Readings: James 2:1-18; Mark 7:24-30
(Opening Story) It’s not unusual for this church to help people who walk in off the streets looking for financial assistance or spiritual care. Even if their visits disrupt us from doing the other church duties, we try to take the time to help them as we are able.
For a while, there was one person who would just walk into my office, most of the time unannounced. His name is M. M. is a sweet, little 5 year-old boy who attended Miss Candy’s afternoon preschool class. M. had no problem barging in to see what I was up to. He never cared who was sitting in my office, or what problems they might be going through. He came right in as if it were his home. Sometimes Miles would make a special trip to the church to drop off a cookies or a pie that he’d get his grandmother bake for me.
To be honest, I welcomed his visits. Why? Because M. always came in with a smile on his face, and never left without giving me a hug. Such daily interruptions are wonderful reminders to us all of what it means to follow Christ. And what it means to put our faith to work.
The Syrophoenician woman, as she is known in Mark’s gospel, had everything going against her when she forces her way into Jesus’ presence. First, she is a woman. Second, she is a Gentile. Third, she is from the other side of town, where the rich have excluded the less fortunate Jews from establishing their homesteads.
We don’t know this woman’s name, but we can tell by Jesus’ initial reaction, that she probably had no right to engage him in conversation, much less demand anything from him. I imagine today it’s like a crazy person barging into the Oval Office and demanding a favor from President Obama. Of course, given the state of Congress these days, I realize that it’s not too far-fetched.
The Bible records this story in both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark…Which tells us there is something important we ought to know. In Matthew’s version, the woman is a Canaanite who shouts out to Jesus. She calls him Lord as if she recognizes him as the Messiah. As her voice gets louder and louder, and more distracting, the disciples try to push her out of the way. But they are unsuccessful.
In Mark, she pushes her way into a private home and falls at Jesus’ feet. She is less aggressive. Her posture tells us she is willing to show her vulnerability. In both stories she is driven by something more powerful than social protocol. She is a mother, a loving parent who is so desperate to save her child’s life, that she is willing to lower herself to beg a Jewish man for help.
Why? Because her daughter’s life matters.
The part of the story that troubles me the most isn’t her action but Jesus’ dismissive reply. We expect our kind, loving B.F.F. to say to her, “Of course I’ll take care of your daughter because that’s the kind of guy I am.” This Disney version is not the Jesus we get, is it?
Instead, we catch an uneasy glimpse of Jesus letting his proverbial compassion down. We get a cold, mean person who makes us feel bad for being needy in the first place. He blatantly tells the woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”
Think about this for a moment. She’s a female, and he calls her a dog. Some modern commentaries and theologians have suggested that the word “dog” isn’t as harsh as it sounds; Jesus is merely referring to her as a pet. But no matter how we pepper this phrase, his words still have a sharp bite!
Melissa Bixler writes, “Mark subjects us to a disturbing picture of Jesus casting a derogatory slur at a Gentile woman who comes to him for help. More than simple rudeness, his words re-inscribe ethnic boundaries and degrade the gender of a vulnerable woman.” Bixler’s critique of Jesus seems as harsh as Jesus’ response to this unnamed woman. And perhaps rightfully so. I applaud her comment simply because she is forcing us to take a look at how we, and society as a whole, treat those who seek help from us. Do we divide people in little groups, or are we being inclusive?
In Matthew’s version, Jesus makes it clear that he has come to save the lost sheep of Israel. But in Mark’s story he doesn’t make that distinction. In both cases we discover that Jesus is willing to cross the lines society has put in place.
Why? Because every life matters. Every life is worth taking a risk, and worth leaving our comfort zones to do God’s work.
Jesus came into the world destroy the boundaries that separate us. He came so everyone can experience God’s inclusive love. This is the good news! And it is why this woman will do anything to receive it. The disciples might be a bit clueless, but this woman knows her life,…and the life of her daughter matter.
She could have crept away feeling small and insignificant. But instead what does she do? She falls at his feet…And in doing so…she stands up for the marginalized and demands that their voices be heard. She doesn’t resort to violence, like we might be inclined to do. Instead, she reasons with Jesus. She engages in conversation. And in the end, Jesus concedes.
Why? Because Jesus knows every life matters. Every voice matters. Every story matters.
Across this big, colorful nation of ours there is a movement gaining great momentum. From the streets Ferguson to the streets of Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles and beyond…men and women are standing up together, making their voices heard. The church cannot ignore them…We can’t can we cast them aside…and pretend it’s not our problem. Instead we are called to join them on our streets…and in our churches…and in our hearts and in our homes.
Instead we are called to march with them…to walk arm-in-arm and shout for justice…and hold signs that declare, “Lives Matter.” Black, brown, white, gay, straight, the homeless, the nationless, the unwanted and the undocumented, rich, poor, young, old, yours and mine…every life matters to God.
Whether we know it or not; whether we have faith or no faith, Jesus came into this world not to condemn us…but to redeem us,…to give us salvation (Jn. 3:16-17). He is the light that shines on the darkness we create. These are our demons. The demons that we allow to fill us with fear and anger and anxiety; the demons of addictions that destroy lives and families; the demons that send people out to the streets, to do things they are ashamed of; the demons of death. But Jesus casts out death and gives us eternal life.
Our Emmanuel, God among us, came to be with us, to walk with us and to free us from these evils that have crippled so many of us here today. Jesus came to reclaim God’s righteous justice.
Why? Because every life is worth saving.
So why do we continue to act the way we do? What deep insecurity within us causes human beings to create rules that give value and status to some while denigrating others? In his inspiring epistle, James reminds the Christian churches of the dangers of being exclusive, especially of singling out one group over another. He writes:
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
As we wrestle with all the tough issues of the day, some which have caused painful splits in the church, we must remain inclusive. We cannot separate people by their religious beliefs or sexual orientation, anymore than we can separate them due to their gender, race, education, social or marital status, political affiliation, or place of birth.
If every life is important to God, then every life is important to us. Our church doors, like our Christian arms, must remain open in order to both receive and give God’s love. If we claim to have faith in Christ, then we must always follow his lead, not by pushing people away but by welcoming them into our lives. Why? Because every life matters.
In Matthew’s gospel, it’s the woman’s faith that saves her daughter. But in Mark, it’s her words. It’s her story, her personal testimony, that wins Jesus over. I invite us all to look at the words we use when we speak to or about others. Are they the words we would use in conversation with God?
Because the Syrophoenician woman spoke up lives were changed. Her story is a reminder to us all that there is an abundance of Good News to go around. We can’t be too proud…to push our way through the crowd and beg for it.
So it might not be wise for us to waltz across the White House lawn and interrupt the president at work. But if my little friend Miles taught me anything it was this…Jesus says it’s okay to push our way into the kingdom of God’s heart and ask for peace. For it’s there that every life will be received with great joy.
(move towards communion table)
Because every life matters…every life deserves a seat at God’s table…
Bible (NRSV) James 2:1-18; Mark 7:24-30