Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sermon for September 6, 2009: "When the Gospel Went to the Dogs"

Mark 7:24-37
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go-the demon has left your daughter." So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I am indebted to the writings of Sarah Dylan Brauer and Heidi Husted, who calls our Gospel reading “the day the Gospel went to the dogs,” for some of the ideas behind this sermon.

"Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

I am not the only preacher who has read our Gospel passage this morning and contemplated basing the sermon on the Epistle or the Old Testament reading. The Jesus we meet in today's Gospel reading, frankly, makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

We're used to seeing Jesus heal everyone who asks, and even a couple who don't ask. We're used to seeing Jesus lay the verbal smackdown on the scribes and Pharisees. But to refuse to heal? To use the common disparaging term of his day in calling this Syrophonecian woman, and by extension all Gentiles, “dogs?”

We're tempted to tap this Jesus on the shoulder and ask, “who are you and what have you done with the real Jesus?” After all, Jesus, you're traveling around in Tyre, for cryin' out loud. Gentile Central. If I go to a police station, I'll very likely meet a cop. If I go to a barber shop, I'll probably meet a barber (who will wonder what I'm doing there).

If you go to Tyre, you're gonna meet a gentile, dude. If you're not here to provide healing and teaching for the Gentiles, what on earth are you doing in Tyre in the first place?

Now, I do not want to suggest that my answer is the only correct answer; I don't presume to speak for Reformed Theology or have enough of a grasp on Biblical criticism to claim any authority. What I am suggesting is something we've done before; we're exploring a “what-if” scenario. With that said, I think the answer to what in the world Jesus was doing in Tyre that day is that Jesus was learning.

There are some apocryphal “Gospels” floating around out there, most notably the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” which portray the childhood Jesus as someone fully aware of Who they were, able to perform all manner of miracles and to make prophetic proclamations. This fictional child Jesus brings clay pigeons to life, parts the water in a pond, strikes some folks dead, raises some others from the dead... he is, in short, a monster.

No, the real Jesus had to do it the hard way – like everyone else. He had to be potty trained. He had to learn to feed himself. He had to learn to walk and talk and dress himself and everything else every human child has ever had to learn.

He learned Joseph's trade, he learned the Scriptures... he spent the first three decades of his life learning and preparing for his ministry.

Now, something that is important to remember in any context is that when a person stops learning – be they 12 or 30 or 48 or 65 or 80 years old – that person is either dead or dangerous. The old cliché, “you learn something new every day,” is true. Sometimes the lessons are painful, like finding out the heating elements in an oven are hot (don't ask). Sometimes the lessons are fun (for example, did you know that Brent Spiner, who played Data on Star Trek/Next Generation has a Twitter account? I'm a geek, I admit it). But the point is, we learn. We grow.

The argument can be made that the Pharisees stopped learning, because at some point they decided that they knew everything there was to know about how to rightly keep the Law and the Jewish faith. In our own time, people like Fred Phelps and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church could safely be accused of no longer learning, with their hateful websites and angry picketing at soldiers' funerals. Try as I might, I can think of no positive example for any person or any group that ceased to learn.

So is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Jesus was in Tyre because his Father wanted to show him something?

To be sure, not compassion, and not an openness to including the marginalized in his ministry. After all, this is the same Jesus who touched lepers, ministered to Samaritans and even made one the hero of one of his most famous parables, who ate with tax collectors and sinners. That the Syrophonecian woman dares to speak to him at all, and that he actually acknowledges her right to speak to him, is an astounding departure from the cultural norms of the day. People are always more important than propriety.

Yet up to this point in the Gospel, Jesus has been ministering to people who are ostensibly Jewish in that they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles, on the other hand, would have been members of one pagan society or another, worshiping a plethora of greater and lesser gods. Whereas Jesus shared a common culture with the Jewish people, Tyre was given over to Greek ideas and lifestyles.

And as much as Jesus tried to keep his presence in Tyre a secret, word got out, and it wasn't long at all before a woman came in the house where he was staying and fell at his feet. She needed healing for her daughter, and whatever gods she worshiped, whatever things she believed, she knew that this Jewish prophet had healed people before, had cast out demons before, and it didn't matter if he said “no,” she'd heard “no” before; it didn't matter if he called her a dog, she'd been called a dog before; she was not going to stop until he did it again.

I don't want to read too much into the story here, or to suggest something that may be unScriptural, but I wonder.

I see the scene: Jesus standing in the middle of a room in a Greek-style home, a woman crumpled at his feet, pleading for her daughter. When he speaks to her, it's not in a dismissive, angry tone, but in the voice of someone who is trapped by policy, who can't do what needs to be done because that's not in his job description: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

I see the woman look up at him, fire in her eyes. The fact that she would reply at all is breathtaking, I mean, that sort of thing just wan't done in those days – her courage radiates even through the fear for her daughter. She answers in a strong voice: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

I wonder if Jesus had an ah-ha moment? You know what I mean, a moment of realization, where you learn something you didn't know before, and it changes everything. One thing is certain, from that moment forward no one, Jew or Gentile, is excluded from the healing and teaching and attention and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Now, if this is true – if that's what happened – then we have both a glorious promise and a life-and-death directive.

The Syrophonecian woman prayed earnestly, and was unwilling to give up until her prayer was answered, and as a result, everything was changed. The glorious promise then is summed up in the words of an old bumper sticker: prayer changes things! Scripture tells, time and time again, of events and judgments and outcomes that were altered by prayer... and we can rest assured that events and judgments and outcomes are changed still today when we pray.

The life-and-death directive is to follow the example of Jesus – to be open to having our minds changed, to bne open to new experiences and new people and new ideas that alter the course of our faith journey, that change our lives. If we had a few hours I could give examples of how that's happened in my life – how a group of teenagers at a Waffle House in Vestavia made me a better Christian and a better person – and I'm sure you could tell me similar stories.

When we are no longer open to change, to growth, to learning, we cease to function as Christians and as human beings. We are on a faith journey, and as long as we have a pulse the journey continues.

How will you be changed today – this week – by the people God brings into your life?

Almighty God,
We pray that we are challenged daily... hourly... moment by moment, to see all people as beloved community. To see all people as worthy of our attention, our advocacy, our thoughts and our prayers. Help us to be like Jesus, to engage with one another outside of our comfort zone, and stretch us
mightily for your work in this world.

We bring confident prayers this morning for (prayer needs list)...

In the name of Jesus, our Lord and savior, who taught us to pray... (Lord's Prayer)


  1. Hey John, I hope you find this comment in time to read that once again, I love reading your sermons. Question: what about those of us whose learning has taken them to some rather dark, murky, uncertain places in our faith journey? Is that a positive step, or are we just being rebellious ingrates?

  2. Good question, Bruce. At the risk of sounding cliche, the question is not so much going TO those places as it is going THROUGH those places. Hope that makes sense...