There is a trajectory in scripture that is constantly surprising and even scandalizing us, a trajectory that moves us to an ever expanding vision of mission and ministry. It is a vision that calls us to embrace the outsider, that calls us forward on the path of diversity and inclusiveness, that urges us to be bold, to be generous and to be changed. Martin Luther King Jr. once called it the moral arc of the universe.
Jesus went to a foreign land, on the far side of the Jordan River. When he arrived, they brought a man who was deaf to him, and he said to him, “Ephphatha. Be open!”
That seems like a pretty good way for us to begin. Be open!
Whose are the voices that we aren’t hearing?
What points of view are we quick to dismiss?
Which people do we not usually see? What do they see that we don’t?
Being open is how we learn. Being open is how we grow. Being open is how we are transformed. Being open is exciting.
But let’s be honest, sometimes it’s easier not to be open.
Because being open can be exhausting. There are some people that I have a hard time listening to. There are points of view that I reject. We all have our sacred cows. But to be open, we need to learn to suspend judgement, and that’s a lot harder than it sounds. Being open means listening to and appreciating what’s being said before we agree or disagree with it. It means engaging with others on their terms, not ours.
Sometimes being open means setting aside the structures, going beyond the limits and crossing the boundaries that protect and support us.
Which brings us to the first part of today’s gospel reading. It’s a pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus is exhausted. Wherever he has been great crowds have gathered, placing demands on him. He doesn’t get much sleep, he rarely has time to eat. He’s even found it hard to find time for prayer. Whenever he does try to get away on his own, the crowds are there first. And it’s not just the crowds. John the Baptist has just been murdered by King Herod. Jesus is next on the list. The spies from Jerusalem follow him wherever he goes, gathering evidence, initiating conflict. Jesus must be exhausted.
You know the feeling? What do you do when you’re exhausted? Sometimes you just need to get away. That’s what Jesus does. He needs to escape, and so he leaves Galilee and goes to the region of Tyre, to foreign territory, some place where nobody will find him. It’s a long trip, about five days walking, but finally he gets there and holes up in a house where at last he can get a good night’s sleep and spend some time in prayer.
But he can’t escape. There’s a pounding on the door and a desperate woman starts screaming at him in Greek. She throws herself at his feet, she begs him to heal her daughter.
And Jesus says 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.”
Did Jesus just call her a dog?
It happened often enough that Jewish people called foreigners dogs in those days. And the relationship between the people of Israel and the people of Tyre was particularly bad as a result of a recent conflict. Maybe Jesus was just saying what any other Jew might have said. How often after all, do we simply parrot the biases and assumptions of our own culture and society? But it still sounds rude, and out of character for Jesus. And because of this various commentators on the gospels have done all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain the slur. Some imagine that Jesus was just testing the woman, or that the verbal exchange was purely for the benefit of unnamed listeners. Others think that Jesus, knowing what would happen, was setting the woman up for a witty reply.
To be honest, I don’t buy any of those explanations. What Jesus said just sounds rude to me. I can’t understand it, I can’t justify it and I can’t explain it.
But in retrospect, I am thankful that he said it. Because this is a pivotal moment in both Jesus’ understanding and in our understanding of the mission to which God is calling us.
In the gospel of Mark, God’s mission, what Jesus calls the kingdom of God, is always portrayed as this surprising, exciting, boundary-crossing new reality that breaks into our world in the least likely of places. Even Jesus himself is surprised and stretched when the kingdom of God breaks into his retreat-house in Tyre in the person of this Syrophoenecian woman.
He tries to put her off. He tries to set limits. He says “not now, I can’t do everything at once”
But you can’t put off a mother with the faith of a tiger, a mother who’s desperate about her daughter and knows that you are her last hope.
And so she says to him, “Jesus, be open!”
He says, “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
She says, “You are the light of the world. The whole world. Even me. Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And Jesus listens to what she says. He changes his mind and heals her daughter. He is opened to a new, more expansive understanding of his own mission and ministry. He had thought that God’s grace and healing would be given first to the Jews, the children, and only later to the Gentiles. But God had other ideas, and chose to deliver this prophetic message through an unlikely prophet, a desperate Syrophoenician woman.
When Jesus turns her down, she refuses accept his theology. Sometimes human need trumps theology. Your limits are not God’s limits, she tells him, there is enough of God’s goodness and grace to go around. Even a crumb of God’s love will be good enough for me and my daughter. In that moment she has a greater vision of God’s grace than Jesus does. And Jesus listens, he learns, he changes his mind, broadens his theology and expands his mission.
Because being open is not just listening to what other people are saying. It is also learning to hear what God is saying, to hear what God is calling us to do. Even when that goes beyond our limits. Even when that pushes us across boundaries. Even when God chooses to speak through a desperate mother, yelling at us in Greek.
When you encounter someone who is different than you are, sometimes what you hear might seem impossible, or it won’t fit with your own understanding and priorities. Be open. If we are open to what God is calling us to do, as individuals and as a community, God’s power working in us can do more than we can imagine.
Jesus leaves the region of Tyre, but he doesn’t go home. Instead he makes a long detour through foreign lands, eventually ending up in another Greek-speaking region, the Decapolis. He has embraced his mission to be the light of the world, the saviour of all peoples, and the ministry that he began in Israel is now extended beyond those borders.
Because when we’re open that’s what we do. We cross borders. We go places we’ve never been before. We meet people we’ve never met before. We experience God in ways we’ve never experienced before.
Isn’t it remarkable that the same Jesus who calls us to be disciples, that is to be learners, because that’s what the word disciple means, that same Jesus also shows us what learning looks like. Learning happens when we encounter someone who is different from us, and allow ourselves to be stretched, to be transformed, to change our minds, to be led into a greater vision of what God is calling us to do.
And if Jesus can learn from his encounters, if he can go beyond his perceived limits, well, don’t you think we can too?
We have, right here in this community of Trinity, an amazing opportunity to do just that. When we meet new people, when we embrace the outsider, how will we as church be stretched and shaped into a more abundant and life-giving version of the community we are called to be? What might God be asking us to do now that we thought could wait until later?
What does it mean for us to be open? And how might we be changed?
Homily: Yr B Proper 23, Sept 5 2021, Trinity
Readings: Proverbs 22.1-2,8-9,22-23; Psalm 125; James 2.1-10,14-17; Mark 7.24-37