Say What Now?! – a sermon

Sunday, September 6th, 2015 – fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23; Mark 7:24-37
Hymns: “Shout to the North”, “In Christ There Is No East or West”, “Pass Me Not”, “Be Still and Know”, “Heal Me, Hands of Jesus”, “Fill My Cup, Lord”, “I Am Free”

Say What Now?!
President Jimmy Carter has been in the news quite a bit lately. It was recently revealed that he has cancer that has spread throughout most of his body. He underwent surgery to remove a good bit of it, but it remains in many vital areas, including his brain. At nearly ninety-one years old, however, he is at peace with it, refusing to let it affect his life. While you or I or most people that we know might throw up our hands in despair at being diagnosed with such widespread cancer, Jimmy Carter has instead continued to lead his life as normally as possible. He has continued his work with the Carter Center, and has even continued teaching his Sunday School class at Plains Baptist Church in Augusta, GA.
He has, since the end of his Presidency, become a widely respected figure for his charitable efforts, especially with Habitat for Humanity, all across the political spectrum. Many who thought he did a poor job as President have praised the work he has done since then, acknowledging him as a former President who has used his political clout for the good of the world.
Considering the way we think about Jimmy Carter now, it is strange to think back to November of 1976. Just before he was elected President, the latest issue of a certain magazine (whose title does not merit mention from this pulpit) was released, containing an interview with Mr. Carter. In this interview, he quotes the teaching of Christ where he said, “I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery,”, and goes on to say, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”
Now we need to remember that Jimmy Carter is a lifelong Baptist, and when he gave this interview, he was still actively involved with the Southern Baptist Convention. I can only imagine how many good, God-fearing Baptists (and, well, everybody else) heard tell of this interview and said, “Say what now?!”
You see, when there is a person who we view a certain way, who we uphold as a moral exemplar, then when they fail us, we’re shocked and dismayed. We think to ourselves, “Well, if so-and-so is that bad, then surely there’s no hope for the rest of us!” It’s something that has happened with almost alarming frequency since the advent of the 24 hour news cycle and the pernicious rise of the Internet – yet another person we thought to be good and righteous is proven to be just as human and prone to error as the rest of us.
Fortunately, we think to ourselves, there’s one moral exemplar who would never disappoint us – the one whose teachings we follow, Jesus the Christ. Surely HE would never disappoint us…
Right?
What if I told you that today’s Gospel passage contains Jesus saying something that has been interpreted by many Biblical scholars as being outright racist?
Now, before you break out the tar and feathers and go get the rail, let me explain. I’m not saying that Jesus intentionally cast an insult or a slur. For him to have done so against another human being would’ve constituted a sin, and I for one do not believe that sin is something that Jesus ever committed.
But we do have to remember that Jesus, though the essence of his life was of God, was nonetheless fully human in his incarnation. He was an Israelite Jew, born of two Israelite Jews. His culture had long held itself to be the chosen people of God – something that had been handed down to them in God’s covenant with Abraham. He would have been taught that the Jewish people had been picked by God, and that other cultures – known as Gentiles – were not among the chosen. On top of that, Jesus declared throughout the Gospels that he had been sent primarily to bring salvation TO THE JEWISH PEOPLE as their promised Messiah. It wasn’t that he was unwilling to extend God’s grace to all people, it’s just that unless they were Jewish, they weren’t a priority. In fact, the reality of his ministry on earth was that it was entirely to the Jewish people – it was his apostles, especially Peter and Paul, who took the Gospel beyond into the Gentile world, and then only after his ascension into heaven following his commission to the apostles to take his word to all the earth.
But still – at first blush, it comes as a shock when the Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus, seeking healing for her daughter. Clearly she’s somebody interested in his ministry – she’s followed it well enough to know that he is one who has done great acts of healing. Clearly she’s somebody who believes that he has powers that she does not understand – she comes to Jesus, asking him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Now, as bold a move as this was on her part, it was also basically culturally unacceptable. For starters, here you have a Gentile woman of no account approaching a Jewish man. This isn’t like Jairus, the synagogue leader, coming to Jesus asking for healing for his daughter. Not only was Jairus a Jewish man, he was part of what amounted to the Galileean synagogue’s board, which meant he was well within his rights to ask the rabbi for a favor. Nor was this like the Roman centurion asking for healing for his servant. He may have been a Gentile, yes, but he was still a man, and a man of great power, at that. Nobody on the Jewish side of things would blink an eye at his coming to Jesus. His superiors might’ve wanted to have a few words with him, but that would be a military matter, not a cultural one.
This isn’t even like Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well. Yes, the situation was similar – he was a Jewish man, she was a Gentile woman of no account – but in that case, Jesus was the one who struck up the conversation. He was the one who initiated the cultural breach of protocol. In the case of the Syrophoenician woman, she essentially throws all cultural protocol out the window and comes to Jesus out of desperation.
And you know, maybe Jesus was startled by the woman. Maybe he was tired. The Gospel passage specifically says that he didn’t want anybody to know he had come to the region of Tyre, so maybe he was weary of people following him around asking for this, that, and the other thing. Regardless of the reality of the situation, though, there’s no escaping the fact that when the Syrophoenician woman asked Jesus to heal her daughter, he essentially called both her and her daughter dogs.
“The children have to be fed first,” he said. “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Say what now?!
But we have to remember the cultural context here. We have to remember that to Jesus the human, the Gentiles were a lower class of people. Above and beyond that, though, we have to remember that Jesus’ mission was to the Jewish people. He did not come to minister to the Gentiles, and that is perhaps the biggest takeaway from what he says here. The Jewish people were the children to whom he was bringing his message, he told her. It wasn’t right for him to stop giving the message to the children and turn and give it to somebody else.
That is an important lesson for us to remember. The salvation that we enjoy today was not necessarily intended for us. Unless you are Jewish by practice or heritage, the ministry of Christ was not initially intended for you. Heck, for those of us descended from the Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, we are BLATANTLY Gentiles – Paul made as much clear in the letter to the Galatians, themselves ancient Celts!
But this woman was not to be deterred. She picked up the gauntlet Jesus had thrown down and handed it back to him. “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she replied to him. Basically, she acknowledged that as a Gentile woman, she was not part of the chosen people that Jesus had been sent to, but she didn’t care – she saw this amazing person who was doing great things in God’s name, and she wanted to be part of that. She wanted to receive this great gift of grace that was being freely given.
Indeed, if you think about it, the Syrophoenician woman is an example of the ideal to which we as Christians should aspire. She recognized that she was unworthy of the gift of grace, but knew that she wanted it anyway, and so was willing to humble herself to receive it. She could’ve reacted to Jesus’ challenging words with anger and defiance, but instead, she reacted with humility, grace, and a little bit of wit.
I like to imagine that in situations like this, Jesus would smile and nod, as if acknowledging that yes, here was somebody who actually gets it. All those scribes and Pharisees, even his own apostles, who were at times so blinded by doctrine and tradition so as to not see the truth in front of them, and here was this Gentile woman, not of the people to whom Jesus was sent, who nonetheless saw in him the truth and an opportunity for grace and healing, and so she jumped on it.
I wish more followers of Christ would react to him like the Syrophoenician woman did. Too many Christians act like salvation is something they’re entitled to, and they don’t have to acknowledge the sin within them. We’ve been given grace, and our sins are washed away, therefore, we don’t have to worry about the fact that we’re sinners. You can’t just go through life saying you don’t ask God for forgiveness because you know God forgives your sins regardless, and expect to have that forgiveness communicated to you when you come to the table. There is a requirement for humility within belief in Christ, and far too many go through their lives without that humility.
I’m sure that by now many of you have heard the story of the mentally unstable woman that Bubba Miller and Zack Craft encountered on the light rail in Los Angeles three months ago. Even in one of the weirdest cities in the country, she’s part of a group of people that is nonetheless considered undesirable. But Bubba and Zack, though there would be certain prejudices engrained within them just through human nature, recognized the humanity of that woman and chose to take the time to talk to her.
Much like the woman on the train, the Syrophoenician woman would’ve been considered an aberration in society, and Jesus, in all his humanity, would’ve had a certain reluctance to speak to her. But even in his reluctance to see her as worthy of what he was teaching, he was forced to see her not just as a Gentile, but as a fellow human being who was desperate and in need.
And so, though Jesus’ words can strike us as being almost offensive, we recognize within them his own humanity. We recognize that he was pushing the Syrophoenician woman’s buttons, and they provoked just the response he needed to hear to see her faith. We may say, “Say what now?!”, but we realize that sometimes it takes something outlandish to really provoke the reaction that the world needs to see.
We are not perfect, not one of us. We will all have those moments when we say something that provokes a “Say what now?!” But if we are thoughtful and humble about the way we approach those moments, we will learn from them. Hopefully, we will see something we weren’t expecting before.
Amen.

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