My apologies: I wasn't able to record the sermon this week!
I hope I'll have a video to post for next week's sermon.
You can watch previous sermons on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/carrieballenger
Sermon for Sunday 5 September 2021
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Yesterday, a group of women in Taliban-controlled Kabul marched in protest for the thirdtime, demanding equal rights to education and the right to participate in government. They were met with tear gas and tasers, and some were hit in the head by the guns the Taliban soldiers were carrying.
The vowed not to quit their protests.
This is an awful scene, and a terrible situation for all women and girls in Afghanistan. But it also echoes scenes we have witnessed before: bold women, stepping out and standing up for what they need and deserve.
Refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Sitting in at segregated lunch counters. Marching the streets for the right to vote. Carrying babies and children on their backs across borders to safety.
Here in Jerusalem, the Women in Black (mostly Israeli women) have met every Friday since 1988 to demand “Stop the Occupation”. And for seven years, the grassroots movement “Women Wage Peace”—including Jews and Arabs, religious and secular—have united in the demand for a non-violent agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Included in their efforts is a document called “the Mother’s Alliance”, which reads, in part: “We, Palestinian and Israeli women from all walks of life, are united in the human desire for a future of peace, freedom, equality, rights, and security for our children and the next generations…Therefore we demand that our leaders listen to our call and promptly begin peace talks and negotiations…”
Women fighting for their lives and the lives of their children.
Women demanding to be heard.
This story is not new.
In today’s Gospel text we read of another bold and audacious woman. Mark chapter 7 tells us that Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre, which today lies in Lebanon but at the time was in the province of Syria. The important thing for today’s story is to note that it was far away from Galilee, where Jesus had been ministering. Jesus entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Based on other accounts of Jesus’ ministry, we could conclude that he was tired from his journey and weary of the crowds, and perhaps just needed rest and time for prayer before teaching again.
But…he couldn’t escape being noticed. A woman came to bow at his feet and beg for the life of her daughter, who was sick with an unclean spirit. The text is clear about telling us the woman was Gentile, and of Syro-Phoenician origin. In plain terms, she was not Jewish. She was an outsider, at least in relation to Jesus’ mission.
And still, this mother came to Jesus and begged for him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Let the children be fed first. In other words, your child is not a child.
Every time I read this, I think of the countless women who have been told that their children are not children. That their black children, refugee children, Palestinian children, Jewish children, or disabled children, are not children. Or at least are not children worthy of the same rights, the same care, the same concern for their future and well-being.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Why would Jesus respond in this way? Some say he was testing the woman’s faith, although nothing in this text says anything about her faith or special morality. Some say this was a “folk saying”, a kind of proverb that would have been familiar to the woman, and that the word “dog” was more like “little puppy” and therefore wasn’t such an insult. (I’m not so sure about that…) Others suggest Jesus was just tired and having a bad day.
In any case, I must say I’m not a fan of Jesus in this scene. This is not the Jesus who welcomes the little children and opens the doors to heaven wide for prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors, and even me! This feels like a Jesus I don’t know, and I don’t particularly like. This is a Jesus with a narrow focus, and that focus is his mission to share the Gospel with just one group of people.
But…this mother doesn’t take no for an answer. She presses on, saying, 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.
So what in the world happened here? As I mentioned, this is different from those who encountered Jesus and were healed because of great faith in him. This woman doesn’t reveal that she knows anything about Jesus except that he knows how to cast out demons and provide healing. She doesn’t call him Lord, or teacher, or Son of God. She doesn’t even follow him after this encounter—she simply goes home. No, this is not a story of great faith. It’s a story of great desperation. Her daughter was sick, and she would do anything—even bow at the feet of this teacher from Galilee, and allow herself and her daughter to be called “dogs.”
And Jesus, healer of our every ill, did respond eventually. The woman’s daughter was healed. She was changed, as most who have an encounter with Jesus are changed forever.
But I would suggest that Jesus, also, was changed in this encounter. He had already been expanding the boundaries of his mission, beyond the borders of the Galilee. He had already faced challenges by the Pharisees and other religious authorities over his lack of observance of the law, and for the misfits he had brought into his group of followers. And here, once again, it seems Jesus’ sense of mission is challenged. Jesus is growing and changing.
We may want to think of Jesus as being the same Jesus in the manger as he was at age 12 when he preached in the temple and then when he took his place on the cross—but here we are reminded that we proclaim Jesus to be fully human AND fully divine. And all of us who are fully human grow, and learn and change throughout life. Much growth happens through relationship with others, and especially through relationship with humans who are different from us.
One of the biblical commentaries I consulted this week (written by a man, of course) suggests that the Syro-phoenician woman’s significance is, quote, “bound up not so much with the fact that she is a woman or that she is the mother of a demon-possessed daughter, as with the fact that she is a non-Jew.” It’s true that in the full context of Jesus’ ministry, her identity as a non-Jew is important. But I disagree with separating her identities in this way! I think the outcome of this story has everything to do with her being a woman. As a woman and a mother, I think we see in her the audacity that lives inside us, a God-given audacity that has the power to change the world.
I also think this audacious and persistent woman is a powerful model for the church today. Today it is we, the Body of Christ in the world, who are called to be the hands and feet of Christ. We are the ones who are now empowered to share the Good News of Jesus, crucified and risen, with others. And often we, too, need to have our eyes opened, our ears unstopped, and our boundaries expanded. Institutions as well as individuals need to hear the stories of those who have been left outside the church and outside of society. We need hear and feel their pain, and then with the heart of Christ, we are called to respond in love and in action—even if we are criticized for stepping out of the boundaries of doctrine, tradition, or politeness.
I want to leave you with a piece of writing from the wonderful Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest and anti-war activist who was also bold, audacious, and often criticized for his work.
He wrote this about the Syro-Phoenician woman, during the height of the AIDS crisis:
“Of this I am certain: of our calling to holiness, our vocation to persist, in season and out in the work of healing others, even as we seek healing for ourselves…
So we take heart. We commend the woman who quite simply, with all her heart, on behalf of someone she loved, refused to give up. We might think of her act as ‘forgiving persistence’ toward Christ. We might also wish to ponder a kind of ‘persistent forgiveness’ toward the church.
The woman refuses and persists. And so prevails.
And so must we. And so shall we.
We must forgive, deepen our love, persist in the conviction that even the church can be redeemed from sin.
In so fulfilling our vocation, we ourselves are healed.”
(Daniel Berrigan, Sorrow Built a Bridge: Friendship and AIDS, 1989)
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.