The Gospel Lesson for the sermon is: Mark 7:24-37.
My friend and seminary classmate, Rev. C. Jeremy Cannada, shared these words this week:
“On Wednesday morning, in our country and throughout the world, many people awoke to an image of frightful disturbance: a young boy, lying nearly facedown in the receding waters of the Turkish coast. Just enough face was exposed for us to see his untimely rest and impatient peace, both now claiming it. This little toddler, if he can yet even be called that, was dressed in a little red shirt with tiny blue shorts; their colors even deeper because of the salt water that saturated them—darker colors for a dark image. His little shoes were still tied to his feet, the soles pointed to us. In Middle Eastern cultures, to see the soles of shoes is akin to being shamed or insulted; perhaps, then, this is the appropriate view the world should see to be introduced to the little boy. Our shame. Our insult.”
The news is ripe with attention-grabbing stories this week. For some, it’s the story of Clerk Kim Davis being arrested in Kentucky. For many, it’s the return of College Football. For still more, it’s the stories of the Syrian refugees with their pleas for aid and daring attempts to flee war and start life anew. The headlines scream for our attention and we are quick to weigh-in with our opinions. All of the headlines this week, maybe with the exception of the return of college football, point to the gospel lesson; each one offering us a moment to pause and reflect on the words God needs us to hear so that we’ll actively respond.
Boundary-breaking is one of the themes of Mark’s gospel, as Jesus often crosses boundaries, thus exposing our offenses. Today’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of Mark arrives just after the stories of Jesus’ ministry warnings about hypocrisy, illustrating the shortcomings of God’s children. I say “God’s children” because Mark makes us aware today that even Jesus himself fell short of the Glory of God in this particular instance. We have what appears to be another set of healing miracles emphasizing the universality and compassion of God. Both of these offer messages of faithful followers who humbly approach the Son of God, who then overlooks their “otherness” of being outcasts and foreigners to offer healing, wholeness and acceptance. However, something is awry in the story of the Syrophoenician woman.
According to Mark, the reader can assume the wrath and disdain of Jesus toward the woman is due to the cultural taboos present. First, the boundary of locale, as the setting is near Tyre, a Gentile territory while Jesus is from Galilee. Next, the boundary of heritage, as the woman is Greek and Syrophoenician, and Jesus is Jewish. The third boundary is gender; two of the three main characters are male while the other is female. And finally, there is the boundary of the asking: the woman is making the request rather than the appeal coming from a male member of her family. All of these represent boundaries that a pious Jewish male should not cross. For whatever the reason, the reaction is one we don’t expect or even like to see from the Messiah. Jesus is usually the one breaking the boundaries, shattering glass ceilings, rebuking religious leaders and welcoming with open arms the ones shunned by society. We’re not used to seeing a snarky Christ-figure; that behavior seems all too human and not very divine. If God is tossing out crumbs of Christianity, these are not ones we’d choose to consume.
When Christ returned to Galilee from the Tyre region, however, he resorts back to his usual healing miracles: done in private, using spit, and using words familiar to Christ but foreign to his Gentile audience. Jesus appears to have snapped out of whatever had upset him and gone back to business as usual. The fact that this miracle takes place after the encounter with, and the miracle for the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter highlights the proclamation of God’s rule when accompanied by the transformation or radical change of an individual’s life. Some scholars contend that the transformation that took place was not who we’d expect based on past miracle accounts. Rather than the radical change happening in the healed, it happens in the healer because of the exchange with the woman.
Rev. Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore composed a beautiful work in response to her reading of the Matthew version of this miracle encounter. Hear these words from her “Letter to a Canaanite Woman”:
Dear Canaanite Sister,
You go girl! I’ve never seen anyone talk to Jesus like that. And this from someone who so clearly does not belong. No one has called anyone a Canaanite for centuries. You are a foreigner – or you would be a foreigner if it were not your home turf that Jesus had wandered into. What’s more, you are a Canaanite woman in the middle of a group of Jewish men. You are so out of place and so out of time and so exactly where your daughter needs you to be.
I heard you first, before I saw you. You were screaming, crying, crying out, wailing in that Emergency Room that doubles as a road through Tyre and Sidon. So completely foreign it all was. What were you doing there? What was Jesus doing there? You would tell him what he was doing. “Have mercy on me, Son of David,” you said. “My daughter… my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
You were screaming when you said this, hysterical we would say. It was hard to hear, harder to watch. You followed those men, still crying after them. The disciples wondered if the demon didn’t have hold of you, too. You kept shouting. They asked Jesus to dismiss you. He ignored them. But he ignored you too, and some of us who know him found his silence even more disturbing than your cries. Then he spoke, and things got worse. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
You were kneeling when he said this, existing low where it is possible to smell exactly what the Rottweiler had for lunch. Had you fallen at his feet just to stop him in his tracks? Maybe, but your kneeling looked like the posture of worship. It looked like you were praying when he said you were a dog. And heaven knows, “Lord help me!” is a prayer.
“It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” We still cannot quite believe our Jesus said this. We are so embarrassed that Jesus would call anyone a dog, and we are so nonchalant about God keeping promises to God’s children – unless, of course, we are the children of God to whom the promises were made. But when Jesus spoke of the children and their bread, he was not talking about most of us any more than he was talking about you. You knelt before him, and he as much as said, “You are right where you belong, dog.” I wonder if it was not your place below the action that told you what to say next. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” I’m down here, Lord, with the dogs, looking for just a little. A little… “My daughter…. Have mercy…. Crumbs.” Did you teach the Teacher? I think you did.”
The miracle encounter comes to life through this letter. We see that the Messiah is being all too human in this moment, and we see that it takes a human response to jolt him out of his funk. The letter reminds us that we, too, must dare to dare to approach the throne of grace with boldness, for God may be using that very moment to be a transformative one.
Abdullah Kurdi, father of three-year-old Aylan who we’ve seen in pictures, his body washed ashore, recounted this week the ordeal of trying to escape Syria for Greece by boat on the Agean Sea. “The Turk jumped into the sea, then a wave came and flipped us over. I grabbed my sons and wife and we held onto the boat…We stayed like that for an hour, then the first died and I left him so I could help the other, then the second died, so I left him as well to help his mom and I found her dead…What do I do. … I spent three hours waiting for the coast guard to come. The life jackets we were wearing were all fake. My wife is my world and I have nothing, by God…I am choking, I cannot breathe. They died in my arms.” Mr. Kurdi did what any parent would do – what the Syrophoenician woman did – he fought for the life of his children. He wanted better for them. His boys only knew war and terror for their short three and five year lives, and Mr. Kurdi wanted more. With his application for asylum to Canada rejected, he paid nearly $6,000 for four seats on a rubber boat for a trip that was supposed to last thirty minutes. Begging for mercy at the feet of the governments in control, he was forced to take matters into his own hands. Now, he has a new life – one without his family. By the grace of God, however, his family’s story is finally awaking the world to his plight and those of his fellow Syrian refugees. His story may not have ended the way he’d hoped, but the crumbs he has left are causing a mighty ripple across the world.
A faithful child of God approached the Messiah asking for merely crumbs, but Christ refused to accede her request initially. What we see in this passage for us today is a glimpse of both a fully human Jesus and a fully divine Christ. Both miracles allow us to see the two natures of our incarnate God. Mark is not one to shy away from showing the human nature of Christ, which parallels well with the denseness of the disciples. Maybe, just maybe, we glimpse a Savior who’s exhausted and exasperated. Maybe, just maybe, we glimpse a holy moment when God has to remind Christ of his mission, ministry and purpose for life on earth. Maybe, just maybe, our omnipotent God allows us to catch holy crumbs at the foot of the throne. And then, after Christ has been corrected himself, we see the divinity return in full-force both when he heals the woman’s daughter by means of only words, and then again in touching, spitting and speaking to the deaf/mute. Holy crumbs, my friends.
We can dare to approach the throne of grace, the holiest presence of God with courage, faith, and strength because we have witnessed a mama who just wouldn’t back down, even when being insulted. The unnamed woman’s courageous response causes Jesus to instantaneously understand her challenge: she may not have been a Jewish male, but his ministry and salvation was to be for her as well. Our God has a love for us that expands beyond all barriers and boundaries. Our God has a love that restores us to full life in health and in community. Our God responds to us challenging, begging, approaching, throwing ourselves at his feet…all for the life of fullness which Christ promised and delivered.
Rev. Dr. Shore finishes her “Letter to a Canaanite Woman” accordingly, with a message to this woman and to all of us:
Because of you and your fierce need, God’s own Son himself came to see his life’s work as bigger than before. What he had not thought to look for in anyone like you, he saw: faith. He saw your tenacious conviction that he could help, and amazed, he did. I have thought that fear makes it impossible to imagine things. “Perfect fear casts out all imagination,” I have thought. But you were afraid – you must have been afraid of the demon and of your daughter’s suffering and afraid of all those foreign men and all their insults. You must have been afraid, yet you could see a new thing – healing – at the same time. “Woman,” Jesus said (choosing, finally, a better name than dog), “Great is your faith.” You imagined healing before it happened and you showed it to the Healer. Walking by faith, crying out by faith, kneeling and talking back to God by faith like that, what might we see? Can faith declare God’s work for us in places where we don’t belong? Will faith point us, with you, to that stranger on the road – out of place himself – who certainly can help? Will it break for us the loaf that is enough for children and for dogs. Might your story help us grasp these things even when we’re terrified? You taught the Teacher. What will you teach us?
With gratitude for the faithful like this woman, we feast from a place at the table rather than the crumbs on the floor below. The healed in this passage received crumbs and spit, but we are offered loaves and juice, body and blood, salvation and healing. In a few moments we will partake in the great feast of our Lord, a gift for us. We will receive bounty, but our exemplars today were happy with mere morsels. Their lives were changed in their wholehearted, faithful reception of what God offered them when they asked. Today, we don’t even ask and we receive! We don’t have to throw ourselves as Christ’s feet and beg, we don’t require people to bring us into God’s presence, we don’t have to prove our worth. We are offered an invitation. We are given grace. Unmerited. Unrequested. Undeserved. And yet, fully prepared, offered and blessed for us. The grace, however, commands action. God has freely given to us so that we may go out into the world and make it better. We must do better.
“Jesus commands us to love like a bulldog. Something changes here. Is it the woman? Has she passed some test?…Has something changed for Jesus, too?… Does Jesus see something of himself in her?” In her commentary on this passage, Rev. Karen Pidcock-Lester reminds us that we have a Savior who is not powerless, but one that can and will and does save. “His compassion widens the circle of his mercy. His plan, his policy, will include anyone who comes to him (and even those who don’t). They will all be his children, fed from the table,” she says. “One day, everyone who comes to him will be fed from the feast at the table. Until then, what is there to do but love like a bulldog and feed on the power of the crumbs from his table to make us whole?” Feed on the power of the crumbs and the spit that Christ offers. It may not seem like much, but it’s everything. And it’s for us.
Sometimes we have to approach the Messiah, trembling, asking for something so bold it seems impossible. Boldness, bravery is what breaks barriers. Like a father putting his family on a boat hoping for new life merely to have his son’s corpse jolt the world awake, or a woman who retorts Jesus’s ugly behavior to remind him of his purpose, or a man who relishes someone else’s spit on his tongue and in his ears, or one of us who is unworthy of the bounty before us, yet takes his or her place at the table anyway. Boldness is where we see God’s majesty at work, for it’s with boldness that Christ entered the world, healed and rebuked, and then took his place on the cross in our stead to offer us not just crumbs and spit, but the abundance of life everlasting. Sometimes, no, all the time, God tenders us glimpses of glory in the holy crumbs, and heals us in spite of ourselves. Today, we receive grace upon grace that’s unmerited-ly given to and for each you and me. Today, we are thankful that the Spirit compelled a woman to be so bold as to remind Christ of his ministry. And today, we are heartbroken yet grateful for little Aylan Kurdi whose death is not in vain, instead, a call to action.
To God be the glory this day and every day, for: faithful believers, courageous parents, a meal of plenty, a Savior son, and a Spirit who grants bravery. Amen.
 Sermon snippet from Rev. C. Jeremy Cannada, preached on Sunday, September 6, 2015.
 Scott, Bernard Brandon. From “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 7:24-30 in Feasting on the Gospels” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 207.
 Shore, Mary Hinkle. “Teaching the Teacher: Letter to a Canaanite Woman” from http://www.malankaraworld.com/newsletter/MWJ_127.htm#article1
 Pidcock-Lester, Karen. From “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 7:24-30 in Feasting on the Gospels” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 208, 210.