this leaves us with a rather cold-hearted picture of a Jesus who taunts and tests us in our deepest moments of need. I think there might be another answer to the question of why Jesus responded as he did. I wonder whether this encounter is the moment when Jesus learns the full extent of God’s mission and the radical nature of the kingdom he was proclaiming. If this is true, then maybe he rejected her because he had thought his work was with the Jews, and this woman clearly was not a Jew. Maybe here, in this moment, Jesus discovers that the scope of his work is much wider; that the kingdom he is bringing in is open to all people, not just those of his own race or faith, or gender. This would have been inconceivable in those times, as, sadly, it still seems to be, to us today! The Syrophoenician woman, this brave mother, was opening to Jesus the idea that she was as much part of his kingdom as any Jew was. What is extraordinary here is that Jesus allows himself to be taught by the very person who should have known herself to be subordinate to him, by race and by gender.
He heard her reconstruct his logic; he allowed himself to be corrected and in that moment he announced that her daughter was healed. This outsider was teaching the Teacher and therefore has something to teach us as well, something about how to do and be church.
Let’s start with what we can learn about the power of the stranger. Newcomers, strangers who come into our midst, stretch our perspectives and teach us about things we either didn’t know, or they teach us how to see things from a different perspective. But first we have to be listening! We have to be open to those who are different from us. This woman reached through the boundaries, through all of the mechanisms designed to keep her apart, and the inner community safe, from intruders. She just barged through them as though they didn’t exist. I have noticed among our newer folk that there are some who know the systems of church, or community, so well that they just take the initiative and place themselves where they need to be – right within our life – and good on them! They are the ones I know will find their way with us and I can leave them and those around them to manage the process. Others though, who are not so familiar with the church world, or are as brave perhaps, will hold back until someone helps them in. They are the ones who need a hand here and there. We need to be watching for these folk and help them to see that they are welcome with us and that we need what they bring to our community just by being with us. That there is always room for more; within the community, and, within our hearts. But there are others who haven’t made it through our doors and who may need more than an invitation, they may need to know us well enough to even want to be part of us. Or they may need us to go to them and be where they are. All of these people may have a great deal to teach us – if we are listening.
In church circles we talk about mission a lot. It’s a word that puts some people off. It’s a word often used to make people feel they should be doing more. or we should be sending money overseas because that’s where the mission field is. I wonder, though, if our mission field isn’t right under our noses too, in our households, schools, and the communities we are involved in. In these places where we walk alongside a great mix of people, like us and not like us, we get to discern their needs and to consider what we might be able to be involved in with them, and how we might be able to participate in the sharing of resources with them. I deliberately avoided using the word ‘help’ here because I think the word help indicates a superiority, an idea that us helping you, means we have the goods, we are the bestower of solutions, and the fixer of problems, when actually, more often than not, we are also the ‘fixed’ when we take the time to work alongside those who are ‘other’ than us. Remember the description of church we have used before; church is doing life with.
I wonder, how often are we open sufficiently to allow those different from us to teach us? How often are we brave enough to jump those social boundaries in order to even encounter those who are different from us? We can talk about it but how often do we actually do it? Because to do it might mean we have to humble ourselves. Humility is the cost of inclusion, as Jesus shows us in this story, where he gets put right and accepts the teaching of someone else – someone who others would consider lesser than him. In this story we see that Jesus is now inviting all people to his table – no one is left with the crumbs from under the table. This inclusive Jesus can make even outsiders ‘hear’ and ‘speak’, yet you might have noticed that often it is his own disciples who don’t seem to hear so well. Do you see the irony? What if it is the outsiders around us who have actually heard Jesus in ways that we are deaf to? First we have to listen…
Over the last while the Alpine Presbytery has invested in making short videos of things that are going on around the place. I want to show you one now, of the work that is being done in the new Preston’s subdivision in North East Christchurch. This is an area that has been established recently but which has no space for church or much community life. So a group led by a ministry intern Charissa Nicol and including people from St Margaret’s and Christchurch North parishes have started by listening to the community – to see what the church can hear about life there. Now this is a story about a new subdivision but it speaks about what can happen when the church listens to its context – which, of course, can happen anywhere. Let’s have a watch…It is curious that it took a woman from the outside to open Jesus to the fullness of what God was up to. I wonder who God is using to teach us how to be and do church today